Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
All the world’s a designer stage
The battle of form and function shapes art, a grand tour and a moral dilemma, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Callum Morton was born the day Le Corbusier died. This might not matter to you, any more than the fact the great man died of heart failure while staying in a prefab log cabin high in the French Riviera, overlooking the property that the cult Irish designer Eileen Gray (who had worked closely with Corb and by whom he was said to be obsessed) shared with her partner Jean Badovici.
But it matters to Morton, who has modelled the cabin and stuck it on a wall, complete with Corb’s race-and-fail heartbeat and a plasma globe signifying the cosmic fire of brain activity, and its end.
The exhibition More Talk About Buildings and Mood reminds us, says the blurb, “that buildings, however carefully designed, are only ever stages for human activity and the events that surround them”. It’s not a new point, and Corbusier’s cabin was probably the least carefully designed object ever anointed with his signature. Still it’s an engaging show, refreshingly reluctant to genuflect, if a mite obvious in its targets.
Why not Bilbao, for example? Why not Foster? Why not contemporary and even Australian stuff? Morton’s selection criteria for the seven buildings shown are not solely personal (although, apart from the Corb thing, there’s a link to Habitat, another of the seven, in that Morton’s father designed it with the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie for the World Expo in Montreal in 1967, the year Morton jnr was born). Not all the buildings are modern icons. Some are not icons at all, like James Cook’s Yorkshire cottage of Cottage Industry: Bawdy Nights (1999). The cottage is modelled, we’re told, at 1:18, being the number of days to ship the cottage to Melbourne, where it now stands, divided by the number of hours to fly it back. Does that work for you?
The title of this exhibition is whipped from under Talking Heads’ 1978 More Songs About Buildings and Food. This sort of slightly-too-clever postmodern punning is really what holds the show together. Casa Malaparte, for example, the breathtaking step-roofed clifftop house in Capri designed by Adalberto Libera in 1938 and featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mepris (Contempt), was said to stifle rather than inspire creativity in its denizens. So it appears dark and silent, despite the glittering context, emitting only the occasional “silenzio” the last word in Godard’s film.
Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, perhaps the most imitated building ever, was loved then loathed by its physician-owner for being glazed to the point of uninhabitability. Morton makes his point by cloning the house into a compound of four, mutually exposed and bathed in each other’s sound streams; telly, partying, anger, violence. Real humans don’t live ideal lives, get it?
Of the seven works, two were prepared especially for More Talk. These are New York’s United Nations building, scaled 1:53 for being built in 1953 and emanating sounds of children’s war games, and Philip Johnson’s New Canaan Glass House, rendered as a roadside petrol station-cum-handymart. The architecture asks for it, universal flexibility being de rigueur at the time. But do we need to be told that such buildings create a situation as “explosive” as the petrol-lake creeping across the station forecourt?
Of course, architecture that ignores human frailty is flawed architecture. Just as art that relies on its wall-mounted narrative is flawed art (you do the show, don’t forget your reading glasses). But it is heartening nonetheless to have someone tossing these ideas about, especially in times when architecture seems hell-bent on taking itself ever more seriously, as both eye-con and commodity.
Harry Seidler’s icons don’t figure in Morton’s show, though they have in the past, and it would be interesting to see Morton’s take on Blues Point Tower, for example, or the public housing in Zetland. But Seidler’s latest work a book, not a building, of photos, not designs takes an even more received walk on similar ground, showing Philip Johnson’s house, for one, in unadulterated form.
Titled The Grand Tour, the book reveals a fine eye, a good camera and a range of travels over more than 50 years and almost as many countries. It also attests to his stand-out characteristic; outright refusal, despite the zeitgeist rhetoric, to change. Seidler was active in modernism’s Australian birth, weathered its decline, presides unreconstructed at its revival. The photos too supremely confident, visually striking but, in both form and content, without scepticism, sweetness or surprise. “My photographer brother, Marcell,” writes Seidler, “gave me simple advice: ‘only use Leica cameras and Kodachrome film’. I have adhered to this over 50 years.”
Call this stoicism, or call it rigidity, it undercuts the book’s undoubted visual prowess with a prosaic, seen-it-before quality, like some Architecture 1 set text; “Collected classic shots of every student’s must-know buildings”. For a beginner’s guide to everything, though, it has some odd gaps. These occur mainly in Seidler’s fields of disapproval; post-modernism (which, except for Bilbao, might simply not have happened) and Australia. From the book’s 700 pages, Australia gets six (only Canada, where Seidler was unhappily interned during the war, has fewer). Four architects rate mention Greenway, Verge, Griffin, Utzon. The only post-colonial building shown is the Opera House.
Warmingly, though, Seidler still finds room for his pet polemic. In contrast with the bland touro-blurb of the rest of the book, Australia’s few words focus on the convict era and the dismissals of Griffin and Utzon. “Australia’s record in treating architects,” he rants, “is very poor. The moral rights and freedom of architectural endeavour is discouraging, with aesthetic jurisdiction remaining in the hands of untrained local government bureaucrats.”
Which is precisely the sentiment behind the new alternative institute, the Australian Architecture Association, of which Seidler is a founding member, along with Glenn Murcutt, president, Richard Johnson, Alex Popov, Wendy Lewin, James Grose, Ian Moore. Again, it’s familiar ground. The AAA is formed to combat “standover tactics on matters of aesthetics”: the artistes versus the bog-boring. Or, the design-iacs versus defenders of the public interest. Of course, architects take the view that good architecture is the public interest.
But in a case like St John’s Church, Darlinghurst, things are more complex. First the city council then, over Christmas, the court refused the church’s application for two four-to-six-storey residential buildings, either side of itself. The proposal, by James Grose and entirely within development controls, was refused not for excessive height or bulk, but mainly because of “reduced public views of the church”, in the words of Dr John Roseth, SC. The church needs the development to fund its extensive outreach programs for the homeless, helpless and hapless but the court deemed this irrelevant. What was relevant, a really serious planning issue, was the local cafe set’s God-given right to see the church, and not see the bums it attracts.
If buildings are stages for human events, why is a view-over-coffee so much more important than a cup of hot soup? Where is Callum Morton’s social conscience or our own, for that matter when we need it most?
Callum Morton: More Talk About Buildings and Mood shows at the MCA until Monday .
TWO ILLUS: Stages for human events .
artist Callum Morton and the work New Canaan, top, and Oh Brigitte (the work modelled on Casa Malaparte).
Photo: Jennifer Soo