Distance in Australia

A comparable journey by the kilometre, if not by the hour

Distance is a strange thing, relatively speaking. Today I travelled the geographic equivalent of a trip from Edinburgh to Plymouth, although the trip from Melbourne to Canberra takes approximately half the time. I just wanted to point out that the density of western history between Edinburgh and Plymouth is infinitely greater than that between Melbourne and Canberra. Somehow, it is more difficult for me to fathom the 40,000 plus years of human occupation I crossed today, whereas 2,000 years of history in England and Scotland is far less opaque. I think this is a personal failing, but it is not only that. Something else is going on, something about the differences between oral and written histories, and between the marking of time and distance in the cultural west as compared to that of the aboriginal cultures that were so rudely displaced by the cartesian division of Australia. That's a lot to get out of seven hours of uneventful driving, but still, it makes you think.



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.

When seeing is doing

The Laws of Attraction 1: Pantheon

The Laws of Attraction 2: Lyttleton Harbour

I have been thinking about something that connects both of these images. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these two photographs are depictions of the same phenomena. This is a discussion about a personal experience, or perception: it may not be universal, but it is certainly shared.

One photograph is of Lyttleton Harbour in New Zealand, on the outskirts of Christchurch, as seen from the balcony of a small house. The other is of the Pantheon in Rome. More precisely, it is a photograph taken from the western side of the Pantheon looking over the crowds in the Piazza della Rotonda, who have been drawn to the building like metal filings to a magnet.

That's a clue to what I am talking about. The Pantheon generates a field of attraction - both as an idea, or a story, and as a building. People flock to see it, undoubtedly for a host of sensible reasons: it is so intact, and it is such a fine, direct and unequivocal public building. That might explain why people travel to see it.

It does not explain why the space of the Piazza is so charged, and that people feel compelled to just sit there in the building's presence. People drink coffee and beer, and consume pasta and pizza, in the presence of this building. Such things happen in other piazza(s), for sure - but there is a palpable sense of moment surrounding the Pantheon, similar to the atmosphere of anticipation in a theatre when the crowd is building and the house lights are still up. People sit in front of the building, doing something or nothing. The dependability of this behaviour is unquestionable, and the individual is part of the whole; something is happening.

Then there is Lyttleton Harbour. The working dock shown in the distance, there at the water's edge, exerted a familiar field of attraction on my recent visit. I felt that I could be perfectly satisfied just watching it as the light changed, and much like the cafés around the Pantheon, the houses on the hill are all oriented towards it.

Here's the thing: what is it about these two situations that is able to cut through the jaded, stuporous gaze of the contemporary viewer or tourist with such a potent charge? I am speaking of myself, of course. I am drowning in visual and other sensory stimulation, and yet both of these two situations exerted an influence over me that was almost mesmeric: a sense that to look was to be a part of something happening, that to be looking was to be doing.

What does this mean? I am not sure, but it is there, deep in my gut: the same thing is happening in both photos. I will write about this again, and perhaps speculate as to why architects and other designers expect the 'Pantheon effect' to hold true with every individual work, despite the fact that this obviously cannot be the case.

But if we don't aim to create a mesmerised, enraptured viewer for our design work, what do we aim for? I think it matters. Let me know what you think.

On aesthetic transgression

Why would you not illustrate a jazz festival with a certain aesthetic? Why wouldn't you use a conservative 'American country club' serif font in gilt, with mahogany highlights, to illustrate a jazz festival? I don't mean an ironic aesthetic, but the real thing - uptight and frankly bad. Why wouldn't you do this, and what would happen if you did? I will come back to that last question.

I am interested in the aesthetic 'force fields' connected to cultural forms, or for that matter any kind of activity...systems of aesthetic orthodoxy, at the edges of which we find the limits of acceptability and the point where the apparent aesthetic permissiveness of the genre or practice is shown to be anything but. The vigour with which such system are protected against 'corruption'.

We can look back in time and think of the Futurists or the first Bauhaus students as idealistic and in some way understand their zealous protection of an aesthetic objective. Somehow I understand, and I sympathise. More than this, I 'get it' visually - I instinctively know when something is 'not Bauhaus-like', even if such a thing is absolutely impossible to define, and I might in fact get it completely wrong. Still, I know that there is a syntax and a system, and that there are rules that extend well beyond the visual or aesthetic. These rules are social and cultural as much as they are aesthetic, in fact.

Which leads us back to this question: what happens if you transgress, if you move beyond the limits of acceptability for a given form or activity? Well, that's pretty straightforward. Ostracism: expulsion from the tribe.


Credit: Photo of poster by Francesco Basile

On pocket watches and the salvage of time

As part of my intermittent and yet ongoing programme of peronal obtuseness, I have begun to wear a pocket watch, and leave all of my twelve wristwatches at home. There are many fine pocket watches available to the contemporary consumer, including an androgynous and unisex Skagen watch with a leather 'chain', but I wanted none of this. The point of wearing a pocket watch in 2010 is not to politely transmute such an anachronistic object from its past incarnations into the present. No.

The point of wearing a pocket watch is to be capable of taking time in hand, literally, and then putting it away in your pocket. The first of four watches I have purchased as part of this programme is a Swiss watch with a quartz movement. After I had purchased it I realised that this was a mistake. For the experience to really resonate with my position on this topic the watches need to be mechanical mechanisms, and requiring hand winding.

As a result I have purchased three additional watches, which I intend to wear in rotation as the fancy takes me. The first is a French Charles Hubert watch not dissimilar to the one illustrated on this page. The second is a rather more expensive German watch, made by Kienzle, finished as a skeleton case. The third is something of a gem, it is an Elgin watch from 1915, which carries an engraving explaining that it was awarded as the first prize in the Los Angeles Amateur Boxing Championship of that same year. The engraving is very fine, possessing the quality of copperplate handwriting.

So with this small arsenal of timekeeping devices I intend to take charge of my time, safe in the knowledge that if I choose to stop winding the watches, then time will dilate and run down until it finally creeps to a halt. There is something inordinately comforting about this: I am implicated in the entrapment of modern timekeeping, and yet I can make the decision to let it all grind to a halt. Working as I do in deadline-focused environment, and facing the relentless pressure to constantly gain efficiency, there is a grain of comfort in this.

What do you think: futile gesture in the face of crushing obligation? Yes, it probably is.

Not Serious Design

I’ve been thinking about design and design journals. In the interests of full disclosure, allow me to first say that I regularly write for the Australian design magazine Artichoke, which is the Journal of the Design Institute of Australia. Fortunately for the members of the Design Institute and I, Artichoke routinely avoids falling into the category of journal that I discuss in this post. I like writing for Artichoke because my colleagues on the editorial staff seem happiest when I am speculating about what design might be, as understood through various projects, and not merely what it is. I try to regard the design process as exactly that, an interesting process that has had results, and not a closed or stable system that periodically gives birth to polished gems.

It is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that good journalism should expose and explore subtle distinctions. ‘What might design be?’ is a question. Describing and sharing what design is has value in encouraging people to discover new wrinkles of this fascinating pursuit, but it is not a question: it is the provision of an answer. I boldly suggest that questions are far more interesting than answers.

It seems to me that if we approach this particular question with an open mind then the situation is very different to that closed, rather self-congratulatory impression you get from many design journals. This impression is painfully apparent to the uninitiated, who in my experience are more likely to be respectfully intimidated than skeptical and disdainful, as perhaps they should be.

Reading much of the design press, you can also get the impression that the producers have forgotten that ‘cool’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing. ‘Cool’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing. If the overwhelming impression an intelligent non-designer gains from a magazine is 'hey, isn't this cool, and aren't we cool, you and I, for knowing it', then something is amiss. The moment's best furniture, clothes, objects, bars and restaurants - most design-related organs are more of a latter day 'gentleman's outfitters' updated so that the bloodless, androgynous urban dandy, he or she, has all they need for an aesthetically better life. A better German bike courier's messenger bag, better Spanish shoes, better Japanese stationery: artfully generic and label-free, or crafted from industrial discards and finished with fine details? Take your pick.

This might offer all the high-calorie comfort and entertainment of shopping, but those non-mail-order catalogues (can you tell me the trade price on the B&B Italia sofa on page 85?) rarely stoop to posing uncomfortable questions, or airing awkward truths. The first among these must surely be the relationship between wealth and design. It's not good, it's not bad, and it's not discussed.

The 'Andy' sofa, 370 cm long, 3-seat with a chaise lounge upholstered in a mid-range fabric, costs $AUD27,325.00. That is $US25,374 by today's exchange rate. What does it mean to spend more than $25,000 on a sofa? Is there any way that can be a reasonable thing to do? The Federal minimum wage decision for 2009 in Australia is an income of $AUD543.78 per week. So the sofa is worth just over 50 weeks of the minimum wage, virtually a year of person hours. You may think I am mounting some socialist argument about the distribution of wealth by pointing this out; I confess to such a bias, but that is not really my point. My point is one of perspective and relativity, and the conditions that provide insight to the designer. By pushing design into such stratospheric heights, we disconnect our focus as designers from the experience of the vast majority of people in our society. Is that ok?

Certainly, in order to do so, we must avoid uncomfortable questions about wealth and privilege, and the bearing these things might have on aesthetics. However, I am less interested in the moral implications of that than in the fact that we are excising from the ‘world’ of design much of those things which quite simply make up the world. Worse crime still: it’s boring. Boring to avoid straying from the ‘best of the best’, to censor what constitutes ‘serious’ design.

Forget about the morality of it for a moment, this isn’t just about morals or even ethics. What are you buying when you spend so much? An argument can be made that quality takes time and costs money, and that a brilliantly crafted designer piece will last far longer, and perform better, than the cheaper alternative. That is almost certainly true, and I also wouldn’t like to see the working designer unable to reap the rewards of their creativity, knowledge and training.

But again, it is a question or relativity. Let’s be honest here, there has to be a point where this argument fails to hold water, and become mere cover for privileged indulgence. Where does the line fall? Three times the cost of a functional alternative? Ten? Twenty? Someone tell me: is a bona fide B&B Italia sofa worth 50 weeks of the minimum wage? Am I the only one who thinks this is all a bit distorted?

I have in my apartment a very awkward object. It certainly does not constitute, and would not ever be considered, ‘serious’ design. I suggest that it hasn’t been designed at all, at least not in the conventional sense. It is a timber easel, hand-carved, standing six feet high. What I like about this easel, on loan from a friend who couldn't bear its lack of Scandinavian minimalism, is that it would never appear in a design journal. Never. It doesn't even manage kitsch, although it might manage to figure in a social realist photograph, perhaps one taken in Kentucky or Miami.

This makes it a fascinating object to me, and while I won’t defend its aesthetic qualities (should I have to?) I will say that I like having it around. The reasons for this have a lot to do with what it evokes for me, and the pleasure I get from the design-canon-violating aesthetics of hand-carved timber. The thing even has flowers carved into it, and part of it appears to be shaped like a pair of spectacles, or breasts. (The easel pictured here is not the actual one, but you get the idea.)

Does this damage my credentials as a ‘serious’ designer? Probably. What a relief that is.

The failure of design

Closeup detail of Eames Chair, in blue monochrome

I've been thinking about what constitutes good design, and find that it is a difficult question to answer.

Design would appear to be the new mantra, in business and in the 'lifestyle industries', to use a ghastly phrase. 'Good' or 'serious' design is assumed to always add value, and it is assumed by designers, and increasingly the educated general public, to be always highly desirable to it's alternative. However, what this alternative might be is by no means clear, and in that I detect something interesting.

Designers will tell you that the opposite to 'good' design is 'bad' design, where something has been shaped or put together in a way that responds poorly to its intended purpose and meaning. That seems reasonable, but I am not sure it holds up to scrutiny. What if the opposite to 'good' design is something far more incidental? Could the opposite of 'good' be not so much bad as 'whatever' - a genuine randomness that results from the inevitability of form in objects despite the absence of authorised, orthodox design intentions? Good design can be judged against a whole host of factors which might include the intention as stated, the function as demonstrated in use, or the aesthetics and shape. How would we judge 'bad' design? For that matter, why do we feel compelled and authorised to judge it?

They Mythical Modernist has a ready answer to this. The MM might argue that when it comes to things made by people, 'all is design, and all is designed', whether we like the results or not. If this is true then it is reasonable to judge all objects and forms by the same standard, and if we do that it stands to reason that we as 'good designers' would decry the poor standards of the design of most objects and buildings we encounter.

There are a couple of problems with this. This claim of the omnipresence (or omnipotence?) of 'design' is a kind of megalomania that has everything in common with the modernist definition of urban design as the imparting of 'right form' to whole neighbourhoods and cities. Then there is the problem of applying the 'same standard' to good and bad, or unintentional design. How is this standard determined?

The standard of 'right form', also known as 'serious design', is determined by common agreement - leading example and its enthusiastic approval - and codified into a visual syntax or codex policed by the high priests (the 'leading' designers), whomever they might be. This forms a kind of gold standard against which most things can be measured, and in the measuring some things are deemed as 'good' and some as 'bad'.

One problem with the gold standard of 'good design' is that it inevitably changes over time. Nevertheless at any given time it is considered immutable, a yardstick against which we can separate 'serious pieces of design' from their poor cousins. Any architect would admit that a 'really good building' of thirty - or even ten - years ago would look dated and be considered inappropriate now. Strangely, this is not seen as a flaw in the method of determining good design: it would seem that the codex has a convenient 'out' clause, where older projects can be authorised by virtue of their dated context.

Despite some very obvious structural cracks, it is plain to me that some designers, architects in particular, believe that the 'good design' standard has some gravity and authority. They firmly believe (or perhaps assume) that the world overall would be a substantially better place if only it was designed by them and their colleagues. There is not much evidence to support this view. The most beautiful and engaging places I have seen ended up that way largely without architects, with the possible exception of key buildings of particular significance. In fact the profession as it is currently defined is very young, and many buildings we attribute to architects were actually conceived and designed by dilettantes and artists. Architects and other designers also seem to overlook the megalomania of this idea: should our entire environment really be wholly determined by one tiny and not particularly representative segment of our society? Does that even look right as an idea on paper? I think not.

Despite the fact that we are bound in by ugliness on all sides, I don't think that giving the whole equation to the architects is the answer. I can only think of a handful who do work I like, for a start. Fortunately for us the world is a diverse and complex place, and so far orthodox design has failed to encompass all of human life. That's a good thing, because I suspect that the seeds of our future world - the lightning bolts of brilliance and breathtaking change - will not first be seen on the pages of a glossy design magazine.