Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
This G-spot isn’t always pleasurable
The quest for brilliance can lead to dissatisfaction in the everyday, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Genius is a big deal in architecture. As the focus of intense feeling and yet more intense some might say exaggerated expectation, genius occupies what you might call architecture’s G-spot. And it keeps popping up.
Not overtly, of course. But beneath every little item a show or court case here, a tour or pilgrimage there lurks the genius thing, silently underpinning the laws, teachings and etiquette by which this second-oldest profession is shaped.
No one in architecture craves a chorus job. In the world-behind-the-pencil, it’s star or nothing. Probability be damned: architecture cranes to the possible. That genius, if it does exist, is given to few and sought by many only increases its cachet. Why, though? What does genius actually contribute? Is it real or illusory? Born or made?
For Frank Lloyd Wright, genius-to-a-nation, the answer was both, in reverse order. Designated genius by his mother before departing the womb, Wright spent his infancy surrounded not by cartoon alphabets but by etchings of the great cathedrals. At uni he affected a top hat and cane; later the berets, blouses and blue-rinse mane (no, really) of the artiste.
He habitually rejected the honorific “America’s greatest living architect” on grounds that the qualifications “greatest” and “living” were superfluous: his own resume (short version) read simply, “greatest architect that has ever lived”. Many, even now, agree. Wright, it is said, gave us not just the new American house, but new ways to see. Take that.
Similar claims have been made for our own Harry Seidler. “High priest of the 20th century,” declared People magazine in 1950, “dazzling Australia with his shiny American ideas”.
Although, as Philip Johnson (genius) said of Wright, the influence of the forms and shapes is minimal Sydney has no school of Seidler and although he has made no effort to build strine, Seidler has been at the foundations of forming our collective
image of modern Australia.
Genius will out. Not only on the drawing board, either. Seidler’s legendary routs of planning regulation have proved the persuasiveness of the “don’t you know who I am?” approach. And, just as energetic on the wielding-side of the legal whip, Seidler relies there, too, on the genius effect as the recent Pig ‘n’ Whistle story shows.
The story, in a nutshell, is this: the Pig ‘n’ Whistle is a faux-English pub chain that took over a failing tenancy in the ground floor of Seidler’s Riverside Centre, Brisbane. The site was very windy and, in fitting it out, the pub owner Godfrey Mantle made some minor external improvements, including a glass fence, canopy extension and bucolic trumpet-playing pig. In neon. Suddenly, these hard-to-let premises were serving 10,000 patrons a week. Seidler, though, regarded the interventions as offensive to the building’s geometry and the signage, in particular, as vulgar.
The ensuing court battle relied on the recent Moral Rights amendments to the federal Copyright Act, which (if you swallow the blurb) treats all architects as geniuses, their creations never-to-be-disturbed. This, if effective, would be disturbing enough, especially in combination with the permanency-effects of our strata-title law. The noughties would go down as the “tough, you’re stuck with it” era of Australian architecture.
The reality is less scary. Mainly because the legislation, while purporting to protect intellectual and creative property, is more form than content.
Recognising the word moral in the title means not ethical so much as virtual, as in not real, our all-wise legislators have required only that an architect be notified of an intended change, with no obligation whatever to accommodate or comply.
So, in Seidler v Pig ‘n’ Whistle, although the out-of-court settlement remains undisclosed and the architect claimed (moral?) victory, the Pig ‘n’ Whistle had simply to concede in writing that Seidler was innocent of its design. The sign stays. People like a bit of warmth, says Mantle. Buildings should be designed to make people comfortable. Can’t argue with that.
THE permanent formwork of architectural genius is architectural photography. And just as Seidler relied, through his expansion years, upon the symbiotic genius of Max Dupain, so the selective eye of Hungarian-born Lucien Herve, showing last week at Ray Hughes Gallery in Surry Hills, was a crucial constructor of that other household archi-name, Le Corbusier.
Herve (born in 1910 and still living in Paris) was an unknown twentysomething doing portraits of Matisse in the south of France when he saw and photographed Corbusier’s Marseille Unite d’Habitation. He sent the image to Corb, who immediately put him on retainer. There he stayed for the next 25 years, making the images that remade humble Pierre Jeanneret into Le Corbusier (genius).
The exhibition itself was at first glance somewhat underwhelming, the images being small and often slightly soupy in that early modern manner. With Herve, though, closer inspection rewards. “Architecture,” wrote Le Corbusier in 1929, “is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres and cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage.”
Herve’s images capture precisely this, a visceral obsession with geometry that would make Seidler purr. As Zaha Hadid, herself a genius, has written, “Herve’s images are singed with the blackness of shadows set against expanses of white.”
Also revealed, though, is a more complex, ambiguous and even whimsical sensibility than we expect either from Le Corbusier or from modernism.
Herve’s delight in detail (row of feet, hatted dog, bicycle shadow), his salute to the significance of framing and his acknowledgement of the confectionary nature of history (the book is aptly titled L’Homme Construit) are all but postmodern. Asked to name his favourite camera, Herve is said to have answered, a pair of scissors. So the pictures are cropped and recropped, capturing different shades of meaning.
Now 93, Herve is still engaged in the lifelong series Paris from my window. Hungarian-born, Herve has contributed as much to our idea of what it is to be French, as to our idea of what it is to be modern.
JOERN Utzon isn’t French. But he is modern and he is our primary archi-genius by adoption. Plus it’s a fair bet that he, with the rest of his generation, first knew Corbusier through Lucien Herve’s singed imagery. Utzon himself, very much reinstated in the Sydney spotlight, is the focus of the Sydney Architecture Walks which having been untimely ripped from the City Council’s Customs House are now reborn under the Museum of Sydney’s more generous aegis.
The Utzon tour charts what architect-guide Eoghan Lewis describes as the triumphant, exhilarating then tragic course of the design and construction of the Sydney Opera House. It walks you through the discarded drawings and models, as well as the unbuilt interiors, of the glorious whitegood that in 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright, genius-at-90, described thus: “God help us all! I suppose this reckless design was chosen because it exhibits neither rhyme nor reason for its purpose. This circus tent is not architecture but absurd efflorescence.”
Personally, though, I’m not worried about geniuses contradicting each other. Themselves, even. No, what bothers me about the genius-effect in architecture is just this: how come such attention to the G-spot isn’t bringing more pleasure to the rest of us?
FIVE ILLUS: Masters at work .
Lucien Herve’s view of Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame de Ronchamp , in 1954, top, and Le Corbusier on site at the Secretariat, Chandigarh , India, in 1955, below.
Right: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harry Seidler and Joern Utzon (from top).