It was the 16 November 2017: Christmas was approaching; and all of the ‘end of year’ events. It was the day for the opening of the Spring Exhibition at the Abedian School of Architecture: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/12/abedian-school-of-architecture-spring.html Oddly, the title of this display sounded more European/American than anything local: 'Spring.' Australia does not really refer to its seasons in this manner; but perhaps that was the aim: a touch of class? Australians still look to other countries for some recognition of status. It displays something of the young country’s lack of confidence; its insecurity. The seasons in Europe and the USA are much more defined than in Australia, so there is real sense in referring to them there – they punctuate the year memorably. It had never occurred to me, but recently I was asked by a French visitor after explaining the lack of definition in the Australian seasons, the tiny changes: "But doesn't it get boring?" Maybe that is an inherent part of the bland Australian character, its drawl: we tolerate things 'boring' with a careless, lackadaisical ineptitude - "She'll be right mate."
House as portrait?
In parallel with this display of the student work, the Spring Exhibition, there was to be a talk by Sydney architect Hannah Tribe, part of the annual lecture series run by the school – the last for the year. The drinks and buzzing chat of the exhibition lingered on. It was not until 6:40pm that the crowd was called to order and asked to sit down. Was this going to be another long, late-start, evening, dragging on, careless of everyone else’s schedules? Professor Keniger introduced Ms Tribe by suggesting that he knew little about her and her work - he had looked up her web site for information. His comment was that she was discrete and modest in her description of herself, adding that she had won the final year's prize for her student work at university, and has subsequently been running a respected and successful Sydney practice that has undertaken an astonishing broad scope and variety of projects for its youth. He then handed the microphone over.
Google Images Renaissance portraits
Now any comment on clothing here has nothing to do with gender, or any insipid, 'royal' commentary: it has all to do with the quaint habits of those in the profession. Hannah Tribe wore a long black dress, a colour that seems to be preferred by architects. Unusually, her 'Corb' glasses were white. She moved straight into her talk without any preamble, with the comment that she saw her houses as “portraits of her clients;” “like a portrait, the house had a likeness to the sitter.” Read altogether, collectively, “the houses could be seen as a portrait of a culture.” This statement of her philosophy was accompanied by a collection of Renaissance heads, (from Google Images?), followed by the words of Lucian Freud: "Everything is biographical."# (On Freud, see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/05/freud-on-painting.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/05/graphic-freud-design-as-sex.html ) This was her core strategy and logic, seemingly the basis of her work: its raison d’etre. She did not illustrate her words with any of the stunning Freud portraits.
Lucian Freud portraits
House as portrait?
The screen opened up to lovely line drawings as Ms Tribe developed her ideas: “a bunch of houses tells the story of culture and time;” “the house compares with the city – intensely personal and public; the house as portrait expresses the client; there is no elegant, uniform housing theme, only the super mongrel.” Her work was “the experiment in the mongrel: to tell the story of culture.” The stage was being set; we were being encouraged to see her projects in a certain manner, (c.f. John Berger Ways of Seeing; and Wittgenstein’s ‘seeing as’ - the duck-rabbit example), as a cohesive set of projects organised by the same, core philosophy: a mongrel one! There looked to be a latent irony here that sought rigour in chaos; order is a shambles.
Hannah Tribe explained that she had returned to talk to her clients about her work, and planned to use their recorded words in her talk. It was a good idea; clients and their thoughts are usually ignored in favour of ‘archi-speak.’ She started with her extensions: cool, white boxes that explored light and shadow, shaped for their unique contexts. Each project developed a theme and was given a catchy title. The old was kept with the new added beside it in sundry ways. Various and different strategies that had been adopted for extensions were sketched, named, and explained. The words told of creating “a little piece of architecture;” of an “interest in light; in 'interesting' spaces;” in “romantic overlays; and the celebration of things suburban – the very things that Robin Boyd hated.” Ms Tribe spoke of how she “celebrated ugly things,” and added lean-tos to the old structures to create “an extension of self through architecture.” Just what did this mean? The words framed poetic ideas that attempted to shape the ordinary world of the everyday in a special, an unusual way. There appeared to be an inherent contradiction here, but it all sounded intriguing. Was one not meant to think too deeply about things, just feel good about the set scene?
Projects, all extensions, were shown, along with a couple new homes. One new building was accompanied by the frank words of the client. It was good to see that the client’s descriptions were not edited to all be in favour of the architect, effuse with personal praise: “I will never use an architect again!” Strangely, these family places all appeared similar in a certain way. While externally they had different expressions in response to the original suburban building being extended - “you’ll never see the architecture” - the interiors were all white surfaces with polished concrete floors, clear glass and clear finished timber, complete with slick, minimalist kitchens, elegant storage units, and smart detailing: truly modernist. The subtlety of place encompassed externally was transformed into simple abstractions as interiors. Windows and other openings were scattered about appropriately, architecturally, like the other detailing, to try to frame jacarandas – there always seemed to be a jacaranda somewhere. The lovely purple glowed in the glazed rectangles – a speck of colour in the bright light of white. It was never said that the open purple haze looking pretty against a bright blue sky only lasted for a few weeks a year!
These were portraits? Oddly every project appeared similar, familiar, in one way or another. Then, when one saw the families photographed with their home – reminding one of Grant Wood’s American Gothic - something bizarre happened: all of the family groups started to look the same too! Was this the basis of the similarities: that Tribe attracted a certain type of client? The concept of the house as portrait appeared to become a concern as it was pondered. Was this merely a catchy idea on which to structure a talk? Can a house be a portrait? Is Ms Tribe merely saying that the function and expression of the house relates to the family's specific requirements, its lifestyle and expectations? Is it too old fashioned to talk of specific form following specific functions, (not forgetting Louis Sullivan’s ‘function of the rose’)? 'Portraits' sounds much more exotic than this FFF cliché, more academic and theoretical; new; quixotically elite and intellectual. Is this what architecture is – has become?
There were other ideas too that elaborated on the details of the philosophy/strategy: “prosaic inner poetic; the family life response to the street, the bungalow; the connections between spaces, between inside and out; contextualise; new out of old; overlay with a new story of the family; exploring the idea of the familiar and unfamiliar in suburbs; materiality; have lots of fun with materials and language; to help find a poetic in the mundane; only good if portraits of clients – honour the invitation to do the house; what a home needs to be (Louis Kahn was not mentioned as the reference); collage of pieces and parts; dialogue with Victorian heritage; patterns of light and shade.” The words lingered as they shaped a thoughtful, caring and sensitive, responsive world: or were they clichés?
House as portrait?
A few larger projects were illustrated, and some current projects. Ms Tribe then repeated the Lucian Freud statement, turning it into “everything is a portrait” – was she adapting Freud to give her theme standing and relevance? – as if to neatly sum up the evening’s presentation. One wondered: were her words explanations after the event – a way of making sense out of a hybrid set of random, disconnected projects: the ad hoc? But there was more: she continued with her talk, introducing her staff and explaining their ambitions for the future, one by one. It was a nice change to not only see the clients have a say, but the staff also. Too often, architectural firms frame the glory, the accolades, in the company’s name only, not those of the staff involved – the back-room workers usually remain concealed.
The Tribe office
Hanrahan A Setting 2017
Hannah Tribe then moved on into more abstract matters, as if to further enrich her ideas; to give them some abstract, arty relationship: “amateurs of the imaginary; a sense of mystery; calligraphic/ runic” describing A Setting 2017, the work of Christopher Hanrahan – see: https://www.google.com.au/search?biw=1006&bih=633&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=Xg0zWpDsCsf98gX4toLgDg&q=christopher+hanrahan+artist+the+setting+2017&oq=christopher+hanrahan+artist+the+setting+2017&gs_l=psy-ab.3...29571.36328.0.36922.214.171.124.0.0.0.459.3055.0j5j3j3j1.12.0....0...1c.1.64.psy-ab..7.0.0....0.4sAUICzpkf4#imgrc=E50gmR4gDx8jOM: “antiquity describes armature; new disturbs old subservient; how to weave back together again.” Were these merely clever words seeking status; recognition? Was this postscript an attempt to capture, to cast some of the mystery and magic into the Tribe work: to shape a way of seeing it; feeling it?
Then, as if this was not enough, she quoted A.A.Milne The Old Sailor*: a story about procrastination. It is a long poem to make such a particular point, but it made its mark, letting Milne, of Christopher Robin fame, his sensitivity, get close to her, her thoughts, and her work. The message seemed to be: do not get into such a muddle that you give up - “create a happy healthy working environment; want conceptual work with pragmatic work; respond to heritage not as an apology.” In short: “firmness, commodity, and delight.” Ms Tribe had cleverly linked her work and ideas into the perennial philosophy of things architectural, as identified by Vitruvius and confirmed by Wotton. What could be better than to end in this manner, after weaving Renaissance portraits, Freud, Hanrahan and Milne into the poetic, feel-good, special-ordinary mishmash?
The talk finished at 7:22pm. No, it was not to be a late evening that tediously continued on with endlessly indulgent words explaining ME and MY special brilliance in every intimate, extended detail that means most to the presenter.
It was an astonishing talk, thoughtful, to the point, snappy, cryptic, thorough. It is the most compact of the Abedian talks attended to date, (Leplastrier must be next on the list – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/richard-leplastrier-ephemeral.html ), and the most dense with substance, sense, structure, and subtlety. It was a beautiful talk, sensitive, (to both clients, staff and audience), with endearing illustrations. By way of contrast, the exhibits all had a sense of exhibitionism about them, work to be displayed; egos to be promoted by glossy publication: of things authentic being shoved aside to become ‘attractions’ - where ordinary simple architecture is trampled upon, seen as lesser. Architecture is not fairy floss or pretty fuzz: it needs substance, feeling. It has to touch the real world of work and ideas as expressed in Hannah Tribe’s projects.
The Tribe talk exposed these matters with rigour and intellectual skill, and nice drawings. It was complete, truly lovely; even if one might have some questions about various issues. Is this not the challenge of debate and review – the search for that elusive sense of truth; the perpetual testing of conjecture with refutation (Karl Popper)? The profession must accept this process or become a self-congratulatory, self-indulgent mate’s club. It was wonderful to see good, sensitive work, modestly and carefully, thoughtfully presented; work that ‘had its feet on the ground, and with the head connected to them.’ One hopes that the students were listening and learning.
Michael Ondaatje expands on this quotation:
“Everything is biographical, Lucian Freud says. What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border we cross.”
The Old Sailor
by A.A. Milne
There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn't because of the state he was in.
He was shipwrecked, and lived on a island for weeks,
And he wanted a hat, and he wanted some breeks;
And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hooks
For the turtles and things which you read of in books.
And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing
Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;
And he thought that to talk to he'd look for, and keep
(If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.
Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut
With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut
(With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),
And a very strong lock to keep savages out.
He began on the fish-hooks, and when he'd begun
He decided he couldn't because of the sun.
So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that
Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat.
He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree,
When he thought, "I'm as hot as a body can be,
And I've nothing to take for my terrible thirst;
So I'll look for a spring, and I'll look for it first."
Then he thought as he started, "Oh, dear and oh, dear!
I'll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!"
So he made in his note-book a couple of notes:
"I must first find some chickens" and "No, I mean goats."
He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)
When he thought, "But I must have boat for escape.
But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;
So I'd better sit down and make needles instead."
He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,
That, if this was an island where savages lurked,
Sitting safe in his hut he'd have nothing to fear,
Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!
So he thought of his hut ... and he thought of his boat,
And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,
And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst) ...
But he never could think which he ought to do first.
And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved -
He did nothing but bask until he was saved!