Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Herpes gets more headlines than architecture
OUR National Architecture Week, for anyone who didn’t notice, came to a close last week. Two weeks ago we had World Architecture Day. In Sydney and in Venice, exhibitions have been timed to coincide with these calendar high points. Yet all these together attracted less attention than last week’s Herpes Day, the running sore of special events.
It’s partly that architecture (unlike herpes, perhaps) is something we don’t generally get. Compared with art, music and even literature, architecture flies well below the popular sensors. We may drool over the property pages and stock the loo with glossy design magazines but anything past McMansion size seems to overwhelm the retina so we just don’t get it. That’s one thing.
But there’s also this; architecture doesn’t get us. Which is more serious, since we, one way or another, wind up paying for it.
The two exhibitions are the 10th Venice Architecture Biennale (Australia is making its third appearance) and Young Architects Take 2 at Customs House, Circular Quay. The Sydney show promises not just young but innovative architecture, the cutting edge of Sydney’s new century. Curated by Gerard Reinmuth, one of The Bulletin Microsoft Smart 100 people for 2004, it was opened by none other than Glenn Murcutt.
Venice was equally promising. Australia’s contribution sets out to demonstrate that we are not, in fact, infested with Crocodile Dundees and small girls in safari suits, but 85 per cent urbanised. Sub-urbanised, anyway. It’s not news to us. And after all, the entire biennale is directed by the energetic, transatlantic, academic urbanist Ricky Burdett with the theme “cities, architecture and society” (uh, no capital letters please, we’re architects). But to show the world a predominantly urban Australia sounds at least refreshing.
That’s the thing with promises, though. They’re so damn fragile.
The Venice show is let down first by its blurb, which excels in the arcane-yet-essential academic art of obscuring the bleeding obvious. “Micro-macro city,” write the exhibit’s directors, Melbourne academic architects Shane Murray and Nigel Bertram,”presents the Australian urban condition as a matrix of interrelationships between urban cores, suburban sprawl, regional centres and rural hinterland. The concept of this field as a continuum of inhabitation across a range of densities and settlement types bypasses traditional distinctions between city and country, town and suburb, centre and periphery, metropolitan and non-metropolitan. Rather than separations, this idea of a dispersed urban continuum highlights connections and interrelationships.” Australian cities, put simply, are puddles of urban diarrhoea.
The show offers no argument, but a range of photos – Seidler’s Riparian Plaza tower in Brisbane, Stutchbury’s Deepwater Woolshed near Wagga Wagga, Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s Marion shopping centre in Adelaide – hung in a mini Darling Harbour aquarium-style trailer home under the trees. No one, including the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, seems to know who designed the pavilion – which is, after all, the only actual architecture in evidence – but it looks a lot like the old 1991 Philip Cox design, dusted off like last year’s fold-away Christmas tree.
Take 2, while it promises “innovative architecture”, also offers only photos and addresses the vexed question of authorship. Traditionally, young architects donate their creativity to their bosses until they can start their own firm and take their own credit. The bosses may be grumpy and ungrateful (Cox, for instance, grouches famously about how tardy youngsters these days are in getting their feet on the professional ladder). But that, since Michelangelo’s time, has been the way.
No longer. For Take 2, eight firms nominated employees whose design input was crucial to particular projects. These include Chris Bosse, credited with PTW’s Beijing Olympics Watercube, honoured in the Atmosphere section at the 2004 Venice biennale; Claire Meller, for Ian Moore’s warm-but-strict McAssey House; and Beth Hughes, for her part in Lacoste and Stevenson’s sassy and stylish renovation of the Customs House interior.
It’s an interesting idea, but that’s about the limit of the innovation on show. The architecture itself, excepting the above, challenges nothing and subverts nothing. Further still, the photos, which are architect-supplied, seem to be selected for making their subject spaces as drab, unpeopled and unappealing as possible. If you weren’t in Hughes’s Customs House interior at the time, for example, you’d have no idea, from the show, it was worth a second look.
Why so dour? “It’s not an attempt to convey significant information,” says curator Reinmuth. “It’s not for architects. It’s really just an exhibition of photographs for people reading their books on yoga, or whatever they do in libraries.” So, is innovation really the point, here? Is authorship? What, would you say, is architecture for?
And the answer, surely, is that while architecture may dabble in art, philosophy, and semantic or auteurial debate, the core discipline is still about housing humans. It sounds simple, and is riddled with complexity. There is, for one, a green issue bleeping red, about managing our nature-culture interaction to extract poetry from survival. And there’s an unsolved formal question, about combining the civic and the personal; alloying the grunt and gravitas of classicism with modernism’s gossamer delight. That’d be innovative; is it even possible?
Architecture that deals with such questions would have people jamming the streets, as they did to see Harry Seidler’s first house in Turramurra all those years ago. But neither show is bothered by such issues. And that is why even herpes gets more attention. Architecture? You’re standing in it.
PHOTO: Queue-maker … Rose Seidler House. Photo: Quentin Jones