Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
Boats, yes, but let’s not miss the bus
Our obsession with nature has led us to neglect urban culture, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s that old Australian dilemma – call it conflicted, call it hypocritical – that glues our lives to the tarmac while our hearts beat for the bush. Whether despite or because of Australia’s hyper-urban civilisation (I use the word loosely) our poets, almost to a person, are nature poets. From Banjo Paterson to Lloyd Rees, Patrick White to Richard Leplastrier, the city plays mistress, for mammonish purposes at least, but it is to virgin nature that we sing our lovesick songs. Which may simply show that our rurophilic anglo heritage is alive and prevaricating.
Last year’s lovely little book on Leplastrier is a case in point. Imported from Finland – uh, yes, embarrassingly it took the Finns to produce the only monograph on our second-most revered architect – and more catalogue, really, than book, the slim volume was produced as a condiment to the Finnish Wood in Culture Association’s biennial Spirit of Nature Wood Architecture Award, of which Leplastrier was last year’s recipient.
At $85 a pop – which cuts up at about a dollar a page, or 10 bucks a building – it’s not cheap, even by the standards of way more sumptuous archi-books. Yet every shipment sells out in a flash. Why? Partly because of Leplastrier’s richly deserved cult status, and partly because of the way he, like Glenn Murcutt, designs for lives we can envy but (on the whole) can never lead.
Don’t get me wrong. Leplastrier is a fine architect who, like Murcutt, has devoted his career to the kind of authenticity few architects even pine for, much less achieve. In this he lists three crucial teachers – Rees, Joern Utzon (with whom he worked for two years on the Opera House), and Kyoto’s Professor Tomoya Masuda – as well as two huge areas of influence, both embodying the exquisite entanglement of use and beauty: sailing and Japanese aesthetics.
The body of the book is devoted to eight honed-timber houses. Starting with Leplastrier’s own at Lovett Bay, which can only be reached from the water, each house explores Japanese ideas of latency and suggestion and each, in the words of the critic Rory Spence, can be attuned to climatic circumstances like a yacht adjusting to changes in the wind. Each illustrates, too, Masuda’s emphasis on origins, Utzon’s capacity for the magic diagram and Rees’s notion of a city as a gallery of beautiful buildings.
None, though, is remotely a city building (Tom Uren’s house in Balmain is the closest). Utzon, you will recall, holds ancient sites – in particular the great platforms of Mayan architecture – in great esteem. He is also a committed and intelligent sailor. Leplastrier, inheriting both of these traits, crafts his houses as mini Opera House, sails billowing, or boat upturned, over a shaded platform in paradise. Beyond that, though, Leplastrier’s houses cue themselves almost exclusively from the natural, not cultural, environment. Which may be why we love him, for refining so excruciatingly the ungraspable dream.
The flipside of our nature dreaming, however, is that urban works of immense cultural significance slip unnoticed through our fingers. Call Lend Lease and you, too, may get the runaround, but for anyone still wondering what happened to the Le Corbusier tapestry that for decades graced George Street from the Australia Square foyer, the truth is this. The tapestry, one of only three copies of Unesco (the others are in Paris and Zurich), was auctioned by Sotheby’s last March for Australia Square’s owner, GPT/Deutsche Bank.
Faded but otherwise well, it was bought for less than $50,000 – a song – by the Sydney architect Andre Porebski, who thus became probably the only homeland Australian to domicile with the old Crow himself. Lucky for Porebski, Sotheby’s seemed less than the full quid on the provenance of the work (“a tapestry by … not a painter, by some architect …”). Lucky for us, too, since although Unesco may be secreted, at least it’s still in the country. Meanwhile, back at Australia Square, the Corb spot is more than filled by the crisper but cruder Sol LeWitts now visible from your bus window.
Similar issues arise regarding Patrick White’s house in Centennial Park, which the National Trust and others are still struggling to save from sale. Handsome old pile it is, too, if not actually distinguished architecture, and a great spot, no doubt, for a writers’ retreat. Or just about anything else. The trust is asking each level of government for $1 million, so far to no avail. Supporters say our only Nobel laureate in literature should be properly remembered, and I couldn’t agree more.
Detractors, though, point out that a museum is impossible (since the artefacts have gone), that White wrote his best stuff not here but at Castle Hill and that the house is too small for a retreat – though personally I bet if Descartes could do the Cogito inside a Dutch oven, as rumoured, the great Australian novel could be dashed off in the cupboard under the stairs.
Obvious questions: do writers still retreat? And if you had a few mill to flick oz-writing’s way, wouldn’t you be better establishing an oily-rag fund for the literary indigent than another high-maintenance chat-shop?
More serious, if less chardonnay-tropic, is the fate of the Tempe Bus and Truck Museum. Volunteer-run but home to about 90 rare and often delicate vehicles, the museum was set up in 1986 with no government money but a 20-plus-20-year lease on the old Tempe tram depot. Now the Carr Government has reneged even on that, proposing instead the imminent sale and development of the site, which includes Sydney’s last intact tram shed. The museum’s collection, including a fully restored 1922 Model-T Ford bus and a fragile, wooden-bodied World War II austerity bus, will be mouldering on the street. Shame.
As Botany Bay locals get raddled over the suggestion of a wind farm – which I think is pretty and should be welcomed as eco-art – the world’s tallest structure is mooted for the Riverina, in the form of a kilometre-high solar power plant. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile-High Skyscraper died a sad and lonely death, but Enviromission is serious. Using the design of Stuttgart professor Jorg Schlaich for the convection-based generator, it aims to start construction in 2006. Either we learn to love the look of clean power or we live with emphysema.
An entry fee to Byron Bay sounds like a good idea to me. I reckon we could do the same in Redfern. Charge every snorting diesel tearing north along Chalmers Street, every stickybeak who wants to mosey round the Block, every Cleveland Street traffic jam. User-pays works for me, and I reckon it’d work for the new Redfern-Waterloo Authoritazi, too, which could be the beneficiary.
Think I’ll suggest it to Frank. Who, entranced no doubt by the City’s capital health, has officially put Clover on the authority’s secret board – only without asking her first. Nice manners. Which reminds me: the board’s inaugural meeting is set for February 9, 9.30am, TNT towers. Be there.
PHOTO: The entanglement of use and beauty … Richard Leplastrier’s work, such as this house at Cammeray, draws on nautical elements.