Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Forget about flavour and paint the town beige
One of architecture’s problems, it seems to me, is beigeness of language. Other professions are far more linguistically endowed, their lexicons lush with Latinisms and fruited with felicitous phraseology. Law, for example, has all that sub judice and habeas corpus stuff; contempt of court, burden of proof and double jeopardy, not to mention writ and estoppel, statute, lien and tort.
Medicine positively quivers with its aqueous humours and myocardial infarctions, its medullas and amygdalas, metacarpals, metatarsals and mitochondria, plus any number of osises, itises, opathies and ectomies. You can see how people get, well, infected.
But architecture, poor old architecture, must make do with – what? Beams? Joists? Concrete blocks?
Historically, it’s true, architectural argot has had its moments; its quoins, groins and springings.
Its enfilades, ambulatories and pendentives. These days, though, most practitioners couldn’t pronounce bressummer, much less spell it. These days, you’re lucky to get a decent spandrel out of your architect. Mostly, it’s the dreaded cantilever at best, at worst the joyless mud of autoCAD, project management, aluminium extrusion and precast boring panels. I mean, it’s hardly autoimmune hemolytic anaemia, right?
Which may be why there is no architectural equivalent, though there clearly should be, of the Locavore. There’s regionalism, of course; a term worn out (if not exactly in) by the British critic Kenneth Frampton. But regionalism is every bit as dull and worthy as it sounds, producing only a kind of ersatz vernacular; traditional Malay longhouses or Ndebele huts only with aluminium windows, waterproofing membranes and air-con.
Which isn’t what I mean at all.
The “loca-tect” (you see how the language is traduced?) should provide as strong a counterpoint to globalism as does the Locavore. She, or possibly he, would build not only from local skills and materials but in a way that responds to local climate, manifests local memes and embodies local stories.
Why? Partly because of the edifice equivalent of the food-miles argument. (What, architecture-kilometres?) But mainly because that’s how you make a culture more than just anonymous global pap.
Two examples – one of loving restoration by the city, and one of willful philistinism by the state – illustrate the point.
First, the City of Sydney’s first-stage restoration of the old Burton Street tabernacle in Darlinghurst. Truly, this is one of the oddest buildings you’re ever likely to see. Built in 1886-87 as the Woolloomooloo Baptist Church, it was designed by one John Stone, of the congregation. Stone was also an architect but this, his magnum opus, has a home-knitted quality that is both disconcerting and strangely sweet.
Victorian Free Classical on the outside, in a straitlaced protestant way, its interior hovers somewhere between evangelism and humanism.
With its raked timber floor and mustard glass windows (a 20th-century replacement of the original, flowery stained glass), its “reverence my sanctuary” inscription over the altar niche and, above all, its flat-arch carved-rib ceiling, it is a peculiar amalgam of Quaker meeting house and Theosophist temple.
So it’s no surprise that this was the spiritual home of the Eternity man, Arthur Stace.
Stace, whose facial configuration pegs him as an early adopter of foetal alcohol syndrome was, like the rest of his immediate family, hopelessly illiterate and an inveterate drunk.
Born when the tabernacle was still on the drawing board, he was 46 when he first heard the word “Eternity” thundering from its pulpit, from the mouth of the hellfire preacher John Ridley.
Stace had no schooling and in his own words “couldn’t have spelt ‘eternity’ for a hundred quid”.
Yet he found chalk in his pocket and followed the call to produce the first, miraculous copperplate version of what would become his signature tune. Curiously, too, for years Stace’s main Sydney memorial was the bronze “Eternity” in Sydney Square, by the architect Ridley Smith, who shares the name of that hellfire preacher.
The Burton Street tabernacle holds these stories, and others, twined into its fabric, so its restoration is a small enrichment of the sort that should be constant and expected, in a city like this, but are actually rare to the point of applause.
Compare with the State Government’s headlong race for the Annual Philistine Award (NSW Division) to be announced on November 24, Davis Hughes’s birthday. Not only are our wise and fearless leaders about to cram another 100-storey tower’s worth of office space onto the Hungry Mile.
They are also, at the other end of the scale, evicting one of Australia’s last remaining blacksmith and wrought iron shops from its right-and-proper home at the Eveleigh locomotive sheds.
Wrought Artworks uses the world’s largest collection of steam-powered blacksmithing equipment for its original purpose, making a perfect fit between heritage, architecture and use.
Of the 3000 skilled workers who once animated Australia’s first locomotive workshop, six remain: two partners and four apprentices. But for the Government, it’s six too many.
Frank Sartor may thunder like Ridley Smith about “jobs, jobs, jobs” for Redfern-Waterloo. But this priceless half dozen, and the nugget of flavour and meaning they bed into the city, will be gone forever. In their place? More beige-on-beige global pap.