Tag Archives: architecture

Pentridge Rehabilitated

Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated. Pentridge Prison was built in 1850 to cope with the over crowded Melbourne Gaol and the prison hulks in Port Phillip Bay. The prison closed on the 1st May 1997; wreaking historian Richard Broome’s 1987 prediction that the “it is likely to last another 136 years.” Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987)

Penal history is a major feature of Australian colonial history and Pentridge Prison is the gravesite of Australia’s most famous folk hero/outlaw, Ned Kelly. Although some Australians take pride in a convict past the residents of Coburg didn’t and repeatedly called for the removal of the prison. Pentridge Prison haunted the upwardly mobile aspirations of the homeowners and residents of Coburg for generations. The city changed its name attempting to disassociate the city from the prison. Now Coburg won’t be forgetting Pentridge with parts of the prison now being classified for its heritage value and other parts being replaced by a slowing growing housing estate. The rehabilitation of the former Pentridge Prison into Pentridge Village has slowly progressing for several years.

I am not interested in spruiking the real estate; I am interested in the cultural issues of this urban redevelopment. I am interested in the mix of historic, residential and retail that the transformation includes. At least Pentridge Village is not another anonymous housing estate or apartment block; there is plenty of the prison’s character preserved and the new residents won’t forget the history of the place. This is not to suggest that the architecture of a 19th Century prison does not have its charm or that the new flats and apartments look like a prison. The better bluestone construction has been preserved; the granite “bluestone” was mostly quarried, cut and built by prison labour (except for the external walls for obvious reasons). Barred windows, old signs and other features are being preserved as the prison is being rehabilitated. Some streets have been named after part of the prison like “Warden’s Walk” but others are just bizarre property development words.

Pentridge Village does feature some new innovations; Warden’s Walk utilizes permeable paving to capture of storm-water runoff.  The storm-water harvesting and reuse (I saw some enormous water tanks) is used, in part, to water the extensive rose bush planting as a symbolic reference to the past (the prisoners maintained a rose garden within the prison as well as poetic reference). Some of Pentridge is still a building site and wasteland and in other parts residents have been living there for years. The spaces for shops and businesses are still vacant except for one restaurant. Although the heritage space has been used for fashion shows and old cells transformed in to boutique wine cellars according to Style Melbourne.

Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living very close to the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed. The escape proof Jika Jika Unit that looked like Space Station Despair has been demolished; although the architects could build on the nostalgic ambiance of the 19th Century parts of the prison, the modern penal architecture of the Jika Jika Unit could never be reformed.

Pentridge Prison, Coburg

The historic entrance and other parts of the historic precinct of the old Pentridge Prison are yet to be rehabilitated. The front of the prison still stands looking abandoned with heritage issues yet to be resolved. There are no statues yet in this redevelopment and the front of the prison definitely needs a suitable statue that is sensitive to the history without being mawkish. (For information on the art of prisoners see my post about Prison Art @ Pentridge)

Perhaps saying that Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated is going too far; it scrubs up well and has taken significant steps to reform its character but it is still a work in progress.


Oddities of Melbourne

Melbourne has Gothic Revival, Moorish Revival, Romanesque Revival and Venetian Renaissance Revival architecture and a Model Tudor Village. The end of the 19th century was so into retro revivals they make current retro styles appear prospective. And Melbourne is a place where the king tide of the eclectic architectural revivals of the 19th Century washed up. The round arches, belt courses of stone or brick are all features of Romanesque revival but Melbourne’s Romanesque revival has more decorative brick and tile work than it’s American counterparts. The architectural revivals tended to be more exuberant because there was still money from the Victorian gold rush around. Maybe this excess is one of the reasons why Melbourne was known as “marvellous Melbourne.”

Victorian Artists Society - Romanesque Revival building

I was standing around in the stucco covered foyer of the Forum Theatre in Melbourne after the Tripod show last year. The whole place, inside and out, is covered in this over the top, eclectic collection of styles from the faux Renaissance interior to the over the top Moorish Revival exterior. Amongst all this stucco there are plaster casts of classical sculpture from the Uffizi, Naples Museum and other Italian collections. These copies of statues were included in the original 1929 décor to contribute their aura of classical quality to the then new media of cinema. Unfortunately the plaster sculptures are now covered in a thick layer of acrylic paint.

It made me think what are the other art and architectural oddities there are around Melbourne. The typical list came to mind: Ola Cohn’s “Fairy Tree” in Fitzroy Gardens, William Ricketts Sanctuary in the Dandenongs, with its Australian romanticism carvings.

Model Tudor village in Fitzroy Gardens

Fitzroy Gardens is full of art and architectural oddities: there is Model Tudor Village, Captain Cook’s cottage transplanted from England and Ola Cohn’s Fairy Tree. The Model Tudor village – this is from another era when model villages were considered legitimate garden decoration. It is part of Australia’s colonial longing for England; even if it was represented in miniature scale.

detail Ola Cohn, "Fairy Tree" 1931-4

Melbourne sculpture, Ola Cohn carved her “Fairy Tree” between 1931-4. I have some sympathy with the fairy art obsession of the late 19th and early 20th century because of its respect for nature; Ola Cohn declares the place sacred “to all living creatures” on the inscription bronze plaque beside the tree. The tree is carved with images of Australian native fauna but all the fairies are European.

These things did not start life as oddities, they were intended to be mainstream even progressive, but the future expected by their creators didn’t happen and they now look oddly out of place. They have been caught in time lags and other psycho-temporal eddies and whirlpools such that their existence now appears disjointed from reality, the detritus of history washed ashore in Melbourne. They are not simply curiosities, these oddities demonstrates particular but irrelevant features of Melbourne’s past. But what do we do with these odd monsters? Hide them, ignore them and hope that they will go away or conserve these unsuccessful mutants?


Design City Melbourne

After being driven down Melbourne’s freeways, looking at the varied textures of the sound barriers and the variety of pedestrian bridges, they are an impressive design statement. I don’t drive so I don’t see this aspect of Melbourne’s design in my daily life – unlike the freeways Melbourne’s public transport is not a designed environment. Thinking about Melbourne’s architecture and design lead me to borrow Leon Van Schaik Design City Melbourne (Wiley-Academy, 2006, England) from Coburg Library.

The author, Leon Van Schaik AO (Order of Australia) is the Innovation Professor of Architecture at RMIT. He was involved with Melbourne’s architectural revival, especially at the RMIT campus. He knows his subject is a strong advocate for design and architectural innovation. However, this insider status both helps and hinders the book.

At first I was not sure what Van Schaik means by “design city”. Not a designed city, like Canberra, but rather a city that encourages design – a centre for design. Van Schaik describes the complex and dynamic system of architecture and design in Melbourne. He investigates the modes of cultural production (art, jewellery, fashion, furniture design, graphic design) in relationship their to architecture. There are lots of interesting ideas and facts in the book. He even attempts to resolve the disconnection between Melbourne’s design culture and sports culture with stories of footballers turned designers (Sean Godsell and Greg Burgess) and in other passing references.

Unfortunately the text is almost unreadable, it rambles and the ideas are buried and obscured by poor editing. It appears that Van Schaik is too close to his subject to effectively organize the material in this book. I don’t know how much any of the 3 editors for the book is responsible for allowing this messy content to be published. The “Content Editor”, Louise Porter has certainly not done her job. “Much of the buildings are buried below grade.” (p.53) (Should that be “ground”?) If the content of this book were a blog then it would be on my blogroll but I expect something better, more considered and edited from a print publication.

Another contributing problem to the quality authorship, along with a problem with the editors, is a lack of decent unbiased criticism. (The demands of academic tenure tracking may have also required a hasty publication.) The insider nature of the book means that when it was reviewed in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper (April 4, 2006) it was by Norman Day, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT – a colleague of the author who gave the book a glowing review. The whole book reeks of this kind of nepotism and it reduces Van Schaik’s vision of a complex system contributing to a design culture to a club.

Photography by John Gollings is a major feature of this publication and without it the book would be significantly less intelligible.


Viva Brizvegas

Readers may be aware from my last two entries that I have just returned from Brisbane, or Brizvegas as it is called. “Brizvegas” was first used in print in a 1996 edition of the Courier Mail in reference to the opening of the new casino and the popularization of poker machines in Brisbane’s bars and clubs. The commercial sex of Fortitude Valley sits alongside the art galleries, bars, cafes and discount clothing stores.

I only go to Brisbane, Queensland when accompanying my wife, Catherine to her conferences. When she at her conference I fill in the day looking at art and photographing street art. There is not a lot of joy for a tourist interested in art in Brisbane. You could fill in a day if you went to all the major galleries on the South Bank. If you were really determined and wanted to see galleries for a second day, you could see all the galleries in Fortitude Valley along with the street art. Catch a train to South Bank station and see the gallery at Queensland College of Arts (QCA) and walk across the Goodwill footbridge across the river to the Queensland University of Technology Art Gallery. I was fortunate – at the QCA Gallery there was an exhibition of Juan Davila’s work on paper – Graphic!. I managed to stretch this out to three days by repeat trips to GoMA and looking at the exhibitions at the Queensland Centre for Photography and Jan Manton Art.

Street art in Fortitude Valley

Street art in Fortitude Valley

The street art in Brisbane is mostly in Fortitude Valley and mostly in the form of stickers. There are stickers on the back of every street sign along the street. Stencil art is still strong in Brisbane’s street art scene and I recognized several artists, Mzcry and ZKLR from my work with the Melbourne Stencil Festival.

I had dinner in the West End with my old housemate Ben. Ben recommended dinner at the 3 Monkey’s. Ben had the lasagne, Catherine had the haloumi platter with pita bread and Greek salad, and I had a gourmet pizza. Ben and I both had a slice of cake for desert. Looking back it was amongst the best food that I had in Brisbane. The food on the South Bank was mostly over priced rubbish in small portions. Surprisingly the other good food was at the conference dinner. It was very good but not as good as the after dinner speech by writer Nick Earls. He was excellent and the perfect dinner speaker for a conference of medical librarians from around the world.

Stefen's Skytower

Stefen's Skyneedle

But I digress and I want to return to Brisbane’s West End. Brisbane is a small city where a flamboyant hairdresser can still make a big impact. Stefan’s Skyneedle is the largest gay erection in Brisvegas – a piece of fantastic, pointless architecture in Brisbane’s West End. At night the globe flashes with light, multi-coloured fluorescent tubes make patterns and spotlights span the sky – it is quite a show. The Skyneedle is an 88m tower that was constructed for the World Expo ’88. At the end of Expo’88 hairdresser Stefan Ackerie bought the Skyneedle and moved it to his company’s headquarters in the West End. It had another sculpture in the car park when I visited.  Massive blocks of unfinished white marble form the plinth for a marble Janus eyes, that looks both ways.

Stefen's Eye

Stefen's Eye

The base around the Skyneedle is derelict. There are improvised stairs going up to its tiled hexagon base. Underneath the brass awning/collar is a wooden box painted silver enclosing the base of the tower with a locked door. The light show must be on automatic, as it didn’t look like the door was unlocked frequently.

Base of Skyneedle

Base of Skyneedle

Brisvegas appears like a left-over; a left-over from the expo, the capital city of a former tropical fascist state on the mend, a work in progress with footpaths closed for building works. However, I did also see some great new public libraries in Brisbane with beautiful architectural design, so there is reason to hope for Brisvegas.


Street Art & Architecture

Street art considers the aesthetics of the urban landscape. The modernist shunning of decoration in preference for raw unadorned planes has been rejected and decoration has been embraced again. The modernist architectural raw concrete planes have become surfaces to spray paint.

Melbourne artist Jay Walker’s  street inspired aerosol art was combined with gardening in Rick Eckersley’s gold medal Small Garden at the 2008 Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show. (Australian House & Garden, May, 2008) Jay Walker’s curvy abstract aerosol work in a restrained palette of browns is the backdrop for a small formal garden. Jay Walker specialize in creating pieces that fit into architecture, providing that street inspired wall for the stylish contemporary home. The use of street inspired aerosol art in architectural or garden design is a natural progression as street art is a response to urban architecture.

Street artists respond to the found architecture of the location, sometime with very creative results. This is, in contemporary art terms, ‘site specific art’, as opposed to art that can be moved from site to site. There are pieces that comment on their location, like the figure of Batman opposite Batman station, or images of trains beside a train line. There are pieces that respond to the architecture. Painted door flamesDoors, especially the roller-shutters used by shops for security, are an obvious location because doors frame a piece and, in the case of roller-shutters can be rolled away. This creates differences between the after-hours and opening hours look of many locations, like Centre Place in Melbourne’s CBD. Other architectural divisions in buildings are used to divide and frame different pieces of aerosol art.

CollingwoodStreet art forces the personal into the modern planned urban landscape that has no place for the individual human. The bodies that these spaces are created for are corporations and not humans. So some of the city looks like it was designed by daleks and cylons, alien constructions of steel, glass and concrete. Street art attempts to humanize this modern alien environment by appropriating it and decorating it.

Here are some more examples of street art responding to architecture around Melbourne.

Wave wall
Maxcat Brunswick

DSC04487


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