Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Saved by the sons of Sulman
E. M. FARRELLY
JOHN SULMAN – Sir John Sulman – was first afflicted by the town planning bug on a visit to Paris at the age of 29. So taken was he by the splendid, if merciless, system of grands boulevards which Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann – ably assisted by the Second Empire – had carved through that tangled city that he could hardly wait, on arriving in Sydney in 1885, to do the same here.
Sydney, nearing its 100th year, was not quite ready for Haussmanisation at the time, but being forced to tap his feet for a decade or two did nothing to dampen Sulman’s convictions. His evidence to the City of Sydney Improvement Commission in 1908 stressed the importance of a grand plan for Sydney, along the lines of Haussmann’s Paris or L’Enfant’s Washington. Sulman advised the commissioners to seek one man, a “genius . . . to design our streets and building masses in such wise as they shall form one harmonious and well-ordered whole”.
Sulman stopped just short of proposing himself as genius-at-hand. But a little image-making went a long way in prewar Sydney and Sulman entered history as Sydney’s answer to Daniel Burnham, architect of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and prime exponent of the neo-Palladian “City Beautiful” movement.
In fact, Sulman’s built works were nothing special, conspicuously less visionary than his pen. He lectured for nearly 30 years in architecture and town planning and latterly produced a weekly column on city improvement for The Daily Telegraph, of which he was a director. A profoundly political operator, Sulman nonetheless failed in several attempts to wrest control of the Institute of Architects from then-president John Horbury Hunt. After a bitter and childish feud, he spent more than 20 years isolated not only from the institute but from the various groups he helped establish in opposition to it.
Regarding posterity, however, Sulman’s masterstroke, from his dotage, was to gift 200 pounds to the Institute of Architects for an annual award “encouraging excellence of architectural design, including planning”. Historian Max Freeland has highlighted the irony in the fact that “by this means an institute which is deeply indebted to a man whose name it hardly knows [Horbury Hunt], holds in the highest regard the name of his opponent, to whom it owes very little”. No flies on Sulman.
That was 65 years ago. Now, for the first time, in an exhibition sponsored jointly by the Institute of Architects and the Historic Houses Trust, the Museum of Sydney has anthologised the winners-to-date.
This show should be unmiss able. Even at its most ordinary, architecture is an intensely visceral medium; the Sulman variety could be expected to have a few clues upstairs, as well. So 65 years of Sulman Medals should offer immense scope, curatorially, both to illustrate changing mores and perceptions of design excellence, and to find some inventive, experiential mode of presenting these. Very post-modern.
Disappointingly, although the accompanying book by Andrew Metcalfe does much to remedy this lack, the exhibition itself brings little analysis to bear. And even allowing for the elegant understatement of the shoestring budget, its presentation plods rather. But the material itself delivers gripping, if at times bewildering, commentary on how things change, and how little.
An odd lot of bedfellows they are, too. From the deeply undistinguished house in Gordon by Gerard McDonell (who?), lauded by its 1940 jury (of which McDonell was himself a member) as “a definite contribution to Australian domestic architecture” to John Andrews’s celebrated, sun-spectacled Amex Tower (George Street 1983), which really did rock the boat – and is being eviscerated as we speak.
Mercifully, several Sulmans have rewarded genuinely interesting architecture, including Bryce Mortlock’s Badham House at Cronulla (1960), Cox and McKay’s handsome agricultural colleges at Leppington (1963) and Tocal (1965), and Andrew Andersons’s 1975 addition to the NSW Art Gallery.
But the rear-view mirror reveals as much about the bizarre and inexplicable nature of juries as about the great sweep of design history. The 1939 jury which selected Eric Andrew’s deco-esque surf pavilion at Manly applauded “its complete harmony with its setting” – what were they thinking of, bas-relief sand dunes?
Nor was it only the unknown who showed it paid to stay close to the decision-makers. The oft-lionised Leslie – Professor Sir Leslie – Wilkinson was twice-Sulmanned, first for his demure-if-essentially-negligible Wiston Gardens house (Double Bay 1934) and then for his renovation of St Michael’s, Vaucluse (1942). Both times, he chaired the jury himself.
Head and shoulders above the rest, though, stand Seidler’s magnificent five – the Rose Seidler house (1951), Australia Square (1967), his own office at Milsons Point (1981), the MLC in Martin Place (1983) and Grosvenor Place (George Street, 1991). The Dupain photos help, but cannot fake the exceptional clarity with which he gives form to an idea.
For all its photographic charm, an overwhelming feature of the show is its sepia-toned clubbiness. So all Sulman winners (and the vast majority of jurors) have been proud bearers of an X-Y gene pair? We expect no less. More curious, in 1997, is that even to be eligible for architectural excellence, as deemed, requires paid-up membership of the institute. What is the link, exactly, between subscriptions and excellence? Is a union ticket essential to a Booker, an Archibald, a Miles Franklin?
Knotty and whimsical as the Sulmans’ thread of excellence may be, there is a subtle implication throughout that whatever is Sulmanned should be saved. For some, it is already too late. But there is a growing move towards sanctification of these anointed. That this suggestion might be serious makes more pressing the question of who says, and who pays. To what extent is society prepared, three years pre-millennium, to rely on a small body of “expert” opinion, and who will foot the bill?
Two Illus: The view from two Sulman Award winners .
Harry Seidler’s office at Milsons Point (1981) and, top, John Andrews’s American Express tower (1983).
Photograph by DAVID MOORE.