Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Brickbats and mortals
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
If architects want to change the world, should we give them their heads? The answer goes to the character of their profession, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Are architects dickheads? That was the subject of a recent debate. I went because the question had been keeping me awake. Here, I felt, was something a person in my position should know. Are they?
The debate was held by the Inner West Architects Network: in the affirmative was architect Bob Bow, who would have been funny if the message weren’t such a tear-jerker. Against was former council planner Alison McCabe, who confessed to having muttered in the affirmative on occasion.
Architects, Bow argued, were seen as “a desperate and dispensable lot who are always willing to work for nothing”. East Darling Harbour was his example, where 139 firms each spent months developing schemes that were barely exhibited, much less recompensed (more on that in a moment).
McCabe, entertaining if not entirely convincing, based her argument on splitting the “dickhead” sobriquet into its component parts and arguing that architects neither “flop around uselessly nor shrivel up when the cold wind of public opinion starts to blow” nor froth atop a glass of amber liquid. Far from being dick-headed, she concluded, “architects are the thinkers and visionaries of our time”.
But isn’t that the point? Recent evidence includes the Piranesi show at the University of Sydney’s art gallery, Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne’s Sydney talk last month, the National Gallery of Australia fiasco, the National Portrait Gallery’s Giurgola portrait and the East Darling Harbour saga.
Exhibit A: Piranesi (1720-1758) – Giovanni Battista to his mates – is remembered for his etchings, but etching was his day job. Piranesi was an architect and he wanted to transform the world. “I need to produce great ideas,” he said, in a sentiment reminiscent of the famous “make no little plans – they have no power to stir men’s blood” by the 19th-century Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. But it was the rest of Piranesi’s sentence that clinched it: “…and I believe that, were I given the planning of a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”
Mad, yes, but honest. He would have. And he’s not alone. Piranesi, a century or so premature for modernity proper, wanted to re-create the Roman Empire, whereas modernism yearned to scrap it and start over. But the Promethean impulse is essentially the same. The thing about Prometheus wannabes, though, is that they’re apt to look more like Ozymandius. Remember Ozymandius? Best thing Shelley ever wrote. “I am Ozymandius, King of Kings / Look on my works ye mighty and despair! Nothing beside remains…”
Of Piranesi’s actual plans for the universe, little else is known. The etchings, though, fall into three groups: the photo-perfect renditions of contemporary Rome; the furry-edged ruins of Roma antiqua; and the Carceri (Prisons) series.
Exemplars of only the first two categories appear in the University of Sydney show, their Stallone-esque muscularity making an odd contrast with the sweetly academic, Piranesi-inspired works of Justin Trendall’s The Phantasmagorical Grid. Trendall’s grids are enticingly multivalent, evoking street patterns, African villages, motherboards, the cellular structure of leaves, circuitry diagrams and Afghan carpets. But, like the Piranesis they complement, they are in the end unmoving.
Not so the Carceri. More passionate and less perfect than the rest of Piranesi – more sketch, in fact, than etch – the Carceri presents a series of vast, gaunt, gothicky prison spaces inhabited by lost souls, torture machines and disappearing staircases. They gained Piranesi no clients but did guarantee him a vast trail of influence, from the surrealists to stage-designers and even novelists (Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, for example). You might see a trajectory here, reading youthful optimism into the banknote-perfect etchings and a nightmarish decline in the Carceri. In fact, though, the Carceri are among Piranesi’s earliest works, being completed when he was only 29. The later works, the bread-and-butter etchings, were what people liked. That’s why he did them.
One person who worries not a jot about what anyone likes is Professor Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize winner. I’ll confess straight away: I went off Mayne and Michael Rotondi, the principals of Morphosis, 20 years ago when they built an underground children’s cancer ward with deliberately spikey and unsettling spaces; over the idea, too, that a plethora of not-90-degree angles makes buildings interesting. It’s all very well to argue that “I have no interest in pleasing anybody”, but Morphosis has made a very satisfactory pile from giving the press precisely the sort of bad-boy copy it slavers for.
Morphosis came to fame in 1978 with the “2-4-6-8 house” in Venice, California, which had no eaves and canary-yellow window-frames pinned outside the walls. Since then, it has made a signature from agglomerating odd angles and materials into a trash-industrial-kitsch aesthetic. It’s inventive, in a superficial way. But, whispers Ozymandius, what kind of ruins will these pre-trashed buildings make?
Then again, designing for posterity can also lead to tears – witness the National Gallery’s ongoing architectural contretemps. Col Madigan was the original architect, designing a personal statement on a Piranesi-esque scale back when there was barely a collection to house. Now that a collection exists, nay burgeons, and the building needs letting out, Madigan is fighting for the right to redesign. Bit of a losing battle probably, since the so-called “moral rights” legislation requires consultation with the auteur, but not necessarily obedience. And stamping your foot just…well, seems to have that Ozymandius quality. Of course, Ozymandius himself might have won the Pritzker, now that all the top-flight architects have won it and they’re scrabbling for contenders. Mayne wasn’t here for that, of course, but to pursue his short-listed entry in the East Darling Harbour competition. The Morphosis scheme, with landscaper George Hargreaves (Olympic Park) and local firm Project Architects, was the one with five arthritic fingers of building crooked to the water and expanses of coloured grass.
Final schemes are due in a few weeks but ambient disgruntlement continues on the East Darling Harbour front, with sellout audiences for the regular rooftop salons des refusees atop the Palisade pub in Millers Point. It’s become a bit of a cause. The rejects can’t understand why half of them were never hung (on the walls) considering how many litres of sweat and blood were lavished. I’d have to agree. But then, there’s the dickhead question to consider.
One architect who seems to have recognition constantly thrust upon him, though, is the ever humble Aldo Giurgola (Parliament House in Canberra). Giurgola, now 85, is a man of huge and genuine achievement, but the ego thing is not part of his act. Which allows Mandy Martin’s new portrait of him, given to the National Portrait Gallery by the Institute of Architects last month, to make a likeness of Aldo as a small, childlike figure, appearing in just one of the triptych’s three panels, flanked and dominated by his works.
The portrait gallery, although in the throes of its own architectural competition, had only three architectural heads in its collection: Glenn Murcutt, Harry Seidler and … yep, Col Madigan. Giurgola makes four, and it’s a goodie. With a strong Piranesi undertow, it is both symbolically and visually compelling. Look on my works, ye mighty, and rejoice.
So, I dunno. Whaddya reckon? Are they?
The Phantasmagorical Grid: Justin Trendall and the Influence of Giovanni Battista Piranesi runs at the University of Sydney art gallery until December 1. Thom Mayne’s scheme for East Darling Harbour can be viewed at www.eastdarlingharbour.com.au. Final submissions are due in December. A young architects’ discussion of East Darling Harbour and the working-harbour debate will be held at the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, 3 Manning Street, Potts Point, on Thursday at 6.15pm.
TWO PHOTOS: Inventive … Thom Mayne of Morphosis; and (top) Mandy Martin’s triptych portrait of Aldo Giurgola (figure in centre).