A portrait of failed criticism

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The facade of ARM Architecture's Portrait building in Melbourne depicts the face of Aboriginal leader, William Barak (c.1824 – 1903).

The facade of ARM Architecture’s Portrait building in Melbourne depicts the face of Aboriginal leader, William Barak (c.1824 – 1903). Image: Peter Bennetts

Andrew Mackenzie reviews recent commentary on ARM Architecture's Portrait building, and finds it marred by racial profiling, pedantry and unsubstantiated opinion.

The commentary that has followed the formal unveiling of the William Barak apartment building known as Portrait, ARM Architecture’s latest contribution to the Melbourne cityscape, illustrates both the impoverished state of public discussion about architecture and the degree to which anachronistic Victorian attitudes prevail as to what constitutes a public monument. While the project is yet to be reviewed in an architecture magazine, a succession of commentators writing for respected cultural mastheads such as the Griffith Review and The Conversation, along with blogs such as Future Black, have taken the opportunity to voice their views: views that together represent a sustained mix of unsubstantiated opinions, generalizations, conservative art historicism, pedantry and fiction, topped off with some racial profiling for good measure. Collectively, they amount to a critical failure, and one in which the responsibility must surely lie as much with the mastheads and their editors as with the authors.

Accusations include some barmy asides, such as the portrait is not in fact a portrait, and that the advertising campaign was not on message with the architects. More significantly, however, most of the commentaries share a dismay that a portrait, or more precisely this portrait, might be used to commemorate an important Indigenous figure, while being placed on a commercially developed apartment building – one in which the developers audaciously expect to turn a profit. These commentaries, some misdirected others simply weak, are nevertheless constructed with great care to deliver a variety of straw men (and yes, the gender is specific) that approximate the form of the great white colonial architect, who apparently brings nothing but travesty to the memory of the last King of the Yarra.

None of the commentators appear in the slightest bit interested in the place this piece of architecture might assume within a critical dialogue of what contemporary architecture is, or indeed within the body of work of a practice that has conducted a complex negotiation with the canon of architecture for nearly three decades. Their criticism of the building is simply a vessel for their own cultural and political interests, and that is all. Of course this is partly unfortunate for the profession, but more importantly, it fails the readers, who might be interested in a discussion of architecture.

This lack of interest in architecture as a cultural activity, including but not limited to its social, economic and political nature, leaves the commentary and its readers no better informed about the narratives of representation and iconography in the contemporary city – a reading that this project so fully welcomes. Instead, it is happy to simply deny the architects’ stated intentions, while simultaneously conflating an invented intentionality, now seen as nothing more than callow and ironic, with those of the greedy developer, the sound-bite politician and the fast talking real estate agent. In this costume drama, there is no space and no account given for a design process that is not hostage to the intentions of these hollow actors.

This is not to say that architects can quarantine themselves from their clients and their clients’ intentions. While Giuseppe Terragni’s sheer talent has indeed largely quarantined his reputation, not so for Albert Speer. To this day his work is bonded to the colossal persona of Hitler and therefore its meaning will forever be rightly linked to his horrific project. To be aware of the intent of a client, a stakeholder or community, and to respond in light of that intent is one thing. That responsibility the architect must assume. However, clearly, the contemporary city contains any number of actors who assume a role in the mechanisms and processes of city making – planners and regulators, builders and spruikers, fund managers and deal makers, developers and ministers. Building in the city is necessarily the product of multiple intentions.

One must take care to note, for instance, that the architect may not in fact be responsible for the provision of affordable housing. Nor does the architect dictate the cost-per-square-metre of a commercial development. But in the case of the Portrait building, any attempt to disinter the multiple social, commercial and political dimensions of this major residential development, each with its own actors with their own intentions, is jettisoned for the soft option of assuming that the architects’ intentions are no more subtle or complex than that of a real estate agent.

Let’s briefly review three commentaries that together represent distinct but related criticisms of the building – related by the alacrity with which they disparage the architects’ intelligence, integrity and cultural ethics. I’ll start with what is perhaps the frailest argument, which is disappointing since it comes from that otherwise tremendous source of critical discourse, The Conversation.

It seems Christine Hansen has a Problem. “The problem I have is not with the idea that Barak should have a place in the consciousness of the city, but with the overt association between the 530 luxury apartments that are the Portrait building’s actual purpose, and the lifelong dedication of William Barak and the entire Kulin nation to the struggle over land.” Ok, let’s look at Christine’s problem.

Firstly, the author dislikes the idea that an apartment building could be both a private development while simultaneously performing a public and civic representative role, in commemorating the life of an important Indigenous land activist. Hansen will have to get used to commercial buildings fulfilling a range of public and civic functions. The Victorian days of segregated architectural roles, where libraries, town halls and bronze monuments have exclusive rights over civic meaning are long gone. Clearly no building that rises to the size of a mountain on the high street can be called private, and that commercial developments might engage sincerely and positively to build a streetscape that is something more than an extrusion of net lettable areas, and that pushes the facade and form of a building beyond default articulated decoration, is a good thing. Buildings contain meanings, some hidden, some implied, some explicit. Much of Melbourne’s historical urban fabric projects colonial meaning: the will to civilize and bring order, for good and of course for bad. In that context, for an architect to employ their skills to bring other meanings to the fore in our buildings must surely be recognized as valuable.

Not, it would seem, if the building is an apartment. Yet let’s remember that Grocon had a choice – to just build another anonymous featured facade, or to collaborate with ARM in an effort to honour the person of William Barak and to inscribe his presence on the city’s most important civic axis. The first would have been very easy to do. It’s the default option. That they chose the latter was a risk, and as anyone who knows developers will attest, they do not like risk. This fact should be properly acknowledged. And no amount of rhetorical flourishes like “high-end CBD real estate” and “investor-owned luxury apartments” will change the fact that Grocon and ARM have done something other – I would argue something better – than the standard issue apartment fodder.

For what it’s worth, a two-bed apartment in Portrait costs about $570k, which is marginally higher than the average market price for the CBD. That in itself is no doubt a concern for housing affordability but it reflects more on Australian tax law than design, so let’s dispense with the constructed scandal of luxury apartments. Grocon built pretty much standard priced city apartments.

Let’s remember at this point that even lifelong left-of-centre urban commentators like Michael Sorkin unequivocally declare that the best way to make a city more sustainable is to make it denser, to transform a Central Business District into a Central Activity District. In symbolic terms, a commemoration on public land would have been appropriate in the Victorian mode, but from a contemporary urban perspective, a multi-residential development is a positive contribution to the city, not a pariah.

The second point I would make about Christine Hansen’s “problem” is somewhat easier put. It wasn’t a “problem” for the Wurundjeri Elders. At the time the idea was brought to them The Australian and a swath of other newspapers, magazines and online portals declared that the Elders “welcomed the plans, saying such a prominent tribute to Melbourne’s first inhabitants had been a long time coming.” In between this report of 2010 and now, there has been a change in the composition of the Wurundjeri Elders. This in turn appears to have brought a change of heart. While the Elders are still broadly supportive of the project, there has been some criticism that the portrait is not a sufficiently accurate depiction of Barak’s face. I will address the question of portraiture and reality below, but for the moment it is worth stating an undisputed point of fact: the Elders who were consulted when the building was being designed and going through the long and torturous process of planning and approvals, were vocally and unequivocally supportive of the ARM design. Is the problem here that the Elders did not consult with Christine Hansen?

The more substantial of all critiques to date, at just under 5,000 words, was penned by David Hansen for the Griffith Review, entitled Headstone.

Hansen brings formidable historical scholarship to his article, exploring in great depth the stories behind the many portraits of Barak and the colonial violence and dispossession that characterized the times in which he lived. What is clear, as with the commentary of Linda Kennedy discussed below, is that the scars of colonial invasion and occupation run deep today, and continue to be recast in new forms as the current Australian Government illustrates. The wounds are still fresh because the abuses, to paraphrase a current minister, have not been “fixed.” As an Irish-Australian writer I am only too aware of this intense nexus of culture, politics and power that forms the inevitable backdrop to this portrait of Barak.

However, to honour the integrity and intense importance of this still unfolding story, it is vital that we acknowledge complexity while attempting to build connections between worlds, rather than walls. Hansen acknowledges early in his review that there was full support for Grocon using Barak’s image on the facade of the building, as stated by Wurundjeri Tribal Land Council CEO Megan Goulding. “The Elders have noted that it’s Grocon’s intention to pay respect to both Barak and the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of the Melbourne and greater Melbourne region over many thousands of years,” she said. “The Wurundjeri community is very moved by this gesture and appreciates the respect that both Grocon and ARM have shown in developing this exciting concept.”

Hansen then continues, as if these two things were inextricably linked, that, “barely six weeks later, the apartments were advertised for sale in a four-page liftout in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. Beruk [Barak] had completely disappeared.” Were this comment addressed within an essay on the racial failings of the advertising and real estate industries respectively, it might lead to a compelling analysis. Yet it is here located within a direct attack on the building and the architects’ intentions – a critical slight of hand to indelibly mark one with the failings of the other. For the record, architects are not consulted on the advertising techniques used to sell the buildings they design.

We are then taken on a lengthy tour of the different versions of Barak’s portrait: almost a quarter of the entire article. Early in this tour of Barak’s many representations, Hansen makes a remark that is critical in the context of his later attack on ARM. “Something of this authoritative bearing can be seen in the many pictorial records of ‘King Billy’. This archive of relatively small, flat images is in itself a powerful monument.”

What is made explicitly clear is that each of the many portraits is, as invariably all portraits are, an interpretation. Here Barak is depicted as fierce and defiant wielding a fighting club; there Barak is depicted as smartly dressed and “in European dress and handsomely hatted.” Hansen refers to one photograph of Barak as “one of the 104 ‘Portraits of Aboriginal Natives Settled at Corranderrk’ displayed at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866,” while also referring to other portraits that were “that luxury artefact of European culture, the oil portrait.” If this enjoyable journey around the politics of representation tells us anything, it is that the portrait is quintessentially an artefact of semiotic fascination. Hansen’s listing of portraits, their authors, their contexts and media, makes explicitly clear that the sign (portrait) is not the same thing as the person (William Barak) to which it refers. Within this narrative of past portraits it is not clear which archive he refers to as being a “powerful monument,” but surely all the images he refers to here conform to that of posed and constructed images of an Indigenous man authored by non-Indigenous artists and photographers.

And yet, at the culmination of this detour we are taken back to the building, at which time Hansen makes the extraordinary claim, “Now we can understand why it doesn’t really matter that the Beruk on the building is not really an actual, historical, documentary image of the man, but an idealised artist’s impression from a hundred years after his death. Because the Beruk on the building is not primarily a historical figure, but rather an icon of ARM’s ‘deep history’. The sad truth is that this building is not a monument to William Barak. It is not in fact a Portrait. And it is not, strictly speaking, a commemoration of any kind.”

So let’s stop and think about this profusion of negatives, starting with the status of the non-portrait. Is it not a portrait because it was posthumously authored, or because it doesn’t look enough like the photographs, or perhaps because it was digitally manipulated? Either way I would hazard a guess that Hansen’s definition of a portrait would not find space for a large portion of the portraits of the modern era.

Why is a bust of Barak by the sculptor Peter Schipperheyn so categorically a “superficial image of Aboriginality,” while portraits in his lifetime appear to reach the heady heights of being “a powerful monument?”

Let’s look at just one of the artists who painted Barak’s portrait in his lifetime, Artur Loureiro. In Hansen’s own words he was “a Paris-trained painter who was closely associated with the naturalists of the Heidelberg School, and who may have been inspired in his choice of subject by Tom Roberts’ 1890s heads of Corowa and Yulgilbar blacks.” So a portrait of a historical figure painted in his lifetime can be seen as part of a legitimate “monument,” but a portrait of a historical figure sculpted in the 21st century is neither a portrait nor of a historical figure. Is this anachronistic, uncritical nonsense what they teach in art history schools these days?

One has to marvel at how Hansen assumes the authoritative tone of “strictly speaking,” while failing to bring any discipline or to substantiate in any way his categorical tone. In the end we are left with the impression that Hansen doesn’t like Schipperheyn’s sculpture and thinks its kitsch, and so it follows that the work of ARM must be kitsch also.

This bizarre attitude, more akin to that of a connoisseur than a cultural commentator, gives Hansen the licence to load up the project with a loose collection of character crimes. Masking profit motives, insensitivity, more-PC-than-thou smugness and perhaps worst of all for the art historian, ironic postmodernism.

Hansen’s final coup de grace on this very peculiar straw man ends up being a conspicuous own-goal. Reflecting on the symmetry of the Shrine of Remembrance at one end of Swanston Street and the Carlton United Brewery at the other, he recounts how, as a young man, he “thought it a great joke the way that taken together, the twin nodes of a war memorial and a brewery created a neat caricature of the Australian national character”. Now he can “easily imagine the eyebrow-raising, the smirks and the slurs that Portrait will generate”.

In a recent public forum called Contextualising the William Barak Apartment Building, which I chaired at Fed Square, Aunty Joy Murphy, a Wurundjeri elder, stated unequivocally that she believed such a smirk was neither the intent of the architect, nor something she was in any way concerned about. One has to take stock of what it means that such an association is so easy for a non-Indigenous art historian, yet of no concern to a Wurundjeri elder. In asserting that the conjunction of an Aboriginal face and the site of an ex-brewery will inevitably lead to racist slurs, Hansen is responsible for his own act of patronizing condescension.

Hansen finally degenerates into the territory of utter projection at the end of this article, as he declares the portrait somehow, without explication, “inevitably recalls the regrettable social-Darwinist elements of nineteenth-century anthropology.” Reason, observation and analysis have long since left the room. For Hansen, it’s just inevitable.

The last review was posted by Kennedy in her blog Future Black, which she calls “my manifesto for the future of architecture.” There is a powerful argument that runs through her writing that makes her voice one to be heard. Her fundamental argument is a good one: that architecture should look beyond representation of Aboriginal cultures/histories and instead engage in “Indigenous ways of knowing/doing as primary design principles.”

There is no doubting the fact that the number of Indigenous architects in Australia, being still in single digits, represents a profound absence and a missed opportunity on so many levels. Australia, it should be noted, trails well behind the levels of Indigenous participation within the profession in New Zealand. As a young Indigenous architecture student, Kennedy represents a slowly emerging but, one hopes, steadily increasing current of change. I for one have no argument with her determination to look within her Indigenous culture for core design principles and not superficial representation.

This indeed is why it is so frustrating to see this logic used against a practice that more than most in recent years have engaged robustly with the core design principles that underscore contemporary architecture, in all its shades of colour. (As an aside, I am stunned by her repeated use of the words “white architects” to stand in for and imply a racial caricature and stereotype, which I am unable to differentiate from any other instance of judging a person by the colour of their skin).

That the architectural canon is infused with instances of colonial racism is not in question. That this canon should and must be interrogated and transformed by the living culture of today is also not in question. However, it takes a rather large and ill-informed step to then aggregate the architecture of the last century into a great undifferentiated edifice called “western architecture” (a phrase readily used by Kennedy at the Contextualising the William Barak Apartment Building panel discussion, which she also sat on), which by its lack of Indigenous content has no value, including to an Indigenous culture.

I would have thought that the subject at hand, so appositely embodied in the man William Barak, is the need to find bridges and forge connections. Barak did indeed hold a fighting club and wear a suit. Yet it is clear in the writings of Kennedy that she is very prepared to bundle up the architecture of the last century, disregarding the cultural exchange from Japan to Australia, from Brazil to England and from China to North America, and consider it all as a “colonial/invader mindset”. If it is true that ARM is an all white Australian practice, does that really mean therefore that it should stick to white Australian architectural content, whatever that cultural stereotype might be?

One thing to learn from all the straw men and shadow boxing within these reviews, and many more besides, is that the processes that surround the exchange between the built environment and Indigenous content, sites and forms need to be urgently addressed.

As has already been stated, ARM sought and attained the approval and approbation of the Wurundjeri Elders at the time. True, the engagement was more that of consultation than collaboration. Howard Raggatt has stated publically that they did not intend to make Indigenous architecture or engage in any other form of cultural over-reach. The intent was explained, approved and implemented. It’s all too easy to underestimate now the commitment undertaken back then, to embark on a design decision that would be carved so monumentally onto the face of this building. Both ARM and Grocon, in full consultation with the Wurundjeri Elders, nevertheless took a risk and frankly only time will tell if it was worth it. But the fact that so many voices now seem to blithely second guess those Elders, and assume a position of authority to dispute their authority, is perhaps the greatest failing in all this commentary.

The word irony has been misapplied to the architects’ intent in relation to the Portrait many times. There is, however, a more unfortunate irony that is rather more demonstrably real. It is that those voices of the Elders who gave the Portrait their resounding support at the point of the project’s approvals, have now been so thoroughly muted – in the name of defending Indigenous representation no less.

Disclosure: Andrew Mackenzie was a consulting editor for the recent monograph on the work of ARM Architecture, Mongrel Rapture (Uro Publications, 2015).


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