|As he drags Australian architecture into uncharted shoals of post-colonial theory, Leon van Schaik seems an enigma to many peers in his adopted Antipodes. Here he responds to two ubiquitous questions: Where’s he coming from and what’s he on about?|
|As Dean of RMIT’s Faculty of Environmental Design and Construction, Professor Leon van Schaik presides over Australia’s most volcanic architectural congregation. From this base, he is guiding the university’s commissioning of a suite of notable fin-de-siècle buildings which are confronting Melbourne’s citizens about unacknowledged aspects of their culture.
Born in South Africa and educated in Britain, van Schaik ricochets between middle grounds and margins. Ironically, this suspicious and sceptical ‘outsider’ appears centrally placed to invest Australian architecture with new understandings of its character and place in the world.
Here are extracts from various papers he has written to explain his inspirations and observations. Sections have been published in the catalogue for this year’s UIA conference in Barcelona, in AA Files 28 (1994) and in Transfiguring the Ordinary (the 1995 catalogue for RMIT’s M.Arch by project graduates). Much of this material was also included in his speech at Tusculum, Sydney, earlier this year.
in the Cities of the New World Living and working on four continents, coming to terms with four different Anglophone cultures, has given me a life on the edge of community belief systems. This makes me a ‘dissenter’. Living the differences, I don’t accept that things are the way they are said to be. When I look around me, I see that things are the way they are because people will them to be that way.
A great deal of energy has come from the polarity of centre and fringe, as the intelligentsia imagines a post-colonial world. However, a post-colonial reality is not yet with us. Power centres such as Hollywood and Tokyo dominate global information networking, even if we agree with Celeste Olalquiaga (in Megalopolis) that there are two-way flows. Very few people experience the world as a shifting frame. Of the world’s population, only two percent live in countries other than those in which they were born. Architecture may be a distributed field but the information flows are still distribution flows, largely from the old metropoli to the formerly colonised provinces. We have yet to achieve the expanded field that genuine post-colonialism promises, and while we may understand what Robert Hughes is saying when he states, in Barcelona, that the age of the metropolis ended in New York in 1975, the distributed metropole that succeeded his city/region model is still a network between London, Paris, Tokyo and New York; with some extensions to specialised centres of information collection and distribution that arise from time to time. Of course there is considerable resistance to such an interpretation in these centres. As Edward Said has pointed out, the imperialist never acknowledges the existence of an empire until the project is in decline. There is also the matter of loss-of-face to those who have to acknowledge that they are subject to neo-colonial forces.
Acknowledgment, however, is the first step in resistance, and a necessary precursor to the formation of an architectural network that effects a culture of the expanded, many-poled future that we all desire. In my 1990 paper ‘Province and Metropolis’ (published in The Idea of the City, 1996), I tried to show how concrete were the flows from metopole to province. Settler societies carved the names of established cultural heroes into the stone of new buildings and imitated organisations and built fabric. The return flows were just as concrete. The transfer of wealth from fringe to centre, within both the home territories and the empires, sustained the Arcadian paradise of Europe’s landed gentry. Now province and metropolis is a question of the forum you select for the testing/validation of your discourselocal, tribal, international, lowest common denominator, or ‘new metropolitan’; in our case, journals, exhibitions, visits: Transition, Assemblage, AA Files, etc.
How do we set about living the expanded field that we aspire to? This is the question that has dominated my professional life. All of us, whether displaced or not, have a stake in the evolution of a truly transnational metropolis of the mind that can recognise all of our provinces.
In the colonial context, provinces were captive to a specific metropolis. In the information age, these poles do not map onto each other. Today our metropolis is where our imagination dwells; it is where we seek recognition. This may seem to put the need for a physical manifestation of the metropolis in some doubt, but there are reasons to believe in the continued necessity. Australians have noted that to northeners, metropolis is an unremarked condition because long histories of physical manifestation have given expression to a cultural process, whereas to a southerner, the metropolis is veritably a city of the mind; something that has to be kept in mind.
The destruction of the local provincial streams of myth, through the massacre and displacement of the indigenous caretakers of the south, has left the south beachedbut not only the south. Colonialism was a northern process. In the information age, metropolis is a universal condition, accessible to all provinces and needing to hold in its imagination cities of the south. The exploitation of the planet by the developed north is symptomatic of the instability of civilisations which do not hold the south in the mind’s eye.
The fascination with the modern in our cities, prevalent at RMIT, is a reworking of international fragments from an intensely provincial viewpoint. If the density of occurrence of such visions one day impregnates the political and economic realms of the south with a metropolis of the mind then that mental state will have been preceded by the higher ordering of the physical that we recognise as the material representation of the metropolitan condition. Not until the south is once again making a physical repository of provincial achievementbut this time through social condensers of its ownwill there be a southern housing for the metropolitan mind.
Is there a ‘deep grammar’ process at work in urbanism? Is there in the interaction between the history of architecture and the continuum of architectural reality, a DNA of urbanism? I find that in the old world, Beaux Arts ‘statics’ rule, while in the new world ‘nomad science’ rules and urban ‘design’ is necessarily fugitive and non-figurative; producing a surface worlda windscreen world.
The “dim resonances” (Neil Masterton’s reference to Melbourne suburbia) of consciously designed urban form are found in areas perceived as ‘mobile ground’; places without an acknowledged sense of place; spaceless spaces lineated by the forces of travel at speed. This suggests that any given urban form is derived from iconic, consciously created, ideals. Most building today has decayed from its originating proposition to the extent that its creators act without consciousness of the origins of what they do. For example, many suburban villas owe their form to the late 19th century designs of Voysey, even though the tract builder and the buyer have no conscious awareness of their debts to his inventions. The lesson is that for us to make good cities, we have to raise all urban form to the level of conscious ideals.
The counter-proposition that ‘mobile ground’ is a stage in the evolution of an as-yet unarticulated urbanism is the test necessary for this argument. The lesson for the urbaneer is that there is a new order that can be made conscious by amplifying and suppressing emerging characteristics with reference to the deep grammar of architectural reality: that realm of wonderment at the physical world that characterises the learning processes of children as they inscribe into their consciousness the continuum of 400,000 years of human experience.
Dim resonances are the windows of the experience of the expatriate; windows that the World Wide Web mimics. The Web makes exiles of us all, because none of us now are from one place. We have begun to be ‘at home’ on this planet. We cherish this by applying the best knowledge available.
There are many voices and pathways in architecturebut architectural reality is needed, created and appreciated by the whole of human consciousness. Though the intellectin its role as definer and applier of ethical valuesis important in making architecture, architecture is not only an intellectual construct and architectural reality cannot be formed by the intellect alone. Architectural reality is a realm within which all humans are equal; to which all humans have equal access. Architectural reality is a condition arising from 400,000 years of evolution in the habitation of this earth, and 4000 years of disruption of that common heritage by the development of individual and analytical modes of thought (Jean Liedloff, the continuum concept). I believe that the preservation of the ‘universality’ (Kantian ethics) of architectural reality is architecture’s sole source of power within humanity. The universality ethic cautions us that we may not seek for ourselves or our clients that which we would not seek for all people without having the exclusions that we make visited upon us in our turn. Exclusion of the experiences of individuals other than architects from architectural theory and practice is a product of the lack of a continuum between the long imprint of our evolution and the short period of Western analytical thought.
The balance of experience is loaded on the side of the community and of evolution, and we ignore that loading at the cost of forsaking our role in society. A proper continuum of architectural reality constitutes architecture’s only possible claim to a knowledge base of its own, to utility and to service: the three preconditions for a practice that society will endorse.
This is a situation analogous to that which exists for poetry, music, film and art. People recognise work that arises out of a continuum of reality through its resonance with their own deeply internalised experiences and their conscious critical engagement. Within every individual, there are vast resources of internalised knowledge formed and patterned in the brain/mind.
We need to be aware that the project is to achieve a continuum between the 4000-year evolution of intellectual individuality and the 400,000-year evolution that preceeded it.
Pedagogically, we must begin to provide our students with tools that give them access to their full consciousness, so that they can be experts in accessing and using architectural reality. These tools include:
To locate themselves in a culture of singularity, designers must learn how to observe interactions of space and program, how to retrieve their own internalised knowledge of space and form, and how to reproduce desirable outcomes.
The 20th century history of the professional institutions of architecture is a history of exclusionary politics in the pursuit of status. But society needs access to architectural reality, both for its wellbeing and for its survival. How can we architects achieve a re-engagement and begin once again to help? We can begin with a continuum concept of architectural reality. We can use theory to articulate this continuum and locate our practice within an evolution of consciousness.
We know, for example, that when the conscious mind is damaged, the deep mind is still capable of music, poetry and architectural consciousness of a startlingly eidetic quality. Why?
Poetic, musical and architectural realities are rooted in the actual experiences that form the mind of every person. They occupy areas that are 400,000 years old and not readily accessed by the conscious mind. Four thousand years of Western individualism privileging the conscious intellect have brought benefits, but have also obscured and devalued the role of the total consciousness; damaging and depriving the environment in the process.
Human survival mechanisms relegate all experience to the humdrum, to the automatic. As soon as something is understood, identified or classified, we cease to focus on it and clear decks for the next action. The social role of poets, artists, musicians and architects is to re-engage society with these deeper realities; their complete consciousness.
Architectural practice and pedagogy have increasingly removed from architects and society alike a ready access to architectural reality. Overwhelmingly, the constructed environment is made by others and built on a narrow utilitarian basiswith our desperate need for a continuum in architectural reality signalled by our embracing the tides of kitsch. As society is sometimes aware, this failure of the continuum of our evolution has caused us to accelerate the entropic spiral.
As our experience is of degradation, we internalise degraded knowledge and impoverished expectations of architectural reality. Each person’s architectural reality is the internalised knowledge that our continuum as beings sets us up to process out of our spatial existences in this world. This internalisation is an increasingly well understood and described phenomenon. (On a recent BBC Horizon program, ‘The Man Who Made Up His Mind’, Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman argued that our brains are not computers but are shaped by our experiences.) This knowledge is quite literally inscribed within the brain. It is a system which may or may not be wholly contained within the body, but which certainly extends to the full extent of the body. We can now argue that this process is ignored at the cost of architecture itself.
Reverie may be the most important tool available to architects.
This question dogs me in the United States whenever I talk about the work of the architects who are associated with the Master of Architecture by Project program at RMIT. There is a great temptation to dismiss the question as one of those effortlessly bland assumptions of cultural priority which characterise imperial hegemony. If the question only arose in the USA, I would probably not give it much more thoughtand might adopt the insistence of a Japanese exchange student who ended an Australian debate on the question during my first year in the country by interjecting that he could not see what was at issue: Australians were palpably Australian.
But the question also arises in Spain; location of a most extraordinary flowering of architecture during the last years of this century. Here the question has an accusatory air, suggesting that Australia’s architecture and culture have a tiresome tendency to focus on West Coast exemplars. Similar scepticisms abound across Europe.
Having been an Australian for more than six years, I can no longer answer innocently. I am complicit. When I arrived here for the first time, all that I could see were differences. Australian architecture, be it colonial or new, was unlike any assemblages I had encountered anywhere else.
Yes, I could trace lineages and precedents, but it was as if the plans had been lost and the buildings were being constructed from memoryin strange materials, with newly invented tools and for purposes not intended. Also, they were set in a landscape intractable to being reinvented as pastoral Europe; with different air, light and earth. Who could ever forget their first view of the blue eucalyptus haze hanging over the endless ridges of the Great Dividing Range? Or fail to wonder at the landscapes of 19th century artists who tried to configure this vast strangeness as a familiar and accepting European forest? Pressed to the coast, the settlement of Australia looks to the sea but is haunted by the red centre. This is a unique mental space, difficult to learn. Reacting to the heat of February, a stranger instinctively heads for the hills, while the natives know that the hills are on fire and head for the shore; mindful of Ash Wednesday in 1984, when the sky over Melbourne was blacked out by smoke and dust. Can I now capture all of those differences that so dominated my early years here? The paradox of the spreading suburbs and the huddled, urban, Breughalesque holiday camps of Australia’s holiday dreamsso different from the romantic loneliness that my own idea of holiday entailed? Are these differences profound differences, or naïve travellers tales?
In How German Is It? Walter Abish constructs an intensely believable picture of Germany from the flows of the information media. He has never visited the country and yet he has it there on paper. The central motif of the book, the development of a new town on the site of a extermination camp, seems to arise from poetic licence; a metaphor for life after the holocaust. History has removed the metaphor.
What are the metaphors that the passage of time reinvents as Australian actuality? The Lucky Country is drenched in the sadness of the originating genocide; a sadness that becomes greater the more that reconciliation is denied. Then it is saturated with a desperate desire for love and human contact that the lack of women on ‘the fatal shore’ denied; a suppression of warmth and love into the prickly fraternity of Australian male mateship that cruels social relationships to this day. Juan Davila picks up the fear and longing of the bush in all his reworkings of historical moments. Great figures of Australian settler history strain out of the picture frame towards the futureclutching the imperial flag while a blonde forebear of the Bondi surfer penetrates them from behindthe strangeness being also the opportunity for tragically illicit sexual congress. In Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey finds the same abrupt sexuality lurking in the bush; an echo of Patrick White’s bottom-flashing dive into icy cold water in The Twyborn Affair. Both of these writers pick up the awful bleakness of suburban life in the unacknowledged wastes of Australia’s own sites of extermination. It is no accident that Patrick White wrote so surely about the holocaust in the setting of a suburb of Sydney (Riders in the Chariot). It is no accident that Barrie Kosky, director of Melbourne’s Jewish Theatre Company, collaborates successfully with Peter Corrigan in working through the themes of the pogroms.
The constitutional monarchy is Australia’s mechanism for denying this past; for clinging to imperial Christian mores and for failing to create a culture that reconciles Australians either with the Aborigines or with the raped and despoiliated landscapes that resulted from what now seem insane attempts to make over the continent as Europe (as noted by Paul Carter in The Lie of the Land).
It is also the bastion which stands between Australians and the invention of a culture that builds shamelessly upon the love that they discovered could be forged out of even that harshest of imperial constructs: the all-male prison colony. Recognition of that love couldas it has in that other southern sub-continentopen life up in new ways. In May 1990, during negotiations leading to South Africa’s reconciliation with its past, the African National Council’s constitutional lawyer, Albie Sachs, stated: “What has happened to lesbian and gay people is the essence of apartheidit tried to tell people who they were, how they should behave, what their rights were. The essence of democracy is that people should be free to be what they are. We want people to be free.”
The sadness that dulls all of Australian life will not wither away until Australians unshackle from the mores of the empire and embrace their own past.
The sadness that pervades those images of suburban households with their FJ Holdens, surfers on endless beaches and the unremitting sunthat sadness has been slowly undermined by the arrival of post-colonial settlers whose own transferred cultures resist for a while the seeping, unreconciled, local ghosts. Barry Humphries’ despairing caricatures pre-date this phenomenon; a phenomenon that has given the two great cities of Australia a cosmopolitanism that resists, for a while at any rate, the unresolved and denied conflicts of the past. As Diane Lewis pointed out when she was visiting fellow to RMIT’s Centre for Design in 1990, that resistance may not last longer than the memory of the recipe for poppy seed cake is sustained by bakers in Acland Street, St Kilda. This kind of memory has already died in New York.
How Australian is it? emerges as the most important question that one can ask about Australian cultural production. Not in nationalistic termsthe 20th century has revealed that to be a dead end. But in terms of a surer sense of self-worth and wellbeing. At RMIT, my ambition has been to work towards such a reappraisal. Our efforts are now housed in a building that lunges towards a local joy, in ways that are far more sustainable than those which propelled Gaudi into an architecture of the particular in Barcelona.
The self-parodying gestures of Dame Edna are there in full force, parading all the failures to break free from proper pretensions, parading despair at the failure of rationalism to quiet the ghosts or to stop us creating more in our turn. If this is a religious approach after alland all architecture is religious at its corethen it is not a private, authoritarian religion that we observe, but one which deals with the very wounds of the place.
But also, our RMIT Building 8 is in conversation with its situation on the civic spine of this great South Pole-facing city; talking to our Greeks, our Chinese, our Japanese, our Italians, our Vietnameseeven matrons in Kew who express, over tea, their distress at the passing of English politesse.
The article is illustrated with concepts by RMIT associates and students of Leon van Schaik.
This issue of Architecture Australia is guest edited by John de Manincor and Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, the creative directors for Material, the 2013 National Architecture …
With the nation’s capital celebrating its centenary this year, Landscape Architecture Australia’s May issue surveys the people, projects and issues – past and present – …
We are often drawn to the character of older homes – terraces, country homesteads, traditional Queenslanders and so on. How do you infuse the same …
Reality television has come a long way since Big Brother, the lowest common denominator, social train wreck, first aired over a decade ago. Back then …
Bent Architecture grouped functional zones and fragmented the plan to balance privacy and views.
Sean Godsell Architects’ RMIT Design Hub functions “as both a building and declaration”.
The University of Canberra has named the winner of its Lodge on the Lake Design Ideas Competition.
On the NSW Central Coast, a house by architect David Boyle sits atop a rugged bush block.