profrv at nex.net.au
Wed May 12 22:47:13 PDT 1999
Edification, not edifices
By Phillip Adams
August 24, 2002
DURING rites of national passage, we colonials discuss the appropriateness
of the Australian flag. Is it right to leave the Union Jack stuck in the
corner, like a postage stamp on a letter addressing our thoughts back to
Britain? Or is it time to do something analogous to Canada, perhaps a
eucalyptic counterpart to its maple leaf?
During the bicentenary, any number of brave and bold alternatives were
proposed, including . . . a Dicky's towel. It was my suggestion that we
unfurl a well-worn, rather frayed Dicky's on which could be seen the oily
imprint of a basted sunbather, the body impressed on the fabric like the
image of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin.
But I had to acknowledge that Mike Leunig's idea was better. What he wanted
to see, waving proudly in the wind, was a sheet of galvo. Specifically,
rusty galvo. Here, for the first time in history, was a flag that wouldn't
need any wind to flutter in. Mike's galvanised effort would remain
tumescent on even a windless day.
But Leunig isn't the only person to have put galvo up the flagpole to see
who saluted. The architect Glenn Murcutt is as much a man of iron as the
sainted Ned Kelly or those muscular young men who run around in Kellogg's
Nutri-Grain commercials. While others agonise over the national identity as
it's expressed in film, theatre, poetry or painting, Murcutt tries to keep
the flag flying the galvo flag in architecture.
And because he's chosen to build houses rather than corporate HQs or
five-star hotels (Murcutt expresses a strong preference for the horizontal
over the vertical) he's done a lot less damage to the landscape than most
in his profession. Which is one of the reasons he was recently anointed the
2002 Pritzker architecture prize laureate. No small thing, given that it
was brought into being to "fill a hole" in the Nobel prizes.
Murcutt's latest accolade led to a brief encounter on the stage of the
Sydney Town Hall. I was asked to interview him on his career in front of a
live audience, and we were astonished when 1500 people turned up, thus
proving that architecture is increasingly significant in public debate.
Just between us, architects worry me. Too many of the best and brightest
recall the central character in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, being almost
fascist in their authoritarianism. One Australian example (I won't mention
his name because he's notoriously litigious) was responsible for one of our
most important buildings and, on its completion, issued instructions for
all who worked within. No one on the premises would be permitted to put
anything personal in their workspace. The great man would choose the
knick-knacks that would go on his desks in his offices in his building. I
learned this in a letter from one of his victims complaining that she felt
as if she were working in a prison.
Like ambitious generals or Machiavellian bureaucrats, architects have
always needed powerful patrons. They've attached themselves to pharaohs or
kings or popes or tycoons or, like Albert Speer to Hitler, to dictators.
Architects see themselves at the top of the cultural food chain. Not only
do their buildings dwarf all other works of art making them hard to avoid
but they're almost invariably an expression of cultural, political,
religious or financial dominance.
Yet architects, for all their self-importance, are mendicants to and
boosters of the mighty. They are lap dogs to the top dogs in any given
society. Murcutt is fortunate to escape this world of the all powerful.
Unlike Speer, he doesn't need to be a Uriah Heep to a madman or to the
other little Hitlers who, all too often, run companies or countries. He's
one of the handful of architects, along with Frank Lloyd Wright, who's
better known for buildings of a more domestic scale.
Since Imhotep built that massive tomb for Zoser, a 5th-dynasty pharoah,
famous architects have been linked with the mighty buildings pyramids,
palaces, parliaments, town halls, basilicas and skyscrapers of the mighty.
In historical terms, of course, these are the buildings that last. The
igloo, as elegant a shape as an egg, tends to melt. The Tambaran houses of
Papua New Guinea, built from leaves and branches, quickly rot in the
tropical conditions. And the homes of ancient Romans and Greeks weren't as
durable as the marble temples. Like the wolf huffing and puffing at the
homes of the three little pigs, time huffs and puffs at the houses of
humanity and they are lost forever.
So if Murcutt has noble predecessors, we don't know their names. Yet their
rewards have been significant, principally the avoidance of political or
ideological brutalism. And if you want to think how political architecture
can be, think of the immense controversies that raged over the recent
rebuilding of Berlin, and at the growing controversy in New York over what
to do at ground zero. Where, as in the attempt to destroy the Pentagon,
architectural and cultural symbolism were turned against themselves. Should
New Yorkers get their old skyline back, as many of them want? I put this
question to Murcutt. And he answered by talking about the monument to the
Americans who died in the Vietnam War that great diagonal slab of black
marble covered with an endless list of names. He regarded it as miraculous
the design had survived the disapproval it attracted. Horizontal rather
than vertical. Grim rather than romantic. Murcutt would like to see
something similar replace the World Trade Centre. But given Manhattan real
estate prices, don't hold your breath.
Murcutt's designs echo the feelings of the simple buildings he knew in PNG
as a child or saw on Australian farms after his family had moved here. And
that's where much of his work began, as extrapolations from barns and
shearing sheds into houses that are open to the environment, the scenery,
the wind. Some of his buildings sit in the landscape quite assertively,
like windmills in a paddock. But others seem to hide, as camouflaged as
Well done, Glenn Murcutt. Long may your galvo flag flutter.
Well done also jya for recent expose and Cryptome,a shining cypherpunk
light on the hill.
More information about the cypherpunks-legacy