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'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'
They're not, but we'd like them to be. We like the riddle; we want there to be a revealing and amusing answer. We want to be entertained and in being entertained, delivered a cute and digestible insight into the mysteries of ravens and writing desks.
'Why is art like architecture?'
They're not, but we'd like them to be. We’d like to be able to prepare taxonomies of each to find their shared genus and species but in the end that would be pretty futile, really.
So it’s more than a little disingenuous to be writing this, not knowing, nor possessing membership of the disciplines about which I’m writing. Not possessing the necessary erudition, not having easy insights or witty revelations. I’m like a twitcher discussing the joiner’s craft.
What architecture and art do share is us – you and me. Like teapots, hats, and clocks, like writing desks (though not ravens) they are things we put into the world, things we use to augment and interpret the world around us. These things we make and describe are intended to help us see and move through the world a little differently. Art and architecture (more than hats and clocks) are intended to be transformative, redemptive even. A big show like Melbourne Now offers up a survey of transformative potential. The show’s Melbourne-ness and its Now-ness can be contested and argued, that’s for others to tackle. Even the architecture in the show is for others to worry over; I’m pledging my time to just a few pleasures now.

There’s something typological about the tense objects that make up Bridie Lunny’s This Endless Becoming. They lay dormant, imploring elaboration, as if complete but primitive, as if fully described but lacking interpretation. Like the stones of a cathedral not yet enlivened by ornament, or like an idea of a house but not a home. They feel like pure form at the edge of sensible intuition. A tiled wall with steel frame exposed, a suspended rope, a second skin, a hanging ring, a disc and a weight. The objects themselves suggest performance not use; I think it was Immanual Kant who said that “to construct a concept is to present the intuition corresponding to it a priori” or something like that. Lunney’s sculptures feel like concepts that have their corresponding intuition latent within. They suggest themselves to us as equipment, as apparatus or contraptions, they suggest resistance and counterbalance. In some sense we’re frustrated by them, wanting to touch and pull, wanting to grip and drag, to yank and dangle, to feel the resistance of space and form, to feel the stuff of sinew, fat and bone; wanting, waiting, longing even but never allowing ourselves the satisfaction.

Bridie Lunney This Endless Becoming Melbourne Now NGV 2013

The work of elaboration is inscribed by performers; their bodies fulfilling the latencies of these forms. I never saw the performers (except in photos) so it’s just me and the objects watching other gallery goers wandering and weaving around. I imagine that what I see is the performance, these bodies carefully choreographed to inscribe complex interactions, their design and meaning unknown to me, the tension between object and body somehow unfulfilled. I wonder if architecture could ever be like that.

In Daniel Crooks dark projection room watching An Embroidery of Voids, I found myself sailing down a laneway (in the space between again) this lane had been sliced and spliced with another lane hanging inexplicably within the first, I floated through the portal into the next and then another, and another, and another all fitting with monocular precision within its predecessor; together they form an uneasy whole, a bizarre labyrinth behind homes and high streets.

Daniel Crooks, An embroidery of voids 2013. Colour single-channel digital video, sound, looped.
Animated GIF by http://carpediem4lifeandlove.tumblr.com/

Daniel Crooks treats time like a material. In previous works he’s been slicing time vertically, revealing in thin slices of vision the strange dance of objects in space. This work, however, slices space as we travel into it, thickly slicing the space within the image. It is both an affirmation and a disassembly of monocular vision; the perspectival construction forced by the medium and by the laneways themselves is undermined. The camera is set close to eye level, a horizon line and vanishing point clearly defined by the fence-lines, these orthogonal armatures leading to a vanishing point we can never approach. Each frame offers an alternate universe as if in our sailing we might travel with each alternate self, each parallel universe.
In the final frames two chefs perch like figures from Rodin’s Gates of Hell, the laneway(s) turn back on a dead end, a black fence consumes our vision and I felt a little pang of grief. I watched and watched again, but each inexorable journey ended in death before beginning again. I wondered if architecture could ever be like that.

So it was that moving through Stephen Bram’s sculpture Level 3, E29, NGV, 2013 I couldn’t shake the feeling of being in a chapel or tomb. The body removed, the reliquary long since stolen. It reminded me of Kurt Schwitters’ Cathedral of Erotic Misery – maybe that's just me – and also of Bramante’s San Pietro in Montorio. It is an object contained by but pressing beyond the walls of the gallery.

Stephen Bram, Level 3, E29, NGV, 201

A steel cube provides the outer armature for a stud framed Gyproc skin, within the skin is a space, a room. Within the room, you try to find a restless spot for yourself, raising your eyes the whiteness is full of concavities and hollows, trajectories and folds, a flat glare traps you. We have walked into a drawing. It is a room of orthogonal and transversal lines made real, a room at the intersection between vanishing points, points beyond our reach and outside this cranky grotto. It’s then I hear a catastrophic reverberation from without; heard from within it becomes the voice of an unknown god. It is terrifying, a physical shock, it reminds me I’m alive (which is nice) but also that one day I’ll be dead. I wondered if there was something I missed in that storming white noise. I wondered if it contained frequencies intended for some chosen prophet, some word I should have caught, but it is a sound without song, without architecture or liturgy, a savage and scarlet sound. It is the punk racket made by Marco Fusinato’s Aetheric Plexus (Broken X) the sound accompanied by a burning flash.
Of course, it’s not just the noise that matters – all that sound and fury – but the silence before and after; the blissful ignorance or painful anticipation. And after; relief, a sigh, and a smirk of survival, perhaps we’ve witnessed revelation and been entertained after all. Architecture should be like that.

Marco Fusinato, Aetheric Plexus (Broken X), 2013,
Melbourne Now, NGV (International)

DOWNLOAD: RMIT Design Hub Drawings (PDF)This resource has been removed by request.


So the building isn't open yet but that gives us the opportunity to ignore architecture for a minute and talk about the building in the city.

Melbourne is a grid city. This means quite a lot. It doesn't have axes, in the École des Beaux-Arts sense.
The grid is meant to be unyielding but permissive, democratic, pragmatic, mute.
Despite this, much has been made of the Swanston Street Axis, from the point that it nudges around the Shrine of Remembrance, to it's kink at the former CUB site. It's hard to resist drawing that line through the site, continuing Swanston Street into eternity.

Sean Godsell resisted that temptation.

His RMIT Design Hub is just another building in the city. Apparently.

So let's look at it.

The Building holds the corner. The 'front door' is off the corner on Victoria Street. Retail Voodoo (which seems to infect everything) would insist on a diagonal corner entry, denying the street as address and implying that people are incapable of finding an entry that is around the corner. So Godsell's entry affirms the streetfront as proper for addressing the street.

Swanston Street, however, is a different matter.

The mass of the building runs into the street, providing neither street front, nor formal relief. This is a wall (a nice climbable one, but a sheer wall nonetheless). This is a rejection of the city and a profoundly anti-urban gesture.
The finished floor level (FFL) at the Victoria Street entry is FFL 23.50, internally a ramp follows the natural incline of Swanston Street as it heads north. I only raise the ramp because it brings us to the northern 'servicemen's entry' to the building at FFL 25.10. Past this entry, a stair descends rapidly to the sunken forecourt.

Back on Victoria Street, to the immediate west of the building is the primary approach to the forecourt which bottoms out at SSL 19.70. The building privileges this forecourt. It has art in it.

Adjacent to the forecourt is a low shed housing offices and archives and beyond that a vehicle ramp to carparking below. This gives us a total of 31metres of negative street front on Victoria Street, which, if your a Melburnian, you will recall isn't 5th Avenue.
Beyond the RMIT design hub is a wasteland where the brewery once stood. Grocon have been developing their interests for site over several years, NH Architecture prepared a masterplan which formed the DNA of the current development plans. Planning permits have been issued. Which is why it's a strange site to see a 5metre south facing concrete wall (it will apparently have greenery) at the northern end of Design Hub site. This wall frustrates potential connection through the site as does the archival building, sunken court, and vehicle ramp. This is articulate urban isolation, deliberate and composed.

The attitude that this might be a building in the city is a good one, and has strong arguments in favour of it over the will to axial urban design. However, this building is not one seeking to engage the street and by extension the city. It negates the messy convulsions of the city but fails to offer fresh conditions.

One can't help but wonder if Godsell wasn't hoping for something a little more...

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DOWNLOAD | Transition Vol.1,No.4, Oct. 1980

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The Pleasures Of Architecture Conference 1980: The Interviews
First Past The Post•Modernism: An Exercise In Metaphor | Neville Quarry
The State Of The Art | C. Elwyn Dennis
Glenn Murcutt's Houses | Ian Mcdougall
The Romance And Illusion Of The Architecture Of High Technology | Michael Keniger
Book Review: 'Delirious New York" | Richard Munday

Ian Mcdougall & Richard Munday

For many of the delegates at the "Pleasures of Architecture" conference, the most lasting impression was gained where they found that the less than smooth course of events inadvertently turned the spotlight on them, It was disturbing to realise that. in comparison with the Mid-Atlantic architects. Graves, Baird, and Koolhaas, they had not more than the barest notion of their own bailiwick. Also disturbing were the "Completion of Engehurst" entries from Australia's creme de la creme, trying hard but often vapid and sycophantic. And so it was perhaps that the event appeared to be not much more than an inaugural cultural ritual, staged to meet a vague national architectural obligation, rather than signifying the full-blooded emergence of architectural endeavour worthy of debate. Nevertheless it was a success in a salutary way. It tested the water and may have brought to the fore issues which are well enough appreciated but too uncomfortable to live with. Architecture in this country cannot be said to give cause for great pride, nor does the attitude of society to architecture give much cause for gratitude. This is grim, but architects cannot blame society if its expectations are low or if it is unreceptive. In this country the institution of architecture has been worn complacently and deceitfully by architects to conceal mass torpor and lack of substance. Those few who have made some contribution to architecture have eventually been feted with unbelievably uncomprehending relief, At the conference there did seem to be a softening in this attitude, a realisation that the responsibility for architecture lies with architects, that is, with themselves, and that the solution to a lack of substance could not be imported. Acceptance by architects of that responsibility is an important step, but architecture will not issue once or because it is taken. Architecture is not the fulfilment of an obligation: it contains a fortuitous element. It is a fallacy to say that if there hadn't been Bernini there would have been someone else. Architecture will not come about just because it is needed as a national totem . However, obstacles are in themselves no incentive, and while opportunities are best utilised by those who Create them ad hoc to suit their requirements, architecture would be a more realistic proposition than it is now if architects did something to create opportunities for each other, The schools of architecture in Australia could in general playa far more constructive role in architecture than is now evident. The significant contributions now being made to architecture are being made by architects such as Graves, Baird , and Koolhaas, all of whom have spent more time in universities than in drawing offices. It is of course ludicrous to regard academic involvement as some essential precondition for architecture; nevertheless it is important to realise that, because very few academics in Australia have evidenced much interest in theoretical speculations or in a serious commitment to practice, and because even fewer practising architects teach or have undertaken research , the possibility of a movement in architecture, of a type com• parable in any way to that which emerged in Europe and the United States over the past twenty years, occurring in Australia would be virtually inconceivable, There is some evidence of architects taking time off from the office to catch up on what is happening, or to do some lecturing, and this is fine, but it is hardly what is called for. Practising architects should be given access to architecture schools for the purposes of study and research , and under• take teaching as a means of reviewing their work and concerns, and extending them under these rigorous but sheltered circumstances, Many academics nurse presentiments of uselessness and would benefit from direct involvement in architectural practice, an arena which offers its own rigours. Others should be more assiduous in their demands for research time. And it is time for some permanently tenured academics to show cause. These suggestions are basically gratuitous when the problem could well be a matter of the wrong people or a sense of despair, but at the "Pleasures of Architecture" conference, highlighted by the sybaritic insinuations of that title, many Australian architects were shocked and embarrassed by their sudden awareness of their own emptiness. After such a revelation it is to be hoped that there will be some changes.

DOWNLOAD | Transition, Volume 1 No. 3, March 1980

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Editors | Ian McDougall, Richard Munday


Post Modern | The Renewal of Style in Architecture | Philip Drew

3345 : A Project | Michael Trudgeon

An Interview With William Turnbull Jnr

Ars Sine Scientia Nihil | Peter Kollar

Parliament House, Canberra | Two Designs

In Search of a National Symbol | John Rockey

DOWNLOAD | Transition Vol. 1, No. 2

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Editors Ian McDougall & Richard Munday


Looking at the Sydney School | Jennifer Taylor
Four Melbourne Architects | an exhibition
Parliament House Canberra | 9 Designs
Architectural Style in Brisbane | Dr. G. de Gruchy

Book Review
Supermannerism by C. Ray Smith Richard Munday

Letters, etc. replies to Vol 1 No.1

Made in Australia


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We longingly await the day when some Great Publication taking public duty to its heart, will offer regular, informed and utterly frank criticisms of all major buildings. Meanwhile we present these humble comments in all sincerity, and expectantly continue to await the Armageddon when the mysteries of design shall be honestly displayed to a waiting world.

Smudges Vol. 1 No. 1

This age of the pamphleteer begins with Ornament and Crime.

We, over here, like degenerates; had fallen for Queen Anne and called it Federation Style.We quite liked all that exuberance, all that featurism, we quite liked the two-tone Holden Special.

Robin Boyd did not. He called it our Ugliness and we loved him for it. In 1956 Ron Clarke burnt his arm lighting the Olympic flame. Peter McIntyre, John and Phyllis Murphy, and Bill Irwin had a red hot go at some pretty exuberant modernism.

Robin Boyd quite liked it.

Click image to pause
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Click image to pause

In this age the Villa Savoye fell to ruin and was raised again as a cenotaph in the suburbs. We had followed the crow Towards a New Architecture – but in the end it wasn’t so fast or so new.

Robin Boyd went to the dentist in 1971 and died. Architects in Melbourne read his stuff a lot.

Aldo Rossi crashed his car in 1971. He crashed it again in 1997 but not again after that. He wrote and said some things about buildings he’d done and cities he knew.

Architects in Melbourne read his stuff a lot. Richard Munday and Ian McDougall were among them. They wrote about architecture too. Some of us still read what they wrote.

Richard Munday left Melbourne for New York.

Death of The Pamphleteer began as an RMIT elective run by Dean Boothroyd, Nicholas Hubicki, and later, myself.

The pamphlet is a tradition in Melbourne architecture. Desbrowe Annear was a pompous pamphleteer of sorts. Robin Boyd, of course, was the consummate pamphleteer. Later Richard Munday and Ian McDougall took on the mantel, riding close on the heels of Boyd’s legacy.

The publications included in the study were Smudges, Cross-Section, Architectural Papers, Tension, Transition, Pataphysics, Backlogue, The Half-Time Club Minutes, Subplot, and Subaud. It should be said that this study was not exhaustive. The published documents of record dovetail with an aural history – the HALFTIME Club, Process, 3RRR’s Burning Down the House, and The Architects, amongst others. There is a local lineage to be found in this list, something that is in the architectural blood of Melbourne. The pamphlets and pamphleteers gave voice and sustenance to architecture in Melbourne. The pamphlets are not esoterica but are bound directly to the practice and production of architecture. Death of the Pamphleteer attempted to plot the history of writing architecture in Melbourne.

To make sense of information – to understand it – one has to put it into fruitful relationship with other information, and grasp the meaning of that relationship; which implies finding patterns, learning lessons, drawings inferences, and as a result seeing the whole.”

The Mystery of Things A.C. Grayling

The timeline plots key events, articles and buildings published in our pamphlets. Through it we can follow Ariadne’s thread as it unravels, bifurcates, and tangles it’s way through half a century. I’m just going to pull out a couple of these knots.

Smudges was almost Robin Boyd’s first step into writing architecture. He was 19.

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Smudges was published by the Victorian Architectural Student’s Society of the RAIA. Smudges was the archetypal Melbourne pamphlet – a single sheet, double sided, it was folded down to fit in a shirt pocket. Each issue had a different folding pattern. Smudges was irreverent, cutting, and insightful. It was also generous.

Famously Boyd awarded a Bouquet and a Blot of the month to the best and worst acts of architecture. When Boyd wrote of the Tudor shopping village called Castle Towers,

“It is as though a giant garbage tin had been shaken over Melbourne for about a decade and then, when it had seemed that the contents had all come out, a particularly fruity, juicy hunk that had been jammed in the bottom suddenly became dislodged and fell into the middle of one the most snobbish retreats in the city. If it lasts six months of the post-war world we may well ask: “what were we fighting for?”

The irate Blotter, Arthur Plaisted, sued Smudges for £3000. Boyd published an apology in a Gothic font. In Smudges we see the genesis of an irreverent clan of architects in Melbourne that evolves into an architectural culture. The Pamphlet like the pamphleteer belongs to the clan. With it’s own patois, the pamphlet is by and for the clan in a particular place and time. Smudges was the training ground for Robin Boyd, the undergraduate rag afforded him the opportunity to hone a gently subversive wit against the smug conservatism of Melbourne architects.

Cross-Section is a different beast, it is regarded as a newsletter for the construction industry – notices of new building products, who’s doing what where and the like, and while it is an exercise in brevity it is also a selective document. It’s Boyd’s How-To for the modern city. He extends this into direct advice as the director of the Small Home Service. A very productive outworking of Boyd’s pamphleteering.

But I’ll leave the real Boyd History to Phillip Goad. Suffice it to say that Cross-Section was an open letter to the whole clan – the construction industry – Boyd is building the clan, sharing the knowledge with which to build a new Australian architecture.

Cross-Section has a long innings: 1952-1971. With a succession of editors Robin Boyd, David Saunders and finally Neville Quarry. We actually logged every entry from that 20 years into a spreadsheet. It makes for some interesting if obsessive compulsive reading. Cross-Section, too, is sued for libel.

David Saunders, went on to edit the Architectural Papers. Those of you who are historians will be aware of the SAHANZ founder’s grant in his name. Architectural Papers published Sydney Architectural Conference papers by Miles Lewis, Conrad Hamann, Jennifer Taylor among others.

The lack of access to and circulation of these papers became part of the impetus for the founding of Transition.

Founded by Richard Munday and Ian McDougall (an emigres from Adelaide) Transition directly tackles writing in architecture as a means of developing, interrogating, and disseminating architectural design and practice.

Their first editorial staked out the territory:

…the development of architecture in this country has been retarded because architects, both practising and teaching, have not sufficiently debated or discussed their work with much candour or profundity, or in a manner that would be of use to others. So partly in consequence, each generation of architects hold many of the same misconceptions and make many of the same mistakes as those of preceding generations…

Editorial Transition Vol. 1 No. 1

Founded in tandem with the HALFTIME club (founded by Grant Marani) it played a crucial role in the practice of architecture in Melbourne. That is that the intellectual life and output of the practising architect was entertained, informed, and held to account by the clan. Angry and involved letters to the editor and heckling from the shadows where common and encouraged. My own memory of HALFTIME is of uncomfortable vivisection and the occasional fist-fight over myth-making in the Australian suburbs.

Transition rejected progress – it was a very self-conscious pamphlet.

But change is a different affair. Frames of reference shift periodically (theoretically they shift continually), ideals and theories internal and external to architecture are introduced or, in most cases, revived. Situations are examined and the results interpreted, matters come to light, interests flare and fade, different figures, guided by their percipient certainties, animate the present and make their pertinent contributions. This is iterative and inevitable and measurable, the ever-present. But it is not progress.”

Editorial Transition Vol. 1 No. 1

Pamphlets represent variation as they adapt to the times – they mongrelise – to survive. Ideas have sex.

Pamphlets beget a mongrel architecture. The pamphlet does not presuppose a fixed nor perfect architecture.

When Pamphlets get old they become books.

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By writing about architecture, Transition overtly manifests a concern with architecture at this “enunciative” level – with that level where the visual clues it proffers to our images of self and society, to our relationship with the past and to architecture’s own habits of self-reflection,are inevitably moved to the foreground of discussion.

Transition Vol 2, No 1

The 20thC seems to have deadened and cheapened the Australian character… The Wild Colonial Boy is selling used cars.

Robin Boyd, Australia’s Home, p.278

That’s what Boyd thought.

In 1971 the RAIA conference had been “The Consequences of Today” by 1980 it was “The Pleasures of Architecture”. Transition saw the impetus towards an Australian architecture. An architecture that mined the artifacts of Australian urbanism. In this the Melbourne clan became the bastard children of Aldo Rossi. There was a kind of garbled lineage there – garbled by distance – perhaps, but not ignorance.

Peter Corrigan in Transition Vol 2. No 1:

Australia is about a sort of rough expression of ideas that are true to us. Not about a polished, refined identification of ideas that might well be true overseas.

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So as far as Corrigan is concerned “the imagery is ruthlessly suburban, but with a bit. There’s a window there that owes a bit to Mendelsohn and there is a bit of Mies and I suppose there is a bit of Barry Humphries.”

The Transition editors in response get pretty lyrical:

Australia could well be cast as a wilderness out of which reckless and hairy latter-day satyrs are now emerging, into the light of a clearing that is European culture, to revive fey courtiers with their rorty play.

It is comforting to be so located, to find that kind of affirmation of an interpretation of the present in the past, to imagine that if we should pause and turn, then we may see human history smiling indulgently in our direction…Transition attempts to map as accurately as possible, in effect to re-make, the elements and the form of an existing situation, but using the elements and forms of another medium…

It is interesting to consider the effect that this attitude of ‘words actually matter’ on the methods of architectural production. If words, that is, the distinct elements … of any medium do matter then logically an immersion in the medium, in this case architecture – is demanded. It must be known if likenesses are to be constructed

Ian McDougal & Richard Munday

Transition Vol 2. No. 3 & 4

In short, architects should write about architecture. Further, architects should know their medium in order to create cultural likenesses in their buildings.

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Howard Raggatt drags Venturi’s Mother’s House across a photocopier, adds a water tank, a blue roof from Modena, and then leaves it unceremoniously in Footscray. Paul Morgan wanted to build a huge tram stop. Neil Masterton felt you couldn’t possibly build a public building in Melbourne without some of those white pipes. And maybe he was right.

The editors of transition, unlike Boyd, were not public intellectuals – they were not trying to shape public opinion – but develop erudition toward a local production. To create an Australian image of architecture.

They pursue the issue with Rem Koohaas in 1980.

Koolhaas :
“the only regionalism I could conceive of is not the sort of literal development of a regional style, but is derived from…international issues inserted into different contexts. The first time I saw Peter Corrigan’s work it struck me not as an Australian building, but as an Australian image… his work is marooned or transplanted here. And this may be the problem of Australian architecture, but it may also be its excitement, in that it could be an architecture of fresh transplantation… Everything I look at here is so Australian."

In the same issue the editors launch the clan’s next assault on Melbourne architecture.

Practising architects should be given access to architecture schools for the purposes of study and research, and undertaking teaching as a means of reviewing their work and concerns, and extending them under these rigorous but sheltered circumstances

RMIT takes them at their word and to this day RMIT is staffed by practising architects who, whatever you say about the production, are living the dream. I include myself in that category.

Transition ultimately lost its staples.
Richard Munday left for New York.

The debts were bought out by RMIT and the editorship fell to academics more interested in writing writing than in writing architecture. Transition lost its staples, grew up, and became a book.