Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Big Bud – temple of rare taste
It’s bold, brash – and who could wish for a better billboard? ARCHITECTURE
REARING mightily above the Wollongong by-pass, the largest Buddhist temple this side of the equator is everything you wouldn’t expect from an ancient doctrine based on patience, self- effacement, gentleness and harmony. Unabashedly attention-seeking, the Nan Tien temple (or “Paradise of the southern hemisphere”) is saved from outright vulgarity only by virtue of its status as a fully operational religious shrine. But, spiritual bona fides notwithstanding, the Big Bud at the ‘Gong reappoints all the old question marks over received ideas like taste, art, originality and fit.
Taste, in the normal run of things, is about appropriateness – that is, manners – and authenticity. Thus, the Taj Mahal-shaped house, being foreign as well as ersatz, is even lower down the taste scale than the house shaped like a teapot, which is simply fake. Even the multiple successive inversions of pop art have failed to shake this basic societal precept.
How, then, would you design, above a roaring freeway out of 1990s Wollongong, a building to house a spiritual doctrine about as far removed from Judaeo-Christianity as you can get, whose ideas have had, thus far, negligible influence on our legal, educational, financial or postal systems – the framework of our lives – and whose architectural expectations are all detailed reproduction of archaic forms, while ours still chase originality at all costs? The answer is not immediately apparent.
Jones Brewster Regan, architects for the temple, worked from an initial sketch by the Grand Master, the pope of the Fo Kuang Buddhist sect, of which Nan Tien is a “branch temple”. The Grand Master’s sketch showed the temple as a seated Buddha – with the Main Shrine as the Buddha’s head, the courtyard as his lap, encircling arms, and so on. To this archetype was added the desire for a traditional Chinese palace aesthetic. A brief brief, but one that leaves little room for original input. The architects embarked on a world trip, hunting precedents, and on a library search for patterns.
The design process, says Ian Brewster of JBR, began small – taking the size of the rafter-end as the basic unit of measurement. The angles and proportions of the roof are determined by the particular period you are working to – in this case the Sung dynasty; the courtyard is generated from the roof size, and the functions gather within this form. What doesn’t fit, doesn’t fit.
In Western terms, this acceptance of a preordained formal order has more in common with the pattern-book neoclassicism of the 19th century than with 20th-century modernism which, with its “form follows function” maxim, easily accommodates another function simply by adding another formal element, often with its own roof.
The pattern-book method, by contrast, requires that not only building function (the client), but also architectural ego, be subjugated to the overarching formal discipline. For many contemporary architects this would be anathema, since architecture this century has become so much a signature game. But Ian Brewster is philosophical – you change what you can change, leave the rest.
One aspect of Nan Tien most disturbing to architectural eyes is the way in which traditional forms, having evolved over eons specifically from their materials, have been translated holus-bolus into the less responsive materials of modern times. Thus, the pagoda is in fact a concrete structure, with none of that woven quality of the traditional pagoda, while the wooden temple “rafters” are in fact moulded fibreglass. Ditto the elaborate, Knossos-red eaves brackets which, far from supporting the eaves, are hung from them.
To the Western mind-set, so stuck on authenticity, this fakery seems to deprive the result not only of delicacy, but of meaning itself. For the Chinese Buddhist clients, however, the building’s meaning is entirely symbolic.
So, are there any standards we can bring to bear? And to what extent should a building so intent on catching the local eye be expected also to please it?
For one of the non-traditional features of the building is the way in which it is designed, and sited, as a huge advertising sign. Red, yellow and orange; striped tower, green grass, blue sky; limitless drivers-past. Advertising doesn’t get much more high-impact than this. Not that there’s anything wrong with advertising, in principle anyway. But advertising Buddhism? On a freeway?
As much as anything, this bespeaks a new ecclesiastical attitude. When Fo Kuang Buddhism was founded in Taiwan in 1965, one of its guiding principles was to “propagate the dharma”. The sect now has more than 100 branch temples around the world, including Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth (all smaller than Nan Tien, which is second only to head office in Taiwan) and a church hierarchy to match. Such newfound ambitions owe as much to the boom religions of the American south as to Asian tradition. The building is hoist on this ambiguity, at every level.
Take site planning. A Feng Shui consultant was summoned, initially, to nod sagely over the site, and there is evidence of landscaping, with rocks and shrubs if anything too artfully arranged. But the overwhelmingly dominant presence on the site is that of the road engineer, with expansive surface parking, turning circles and front door VIP set-downs all neatly kerbed and channelled. Inside is just as sanitised, just as funeral-parlour glam. Chandeliers, concealed downlighting and floral pastel rugs support a guileless foreground of electric lotuses and plastic offering-dishes in perfect Barbie pink. The scent of the sacred mysteries is not strong.
Around the courtyard, too, souvenir shops hawk your choice of holy texts, thermal underwear and perfumed soap sets (on special); a “museum” sells brightly coloured religious trinkets and a devotees’ dining room does a fair imitation of your local Chinese restaurant.
All of which demonstrates, as pop art did decades ago, how slim is the margin between gentility and surrealism. But must multiculturalism come, in the end, to this cultural puree? Isn’t there some way of exhorting the unwashed to the Middle Way without recourse to the Big Buddhist Billboard in the sky?
E. M. Farrelly is architecture and urban design critic for the Herald.
Illus: Nan Tien Temple …
“Advertising doesn’t get much more high-impact than this.”
Photograph by SAHLAN HAYES