Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
Camping out in glitz city
With his heart lost in the past and head full of the future, Paul Keating has grand plans for the “architectural wasteland” he reluctantly calls home. Elizabeth Farrelly reports.
It is August 1788. In just over 200 years Paul John Keating will be sworn in as prime minister. Meanwhile, as Captain Arthur Phillip slashes his way to Pittwater in search of food for the famished fledgling colony, Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France, sits in his handsome Paris study, writing letters.
The revolution that will soon end Jefferson’s happiest years is already a rumble in France’s empty stomach but Jefferson’s letters, aloof to a degree that is either dandyish or dissociative, are lovelorn; they are addressed to the married sister-in-law of a sworn political enemy.
Two centuries on, in the once fledgling colony, the former prime minister Keating traces echoes of Jefferson along the corridors of his contradictory tastes and allegiances. In a room that could have been Jefferson’s and gleams with his silverware (“Jefferson and I collected the same silversmith, although he bought it new”), Keating recounts other stories of Parisian infidelities that he knows from his years as unofficial ambassador to France. It’s a classic Keating story, all cheek and charm; the glamorous woman whose husband not only knew of her “fully serviced” apartment, but paid for it. So French, chuckles the Irish Francophile, so sophisticated. So rude.
He wears slippers in the office, padding among the antiques as he mulls over traditional recipes for tempera or gold leaf, as though the revolution and its entire democratic consequence never happened. Sydney’s closest approach to a gentleman flaneur clears space on the book-strewn French polish to sign a couple of waiting letters. The implement is the customary Keating fountain pen but the signature, which would flatter a bank note or a constitution, makes the pen look new-fangled. The signature suggests more of a cross between calligrapher’s quill and Zorro’s sword. How long did it take to perfect such a flourish? Keating smiles, a little sheepish. “It’s my last, lingering fascination with the rococo. Of course,” he adds as if it explains everything, or anything.”Rococo is only really done well in the first half of the 18th century.” The first half, though, is not the half where Keating’s heart lies.
We all know about the clocks. Most of Keating’s biographers treat his penchant for old French clocks and contemporary Zegna suits as two faces of a single, endearing foible, quaint but finally trivial, like keeping canaries or maybe mistresses. In half a dozen monographs, barely an index entry suggests that design or aesthetics might actually be significant in the burgeoning sport of parsing Australia’s most complex former prime minister. Keating’s passion for beauty, in all its forms, is both more central and contradictory than this suggests.
Some contradictions are obvious. The idea of an Australian politician wearing the taint of cultivation in public and still presuming to be electable. The fierce republican who exudes no sense of even wanting to be Australian, except maybe of the expat variety. The Bankstown boy who leaves school at 15 only to hobnob, years later, with the scholars of the Louvre. The lounge-lizard Francophile who rises through the ranks of the most venal and thuggish faction of a party renowned for its venality and thuggishness. The reformist firebrand of a Labor politician who is also, and with equal passion, a fogey of an aesthete. They’re contradictions to put even Jefferson’s renaissance passions in the shade.
Plus there’s the abiding commitment to Sydney, Australia’s crassest, most overtly developer-driven city. In part, it’s the history and the harbour he loves. Keating’s Sydney is “an architectural wasteland saved only by its topography”, a town with “only one compelling heritage value: nature”.
Even so, not the kind of heritage with which he’s prepared to get intimate. Keating in 1993: “If you’re not in Sydney, you’re camping out.” But camping out, metaphorically or otherwise, is not something he does. “I have done it, of course. And I’ve saved a bit of bush in my time, like the Daintree. But on the whole I’m happy to leave all that to the sandal-wearing, muesli-eating types like Bob Carr.”
He’ll even boast, fondly, of his contribution to Sydney’s crassness – “When I was treasurer, I made Sydney the financial capital” – and recognise his part in facilitating the rash of mediocrity that spreads “like eczema” across Australian cities. “Before I opened up the financial markets in 1984, there was a $30,000 limit on borrowing, and even then you had to crawl to the bank manager. Now, any two butchers can go across the road, buy five blocks, develop them and sell off-the-plan. In a world awash with liquidity, anything buildable is bankable.” It’s an irony that Keating will happily note, but seldom examine.
And yet, he says: “You could cry tears of blood for cities – they have no guardians.”
So, is there an element of guilt, even over-compensation, in his drive to beautify Sydney? Perhaps. Especially regarding east Darling Harbour (he still declines to call it Barangaroo), which he describes as “the most important bit of real estate in Australia at the moment”.
Keating denies craving a formal role in the redevelopment, like the rumoured urge to run the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. “I don’t need titles, and I didn’t go on the [judging] panel because I needed something to do.” Nevertheless, he has carefully positioned himself – as jury member, commentator, confidant of the NSW Planning Minister, Frank Sartor – with a view to “having a say”.
It can hardly be unstrategised. But the democratic process, the endless argy-bargy with bureaucrats and project managers? Really? Keating has an undeniable show-pony side, his attendances at Keating!, the musical, being matched only by the multiple copies of Keating-focused books and articles strewn across his office among the tomes on Churchill and Schinkel. Yet, he’s done drearier, less limelit things, such as the four-year stint on the Board of Architects NSW.
The contradictions go deeper. Keating’s driving aesthetic passion is intense but laser narrow, spanning a single French decade; the last of the 18th century. It was the decade of revolution, from the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 to Napoleon’s imperial ascension in 1804.
It was also the decade that ended forever the possibility of the design that Keating loves most. Ended it not just in a small, antique-clocks kind of way either, but globally and forever. The French Revolution brought the democracy that made it impossible for civilisations ever again to build the kinds of cities Keating admires: Napoleonic Paris, renaissance Florence, tsarist St Petersburg.
“I think what I most grieve over is the loss of the sensibility that gave primacy to the whole, to the public realm rather than the individual. Now that’s all dissipated. The connoisseurship is dead,” he says.
Connoisseurship may be a less-than-natural association with Bankstown, but Keating’s aesthetic fervour goes way back. He dates his visual awakening to 1959. Just out of school, the young Paul was a clerk for the Sydney County Council in its dingy, book-piled white elephant of a Queen Victoria Building. Leo Schofield, nine years Keating’s senior, was a design blade about town. Sydney had two main antique dealers, Stanley “Stella” Lipscombe and Bill Bradshaw. Paul-from-the-Bankstown-fibro and Leo-from-the-Brewarrina-pub met in the generous and cultured aura that distinguished these self-made men from their frontier beginnings, behind Lipscombe’s double-fronted plate-glass in Bathurst Street. Paul and Leo, inheritors of the aura, are friends to this day.
It was there, “at Stanley’s”, that the 15-year-old Keating bought his first antique, a simple, silver-faced oyster watch by the 18th-century Parisian watchmaker Breguet. It had “a line of gilt around the rim and back, and a minute hand, but the hour came up in numerals in a little box”. Costing the teenager £40 or £50, it was a keyed fob watch – hardly high fashion – but he couldn’t resist. “Yes, I wore it,” Keating says. He still has it and it still works.
A fob-wearing Sydney teen, on the brink of the swinging ’60s, who spent his spare time haranguing passers-by from a Woolloomooloo soap box “for the Labor Party”. It’s as if the contradictions themselves twist the rubber band that keeps Keating energised.
Too busy to go to university – “frankly, I’ve got too much to learn” – the young Keating began his aesthetic education with Bradshaw’s handed-down antique mags. But there was nothing casual about it. So intensely did Keating study that even now he knows his Biennais from his Boileau. But magazines weren’t enough. Keating began to read: the classicist Winckelmann, architects Ledoux and Boullee, theorists de Quincy, Durand and Blondel, philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau.
Which is where Keating-the-aesthete meets Keating-the-politician. “When I got into politics,” he says, “I got into the Enlightenment in a big way, because the English and French revolutions were the defining moments of modern politics. Voltaire and Rousseau held the divining rod on civilisation.” In politics, Keating became a leading right-wing leftie. Aesthetically, the same ambiguity holds.
By the time Keating made his first trip overseas, to Paris and London at 26, he was in parliament. It was his first encounter with capital-A architecture. “Your head gets full of these images and, in comparison, the works of local architects make you weep,” he recalls. Even so, he’s no down-the-line classicist.
“I’m with Durand,” he says. “I’m basically for function leading to form, otherwise [buildings] lose their guts.” Anything else is “pre-revolutionary, an invalid idea”, but the judgment is as much aesthetic as moral.
Visually, he says, buildings need to be spare and refined, but he still sees modernism as a failure, since it did not ” produce forms that people like”. He cites a new concrete-and-glass tower near the Keating family empire in Kent Street’s Observatory Tower. “If that’s good, Christ help us.”
So, what does he like? Keating claims no particular stylistic affiliation, except to admire “resolved” modernism – such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram tower in New York – as much as resolved classicism. When pressed, however, he concedes that towers of any sort “are hard things to be in”.
Here Keating drags out a book on the early-20th-century Slovene architect Josip Plecnik, reviled by modernists as a fag-end classicist but rediscovered by postmodernism. The work is disciplined and serious, “stripped classicism” in the tradition of Otto Wagner, Louis Sullivan and Albert Richardson. “They don’t teach this stuff in universities. I don’t think contemporary architects have any classical sensibilities, so the buildings are not resolved. What [modernism] costs you is resolution.”
Yet in design, as in history, he is also fundamentally attracted to change: the critical transition, the turning moment, the twist. The French Revolution is one such period, early modernism another; the cusp between a dying classical tradition and an embryonic new world. “I love the energy, the power of the turn, the last gasp of the dying century.”
As in epochs, so in miniatures. Keating leans back, savouring a late-18th-century draped bronze nude on the mantle. “Look at her. I love the asymmetry of the knees, the twist at the waist, the relationship with the cherub.”
Now could be another such turning point. But climate change is the last thing on Keating’s mind. For him, it’s all about place: the city and its harbour, as symbolised in Barangaroo. “No good city ever came to pass without a community desire for something better. Maybe for this last great piece of land we can summon enough residual sentiment to do something really grand.”
Grand? Sydney? Keating shrugs: “What do you do in a place like this? Settle for a Mirvac apartment with a couple of duffed up Mies couches – or I might get lucky and get a real one – and a Brett Whiteley on the wall?”
What he does is yearn to make a difference. Does he see himself playing Baron Haussman to Sartor’s Napoleon? An aristocrat sniping at the democratic process that made him? Keating’s assessment of his role has many shapes: a busybody, an urban gadfly, an educator, an inheritor of the flame. He sees himself “keeping them honest, making sure Frank doesn’t pull any swifties”.
But Keating’s most natural role is less the larrikin James Bond from Keating! the musical, more designer demi-god. “If we get this up,” he says of Barangaroo, “it’ll be the biggest save since Lazarus … I see myself like Zeus, throwing thunderbolts.”
Jefferson may have struggled to separate church from state but his avatar, Keating, focuses more on shaping divinity to human ends. Jahweh, Zeus? Pah, just call me the Sun King.
Of Sydney Harbour, Paul “I’d never wear a three-button suit” Keating says it should be Venice, not Sylvania Waters. The NSW ministers Joe Tripodi and Eric Roozendaal might push the plastic-boat lobby but “the public has a right to look at the harbour without a sea of plastic, of clanking aluminium masts and tupperware boats as far as the eye can see – and the arrogant assumption that there will be a piece of the harbour for each of them.” His boat? An elegant 15-metre timber cruiser, a Halvorsen, moored at Double Bay.
PHOTO: Power and the passion … Paul Keating sits in his office at the Institute of Architects, clasping his signature fountain pen and surrounded by his beloved antiques. Photo: Sahlan Hayes