Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The glare of the white revival
Stone the crow – it seems everything old is modern again, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Le Corbusier who was, after all, international modernism in human form is back. And nowhere is he more back than in Sydney.
Le Corbusier wasn’t his real name, of course. Which makes you wonder why anyone would voluntarily burden himself with a pseudonym meaning “The Crow”?
Languages change and switching language can even remix content. But a crow in any culture sounds the same, like some old, aggrieved narcissist. Surely Corbusier knew that the crow was the insecure one, the one swayed by flattery into dropping the cheese?
But Corbusier had his own take on vanity. Cartooned by Tom Wolfe as “a thin, sallow, near-sighted man who went about on a white bicycle, wearing a close-fitting black suit, a white shirt, black tie, round black owl-eye glasses and a black bowler hat”, Corbusier insisted, when asked, that he dressed this way to “look as neat and precise and anonymous as possible”.
Certainly, Corbusier would have been delighted to find himself, once more, at the centre of things. But this in itself is mysterious. How has it happened that Corbusier, so long despised, should now be so back in favour?
Today’s revivalist tendency in architecture allows even those styles that thought themselves style-free to be revived as interchangeable looks. For some decades now, theorists have been arguing that modernism never really died at all. That postmodernism, which at the time seemed so radically opposed, was itself just a modernist eddy: a blip, a footnote; a minstrel, no more, in the Great Modern Production that continues (even now) to choreograph our lives.
It’s familiar stuff. Which makes it all the more refreshing to hear the proposition reversed. To have it argued that modernism was the blip. The logic of this inversion is: the dress of modernism was (for all its socialist trappings) a dress of denial; a straitjacket designed to repress not only decoration, but difference of all kinds, especially racial and sexual.
“White architecture”, the plain surface of modernism, was never as white as we thought. Just as the milk-white marbles of ancient Athens turned out to have been garishly painted blue and red and gold, modern architecture was a lot less white than it looked in the pictures, anyway.
In turn, since most people see not the building but only the image, there is a sense in which the icon is more image than building for example, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao . It’s what you might think of as the anchorman phenomenon, where your favourite television newsreader is, in the flesh, so starkly unlike the talking head, and the talking head so vastly preferable to look at, that you start to think of the image as the real thing, and the person as the replica. Or as Beatriz Colomina put it recently, “The site is first and foremost a sight”.
Architectural publishing, then, has a lot to answer for, having found architecture as a world-making enterprise, and reduced it to just another marketing game.
Here in Sydney, of course, we are especially predisposed to both: both the commodification of architecture architecture as lifestyle accessory, something to match the schnauzers and the white revival, which emerged here so prematurely that you might easily think modernism had never been away at all.
In fact, one of the curiosities of Sydney is that although white-wall modernism existed here, in the work of people like Sydney Ancher and Harry Seidler , it never really caught on at the time. There was no school of Seidler, then. The so-called “nuts and berries” Sydney school of modernism was a much wilder and hairier creature altogether.
Now, though, we’re making up for lost time. Lost whiteness. It is remarkable that virtually every one of the tens of thousands of new apartments that comprise Sydney’s recent urban makeover is fully white-walled. From the Horizon to the Altair, from the Republic to the Toaster, minimalism is the wrap-of-preference for the maxed-to-the-hilt lifestyle. Minimal look, maximal goodies. Be fat, look thin. Sydney’s smart set is being voluntarily white-walled in.
Why is it so catching?
It could be our climate, or our winterless idea of same. Could be our culture, or our egalitarian idea of that. Or the reasons could be similar to those who fed and watered modernism the first time round.
Modernism succeeded because it was cheap, mass-producible and photogenic.
With modernism Mark II, the process is even easier since, unlike its prototype, mod-II has no content, nor any aspiration to content. It is simply and overtly a look. Blond architecture.
Which makes it all the more amenable to life as a commodity. Or, as the economist Thorstein Veblen put it, “invidious distinction through conspicuous consumption”.
This explains the fact that everything built in Sydney over the past few years looks exactly the same. To be the look, the look has to be the look. To be desirable, it has to be exclusionary. To reinforce our sense of us-ness, it has to exclude them.
Which in turn causes Sydney’s style gradient where the same developer builds smart’n’white in town, but goes on doing dumbed-down brick’n’stucco polychrome out west.
Of course, there is the odd exception. Two of the best buildings to land in Sydney in recent years, for example, are Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place and Lend Lease’s 30 The Bond . Both are unashamedly modern, and yet both rely on the colour and texture of real materials stone, timber, terracotta, rusted steel with hardly a white wall in sight. And both are clearly dressed in the sense of being structure, clothed: The Bond ruffled and feathered, Aurora a lingerie-clad Collette Dinnigan, pretty in a serious, dark-suited CBD.
And yet both are intensely and deliberately liberative, giving maximum personal control over both space and environment.
Of course architecture isn’t entirely analogous to clothing, or entirely a media creation. There’s the duration thing, for one. You can change your clothes, and you can opt out of media. You can even wrap your fish and chips in it the ultimate revenge on that hated columnist. But architecture, on the whole, is something we’re stuck with.
On the other hand, it can be amended. And the more stridently the architect attempts to purify and perfect humanity through the rhythmic application of utopian thought, the more humans scruffy and anarchic, and thank God for it tend to insist upon their right to dissent.
Maybe Corbusier could have learnt something here. Maybe, hidden deep within his utopian white-crow dreaming was a black-crow dreaming, a dreaming of depth and shadow; a dreaming of mysterious, complex humanity, just trying to get out and get real.
This is an edited speech given last week as part of The Year of the Built Environment City Talk series.
ILLUS: Minimal look, maximal goodies .
Horizon, part of the Sydney makeover.
Photo: Quentin Jones