Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Bondi and desolation Rowe
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
Australia is a nation of open-minded sun-worshippers – not likely, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
I’ve long felt photographer Max Dupain was wrong about Sydney. Not that it was his argument, not personally, but it seems to me we’ve misread Dupain’s Sunbaker as surely and as doggedly as we misunderstood Horne’s Lucky Country. The idea that we innocently prostrate ourselves before nature was never more than half the picture; our most devoted (if ineffectual) scrabblings have always been to dig some cultural foothold into this wide brown land.
Three recent shows provide examples. Take Durbach Popov Stutchbury at Danks Street’s Utopia Gallery. Focusing on the work of Neil Durbach, Alex Popov and Peter Stutchbury – all seen in isolation from their respective partners and practices – the show is subtitled “the role of sketches and models in the development of architectural concepts”. As such it begins where last year’s Seidler show at the Tin Sheds left off, taking these informal tools of the design process, rather than their product, as its significant objects.
Anyone familiar with the design minds in question, though, will note just how intensely these “waste products of a thought process”, (as the architects of London’s Tate Modern gallery, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, describe their working models) chime with the built work. Although Paul McGillick’s catalogue essay has the architects linked by “a number of things”, to put the three oeuvres together in a room is rather to underline their differences.
For Popov, who alone bothers to establish a lineage from sketch to edifice, the entire exercise is structured by a stark modernist grid, almost as though the handsome Seidler building in which he works has permeated his mind. Within that framework, other modernist influences are also evident, most obviously that of Joern Utzon, for whom Popov worked and whose son-in-law he was. The hand of the master all but holds the pencil in these bold yet wistful sketches of roofs floating over platforms, framed views and clustered village-type housing, many of them hugely photo-enlarged for added drama (an old student trick).
Peter Stutchbury comes out looking like a romantic in modern garb, his elegant and unregurgitated pencil sketches weaving a web of that particular enchantment that arises when geometry and nature meet. For me, though, this part of the show illuminated my vague disappointment in these much-awarded buildings. It’s a roof thing. Where Stutchbury’s plans and sections typically offer a sweet fusion of romance and discipline, his roofs tend to a monovalent heroism, as though the urge for the leonine cover shot finally overwhelms the demands of spatial poetry. Still, there’s hope, since the most successful project in this regard is a work-in-progress entitled, simply, Palm Beach House. Here, the uncharacteristically folded roof-form is allowed to nest in the site, rather than dominating it, thus restoring the rightful yin-yang tussle.
The show’s Durbach corner is composed entirely of large working sketchbooks and minute exploratory models. These are engaging on several levels: as visual entities with the loose-limbed quality of a child skipping down a street; as an almost Darwinian exercise in elaboration and diversity, where a huge range of ideas are tossed up, then winnowed through a selective net; and as examples of an easy, no-bullshit authenticity that liberates, rather than constricts. It’s rare, such candour, especially in architecture. But the mind-play it allows, as evidenced, for example, by the 20-odd models for the National Art School scheme, is its own richly fertile reward.
A comparable, real-life fertility was lost in the obliteration of Sydney’s famously bohemian Rowe Street, as detailed in Memory Lane, Recollecting Rowe Street at New Customs House (itself splendidly revamped by architects Lacoste + Stevenson).
For more than a century before its demolition in 1973, Rowe Street formed the focus of Sydney’s artistic and intellectual life, crammed as it was with basement cafes and avant-garde design shops, bars, bookshops, galleries and rag traders. As Sydney flaneur Frank Elgar recalls, Rowe Street was “the most miraculous oasis”. It was where you could buy European books and Picasso prints, espressos and Marimekko fabrics. It was also, through the presence of the Australian Hotel (home to the Sydney Push), “how you’d find out what was happening”. Although some now disparage it as catering mainly to “the Rose Bay crowd”, Rowe Street was testament also to the role of European Jewish immigrants in dragging the country from its post-war Anglo-Saxon drear. How ironic that it should have been demolished for Seidler’s MLC Centre, after his own family’s escape from the Anschluss in 1939.
Bondi, a Biography is a far more populist exhibition, though there’s a deal of Rose-Bayism here as well. A thematically arranged miscellany of photographs, news clippings, woollen swimwear, plywood surfboards and preserved shark jaws, Bondi demonstrates, as much as anything, the post-modern historian’s reluctance to tell a story at all, preferring to let the facts “speak for themselves”. As if.
Useful light is shed, nonetheless, on contemporary attitudes to this extraordinary icon, in particular our failure to recognise it as more cultural than natural. This failure, and its twin assumption that Bondi requires protection as some sort of pristine wilderness rather than crafted object, threatens to undermine the Bondi we know. For, even as carbuncles are glued to the face of the pavilion and treasured cultural haunts such as Gertrude and Alice’s bookshop fall beneath the steamroller of residential development, Bondi is gradually walling itself off behind layers of accumulated celebrity nimby-ism.
Nimby-ism is nothing new of course. It’s just old-fashioned tribalism under another name. The idea that Bondi is somehow overcrowded has underpinned Bondi residents’ resistance to one major public benefit after another: the proposed rail link from the city (canned in 1997); the Olympic beach volleyball stadium; and the Sydney Fringe Festival Summer’s Day and Live Bait events. It rests on the tacit assumption that Bondi is somehow full; that there is some ecological limit to how many people can properly sit on a beach.
What Bondi, a Biography shows, though, is that Bondi Beach, like Sydney Harbour, is far, far less crowded now than was once routinely the case. Photos and footage of the 1929 surf carnival, fronting the proud new Bondi Pavilion, of serried deck chairs during the Depression of the 1930s, of the Queen’s visit in 1954 or of shoulder-to-shoulder sunbathers in the ’60s reveal Bondi as, in curator Richard Taylor’s words, “one of Sydney’s best-credentialed sites for large-scale public events”.
Yet it is the very publicness of this intensely public asset that locals so vehemently resist; as though the celebrity classes in residence have rights over sand and waves as well. The Bondi anti-train movement might rely on eco-rhetoric but in fact, as Tourism Task Force’s (now Tourism & Transport Forum) chief Chris Brown pointed out in 2001, it’s driven by “a fairly shameful ‘keep westies out’ concept”.
So, while John Pilger proffers the seductive view that “the beach is Australia’s true democracy”; the evidence is against him. Think Cronulla. The human animal – now, embarrassingly, sharing a genus with the chimp – is every bit as aggressive, territorial and hierarchical unclothed as clothed. Maybe this is the Sunbaker’s true message: “This place is mine and my tribe’s, ‘n’ youse all can f— off or I’ll make ya.”
Durbach, Popov, Stutchbury, at Utopia Art Sydney, closes Saturday.
Bondi, A Biography is at the Museum of Sydney until March 19.
Memory Lane, Recollecting Rowe Street is at New Customs House until June 30.
TWO PHOTOS: Gone but not forgotten … marchers on Bondi Beach in 1931; and (below) window shoppers in Rowe Street.