Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Special Supplement
UTZON’S HEIR EDGES CLOSER TOWARDS HIS NEW AUSTRALIA
STARTING is the hardest thing. God may have made the world in six days, but how he got himself going on the project, history does not record. For the mortal architect cast as prime mover, motive power can have any number of sources – from moral commitment and historic precedent to the shape of last night’s reverie or tomorrow’s tea leaves.
Alex Popov, architect and winner of this year’s coveted Wilkinson Award, puts his faith first and foremost in the site. It is his practice, well before expending any graphite on a project, simply to go and sit on the site for hours at a time, getting the feel of the place, absorbing its genius loci.
“It is this ability to absorb and observe the site,” Popov says, “that is our special skill as architects – rather than just our formal abilities as patternmakers.” After that, he says, the rest is easy.
He doesn’t mean it quite like that, of course. Architecture isn’t easy, for any but the most mindless and venal of practitioners. And even the best-laid plans are, mercifully, susceptible to myriad influence.
The question is aesthetic as much as moral: should an architect draw solely on some inner creative wellspring, or render himself as responsive as possible to external voices – client, site, budget and so on?
Most architects, of course, do both, and it is arguable that the resultant complexities and contradictions have always, even before the post-modern limelight, characterised good architecture. But it is equally true (and much more common) that such tensions, unresolved, can condemn architecture to banality.
For a thoughtful architect like Alex Popov, caught between persistent personal obsessions and a natural eclecticism, this question of the sources and resolution of contributory ideas is crucial.
It may be that he has every right to eclecticism; born of Russian emigre parents, he lived his first 12 years in China, studied in Australia and Denmark, taught in America and Japan and has practised in his own right in Copenhagen, Majorca and Sydney. His conversation, like his work, is littered with references to Japanese palaces, Sufic wind scoops, Chinese landscaping, Mediterranean massiveness, Scandinavian simplicity; but also to the Modern masters – Kahn, Corbusier, Neutra, Wright, Aalto, Asplund, Sert, Leverentz and, of course, Utzon (who, in the happy days before that most shameful episode in Australian cultural politics, was instrumental in diverting the young Popov from painting to architecture. Popov later returned to Copenhagen to study and work for him).
In fact Popov’s eclecticism less resembles the random form-grabbing touted by post-modernism than the far subtler game, practised by the Moderns themselves, of extracting and remoulding ideas.
Popov regards himself as “very much fighting formalism”, considering this is a prophylactic against modishness, but wisely resists the old canard about designing from the inside out, retorting: “All architects say they do that.”(Actually many don’t bother even saying it any more.)
His obsessions, too – with light, primarily, and with space – place his work firmly within the continuing modern tradition. But there is the disquieting – some may say enlivening – presence of something else as well.
Griffin, the house which won him the Wilkinson, is a good example: a product of its site, certainly, but also – as underscored by its likeness to Popov’s 1981 house on Majorca for the director of the Vienna Opera – very much of its architecture. It was sheer poetic coincidence that the location should be Castlecrag, a garden suburb designed by Walter Burley Griffin, whose sad trajectory in this country so uncannily prefigured Utzon’s own.
In Castlecrag the very air is heavy with early 20th-century romanticism, but although Popov felt this precluded his normal commitment to a strictly contemporary idiom, he steadfastly eschewed the more overt and gnomish manifestations of Castlecraggery, choosing to echo not Griffin, but the Los Angeles work of Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom Griffin worked before winning the Canberra competition.
Like most of Popov’s Australian work, the prize-winning house has a confident but strung-out linear plan emphasising movement.
“The business of being able to walk around is very important to us,” says Popov.
“The way we Australians lie around and behave is quite different,” he says, compared with the static in-or-out roominess of Danish architecture. “We like to use the floor as another element” – and he throws himself down to demonstrate.
But Popov’s dominant obsession is with what he habitually refers to as”dragging in light” from above – a strategy learned in and arguably more appropriate to Scandinavia than fierce-skied Australia. Virtually every room or space has its own, individually sculpted rooflight (a long, anguine one in a living room was removed by one client, after construction) which tends to emphasise the disjunction of space rather than its flowing, unifying movement
Further contradictions abound. Despite the stone facings, uncompromising planes, simulated rustications and cultivately implacable air, the house makes no other serious gesture towards classicism, but expresses itself rather as a frame structure within the trappings of trabeation:
an asymmetrical collection of discrete forms related only by colour. Formal unity is consciously avoided as being unacceptably mannerist but, as throughout Popov’s work, formal and compositional preoccupations are everywhere evident.
His use of heavy masonry springs, says Popov, from a deference to context -the sandstone urban foreshore and the Griffin ambience. But the site, scarcely urban, is for all visual purposes wholly bush-clad, from which the house stands boldly distinct – not to mention the tenuity of the Griffin connection. And while the impression of great weight, a distinctly European ponderousness, is deliberately heightened with rustications, it is then overlaid by the contrary urge towards light (in both senses) and landscape; great picture windows, the very slender columns visible like poodle’s legs inside their rustications, the absence of lintels, the large expressive rooflights -bespeaking an altogether leaner, freer, newer world than that to which Griffin harked.
Such contradictions – energising tensions at best, at worst mere ambiguities – pervade Popov’s growing oeuvre, with the exception perhaps of the SCEGS gymnasium, his best-resolved, simplest and only non-residential work to date, and the adaptive proposals, yet unbuilt, for the old Balmoral pavilion.
It is possible, at risk of caricature, to read them as part of an Old World-New World tension perceptible in the man himself – intelligent anti-intellectual, urbane get-away-from-it-aller, expansive, gregarious loner, Australian-European.
Is his work Australian? “It’s getting there,” he grins.
Tensions have yet to be resolved, and a solid identity formed. But Popov has plenty of time. One of many lessons learned, he says, from his mentor Utzon is that “architecture is an old man’s profession. It takes many years, and much practice. Each building is just one little part of the necklace …
Two Illus: Right, Alex Popov ponders a new design challenge.
Above, an interior view of his prize-winning house.
Picture by CRAIG GOLDING