Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Weekend
The bold and the beautiful
There’s a weather-worn woolshed, but no Sydney Opera House. Only two winners from Melbourne, but also two from WA (including a brothel). Architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly offers a very personal perspective on Australia’s top 12 buildings…
Confession. I am, in fact, opposed to the idea of “bestness” in buildings. Not
for the usual reason – that sad, Postmodern reluctance to judge. No, judgement is something I’m fine with. Pro, even, especially in the pursuit of excellence (as in tatting, skydiving, brain surgery). It’s just that when you think about something a lot, especially something with serious emotional or perceptual content, bestness ceases to mean anything. (Which,
by the way, is why architectural awards are inherently daft.) Some buildings, for example, are fabulous sculpture but functionally useless, like the circular skyscraper that looks heroic but is unfurnishable, or the iconic opera house that doesn’t do opera. Others may give a good approximation of ugly, yet be thoroughly intellectually engaging. Or present with clarity a world view that is, in itself, repugnant.
Like some of Kazuo Shinohara’s houses in Tokyo that deliberately – but oh so elegantly – make their denizens’ lives less comfortable by protruding major concrete structures through the floor.
One could argue that a “best” building is one that succeeds on all such fronts: one that is interesting and polite, beautiful and efficient – as well as wholly unpretentious. One could even argue that this multivalent capacity is architecture’s defining trait. But that would be a problem, since it would shrink this country’s list of architectural candidates to a short thing indeed.
Even with my slightly more catholic stance, I am forced to concede that buildings that really move me are disturbingly thin on the ground. Still, there are buildings that I like – very much, in some cases. And if I ask myself why, what it is that makes them likeable, I conclude that, like most people, I warm to things – landscapes, buildings, faces, cultures – that offer me meaning. Things I can read.
This is why symbolism is so important in architecture. Architectural symbolism ranges from crude simile (as in “it looks like a toaster”) to complex, layered metaphor, and personally I prefer the complex variety: ambiguous, evocative, even mysterious. For me, for example, the Sydney Opera House succeeds through the ambiguity of its maritime metaphor (sails, barnacles, fornicating turtles) quite as much as its visual form.
Symbolism is not everything. There are buildings that I like for their mystery or their invitation to explore. Some I like for their cleverness – buildings that resolve complex problems with simple devices, while
retaining human warmth and beauty as essentials of the brief. Some – like fishing shacks and miner’s huts – I love for their authenticity, their humility, their having-been-shaped-by-necessity.
My favourite architecture, therefore, ranges from cathedrals to railway pubs but does show a distinct bent towards the lowly end of the spectrum: signal boxes, electricity substations, tiny Anglo-Saxon chapels, that sort of thing. Pretty well all the grand houses I have seen leave me unmoved, since they are all crema, no coffee. And yet there is a funny old termitey weatherboard job just near us, with rickety floors and a big-small rambling garden, that I’d give eye teeth for. Even allowing for the curious magnetism of rot (think gorgonzola), it’s hard to see exactly why. One thing, though, is clear. Perfection, in the normal sense, is not the key.
1 Aurora Place, Sydney, 2000; architect Renzo Piano
Not everyone likes Aurora. All that pale wood, matt terracotta, grey-green granite and frameless glass can be pretty damn disturbing. Subversive even, for the gilt-and-marble corporate-glitz pack. Way too understated, way too nonconformist, way too feminine.
And that’s the point really. Aurora is all girl – girl warrior. What I enjoy is exactly that audacity, that blithe up-ending of convention. Slender, curvy and translucent, she stands there, lingerie-clad in that dark-suited corporate world, catching the light, opening delicately to sun and sea breeze.
Sister to the nearby Governor Phillip Tower but daughter to the Opera House, Aurora is similarly plied with metaphor. Both Piano and Utzon are keen sailors: as Piano was designing Aurora, Utzon was his hero, the Opera House his touchstone, the harbour his muse. As Piano says, Aurora, with her boat-shaped plan and jaunty forehead mast, plays mainsail to Utzon’s wind-filled spinnaker.
Stylish, poised and euphoric, Aurora is built of American glass and German ceramic, designed by an Italian in homage to a Dane.
Is there anything Australian about Aurora? Well yes, actually. Precisely that.
2 Rose Seidler House, Sydney, 1948; architect Harry Seidler
Rose Seidler House may look like a young architect’s house for his parents, but really it is built manifesto, representing all the Modernist principles of Australia’s most famous modern architect. Rose Seidler’s commission was designed to lure young Harry to Australia; the house to keep him here. It worked. As an attention-getter, the house remains unbeaten. A homage to Seidler’s former New York employer Marcel Breuer, this house – with its TV-screen frontality, open pinwheel plan and elevated trapdoor entry – perches on its grassy site like an arrival from space. Back in 1948, when Turramurra was still market-garden land, it must have seemed truly surreal – not least to Rose Seidler herself with her bourgeois Viennese background.
Seidler uses glass to separate all planes, destroy all corners, maximise the flow of
light and space, give uniform daylight throughout and generally dissolve as far as possible all distinction between inside and
out. This makes it less house-as-dwelling than house-as-diagram, and that is its magic; the uncompromising realisation of an idea.
3 Governor Phillip Tower, Sydney, 1993; architect Denton Corker Marshall
Governor Phillip, designed by Melbourne-based DCM, is Aurora’s big brother. With the smaller Governor Macquarie Tower, it occupies Sydney’s First Government House site and is now home, once again, to the top government dogs. But it’s not the symbolism, in this case, that appeals. I like the towers for their other qualities – strong composition, confident use of material, spatial drama.
The sheer scale of the breathtaking facades brings a delight of its own, as does the great street-to-street chasm that forms the buildings’ common foyer. Plus, there is the tiny Museum of Sydney at their base that offers a tantalising glimpse, literal as well as metaphorical, into Sydney’s lovely bones.
4 Melbourne Museum, Melbourne, 2001; architect Denton Corker Marshall
Denton Corker Marshall’s Melbourne Museum combines diagrammatic clarity with both spatial drama and joy in the play of light on material. Inverting the form of the old, centrally domed Exhibition Building, its great dragonfly wings invite entry at their base point before opening again into the double- and triple-height spaces of the atrium and the inside-outside rainforest.
5 St John the Baptist, Canberra, 1841-1878
My search for the nation’s best church has been partial, incomplete and sloppy, but has produced an irreducible short-list which I am forced to blend into an ideal, much as one might fantasise an ideal lover. The short-listees – all, as it happens, designed in part or in whole by our most revered church designer, Edmund Blacket – are these: St John the Baptist, Canberra; Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney; St Stephen’s, Newtown, Sydney.
St John’s tops the list, for its tiny, tight-bodied and columnless nave and the elegance of the Blacket additions – especially the shingle-hung steeple, with its classic, hexagon-on-a-square geometry. That the church pre-dates its city by a century or so enhances its charm, making this tiny, gloom-filled sanctuary – once amid the cow dung, now fronting downtown Constitution Avenue –
the deep symbolic centre of an otherwise centreless city. Country, even.
Christ Church St Laurence is similarly city-whipped, but where St John’s offers sanctuary from the vacancy of midtown Canberra, Christ Church is a refuge from the diesel, decibels and drugs of Railway Square. And
St Stephen’s, an English parish church set behind grungy Newtown, is often regarded as Blacket’s finest. In my book, it has the best ceiling of the three, with tiered wooden beams, carved bosses and a proper helping of gloom.
6 Howard Park & Madfish Winery, Cowaramup, WA, 2000; architect Jones Coulter Young
The brief required a modern building that would celebrate, rather than disguise, its factory nature and which, like wine itself, would grow old gracefully. This alone sets the Jones Coulter Young building apart from
its Margaret River peers which, like most Australian wineries, range in flavour from designer morgue to cheesy fake-Rhineland. The resulting vast, concrete-floored shed has a simple and likeable presence. To my mind, though, the genius is in the landscape.
Few Australian wineries can compete with the Loire Valley-type approach through rolling fields and vineyards. Howard Park not only competes, but does so effortlessly, its entry road meandering through a made (but unmistakably local) landscape of vines and olives, old-man xantherias and giant river red gums.
7 Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1994; architect Nonda Katsalidis
Artists always grumble about the buildings in which they show, and although much of this seems reasonable (since architecture is only
too eager on the whole to hog the limelight) much of the battle is a simple competition of egos. Any art gallery must show art – but many are also expected, in this Age of Icon, to generate their own headlines. Katsalidis’s Ian Potter Museum, designed for the University of Melbourne, does both: displays the art to advantage, while keeping its own integrity intact. Katsalidis has produced grander buildings, but few that achieve this fine balance between star and supporting act.
8 Western Plains woolshed, Boorowa, NSW; early 20th century
Necessity drives the classic Australian woolshed. This one, on a property near Boorowa, NSW, is no exception. Hand-adzed from ironbark and apple gum saplings, it is built to minimise time, cost and material
(note the gorgeously slender roof trusses)
and planned according to a ruthlessly time-and-motion view of shearing. Unwitting embodiment of Modernism’s favourite “form follows function” adage, it is like a little Modern treatise in itself – only softened by the glancing light and the strong sense of shelter.
9 Magney House, Sydney, 1991; architect Glenn Murcutt
Glenn Murcutt is Australia’s only Pritzker prizewinner. Of all his remarkable buildings, two oldies are my personal favourites: the Magney House in Paddington and the converted tractor-shed-cum-guesthouse on Murcutt’s property at Kempsey. There
is spatial drama in the first, authenticity in the second.
The Magney, unlike the classic Murcutt pavilion (such as the Magneys’ other house at Bingie Point, Moruya), occupies a steep terrace house site with a heritage cottage at one end. This precluded the now familiar Murcutt shed-form and produced an altogether looser design in which the entire house drops away dramatically from its street-level entry. Murcutt maximises the drama with a stair that slides down one wall and a clear split between old and new, so that from the moment of entry, the whole opens beneath you like some inverted parachute.
10 Australia Square, Sydney, 1967; architect Harry Seidler
Australia Square, like Rose Seidler house,
is another built manifesto. It is a beautiful sculptural thing, yes, and a nice place for lunch. More than that, though, Australia Square is a classic example of how a
building that is admittedly hard to furnish, being round, and could hardly be less interested in its host city, nevertheless
becomes a major civic contributor through sheer force of personality.
Australia Square wasn’t Sydney’s first high-rise building. But it was her first and (even now) her clearest high-rise symbol. Into a dowdy old town of anonymous, street-hugging office buildings and tiny crooked laneways, Australia Square exploded a space for the modern ego. Dozens of sites and several picturesque lanes were blown away to accommodate it, proving to remaining doubters that Sydney, however late, had entered the modern century.
11 Hay Street brothels, Kalgoorlie, WA; 19th century
Of the famous corrugated-iron “starting stalls” that once constituted Kalgoorlie’s Hay Street red-light district, only three are still in business. A curious jacket of gentility cloaks these sheds: it’s bad form to snap or even gawp, and current rules, apparently, prohibit male ownership or control. Yet this near-derelict row of tin sheds, each little bigger than a chicken coop, probably tells more of the town’s history and social attitudes than all the over-restored pomp of Kal’s gold-rush grandeur.
Hay Street was once decorated by under-clad ladies of the night, but now, due to the new squeamishness, stands empty. Instead, the girls lounge invitingly at the deep rear of these surreal tin parlours, fluoro-lit and neon-framed like our own little piece of Paris, Texas. Hay Street sheds can’t last. List them, I reckon, before they vanish into the wastes of gentrification.
12 Leplastrier-Lambert house, Lovett Bay, NSW, 1994; architect Richard Leplastrier
I am breaking a personal rule here, to nominate a building I haven’t actually seen. Why? Because no best-list would be complete without Australia’s most established, refined and distinguished non-establishment architect, Richard Leplastrier. Of all Leplastrier’s buildings, his own house is the clearest and most direct expression of his beliefs.
A direct descendant of the woolshed, this house also draws from Leplastrier’s lifelong study of Japanese architecture and
his heartfelt nature-worship. Together, these ingredients form what Leplastrier describes as “a vessel and cradle … [where] our family of five lives comfortably in one room … [which] in turn, inhabits a greater room whose walls are the cliffs, and floors the tidal level of the bay that rises and falls nearly two metres every six hours.”
With no glass windows and all cooking in a separate pavilion, it is a hyper-elegant form of camping. Cool, no doubt, in winter, but deeply romantic and deeply Australian.
TWELVE PHOTOS: MARTIN VAN DER WAL
JOHN GOLLINGS; REVEREND PETER NUNN; FRANCES ANDRIJICH
JOHN GOLLINGS; MARTIN VAN DER WAL; ANTHONY BROWELL
BRENDAN ESPOSITO; andy reynolds; RICHARD LEPLASTRIER