Not so long ago I was involved in a local history project to recreate an example of a bathing box – once commonly seen on the foreshore. The boxes were removed in the 1960s, yet some remained in the neighbourhood until quite recently. After all these years none now survived, and that is why we began our project. If only we had had the skill and foresight of the Chinese architect Wang Shu we could have made something wonderful.
The difference between the town of Ningbo and Torquay are unalike, yet similar. Both places are victims of modern growth programs. For sometime the Chinese government has overseen a massive modernisation of the country. When they decide to modernise, whole districts are bulldozed. Everything in the path of development is removed and the people are rehoused in new multi-storey apartments. Here farmland is sold off, roads are formed, and much needed single story housing is built “out of ticky-tachy and they all look the same” like it says in the words of the song.
In China Wang Shu reclaimed the materials from the villages dismantled to make way for the new. In so doing he demonstrated architectural leadership because he planned and built the Ningbo History Museum from the repurposed material. He used an old Chinese technique of Wa Pan to do this.
He didn’t just recreate something old. From his imagination he materialised something new.
The former villagers now have something to remind them of the 3,000 year old village, and the people, that once lived there.
The museum is substantial. It is a building of some 30,000 sq metres. Wa Pan has been employed by builders throughout the ages. It means to repurpose existing material and to reuse it in a new way. As I say, in the western world, Romans used the same rocks as the Greeks had in ancient times. Here in Ningbo Wang Shu did the same thing where he could, but he didn’t just re use bricks from the Ming dynasty he used lots of concrete. However the concrete he used was given a unique Chinese treatment. Bamboo, a traditional building material, was used to create the formwork for the concrete. The textural shape of the bamboo became a new building texture found on the walls. The walls are not solid though because they contain fragments of old tiles and other ancient matter in their fabric.
The skills once needed to build with traditional materials was lost to the new age builders. This meant that in order for the work’s creation the tradespeople had to be taught how to use old methods to build this new museum. These new skills have proved valuable to the employees engaged.
The building created in the Yiazhou province is much more substantial than the little bathing box I was involved in recreating. In our case our little project had to meet a set of regulations that did not exist when the original beach lovers built their humble shacks from found materials. All our building has is a familiar silhouette in a garden a long way from the beach. The people of Ningbo live in a city that did not exist a few years ago yet they have examples of ancient materials and forgotten skills as a constant reminder of their lost village.
Did Mies van den Rohe make a lasting contribution to architecture when he built the entrance pavilion to the German section of the 1929 Great Exhibition in Barcelona? After all, the space’s purpose was to house innovative products of the nation. He gave it an entirely different purpose. He sited the building away from the other halls. He used expensive materials and added unexpected refinement to a temporary building at a time when Germany was still reeling from repaying costly WW1 reparations.
I propose to argue he demonstrated a keen understanding of the architects that preceded him and he added a great deal of knowledge so those who followed him could learn.
The site chosen for the pavilion was deliberate. He reasoned, visitors would appreciate a mental break from the onslaught inspecting thousands of new ideas, new products, and new ways of doing something old. The use of site was to become a signature of his. When he later moved to Chicago and earned the commission to build the Seagram building he deliberately set it back in a court, back from others along the street.
It could be argued that, to have busy people held up in a building without any quickly reasoned escape route was a folly. But that doesn’t appear to have been a problem.
Mies worked in the office of German Architect Peter Behrens, the man responsible for the AEC building. This giant building borrowed something from Greek architecture in that it had an enormous base. Van der Rohe borrowed this idea from Behrens. Although this building, by comparison, was tiny he gave it an enormous base. And to enter the building the visitor had to climb a set of stairs. By climbing the base the structure of the pavilion was disclosed, step by step. Through this simple choice, the building reveal added to a sense one was moving into an important area.
To climb up a very large base and find so little there was a risk Mies was prepared to take.
The reveal must have been extraordinary. Once on the plinth the guest was presented with something new. Instead of a building enclosed by walls. This building had voids. For a start it couldn’t all be seen at once as you might if you walked into a hall. There you could run your eye around the enclosed space and see the dimensions of the walls, the floor , the ceiling and the ornamental features. This had all of that but your inclination led you through the building much like it does when in a labyrinth, despite it being a series of 6 stone walls of straight lines. At every turn you were directed to examine the extraordinary detail of this neo classical industrial building. The surfaces were reflective. He had terrazzo floors throughout. Your eyes met stone, onyx, marble, travertine, large panes of glass, clear, white, green and black. There was water in a small pond and a much large one. Under the ceiling ones eyes met chrome metal pillars.
One of the most common pieces of steel, is steel “angle-iron” it has ubiquitous uses because it is strong and light. It is never used as it was in the pavilion. Van den Rohe when bolted, or welded, four pieces together in a cruciform and sheathed it in a chromium wrapper he gave it new life. He used the steel as eight columns to hold up the roof. The thin flat plane of the roof also used hidden steel to give it the strength enable it to appear to float above the space below. To resolve the need for stability the solid block walls, hidden behind reflective stone veneer, perform that function in a perfunctory manner.
The notable features of the building are the mixed geometry of the horizontal planes of the floor, the ceiling, and the roof, and the vertical planes of the walls and glass. In an apparent trick to give lightness of it. A trabeated system as seen in Greek buildings existed in this building although it is not noticeable. The building’s roof formed a flat beam resting on columns.
Were the materials used as efficient as it might have been if the walls had been wood? Would a better solution have been to use the Gropius method of hanging glass, as he had in the Fagus shoe factory? After all Gropius had also worked with van der Rohe so he could have used similar methods to make the pavilion yet her preferred his own solution. Had he used an arched roof would it have been more appealing to the eye? I think not.
The Barcelona Pavilion was only supposed to be a temporary building. To build so innovatory a structure demonstrated how new materials, glass and steel, would carry architecture into the new century. Like all artists van der Rohe borrowed from the past, he used what he wanted from his contemporaries and he found new answers to the age old problem of providing shelter with what was available.
The Postscript is that a century after his birth, and 56 years after it was dismantled and sold off as scrap to partly pay for the exhibition, a reconstruction was opened on the same site in recognition of his conception. The new building has the same ornamentation as the sleek steel chairs designed by his collaborator, Lilly Reich, and Sculpture Morning by Georg Kolbe in an outer small pond.
Age is considered good for cheese and wine. Drinkers prefer to nibble on aged cheese and drink mature wine. Beaujolais and cottage cheese have their place. But for something special cheese aficionados prefer an aged Gruyere or Cheddar to Mascarpone. The same applies to wine. If you can afford it kudos comes from drinking an aged French chateau wine.
We struggle with old people. The walking stick, the dribble, the befuddled mind, are the archetypes that spring to mind. We have reached the period in this State even young people feel old. This is our fifth lockdown and people are fragile. It needn’t be so.
If I am, I am unaware of how you see me. The cover you see above is of a book of my recent writing. I plan to give to my grandchildren at my birthday party (if lockdown rules allow) later this month.
Finally, as an early 80th birthday present for myself I have enrolled in the course below. This should take care of lockdown ennui.
Tom and his mate Tahlia were spending 2021 traveling around Australia, taking the long route. They were moving clockwise, using the outside of the road. Tahlia had just celebrated her 21st birthday, as had Tom. By now they understood this a vast land. You can drive for a thousand kilometres in this land and the highlight of your day is the chance to fill the fuel tank of your vehicle at a service centre. Most of these serve very unappetising fried food and little else. As, a vegan traveller, Tahlia must have gagged every time she entered one of these outposts.
Correctly, after crossing the Nullabour they turned left when they reached Norseman. And they drove their converted delivery van, now a smart camper wagon, to the beautiful city of Esperance. After days spent looking at scenery, that barely changed hours after hour crossing the continent, the water views of the seaside town are remarkably restful. Being more venturesome than this old fellow, they learned the islands offshore were easy to get to by ferry. As a result, they had a merry time at an off-shore bar where they could share travel stories with other young folk, and learned something about the mysterious road ahead.
The trip from Esperance to the capital of Western Australia one need not hurry. So they took their time visiting the wine area of Margaret River and swimming at wild ocean beaches. The great Jarrah and Karri forests, and the distant remnants of the whaling industry of Albany are only some joys one finds south of Perth. The long seaward protrusion of the Busselton Jetty was another place they visited. But the distant voices from home reminded Tahlia others would like to celebrate the significance of her twenty-first birthday back in Melbourne. A day away on the other side of the continent if you fly. So they called in favours to park “Van Morrison” in Perth and headed back home by air.
What should have been a happy home-coming break held a COVID-19 twist. Their plane had barely landed when health authorities announced Victoria had a new virulent community outbreak of the virus after over three months of being infection free. The State authority announced it would again enter lockdown that evening.
Just home, the young couple drove immediately back to the airport with a view to escape the Lockdown and resume their circumnavigation of the continent. They made phone calls to Western Australia health officials to find out if they could avoid fourteen days of enforced quarantine, as they had not been near the areas known to be infected, they simply wanted to return to their mobile home. Officialdom, being what it is, deliberated to the point of the plane’s departure time and came down with a judgement. Their home had no fixed address and the only way they could reenter the state was to do as all other Victorians must. That is it required them to enter quarantine. They sat out the Lockdown.
The reality was hard, too few in the population had been inoculated, the seven-day lockdown was extended and interstate travel banned. The outcome for Tom and Tahlia? Viruses are true egotists and they infect whomever they can.
I am currently wrestling to write something based on this (bad) transcript of the podcast listed below.
Joanna Murray Smith playwright, artistic royalty and
Michael Cathcart, ABC RN broadcaster discuss art.
Can you enumerate some of the artist’s challenges?
I mean what would be the top of the list, what is the common challenge that all artists face?
I suppose it is emotional engagement with the audience. It is not so hard to form actual engagement with the audience you can engage audiences quite easily with ideas but it is hard to engage them on an emotional level. If you don’t engage them on an emotional level then ultimately you’re not succeeding. And learning how to master that is the great journey for any artist. It is how you harness ideas to an emotion and get them in the right balance . And you use the emotions to get the ideas — to harness the emotions and get them in the right balance. And use the emotions to make the ideas powerful. As an audience member if only my head is engaged something is missing. As audience members we know that if only our head is engages then it is boring.
Fortunately, it is not only the artists responsibility, it includes the venue, and the audience and their willingness to come to engage with the work.
When I opened the door, I could not believe my eyes. In my absence, the room I understood had changed. I knew we had few possessions, (married six months), but I remembered we had a new unused television, record player, radio in the front room. A very up to date three in one appliance it was. It was there, standing in that vacant space. I missed it. Had anything else gone? The cash from the sale of some charity raffle tickets, a few other odds and ends, had also gone.
I remember it as if it was yesterday (it was almost sixty years ago). The things didn’t matter in the long run; we knew we could replace them with an insurance claim. What really hurt was the violation, losing privacy and the invasion of our little home.
Imagine if we lost our home, our land, our way of life? 1,000s of Australians have experienced this in the last twelve months the imagining has been their reality. Events of this type have reoccurred for nearly every year of the past 250 years of Australian European history. What have we learned as a people?
Is history an excellent teacher? Observers continually remind us if we take no notice of the past it binds us to make the same mistakes. My recent holiday to the Apple Isle of Tasmania has reminded me of the history lessons I took as a child, mainly because life has taught me how inefficient those lessons were.
Previously we have visited Port Arthur prison village. My school lessons taught me about the severity of the punishment metered out at that awful place. I had not imagined so many as 2,000 convicts housed in Hobart itself.
They taught us the Isle discovered by Abel Tasman, first called Van Diemen’s Land, was a superb place to send miscreants who filled British gaols. Therefore, from 1807 until 1868 74,000 people were transported to Fisherman’s dock in Hobart. On the dock today stand four bronzes of young women and a boy to represent the 14,000 women and children who were transported to the island. People like: Margaret 27 for stealing thread, Sarah Emma, 29 for vagrancy, Anne, 19 for stealing wheat, and Rose, 23 for murdering her children. Children like Toby 10, and a list of other waifs like, Joseph Robbing 10, Sarah Thomson 12, Louisa Gannon 3, Ann James 6. (What crimes could these children have perpetrated that required them to be shipped to the other side of the world?)
The city sitting on the edges of the broad Derwent River is a very attractive modern city. It is the last destination of one of the longest open water yacht races. Each New Year’s Day, the competition leaves Sydney. Daily the media reports on the yachts as they make their way to Constitution Dock at Fisherman’s wharf Hobart.
Tasmania therefore has a long association with the mainland. We know it for its fish, its apples, its milk, wine, mining and whisky. It is also the home of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, the thylacine. They captured the last animal in 1930 and it lived a miserable, solitary life in a wire cage instead of in the wild forests it was born for.
My school lessons told of its awful last years. They also told how the migrant settlers had rid the land of the wild indigenous people. (Missed was the story of the murderous behaviour of the people with guns hunting them like animal and massacing them for the sake of their beautiful timbered land. It told of Truganini.)
Little by little the inaccuracy of the things I learned at school about Tasmania and its peoples has come to my attention. The most recent improvement came from this visit when we visited the Museum of Tasmania. In confirmation of my class lesson, the museum has a bronze bust of Truganini on display. It also has a UNESCO recognised treasure as a recording of Fanny Cochrane Smith singing. Fanny out lived Truganini, who died in 1876 by 30 years. They considered Fanny the last fluent speaker of her language. Thus the Palawa or Pakana people supposed lost to history unlike the thylacine remained. Fortunately, the bloodline of these people survives.
Our journey took us down the river Derwent, past the suburb of Risdon, that place that houses the women prisoners of today to the Museum Of Modern Art, MONA. MONA is the private art gallery of the eccentric collector David Walsh. This man has contributed wonderfully to the people and the State of Tasmania. Tourism to his museum is one compelling reason to visit the state. An off shoot of his artistic endeavour is Dark Mofo. This annual winter event is in the last stages of planning after the museum was closed because of Covid 19.
The Spanish artist Santiago Sierra had requested the aid of local indigenous people and asked them to donate blood to him to help him create his additional art work. His gimmick was to soak a British Union Jack in their blood. David Walsh thought nothing more of it. I thought it reasonable as well. The idea of ruining a flag with aboriginal blood seemed at first to represent the struggle the people had had to keep their land.
Fortunately, the artwork will not proceed. Sufficient people pointed out aboriginal people have lost enough blood over nearly 250 years and this is not the time to lose more. David Walsh apologised. I apologise. I understand, enough is enough.
Which brings me back to my home burglary. I easily replaced the property I lost. The point is just a matter of conversation, whereas when the British colonised this land the people that lived here lived productive lives based on the knowledge of 60,000 years of continuous occupation. The colonisers did not consult them, and they did not cede land to them. In payment for their generosity, they were exploited. It dispossessed them of their land, their culture, their language. 500 locations mark places of massacre. The land has so many locations defiled in this way, researchers have used newspaper reports to build a map recording of the happenings at each site.
Australia has a constitution that does not acknowledge the indigenous and their long ownership of the land. Today marks the third anniversary of the well-considered statement. The Uluru Statement from the Heart.
As background, the country has discussed the issue since 1963. The From the Heart Statement came out of two years of careful consultation and they presented it to the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the morning of 26. March 2017 and by the evening of the same day he dismissed it without discussion. It is now time to recognise our people in the Constitution and acknowledge with pride how lucky we are to live in a nation with such a proud history.
Today I signed the Uluru statement of The Heart to support the aboriginal nations that made this country.