Category Archives: Architecture

Kitchen Status

Visitors to a private house in Melbourne are frequently shown into the kitchen to socialise. If they are in my house there is a combined kitchen and dinning room and is designed to socialise in. A century ago visitors would not have been shown the kitchen then kitchens were small narrow rooms near the back of the house with only space for one or two people in them at the most. Kitchens in a social and cultural context have changed, a complete reversal of status in the house.

Finishing up on my 2006 kitchen renovation

Finishing up on my 2006 kitchen renovation

Socialising in the kitchen allows the hosts to conveniently serve food and drink to guests and family without leaving the room. They are the entertainment hub in Melbourne’s homes from the wealthy to the poor; except where the old house designs do not allow for socialising in the kitchens.

Houses are the form of lifestyles, their architecture defines the way that we live. The architecture of rooms and their use in a house contains information about social hierarchies, taboos and other information about the way of life of its inhabitants.

My kitchen fills half of a large room that also functions as a dinning room and a central intersection of the house. It is the first room after the hallway that a guest usually enters. This combination makes the process of serving food at dinner parties so much easier. I can get up from the table and within a few steps reach the stove, fridge or anything else I need.

The change in the status of kitchens in our culture is a kind of parallel to the change in the status and social role of women. It is also an indication of social equality both in the greater society, in that kitchen staff are no longer commonly affordable, and in the family where the wife is no longer her husband’s servant. My wife and I share the cooking, I probably do slightly more. I’ve been a kitchen hand and I often help when my wife is cooking by cutting up onions or preparing other vegetables.

This change in the status of kitchens has also lead to a change in the way that food is enjoyed and the kinds of food enjoyed. Food preparation may involve designer utensils or novelty kitchen gadgets. Food is a chance to explore the variety of things to eat – fish sauce, Canadian maple syrup and Spanish olive oil can all be found in my kitchen.

In 2006 I built my own kitchen, screwing it together from a flat pack kit. I’m kind of proud of the biggest DIY job that I’ve ever done. Most Australians get professionals to do their kitchens and the kitchen in a Melbourne houses is one of the most expensive rooms. Mine has an island bench, the transition point between food preparation and consumption; most of the plates, bowls and cutlery are stored under the island bench. There is a great flow from the pantry and fridge, through to the cooking area and the finally the cleaning area and waste disposal, sink, dishwasher, and bins. There are three bins: one for compost, one for recycling and one for non-recycling. Then there is the area that where I feed the cat; it has a mat of newspaper because she likes to eat with her paws, dragging her food out of her bowl.

My kitchen is sparsely decorated. There are a couple of vases for flowers and a couple of my paintings on the dinning room side of my kitchen. The fridge is an odd centrepiece to one wall of the kitchen and acts as a kind of noticeboard and place for souvenir magnets. In the 1911 Marcel Duchamp made a small painting for the kitchen of his brother Raymond’s house, “Coffee Grinder”. “It’s normal today to have paintings in your kitchen but at that time it was rather unusual.” Duchamp said, noting the status change in kitchens.


Melbourne Now

Thirty-three years after that tumultuous turning point in Melbourne’s culture when Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (aka “The Yellow Peril”) was installed and then removed from the City Square. Melbourne Now is yellow; the exhibition’s logo is yellow, at the launch of the exhibition the Minister for the Arts, Heidi Victoria was dressed in yellow complete with yellow nail polish. Back in the 1980s Barry Humphries suggested that Melbourne should be called “the big Orange”, in reference to NYC moniker, “the big Apple”, but the orange trams are no longer on Melbourne’s streets. In Peter Tyndall blog post for 21/11/13 (reproduced in Melbourne Now) Tyndall suggests that Melbourne’s colour is black – that appeals to me (ha ha).

Thirty-three years ago it would have been impossible to have an exhibition of the quality and scale of Melbourne Now. There were not enough quality artists or gallery space in Melbourne then. Now Melbourne has become the city that Robertson-Swann’s sculpture anticipated, a city where the arts and design flourish.

Daniel Crooks, A garden of parallel paths, 2012 (still)

Daniel Crooks, A garden of parallel paths, 2012 (still)

Melbourne Now is huge exhibition covering 8000 square meters of gallery space in both of the NGV galleries, and extending out of the galleries into the sculpture garden at the back of the NGV International and onto Melbourne’s streets. It is all free and will occupy most of a day; it took me over three hours to just to get an impression of the exhibition. I’m sure that I must have missed something and I will happily to go back for another look.

The exhibition includes so much – painting, sculpture, drawing, art publications, design, architecture, fashion, music, and dance. I will try to focus on a just couple of aspects.

Parents take your children to this exhibition; later in life they might thank you for it when it is mentioned in Australian art history and there is plenty to keep kids engaged with this exhibition at the present. Children’s activities include making experimental music with The Donkey Tail Jr. on the mezzanine gallery of the NGV (St. Kilda Road) and adding silhouette bird stickers to the sky of Juan Ford’s huge work You, me and the flock. The Dewhurst Family supported both these features of the exhibition. Much of this exhibition is interactive; you can also make your own jewellery, design your own shoes out of cardboard or sketch in the beautiful room of taxidermy work by Julia DeVille (sketching materials: black paper, gold and silver pencils and boards provided).

Street art is a major part of Melbourne’s current art scene and the influence of street art, graffiti and tagging is clear in Melbourne Now. There is Ponch Hawkes photographs of tree tagging, Stieg Persson’s paintings, Reko Rennie’s paintings, Ash Keating’s video and Lush’s installation: Graffiti doesn’t belong in the gallery? It is typical of Lush to get his tag up everywhere. Daniel Crooks’ a great video installation A garden of parallel paths and a Rick Amor painting Mobile Call also present views of Melbourne’s graffiti covered laneways. The walls of Hosier Lane, with All Your Walls, are also part of Melbourne Now. (I will write about All Your Walls in a later blog post when the project is complete on Friday 29th of November.)

Some of the artists in Melbourne Now

Some of the artists in Melbourne Now

Finally with such a large collection of contemporary artists it is worth doing a bit of statistical examination: 56% of the artists are men, 44% are women and 11% identify as indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are well represented in the exhibition given that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics “Victoria had the lowest proportion of people of indigenous origin at 0.6% of the total state population”. I only counted individually named artists and not groups. Compared to statistical break down of the artists to be included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial with only 32% women and 7.6% artists of African descent (see Hyperallergic “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial”) Melbourne Now is very balanced and representative.


2Do @ An Art Museum

What do can you do in an art museum/gallery/institution besides look at art?

Some art museums are destination architecture – so you can look at the architecture and take a photo. The Guggenheim Museum in NYC started the trend of museums as destination architecture. The Guggenheim is an interesting experiment in art gallery design by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a real mutant but not one with successful progeny, in that no other galleries have followed this new and curvy design. There is a fountain on the ground floor, a blank white pool with a single jet. There are also planter boxes with green indoor plants on several of the floors. After a few levels it was a relief to walk on a flat floor again but by the 5th level my calves and ankles felt oddly stretched. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is landmark architecture by Frank Gerrey and the photogenic equal of the New York building. However its curvy design does not extend floor to ceiling and the galleries are basically the same as other art museums.

New Museum NYC

New Museum NYC

Buy an entry ticket. The tickets, this is often a necessity for the institution to have some income. Generally you get a ticket and often a little metal tags or sticker that you to put on your clothes.

Put your coat and bag in the cloakroom. The cloakroom is necessary for your comfort and gallery security.

Toilets Boston MFA

Toilets Boston MFA

Go to the toilet. A necessity but galleries have turned this into a design display. In the best art galleries in the world there are baby change facilities in the men’s toilets. I don’t know how many men take their babies to art galleries but the facilities are there for them in many of major museums.

Sit down. The seats are another necessity as people do need to rest their feet and can be in high demand. Seating also allows the viewer to look at the art for longer. This presents a problem for contemporary art installations where a seat in the gallery may be interpreted as part of the art.

Eat at the cafes. This might look like a side earner, but it is another necessity in large art museums that take at least a day to see. The Boston MFA and Louvre have several scattered around the gallery. The Vatican Museum has one of the worst museum café, as it is located directly above their new toilet block. Jeff Lee of Recent Items has a post about the Tate Modern’s café.

Read in a reading rooms or library. The reading rooms in contemporary art galleries reading rooms are likely to be digital, but hopefully in no way resembling MOMA’s “O” (see my post O No). The pod overlooking harbour at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art is cool, relaxing and informative.

Listen to music, musical performances are the most likely entertainment in an art gallery. Listening rooms, well I’ve been in one in a Neue National Galerie Museum in Berlin. The museum had a collection of music and headphones in a seating area, again very relaxing.

Play, mostly only for children, although adults can even play a boardgame in the reading room of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. There is a need for a dedicated children’s activities area for the younger visitors in major galleries.

Go to the Cinema. Tate Modern and a few other large galleries have cinemas with programmes co-ordinated with exhibitions.

Sketch. Sketching in US museums is encouraged. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum supplies pencils, paper and boards for sketching. The Frick Collection has regular sketching Sundays. This is in contrast to the NGV’s attitude to sketching (See no sketching).

And, in the words of Banksy, … exit through the gift shop.


Leaving the ‘70s

It is hard to express how dull the centre of Melbourne was in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1970s the Melbourne’s CBD was bleak and busy but only 9 to 5, after hours and on the weekends it was deserted. It was like John Brack’s painting, Collins Street at 5pm only with updated fashions. Then in the mid-1970s the property boom collapsed and this lead into the recession of the early 1980s where unemployment was over 10% for the first time since the Great Depression. As manufacturing declined people were leaving the state. Along with the economic decline came a physical decay of the city: abandoned factories, empty warehouses and neglected infrastructure.

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

The centre and inner suburbs were in trouble as people were abandoning them. Almost nobody lived in centre of Melbourne, the population had moved to the suburbs followed by the supermarkets, department stores and shopping malls and that threatened retail in the city centre.

Culturally Melbourne was a post-colonial backwater near the end of the earth. There was no art gallery scene, a few theatres and music venues. All there were was a lot of pubs, another fading relic of the gold rush a century before. Melbourne’s music scene took advantage of the surplus of pubs, leading to the Little Band scene and Melbourne’s artists found cheap spaces for studio.

Meanwhile successive state governments since the 1970s planning how to change the city from a post-industrial ghost town into a spectacle and event orientated city. A city that hosted major cultural events, festivals and other spectacles that would attract interstate and international tourists reviving the central city with hospitality and retail. It was not going to be an easy task. Melbourne did not have a signature building or a landmark, aside from the Yarra River. In 1979 there was a 1979 ‘Landmark Competition’ for Melbourne but nothing came of it. Melbourne would have to redevelop key inner city precincts, changing the city section by section. This is why the battle over Vault in the new Melbourne City Square was such an important battle.

Melbourne’s City Square marked the start of a redevelopment of the 19th century inner city. Originally no city in Victoria was designed with a civic square because the then Governor George Gipps didn’t like them believing that they encourage democracy. They certainly inhibited land sale revenue. Debate about the lack of a city square in Melbourne had started by the 1850s but nothing had been done because of cost and the fear of providing a gathering place for protesters. The idea of square was revived in the 1920s as part of civic beautification and a number of sites proposed but as the centre of the city had been completely built construction of the square would require demolition.  Finally in 1961, lead by Lord Mayor Sir Bernard Evans, who was a notable architect, the Melbourne City Council settled on a site. By 1968 the council had acquired all the properties and by 1974 they had all been demolished.

Melbourne City Square was only built when democracy was no longer seen as a threat by the government. Actually democracy was still seen as a threat, the City Square became a centre for demonstrations, including the Occupy Movement in 2011. It also quickly became the one of the original hang-out places for Melbourne’s emerging hip-hop scene attracted by the graffiti wall that was part of the original design and a record store.

Nick Ilton, Suggestion Box, Melbourne

Nick Ilton, Suggestion Box, Melbourne

Meanwhile, Melbourne’s inner city suburbs were facing their own battle to survive in a post-industrial city. They needed to reinvent their identity on a far more limited budget; artists and other culture workers became the storm trooper for real estate, establishing toe-holds in the inner city suburbs. The infusion of ‘trendy’ culture helped drive up retail rental on the shopping strips and real estate prices.

Melbourne is now an international cultural centre and tourist destination. It has an almost complete calendar of festivals and major cultural events. The city is full of spectacles including temporary sculptures and an endlessly changing display of graffiti and street art. If you think that current circus of a city is bad then consider the alternative, that Melbourne would have become Australia’s Detroit.


An Expensive Identity

The Australian government is spending $140m-plus for the WWI centenary, compared to the British government spending £55m ($94m) Paul Daley reported in The Guardian (15/10/2013).

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

War memorials are a very important part of constructing a national identity for Australia. They stand as demonstrations of loyalty to the Empire, the British or the American empires. Australia defined its national identity by the wars where Australian troops served and were identified as Australians. The first war that Australian colonial soldiers fought and died in was the Boer War and there are many monuments in Melbourne to the Boer War, or as the Brunswick memorial refers to it as the “South African War”. The first war memorial constructed in Melbourne was the monument to the 5th Victorian Contingent in 1903, a gothic revival style shrine by architects George de Lacy Evans and sculptor Joseph Hamilton.

Initially the construction of these memorials is understandable. As the Australian troops who fought in the Boer War and First World War were buried where they died their immediate families in Australia had nowhere to grieve. There are many war memorials scattered around Melbourne and its suburbs frequently with a statue of a soldier on top of them. There are so many local war memorials that a law was passed in 1916 to control their numbers.

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Canada's WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Canada’s WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is huge. It is far larger than other British colony’s war memorials, except for the later constructed Australian War Memorial in Canberra that combines a shrine, a museum, and an extensive archive. The Shrine of Remembrance dwarfs the Canadian war memorial in Ottawa. The Shrine was built between 1927-1934; paid for largely with public donations, although the Victorian and Commonwealth government did make some contributions. General Monash was the driving force behind the Shrine and its status; his background in civic engineering finding expression in this enormous quasi-religious area of the city that has become dedicated to memorials to Australian soldiers and campaigns.

WWI created a rupture in funerary conventions in Europe and America with the accumulating memorials overwhelmed people. “Whereas around the turn of the century full-length figures were far the most popular, after 1914, and in line with growing nerves about statuemania, busts assume the lead.” [Penelope Curtis, Sculpture 1900-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999, Oxford) p.43] But it did not slow the production of statues in Australia. Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867-1925) made a total of 9 WWI memorials, more than any other Australian sculptor.

The present fervour for war memorials and ‘Anzackery’ is because there is almost nothing that unites Australia. It is populated by disposed aboriginal tribes, exiled convicts, British colonists and post WWII immigrants from around the world. Australia it is not united by race, language, religion or any ideals. There is no Australian dreaming.

There has always been very limited social cohesion in Australia (in WWII fearing invasion by the Japanese separate trenches were dug in Swan Hill by the Catholic and Protestants that faced each other). Australia is simply an artificial construct of British law that exists as a client state for the benefit of the Anglo-American empires, so the sacrifice of Australia young men for these foreign causes is very important to Australia’s national identity. This limited social cohesion is reflected in Melbourne’s public sculptures (see my post Heroes of Every Nation).

This explains the investment in making these wars and battles a central element of Australian identity. And as uncertainty grows about what these memorials mean to the collective consciousness of Melbourne more didactic plaques and visitor centres has been added. A recent addition to the art deco Boer War Memorial by Irwin and Stevenson is a large bronze plaque with low relief figures and text to explain Australian involvement in this colonial war in South Africa. The addition of this didactic plaque demonstrates the uncertainty of this monument’s meaning in the 21st century.

Lest we forget the conscientious objectors, the pacifists and the traumatized soldiers who were shot for cowardice by the British Army, those dying in the most brutal of wars so that British imperial forces to murder civilians around the world, Kurds, Indians, Irish, so that Bertrand Russel could be jailed by the British for writing that American army was very good at breaking strikes. Of course none of this will be remembered in Australia’s orgy of commemorations of the centennial of WWI. What is the cost of this national identity?


Drive Time Sculpture & Architecture

The international style of freeway design makes all the roads in the world look the same but Melbourne’s freeways no longer look like Jeffrey Smart’s modern and utilitarian Cahill Expressway. There are sculptures that can really only be seen from a car in Melbourne – EastLink Freeway has a $5.5 million public art collection.

Driving through Melbourne there is DCM’s City Gateway in Flemington with its a reference to the Vault. The big yellow beam at the start of the freeway is better known by other nicknames – “the cheese stick”. DCM is a Melbourne firm specializing in architecture and urban design and their work can be seen all over Melbourne from the new visitors centre at the Shrine of Remembrance to the Web Bridge in Docklands.

Noise reduction walls along the freeways have become works of architectural design. Wood Marsh, with Pels Innes and Nielson Kosloff, designed the noise reduction walls along the Eastern Freeway Extension in 1997. Other noise reduction walls designed by architects are the Geelong Road Noise Walls and the Bypass Soundwalls.

There is also the Craigieburn Bypass a giant rust-red corten steel arc sweeps across the freeway to create a grand visual gateway into northern Melbourne. This freeway sculpture consists of three long sculptural sound walls punctuated by a pedestrian bridge. Architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer in collaboration with landscape architecture firm Taylor Cullity Lethlean and artist Robert Owen designed the Craigieburn Bypass.

The speed at which the view passes the sculpture was assumed to be walking pace but the modern viewer in a car travels much faster, so the sculptures have to be huge, engaging but not too distracting. I don’t drive a car, I ride a bicycle and the only sculpture that I see from that is Simon Perry’s Rolled Path or the MoreArts exhibition and generally I stop my bike, so I see sculptures at walking pace. Consequently I haven’t actually seen the sculpture along EastLink (can I do it with Google Maps?).

Lisa Young, Island Wave, 2003, Melbourne

Lisa Young, Island Wave, 2003, Melbourne

A traffic sculpture that I have seen is in the round about at the corner of Franklin and Queen streets – Island Wave (2003) by Lisa Young. It is a repeating series of white painted steel shapes following the perimeter of the round about. Each of the steel shapes repeats the form of a stylised cross section of a wave about to break. The steel sculpture on concrete footing was fabricated by Gilbro Engineering and installed by Famous Constructions.

The linear sculpture parks along  EastLink in Melbourne’s outer Eastern suburbs. It features four major works by notable Australian artists. In addition to these major artworks, ConnectEast also funded a collection of smaller scale pieces located along the EastLink Trail for the enjoyment of cyclists and walkers, like me.

Elipsoidal Freeway Sculpture by James Angus is between Wellington Rd and Corhanwarrabul Creek. 24 green, blue and white coloured modular ellipsoids of varying sizes cover a distance of 36 metres.

Public Art Strategy by Emily Floyd is a giant painted steel blackbird overlooking a yellow worm. It is located between Cheltenham Road and the Dandenong Bypass. The giant children’s toy image is typical of Floyd’s work as an artist, Emily Floyd Signature Work (Rabbit), 2004 a large black painted aluminium toy rabbit on Waterview Walk in the Docklands. At 13 metres high, 19 metres long hers is the smallest of sculptures along the EastLink Trail.

Hotel by Callum Morton is between Greens Road and Bangholme road. Callum Morton, an RMIT alumnus, represented Australia at the 2007 Venice Biennale and his art is about architecture (“how space is experienced in built environments”). Hotel is a large-scale model of a bland high-rise modern hotel and some of its windows are lit at night with solar power.

Resembling a fallen tree or tower of galvanized steel plate along the side of the motorway. Desiring Machine by Simeon Nelson is next to EastLink south of Thompson Road, near Boundary-Colman’s Road. This is not Nelson’s only sculpture designed for a roadside there is his The M4 Freeway Commission, Sydney 2000.

(See The Age from 2007 on the Eastlink sculptures.)


Art Architecture @ fortyfivedownstairs

Stephen Nova “The Architectural Uncanny” and Dayne Trower “External Walls” at fortyfivedownstairs are two exhibitions that combine art and architecture. Art about architecture and architectural models as art are not unusual but that is because the subject is so important to us.

In the side gallery is Dayne Trower, a graduate of RMIT of Architectural Design, “External Walls”. “External Walls” is 24 almost identical plywood objects in wooden frames. I didn’t think at first that I would enjoy this minimalist work but Trower’s small models of external walls and stairs have methodical variations and alternatives to a defined site that work in a pleasing narrative sequence. “Put together as a whole, the sequence also presents an argument for an approach to architecture and a way of building.”

In the main gallery “The Architectural Uncanny” features five large works on paper in various media and seven large oil paintings on canvas by Stephen Nova.

The suburban house is a psychic icon, or as Nova describes them, in the title of one of his paintings, “The Memory Cathedral”. And Nova explores the inherent surrealism in these sombulist dormitory suburbs.

Nova depicts his architecture on a featureless tabletop or stage set, the atomistic nowhere of the suburbs. Combined with toys and other things Nova’s images are reassuring paintings of models of houses, often under construction and not inhabited. They are imaginary architectural models or architecture as child’s play.

The traditional imaginary home is surrounded by the white picket fence but what is underneath the artificial landscape of suburbia? Along with the comforting familiarity there is a threatening uncertain element to Nova’s images. In “House and Garden (See/Saw)” a diving board off the back porch leads to a trapeze bar, both suspended above a hedge maze. This hint of menace is part of the current tradition of the portrayals of uncanny suburbs.

(For more and photos of these two exhibitions see Habitus Living.)


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