Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
The curse of the modern
E. M. Farrelly
They don’t design buildings as they used to. Whether politics or modernism is to blame, architecture will never be the same.
WHY can’t we do it as we used to? A lot of things are better now, except for the things that are worse. The lot of women (and most minorities) is decidedly, although not exhaustively, better. The quality of architecture is decidedly worse. Why? Is there a link here? Above all, why can’t we do it as we could before?
As a complaint, this extends well beyond angst-raddled 50something New York writers of the male persuasion. It’s all over, everywhere.
Then, London had Wren, Hawksmoor, Gibbs, Kent, Sloane and Barry. St George-in-the East, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Bark of England, the Houses of Parliament. Now it has the amusing but oafish Terry Farrell, the elegant but bloodless (Big Sir) Norm Foster, and the desperate rearguard architectural antics of HRH.
New York had Carrere and Hastings (NY Public Library, 1897), Stanford White (Pennsylvania Station, 1904), Cass Gilbert (Woolworth Building, 1910), Bertram Crosvenor Goodhue (St Bartholomew Park Avenue, 1930) and William van Alen (Chrysler Building, 1928). Now it has Trump.
Sydney suffers similarly. Who today could put together a bank to rival the Martin Place mob for dignity and sheer, thrilling gravitas; a public building to compare with Barnet’s GPO or a church to beat Blacket’s? We can build 12-lane distributors. But we could no more build another Bridge Street than pay for it.
Of course, there are any number of excuses. Architects blame fee-bidding, fast-tracking and project management for having offed them from the driving seat, the theory being that more architectural control automatically gives better buildings. Night, day. Others argue the converse, that architects had it coming, for having dumped the public trust in a big bucket of un-reheated, mid-century modernism and held it there.
Either way, the dismal fact remains that we just can’t seem to do it as we could this time last century. Not to mention the one before that.
Take Blacket. Edmund Blacket arrived in Australia in October 1842 with no recorded architectural education beyond the touring-Europe-with-a-sketchbook variety and a new wife, Sarah, of whom his parents’ disapproval was sufficiently hearty to make changing hemispheres a preferred option.
Within a year, Blacket was working on what is still one of the city’s finest buildings, Christ Church St Laurence, George Street. Over ensuing decades, as Diocesan and then Government Architect, he produced more than 40 Sydney churches, including the famed delectables: St Mark’s Darling Point, St Mary’s Balmain, St John’s Darlinghurst, St Paul’s Redfern, All Saints Woollahra and the quite inordinately picturesque St Stephen’s Newtown. As well as St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney University Great Hall and quadrangle (the good bit), Sydney Grammar and Randwick Hospital.
Quite an oeuvre. As the times expected and occasion demanded, Blacket switched adroitly between styles; Classical before tea, Gothic after. A hundred years on, his modernist successors would revile such versatility as fecklessness, repudiating the very notion of style as moral frailty.
What was lost, however, in modernism’s sincere if puritanical search for authenticity, was a sense of the relationship between part and whole, between the overarching order, on the one hand, and your small, ordinary human, on the other. This relationship is what generates warmth, or feel, in buildings.
Modernism dumped it in the interests of expressing the spirit of the age, the elegancies of structure, and above all, the self. Self- expression – originality if you prefer – remains the dominant ethos of the profession and, arguably, the culture to this day. And what a meagre ethos it is.
Among modern churches Le Corbusier’s two – the Dominican Monastery of S. Marie-de-la-Tourette at Eveux-sur-l’Arbresle, near Lyons (1960) and the Pilgrimage Chapel at Ronchamp (1955) – stand well above the crowd. Tall and austere on the one hand, deep and earthy on the other, they come about as close as modernism ever did to imparting a sense of the Other, be it religious, societal, or constructional.
They do this with light. Light washing mysteriously from on high down off-form concrete walls, at la Tourette, or streaming through primary-hued windows set high into peasant-thick walls, at Ronchamp. It is effective, but remains each time more device than sacrament, conveying more of its designer’s skills and predilections than of any greater glory.
Design skill can impress, but the skill-level has yet to be invented that can take your breath and lift your spirit like la Sainte Chapelle (1248), Durham Cathedral (1093-1133), or even St Stephen’s Newtown in the dawning light.
It’s not a religious thing, although ecclesiastical illustrations are especially vivid. It’s to do with a designer’s preparedness, and capacity, to exercise creativity within a tradition, rather than upending the tradition and starting again from the bits.
It is also to do – and this is where politics enter – with a system capable of imposing a tradition, be it Palladian classicism or a religious world order, through an educated elite. A system capable of furnishing that imposed discipline with the countless underpaid person-hours spent hand-carving the newel posts on the pews at St Stephen’s, for instance, each one to a different design, or the frieze on Barnet’s GPO or the Lands Department carvings in Bridge Street.
There is a detectable inverse relationship. The better the architecture, the lower the freedom of the individual v society. Democratic capitalism has put an end to all this, scattering the right to style through the hands of the many, not the few. And thank God for it. But architecture will never be the same.
Illus: Delectable design … the picturesque St Stephen’s in Newtown – a fine example of style.
Photograph by JAMES ALCOCK