The workings of the 2002 National Awards Jury, as explained by chair Ed Haysom in the last issue (AA November/December 2002), leave a lot to be desired. The process of a national jury meeting in Canberra and arriving at a short list of entries to inspect, after reviewing submissions “of varying photographic quality” from the state award winners, is inadequate.
Surely all state award winners deserve an inspection.
God only knows what poorly photographed potential national winners are omitted.
Stories abound of a Robin Boyd Award from Queensland a couple of years ago – the fortunate result of a local architect’s chance comment to a national jury member that the house should be inspected even though it had not been short-listed.
The award system is an important function of the RAIA. The winners should be the best examples in reality, not the most interesting photographs.
BIRRELL ON GRIFFIN
Canberra Following Griffin by Paul Reid (National Archives of Australia) is an impressive collection of maps, plans, drawings and reproductions of excellent quality. The text, however, particularly Chapter 3, “Dreamers and Doers”, infers that Griffin was a dreamer and his detractors were doers. I believe Griffin was a visionary and the doers were intransigent and destructive.
John Sulman, according to Reid, replaced Griffin’s urban vision with “the city as a garden suburb”. Sulman’s work was derivative, never original. Just before he left England for Australia in 1885, the Secretary of the RIBA told him that the home body was concerned about the low standards prevailing in the Australian profession generally and the disquieting reports of events of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales. Sulman clearly was “charged to do all he could to clean up the mess and to impose on the colonials the standards of England”.
Sulman’s distraction was to promote British architects over all others. J. M. Freeland’s Architect Extraordinary: The Life and Work of John Horbury Hunt (Cassel Australia) covers these events in detail. Sulman, through private deals and committee manipulations, took control of the New South Wales Institute of Architects, leaving Hunt, an Americantrained architect, outside the pale. Although Hunt had for years tried to improve professional standards as the main issue of the Institute, Sulman’s agenda was different.
Throughout Marion Mahoney Griffin’s unpublished manuscript “Magic of America”, held by the National Library of Australia, there are many references to Sulman’s suave sabotaging methods undermining the Griffins almost from the moment they first stepped ashore in Sydney.
Reid states that “there was little in their (Griffins’) experience that predicated the design mastery of their winning entry” and that “by the time of the competition the citizens of Chicago were enjoying the fruits of decades of town planning ideas”.
Although Reid quotes from Mark Peisch, The Chicago School of Architecture (Random House, 1964), he omits the following statement: “Griffin’s professional commitments involved him in the planning of a variety of building types, in landscape architecture, suburban community planning, commercial domestic design, architecture of tropical climates.” Reid also neglects to mention that Griffin studied forestry and landscape gardening at the Department of Horticulture, University of Illinois in 1898.
Griffin’s work had been widely published and he so impressed the University of Illinois they offered him the professorial chair in Civic Design in 1912. This was the first chair in Civic Design in the United States. Fortunately for Australia he turned this down.
Reid, and others before him, has attempted to indicate that the design for Canberra was the joint work of the Griffins.
Study of the “Magic of America” does not support this. Marion is clear in her admiration for Griffin’s unique capacity, writing: “… and anyway it was a joy to know that such creative work as constantly dropped from Griffin’s pencil would have its influence in moulding our civilization to beauty…” Later, she revealed in two separate statements, “While I played around with the architect with whom I was working in the picture-making business, in which we took so much pleasure, Burley Griffin took things more seriously for there was the same difference between Louis Sullivan and the many who followed him that there was between Griffin and myself. It is one thing to be a painter of lovely pictures…” And, “His fertility in design in architecture as in town planning has not been matched by anything since the days of Louis Sullivan who broke the ice for creative work in modern times.” ›› Throughout Reid’s book praise is given to authoritarian public service architects and planners for correcting mistakes in Griffin’s planning. Griffin is held responsible for errors compromising his plan during his period as Director of Design and Construction for Canberra. No acknowledgement is made of the fact that for the final years of his commission he was on part-time monthly renewable contracts while the public servants had permanent jobs. Griffin’s main concern, expressed at the time of his dismissal, was to get the main lines of his geometry on the ground. By compromising detail to appease the hostile public servants he did this. The evidence is clear in that his vision of the city is still valid on the ground despite continuous intentional damage to it.
Further criticism alleges Griffin’s incompetence in horticulture and landscaping. The plantation of redwood east of the airport is given as an example. This plantation was outside of the city and was intended as an experimental commercial plantation to see if an industry could be developed by harvesting redwood. Griffin complained to the Prime Minister that no notice was ever taken of his advice on landscaping other than the planting of some cork bark trees. (Today some of his landscape subdivisions in the suburbs of Chicago are lovingly tended by the residents and other admirers of his work.)
Nevertheless, the exhibition of the Griffin material at the National Archives of Australia and the publication of the book have had the effect of introducing many more people to the wonders of the work of Walter and Marion. Comments abound about what happened to the concepts underlying the plan to relate it to twentieth-century democracy. In Griffin’s absence nothing of this material ever emerged, as the authoritarian basis of bureaucratic administration must have found any reference to this an anathema to their agendas. The restriction on access to Marion’s manuscript will eventually be lifted and the emergence of new files, records, library, drawings and even furniture of the Griffins will help Australians further develop their national capital in the spirit of democracy as Griffin intended.
James Peter Birrell Queensland
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
“The best things come last!” Peter Myers makes it all sound so wonderful (“Utzon’s Return”, AA November/December, 2002).
The euphoria of his review of the Venue Improvement Plan and Utzon Design Principles documents released in May 2002 led me to believe that a miracle was in progress, not the devastating sight, several weeks back, of a not-so-OK-Corral rubbish heap invading the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. Nothing in the Venue Improvement Plan quite prepared me for the defilement I witnessed. Indeed, the venue document ingenuously showed “Before” and “After” views, the first of the forecourt occupied by a red Sydney Explorer bus, the second, a couple flinging themselves into an energetic ballroom sequence. “Very informative,” I thought at the time!
The lack of detailed architectural information in the plans is a mystery after three-and-a-half years work devoted to their development. What is going on? Why is there no real detail, nothing concrete, no history?
Peter Myers’ answer seems to believe the architectural Messiah has returned.
A storm of criticism has erupted in the Sydney press, including a letter of condemnation from the President of the NSW Chapter of RAIA over the Opera House forecourt performance space. The question that must be asked and answered urgently is, is this a genuine indication of Utzon’s genius, or is it merely something that Richard Johnson has done unaided by Utzon? The changes may be temporary, but they totally debase the forecourt and ignore Utzon’s principles presented on p. 9 and elsewhere.
If this is the beginning, what further horrors await us? The Improvement Plan contains virtually no genuine architectural information; indeed, what is shown in the document will almost certainly not be implemented. Rather, the publication was about leverage and it was a political document to get the government moving.
The main issue that should concern us now is the real extent of Utzon’s involvement, at 84, in new plans for the Sydney Opera House. When Utzon turned 80, he stated publicly that he was retiring. After considerable pressure, he agreed to participate in the Opera House upgrade, but only on condition he was assisted by his eldest son Jan. Except for his second house on Majorca, he has been inactive for much longer. There is no likelihood of his ever returning to Australia. The behaviour of our media, moreover, guarantees that, as he becomes increasingly frail, long distance travel is out of the question.
I was disappointed with Mr Myers’ review because it contains no critical analysis, and no recognition of what these two vitally important documents should have delivered by way of information, much less what this lack implies for the future. Hopefully, the current forecourt debacle will assist to demystify issues of responsibility and quality control. Not even Verdi could have saved the current forecourt plans, they are so badly executed.
Philip Drew is the author of three books about the Sydney Opera House