Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
Modern voices must give life to history
Our heritage instincts need to be coloured with boldness as well as the urge to preserve, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Uh-oh, it’s starting to look obsessional: last column public truth-telling, this time authenticity in architecture. Then again, maybe it’s a simple question of taste (if taste is simple). One does, after all, prefer an illusion of authenticity, if not the real thing. Truth was very out for a while, what with post-modernism and all. Now, thank God, it’s back – as a look and a possibility, if not exactly rigorous in nature or epidemic in proportion. And sure, post-modernism showed that even truth is neither easy nor straightforward. But that only makes it more interesting.
Makes heritage interesting, too; interesting in principle, even if the way we actually do it here is generally so dull. Rebirthing a venerable building, especially one you like (and why else would you do it?), gives authenticity issues to make your toes curl. And yet we insist on ploddery. If it’s not boring, we seem to think, it’s not heritage.
Praise be, then, for the exceptions – of which Macquarie Street’s 150-year old Mint, as recently converted for the Historic Houses Trust’s new headquarters, is one.
The trust, under director Peter Watts, has produced some of Sydney’s most distinguished and inventive architecture: Hyde Park Barracks (1990), the Museum of Sydney (1995) and the Mint. Each has used a different excellent architect – Tonkin Zulaikha Harford (as it then was) for the barracks, Denton Corker Marshall for the museum and Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp for the Mint. Yet they have a remarkably similar feel, over and above common-or-garden excellence; a graphic wit and immediacy that, one presumes, derive as much from client as architect.
It’s a truism, of course, that good architecture requires a strong client. Which, by the way, is the best argument I know for aristocracy, that being the only reliable concentrator of money and cultivation in the same hands. Then again, aristocrats can be as dunderheaded as anyone else and so what, in any case, since Peter Watts is neither blue-of-blood nor dunderish-of-mind. He is, though, probably the best architectural client this country has seen (the other candidate being the founder of Lend Lease, Dick Dusseldorp).
Watts is by background an architect – but the world is full of architect-project managers who act as clients but still produce trash. In Watts’s case the key seems to be a rare mix of design training (giving confidence, judgement), clear-mindedness (an architectural liability) and tact (making a public service career possible). It makes him that very best of clients: a true patron.
This shouldn’t be unusual but, especially in Australia’s under-creative and over-earnest heritage scene, it is. Watts’s take on this is typically benevolent: “Australia,” he says, “is renowned for its rigour in conservation and its social history [rather than fine-art] approach. I think this is appropriate and I share it, but sometimes it leads to confusion.”
Me, I’d be less diplomatic (I know, you’re shocked). I’d point out that, perhaps because we have (relatively) so little worth keeping, we’ve abandoned all discernment and want simply to keep everything. With the ironic result that decisions to demolish are generally based on money, not quality. To me, Watts looks like some lone ranger in that dry ole heritage gulch, prepared to risk it for excellence. It’s a quality we need more of; we’re surrounded.
From Watts’s point of view, his role is a largely translational one, giving modern voice to ancient fabric, communicating to a contemporary (read impatient, curious, often under-informed) public. Unlike Britain’s National Trust, for example, we have never applied a uniform approach. Instead, we always try to let the place speak, liberating its inner qualities.
At Rouse Hill House, for instance, the trust decided to leave each successive layer of intervention intact, because the house’s accretional nature was something the visiting public understood easily. Whereas at the Mint, after 150 years of dramatic push-pull intervention, Watts felt fearless clarity was called for.
This meant, for example, being prepared to demolish a two-storeyed 1950s fibro building that the heritage mafia wanted to protect, to allow recreation of the missing half of the great 1850s Coining Room; a remarkable volume in any terms. With Watts’s courage and Richard Francis-Jones’s adroit design-hand, the new half, far from faking heritage, abuts its century-old twin in exemplary-contemporary manner; aluminium louvres answering antique wooden ones, new tensed-steel structure echoing the old imported prefab sort.
If this is populism, it’s a brand I can live with; a brand that neurones-up, rather than dumbing-down. Because if there’s a common thread through the trust’s series of three, it is intelligence. Beginning with the barracks, where that ghosted-in stair, for example, diagrammed the original, the intelligence-thread extends through the Museum of Sydney and the Mint, where Francis-Jones’s unabashedly new work hovers urbanely around, above and beside the reverent ancientness – peeling plaster, hand-made bricks and convict-hewn sandstone. Even the graffiti, even the weeds are treated with the respect they – no, really, I’m serious – deserve. Very beautiful. Very wabi sabi.
Meanwhile, at the other end of town, a little intelligent populism would go a long, long way. The City of Sydney Council’s shocking bureaucratic attack on The Illustrated Man, the venerable tattooist at 228 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills, is enough to shake your molecules. The council says there was a resident’s complaint about the shop’s signage, including the giant eagle regnant and snarling tiger-head that have for decades – along with Sharpies Golf House neon at the opposite end of the block – given the area its bite. I reckon the raptor-signage should – like Sharpies’ neon – be heritage-listed, not threatened with overpainting because of some lifestyle blow-in.
On the other hand, a heritage listing seems to have fewer teeth than either tiger or eagle. Sharpies has closed; the building will go and the heritage neon sent, as per Heritage Council requirements, to storage in the Powerhouse. What next – the Kings Cross Coke sign sent down for excessive red light?
Heritage-listing may not save Cremorne Point’s tram shed, either. Even the action group fighting to save the reserve now wants to demolish the shed, for the heinous crime of view-blocking. Uh, view? From a roadside bus stop? Pinch me. I don’t get it.
Work continues at the site of that other demolished tram shed, Bennelong Point. Also the debate. At issue is how much control Utzon snr should exercise this time. As one arts-ocrat pointed out, painters routinely yearn to amend their work under the cloak of conservation, but are expressly forbidden to do so. We prioritise the integrity of the work over the artist’s satisfaction. Why is architecture any different? What of the Opera House’s integrity? Is it Sydney’s building or Utzon’s? And what price inherited guilt?
The answer, I suppose, is that a painter may be invited to restore an earlier painting but not to fix some functional defect. Is the painting analogy even applicable? Is architecture art? And, having commissioned Utzon to make the Opera House work, what constraints should we, Sydney, apply?
Art, of course, requires a degree of self-exposure, a degree of courage. And although the current art-by-architects show at Tusculum in Potts Point demonstrates that few of them should give up their day jobs, it also reminds us that the romantic hidden in the soul of every architect is alive and breathing the fumes. Good thing, too.
PHOTO: Residents of a different stripe … the artwork on The Illustrated Man in Surry Hills is under threat after the council received a complaint. Photo: Marco Del Grande