Farewell Steve

Steve jobs launching the ipad

He was, by all accounts, driven, uncompromising and difficult to work with. Still, he did some cool stuff. I have to confess to being a Mac Tragic. I use Mac products for work and for personal stuff. At last count I have owned about 9 iMacs/MacPros/Macbooks/Macbook Pros of various vintage, and a range of iPads, iPods and iPhones. I still have four iPods in current use, including a Classic with everything on it, and an older nano that lives in my car and talks to my car stereo. This post was written on a 27 inch iMac, and chances are you are reading it on a Mac.

Yes, Apple has made its mark, and I have personally contributed an uncomfortable amount to Steve's estate. Not that I hold a grudge about that. So, anyway, thanks Steve - glad you could make it to planet Earth. Sorry you had to leave so soon.

On the steps of Bundoora Homestead, 1905

Smith Family, on the steps of Bundoora Homestead circa 1905

I found this image in our archive, we got hold of it when we renovated Bundoora Homestead, and it always struck me as a haunting photograph. The Homestead has a sad history in a way, it was only lived in as a house for a short period, following which it was converted into a repatriation hospital for shell-shocked WWI veterans. It later became a mental hospital, but some of the diggers who took up residence there during World War One lived there for the remainder of their lives, and at least one was still in residence in the 1980's.  This photograph is reportedly of the Smith Family, the original inhabitants of the Homestead. My new header at the top of the website - showing the vintage car - was also taken at the Homestead around 1905.

Melbourne, Venice and the shop window

The first thing you might notice about the Melbourne General Post Office is that it is no longer a post office. It has been adapted by my firm, Williams Boag Architects, to create an historic and aesthetically pleasing, upscale shopping centre. The former postal hall was an ideal vessel for the creation of large retail space, and the delicate glass boxes that intrude into the room do not distract from its primary shape and volume.

One thing that I have noticed about the GPO, as it is called, is that it is not similar to the buildings framing Piazza San Marco in Venice in many respects, and yet there is a thread of something linking the two. The impression is fleeting, and primarily a consequence of the arched colonnade that extends along Elizabeth Street, wrapping around the southern end of the building alongside Bourke Street. There is a cafe under the colonnade, and when I have the time I like to sit beneath the arches on the little padded benches provided, pretending that I am in a far older city with a far greater appeal to the imagination than Melbourne can currently provide.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am not entirely dismissive of Melbourne's charms, and its history is both convoluted and fascinating, not without its share of chiaroscuro and drama. The night the GPO burnt down in 2000 was one such moment. Nevertheless I find myself acutely aware that Melbourne is not Venice, nor Florence, nor Rome; also, I am defiantly unwilling to abandon the wish that Melbourne was like these places in some ways, despite the Euro-centric view being so unfashionable right now.

Melbourne is not an Asian city in urban terms: it is patterned on a western new-world model, and defined in its bones by western architecture. While the current building frenzy carries a whisper of the east, the critical mass and sheer volume of activity is not there, and the patterns of the City are still primarily European.

As a city with mixed cultural and social, but strongly European physical history, I have a strong desire for this City to be more than it is. Not more than it was, perhaps, but more than it is now. Venice's greatest quality is that despite the glare and noise of relentless tourist inundation, it still maintains its shadows. La Serenissima endured for nearly a thousand years and its carapace is still with us; across such a time things begin to build up, and time and gravity conspire to settle the dust and darkness that would otherwise be kicked up by the garish process of destruction and renewal you see in less mature cities. Less mature cities like Melbourne, for example.

I once spoke to a Dutch man who had moved to Melbourne as an adult, and he didn't understand the constant destruction of buildings and their replacement with new buildings of approximately the same purpose, which are then stripped out in a decade or less to begin the process again. He didn't understand this passion for building and novelty, and having stayed in Amsterdam I can understand his point of view.

Little of what is built here has time to endure, but of course in some ways this is not such a bad thing. The thought that future generations might have to live with much of what we are constructing now inspires sadness and horror in equal measure. Fortunately there is a disposability to much contemporary construction, which is either hollow at its core or made flimsy in its superficial finish or appendages. It is fashionable to embrace this, to work with the depthless surface and celebrate life lived millimetres deep, rather than to see it as a deficit. Unfortunately enough for me, I have returned to the point where once again I perceive a building that is 'all surface' to be merely superficial: inessential and of little enduring consequence or substance.

This surface quality is not to be confused with lightness, a different beast altogether, and one that can be imparted to a block of marble by a skilled enough artisan. I know a man who carved a block of marble to appear as if it had a silk sheet draped over it. Interestingly enough, he carved the sculpture in residence in Rome. This kind of lightness, one of Calvino's six memos for the new millennium, is all about weight - the absence, the defiance of or the proximity to a great weight. Something is joyously light as a counterpoint to its alternative, which is the crushing weight of death. Everything built of lightness has weight in its shadows.

Of all the Australian designers working today, Amanda Henderson of Gloss Creative is one of a very small group who intuitively understands this, and her work is exciting to me. Gloss Creative works in the medium of lightness and not superficiality, designing things as ephemeral as 'brand experiences', which is a jargonistic way of saying three-dimensional shop displays and spaces for events. Catwalks, Race Day marquees and shop displays are all regular gigs.

On first consideration these kinds of projects would appear to be the very quintessence of the superficial, the epitome of what I decry above. In fact, a curious inversion occurs where the temporary nature of each Gloss project liberates the work from the responsibility of carrying social or cultural weight for any but the shortest length of time. It lives for its alotted time, and the time expires. At the end of that period, during which the work stands up more than well, up to 95% of the physical substance is recycled into new projects or uses, and the work is left as but a shared memory.

It comes, you see it, it conquers, and then it's gone.

Many architects are designing buildings as if they were 'brand experiences', and denying the fact that a building is a building and part of the city, not a prop or foile for an experience. My argument is simple: many 'leading' architects seem to be trying to pull off the kind of show-stopping brilliance that Henderson can pack into a single window display in a seemingly effortless fashion, but as their medium is architecture the desire is misplaced. The results are heavy, witless and laboured as examples of visual merchandising, and superficial and disposable as examples of architecture. In short, the worst of both worlds.

If our city is constantly rebuilding and never maturing, the deep shadows that make life so fascinating in the world's greatest cities may never find a place to settle here. We will be the poorer for it, but at least, thanks to Amanda Henderson and her team, the shop windows will be worth the visit.

Thinking by the Bay

The ladies of DImmeys at the beach at Sandringham, 1911 Dimmeys ladies on the beach at Sandringham, 1911

Some things are hard to explain. In fact, some things are so difficult to explain that they rarely get explained in any but the most cursory, conversational setting. I was thinking about my freelance journalism gig the other day, and it occurred to me that to explain something that is subtle, nuanced and complex is much easier than explaining something ordinary or mundane. Nuance demands elaboration: the mundane does not. This can place the reader or listener in a situation where they may misunderstand an explanation simply because it is so surprising that the attempt to explain is being made in the first place.

Which is all a little abstract, so let me give you an example. On the weekend I was driving along the edge of Port Phillip Bay heading south from St Kilda. To the west the sun was setting over the Bay. To the east we skirted the edge of the popular beachside suburbs, zipping past a seemingly endless march of bloated, oversized and poorly styled houses facing out across the water, directly into the setting sun. Periodically we would pass an old hotel, an intrinsically fine building that had been renovated (but not restored) to within an inch of its life. It was these historic hotels, embalmed in acrylic paint and ugly signage, that first put me in mind of this difficulty of describing the mundane.

The work done on the hotels is almost unfailingly bad. This is immediately apparent to the trained observer. However, explaining why they are bad to a lay person is by no means an easy task. After all, they are ‘nice’ and in excellent condition, they have obviously had money spent on them, and they are undoubtedly genuine establishments - bona fide hotels, alcohol, bottle-shops and all - just as they were when they were first built. Nevertheless, there is something very wrong with nearly all of them, and it wouldn’t matter except that the buildings beneath the gloss are often conspicuously grand and fine, and in excellent locations.

Why bother trying to explain this to the lay person at all, you might ask? That is an interesting question. I do not subscribe to some tedious ideological position that sees information or knowledge as some Protestant ‘good’ to be foisted on people for their ‘own good’. The Australian Institute of Architects might beat the drum of ‘public education’, but I am not a sandwich board and really can’t be bothered, on the whole. However, explaining design-related things to non-designers, particularly intelligent ones, is an excellent discipline as it requires skill, clarity and precision to make the point. It also requires that you abandon your reliance on jargon - that strange verbal shorthand used (abused) by ‘communities of practice’ who share a common education, field or technique. Specialists, in other words.

Speaking about architects, amongst whom I spend most of my professional life, I have observed that in most cases jargon is not used to streamline communication so that the professional exchange can ascend to a higher level in a shorter time - as one might hope. Jargon is used by architects as a method of indefinitely suspending their disbelief in the face of claims and concepts that lack rigour, lack precision, remain untested and can be, frankly, unbelievable if rendered in plain speech. In other words, the waffling architect is prone to believing their own gobbledygook. However, in order to do so, he or she must continue to speak in tongues at all times, and never condescend to answer the simplest of questions, useful in almost all cases when an architect has just finished stating an idea with conviction: ‘what do you mean by that? ‘

The other use of the lay-person as recipient of an explanation is that it draws out the obvious. Things that are obvious to a designer usually are not obvious to non-designers, and to state the obvious is an excellent start to an explanation of complex matters. ‘Obvious’ is misplaced in this usage at any rate; what we really mean by ‘obvious’ is ‘assumed to be so on the basis of self-evidence’, with an educated specialist doing the 'assuming'. A funny thing happens when you state your assumptions: suddenly they don’t seem so ‘obvious’ after all. At least I assume this to be the case, as it is precisely what I experience when I state the obvious in the face of a design problem. Is this a shared experience?

In my design journalism I like to adopt the expectation of an intelligent, non-specialist reader as the gold standard. The main result of this approach is not merely a prohibition of jargon: it forces me to make a fundamental shift in my thinking. Ultimately it is a personal judgement, but I don't think that most intelligent non-specialist readers have much interest in the things that specialists focus on. As specialists we need to notice this, as despite our undeniably impressive bodies of knowledge, we continue to focus energy on things that have little or no resonance with the lay person. The perceived 'ugliness' and 'unfriendly' aspect of many architect-designed buildings is one such area. Architects do not discuss this, and the unspoken assumption seems to be that if 'they' were better educated, and had cultivated 'their' taste above the common denominator, then 'they' would 'get it'.

Is that so. I have long suspected that architects of the third millennium avoid decoration, complicated, florid detail and legible rooflines so much - because they do avoid them - because they involve risk, and a visual composition that incorporates complexity is so much harder to control than monolithic, minimalist simplicity. Both are equally hard to do well, but only one of the two is easy to do inoffensively well.

I wonder what the ladies of Dimmeys, the venerable Melbourne department store, shown here on the beach at Sandringham in 1911, would have thought of the post-millennial renovations of the nearby hotels? How would they have seen the stripping out of detail, the dismantling of the complicated rooflines, the removal of polychrome colour schemes in favour of monolithic blocks of colour, and the obsessive sealing of the verandahs with impenetrable sheets of glass, all in the interests of replicating the bland, air-conditioned uniformity of the rooms within? Isn't the whole point of a verandah to be taking the outside air, and yet with some of the comforts of a room - a good chair, a side table for your Pimms and lemonade? Apparently this is no longer the case.

Many architects reading this should probably disregard what I say, although they certainly won't wait for my permission or encouragement to do so. If not they might find themselves designing buildings that their grandmothers could relate to - and that, surely, would signify that the taste war has finally been lost.

Wouldn't it?