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the triumph of the wilt


Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 19-Mar-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 746

Architecture as a cultural art gets lost in translation


I met the legendary architect James Stirling once, although “met” is really too strong a word. More “breathed the same air as,” although on reflection “air” is also an exaggeration. The site of our shared fumid inspiration, then, Stirling’s and mine, was a basement – our basement, as it happens, shadowy, flag-floored, alcoholic – in Queen Anne’s Gate, SW1, six minutes by foot (I timed it) from Westminster Abbey.

Our basement was the medieval pub that – complete with its original inch-thick dust and moth-eaten lion, stuffed mid-roar – the Architectural Press (for whom I worked) had years earlier rescued from the very same Modernist bulldozers it spent the rest of the time frantically cheerleading, and deposited complete in its own Lower Ground.

The year was 1984. Christmas party, or similar. Dan Adventures In Architecture Cruickshank was there; also transatlantic enfant Charles Jencks, flamboyant educator Alvin Boyarsky, irrepressible spectacled genius Peter Cook, pushy regionalist Kenneth Frampton, redoubtable writer Reyner Banham and, if memory serves, the scholar Joseph Rykwert.

Stirling arrived, fresh from holidays in Venice (where he would later design that miraculous Biennale bookshop, sweet as a nut) with his two teenage children, all three splendidly decked out in straw boaters with long, lolly-pink ribbons.

Tall, dauntingly clever and generally rather dashing, Stirling was by then also hugely fat, much fatter than the medievals had anticipated, with the surprising consequence that the boater preceded him through their narrow slot of a door. But the great man was unfazed. Not yet knighted, he had just completed Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie, postmodernism’s prima ballerina. This marvellous work – already renowned for its outsize handrail in that same lolly pink – along with others like the Cambridge History Faculty, meant that not even slapstick could diminish the awe in which he was held.

It’s all gone now. Stirling is dead (along with Banham, without doubt the best architectural writer the world has ever produced, and Boyarsky, who created its most exciting school of architecture). What remains of the august Architectural Press – now as moth-eaten as our old lion – flops about its cheap open-plan office space in EC1, and postmodern architecture may as well not have bothered.

But the tentacles of this vibrant architectural culture persist. Not least in Tom Heneghan, who for seven years has enjoyed the dubious delights of Sydney University’s architecture chair. Never sit on anything designed by an architect, you may quip, and there are those who (unlike the furniture) would support you. Not Heneghan. If his sojourn within the famously troubled faculty has been less than perfect he’s not saying. But he is moving to a nicer chair.

Heneghan names Stirling as his favourite architect, citing his “ideas and inventions and wit”. He studied under Boyarsky – usually known simply as Alvin – at London’s Architectural Association.

But ask about the highlight of his Sydney years, and Heneghan is stumped. And on Saturday he decamps for Tokyo.

Why? Could it relate to the fact that, here, his time was forcibly extruded across some 600 students, while in Tokyo he and seven other equally decorated professors will nurture six hand-picked cohorts of 19?

Could it relate to an administrative load, here, that is nominally one day a week but impossible to compress below four? To a funding system that rewards unreadable articles in unread journals but ignores all creative engagement with practice, public or pedagogy? To an appointment regime whose rigid PhD prerequisite precludes nearly all architectural greats from teaching here?

“I absolutely believe the USyd architecture program can be among the world’s finest within five years,” Heneghan insists. But the fact that it took almost six months for them to get around to seeking his replacement suggests not everyone shares that enthusiasm.

And Julia Gillard’s quantity-over-quality aspiration to have 40 per cent of young Australians with bachelor’s degrees is likely to make this worse, not better. “The creation and diffusion of knowledge should be a thrilling, delightful activity,” says Heneghan. “But you can’t teach drawing to a lecture room of 150 kids.”

The Architectural Association was founded in 1847 by two young architects dissatisfied with the Academy. Since then it has consistently reinvented itself, while remaining intellectually exuberant, wildly creative, unashamedly elitist and proudly self-funding. Tokyo’s University of Arts, Heneghan’s future home, is quite different; government-funded but fiercely attached to its reputation for producing Japan’s leading musicians, painters, animators and architects. The shared value is positively unAustralian; teaching and treasuring architecture as a vibrant cultural art.

Vale Tom, we’ll miss ya.



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