Monday, October 20, 2014

HOT MODERNISM – ARCHITECTURE IN QUEENSLAND 1945-1975



It was a beguiling title, ‘HOT,’ reinforced by the dramatically attractive graphics displaying a bright red sky, with buildings blocked out in white with a pale teal shading and orange highlights. The fire engine red was the beautiful colour of the setting sun in the Indian smog. The subject here was Queensland Modernism; modern architecture as revealed mainly in the southeast, Brisbane’s buildings during the period 1945 – 1975. Brisbane is a subtropical city, so the exaggeration of the roasting, red-hot coloured sky seemed a little overstated. Perhaps the prettiness of the circumstance and the cleverness of the graphic idea took over, for the images were skilful and alluring. Brisbane is usually publicized as a green city, lush with warm, moist growth; but the promotion of this show had done its job. One would have to go to this exhibition to see the display and the works chosen to illustrate the concept of the theme. It was, after all, the period during which one had been raised in Brisbane, trained as an architect and started work in the profession.



Visits to previous exhibitions at the Queensland Art Gallery have been criticised for their very poor displays that have been hazed by the reflective glare of poor lighting and made awkward to view because of inconsiderate arrangements of the pieces and the texts. The State Library of Queensland was promoting this exhibition. The Department of Architecture at the University of Queensland seemed to be involved too, so it would be interesting to see if the quality of the display in this architecturally themed show would be any different. One hoped that librarians and architects might understand the challenges and potential problems of display and communication better than most: see –
So it was that the visit to this exhibition was as much about the art of display as the architecture of Brisbane’s modernism – its history.



The experience of previous visits to this cultural complex on the south bank of the Brisbane River had taught one to consider the matter of car parking carefully before driving to this venue: see links above. The car parking associated with the cultural centre seems to have become structured for city day parking, with one full-day fee being the cost for any parking period. So, if one wanted to park for only two hours, assuming that there was space available - the parking is much cheaper than inner-city costs and spaces fill quickly – one had to pay for a full day: there was no other option offered. It seemed that very little consideration had been given to patrons visiting the centre. Parking appeared to be a very lucrative operation providing profits that blinded management to the ordinary needs of gallery patrons. So it was that for this visit the train was chosen for the means of transport. The South Brisbane station is only a five-minute walk away from the library that now promotes itself as the ‘SL’ in a cartoon voice bubble. Unfortunately, one is reminded of the Islamic State, ‘IS / ISIL,’ and its statements and actions.






One always hopes for more from a train journey than one gets, such is the historic romance of this form of travel that is recalled iconically as first class Orient Express luxury, or some hillbilly quaintness with steam. Parts of the expected enjoyment are usually there, but these are aggravated with annoyances that one seems to choose to overlook in the anticipatory dreaming of a journey. So it is that one exposes oneself repeatedly to the discomforts and inconveniences of rail travel that prove to be only too real.






As the landscape slid by as a grand cinematic vista, one soon became aware of the coarse prickly, vandal-proof carpet wall lining that was annoyingly rasping the arm. When this limb sought refuge on the windowsill, it was discovered that this ledge had been formed to ensure that it could never provide the comfort of an armrest, in the same way that the top of the seats had been designed. Backache soon made one aware of the extremely narrow seat one was sitting on, and its flat, vertical back support that forced one seek various angled positions for increased comfort, time and time again, without success. Alas, the seats were so crammed together that the knees had to be squeezed in to fit, making it a necessity to seek any alternative diagonal position, a possibility that relied on the adjacent seat being unoccupied.



Although one was pleased to be in the ‘QUIET CARRIAGE’ as the sign declared, requesting passengers to ‘Please refrain from loud conversations and use of loud musical and mobile devices’ – as if such activity might ever be acceptable anywhere – folk felt happy to chat with each other or on their mobiles as though everyone needed to be able to hear about the parochial personal issues being shared. The conversations nearly always included: “We’re nearly at . . . “ Signs were simply ignored as being meaningless, meant for others. The notice requesting ‘NO FOOD OR DRINK TO BE CONSUMED,’ loomed over a young lady who meticulously set up her picnic morning tea on her lap while half-full coke bottles rolled around the floor between seat and human legs and around the discarded, branded wrappings of fast food. One is always tempted to return such trash to its makers.


There was no one on the train to supervise the activity of passengers, or to check tickets. Little wonder that the train service struggles to make money, causing it to raise fares regularly. This trip cost $15.00 AU each way! It appears that the rail service itself struggles with ordinary English expression. One has to listen to the recurring announcement explaining that “This is an express train travelling to . . ., stopping only at . . . and . . . .” Express? Stopping? And then one is told that “This train terminates at . . .” Doctor Who darleks come to mind: “Ex-terminate!”. If only! Surely it is the journey that is terminated?


The need for nosings


It turned out to be an extremely uncomfortable trip that was terminated at South Brisbane where one exited the station to stroll across to the library. It was a beautiful sunny cloudless day. The sky was a glorious cool mid-blue; not red, or teal, or orange. The walk up to the overpass and along the dim museum tunnel filled with fibreglass whales overhead and recorded reverberant, moaning whale noises, was a little foreboding, mournful, but the library soon appeared. The small sign outside confirmed that this was the location for red HOT MODERNISM. One entered, but the signage disappeared, so the reception counter was approached with the question about the cost for entry. “It’s free. Just go up the stairs. You can take your bag.” Well, that was a nice surprise! But “up the stairs” proved to be a little puzzling.




The neighbouring 'nothing'

One turned into a huge mezzanine void. There were again no signs, but one spotted what looked like a red vending machine labelled HOT MODERNISM standing next to a column in the middle of nowhere, so approached this diagrammatic introduction to the exhibition. Still the question remained: where was the entry to this display? To the left one spotted a small glazed corner enclosure with the familiar bold graphics on it, this time of the hated riverside freeway made to look stunningly attractive. It looked like another poster advertising the show, so one strolled on. Nothing. On walking back, it was noticed that there was a finely framed automatic sliding glass door that split the graphic image and allowed entry. So one walked through with some degree of uncertainty. There was no welcoming encouragement here. It was an unsatisfactory beginning for an architectural exhibition that should show that it knows more about the qualities and readings of entry: the semiotics of architecture; the significance of signs.






One was encouraged to see the first exhibition space as an old Queensland verandah. It had all of the appropriate decorative, cut-out forms, but it felt strangely make-believe, remote from any familiar verandah experience. It was slick, dark, with a wall of blurry video, and the old 1960s ‘Timber and Tin’ film showing on a small TV screen. The space felt empty. As one moved in through the void progressively reading the introductory texts, one arrived at the first display: the Edwin Hayes house at St. Lucia, overlooking the Brisbane River. This was the original home before it was extended with a bold, Miesian box with a large circular window. This final form was not illustrated. The story told about how the house was designed for Queensland. Unfortunately it was difficult to feel comfortable looking at the Hayes presentation as it had a long seat placed directly in front of it, at right angles to it, arranged so that one looked away when one sat down. Why do such awkward juxtapostions never get noticed in the first checking / review of the exhibition? Has it to do with a lack of empathy?

The 'Timber and Tin' film



The nuisance seat



One moved on to more housing examples of the era, to a series of churches and then to some larger commercial buildings. The pattern was the same: a few photographs, perhaps some drawings, and some text, all on separate panels arranged artfully on a wall with the graphic image of each example cleverly illustrated using the standard colourful block technique at a large scale above the various sets of boards. Just what these images added apart from some slick diagrams and smart presentation is uncertain. Style and standing looked to be important in this exhibition, highlighting ‘my’ art today.





The theme and format appeared to have been established: the selected works of various architects from the 1945 – 1975 era were on display on brightly coloured walls. Just why this particular selection had been made was unclear. What was the story of history here; the idea? Was it merely a random selection of what could be called ‘modern’ put on display to create a themed show? It looked like an interesting collage of the post-war period with a few sundry asides, presented with some student exercises. What was one to make of this assemblage? Where was Edwin Codd’s and Campbell Scott’s furniture? Where was . . . ? The list could go on and on.






This was an era of change. Brisbane was transformed as new suburbs were opened up with Housing Commission and War Service homes, buildings that were constructed under the new austerity rules that specified size and materials.# But where were these buildings illustrated in this exhibition? One eventually discovered that, on a narrow, separate, isolated wall opposite the Hayes and other homes, almost as a display of outcasts, was a set of photographs placed high over some catalogues illustrating the housing options. Alas, it looked as though this important part of the activity in the post-war times appeared to have been self-consciously put to one side. Was it not ‘architectural’ enough? It did not seem to matter to anyone that the eaves overhang of the Hayes and Scott Jacobi house replica that had been framed up nearby as a theatre set, projected out rudely in front of these photographs of ordinary homes and gridded suburbs, partially concealing them. One felt that there was a snobbish ambition in this exhibition, to show only the different, surprising, perhaps provocative work of architects – ‘starchitects’: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/starchitects-starkertecture.html - as if architects had not been involved in any of the ‘ordinary’ buildings; and if they were, they were architects of ‘ill repute.’ If architects are to get greater respect from the public, they need to show more interest in ordinary life, not just the extraordinary outcomes of their glorified imaginations, the ‘architectural selfies’ promoted to be admired by a hagiographical class of professionals. This portion of the exhibition generated a feeling of disgust, insult that should not have been tolerated by the curators. It is not as though there was insufficient space to do more. The entry was a large, dark void, a nowhere with only a few texts on small plaques arrayed across the long wall.

The rude insult of a display




Soon the eye realised that the reflections and display problems typically noticed in other exhibitions remained a problem here. Are they really insurmountable? Too many words have already been written on these matters, so the images will be provided as the commentary on this matter - for one to reflect on it: see gallery below.


Shadows and glare abound: (see more in the picture gallery below)



The centre space of this exhibition was divided into two zones. One displayed a large model of the Brisbane CBD that had been made by students. Here, rolls of corrugated cardboard and a table and tools were provided for folk to create their own unique building mock-ups and place them for others to play with on the master model. Nearby shelves carried a huge number of cardboard models that made Brisbane potentially look like little Dubai, such were the variations in size, style and form. One seemed to be encouraged to see architecture as fun, a dramatic shaping and forming rather than anything else. Has the crumpled page / manipulated CAD image of the Gehry / Hadid approach really taken over?







The other zone in the core of the exhibition was taken up by what had been promoted as a full-size replica of the Jacobi house, the Hayes and Scott classic of its period. Replicas seem to be in vogue: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/school-of-architecture-hits-wall.html  One felt that one had to be familiar with the house in order to understand the replica. There were photos, and no doubt a plan, but it was not obvious. The reconstruction was a nice idea, but it did appear to need more explanation. The house is indeed a beautiful thing, both as a form and as a plan: a square with a diagonal core. This is the origin of the diagonal spaces in this exhibition that some may not readily appreciate. Having worked in the H&S office, I was familiar with this dwelling. I had once even taken a look at the file. The surprise was that the whole plan in every arrangement and dimensional detail had been given to Eddie Hayes as a part of the brief from his client. The drawing will still be in this file if it has not been tampered with. This situation does not take anything away from H&S who skilfully converted the client’s plan into a beautiful building. It is truly a work of synergy, wonderfully coloured by the master of the time, Edwin Hayes. Unfortunately the exhibition does not highlight this schematic fact: Campbell Scott detailed; Edwin Hayes coloured. I can recall one hotel project where Eddie Hayes coloured my detailing with a surprisingly beautiful classic black and white; red; striped pale green wall paper (pyramidal ceiling); and most elegant of all, a gold painted chain screen. His was a marvellous touch: stylish, as the Jacobi house shows.





John Morton (centre); Shane Ryan (right)


Jim Birrell

Hayes & Scott office

As one moved around the display, and watched and listened to the videos, sometimes with one sound overlapping another, one became nostalgic. Young familiar faces appeared on the screens: Jim Birrell; John Morton; Shane Ryan; et al., along with their work. More personally, the image of Scott and Hayes in their office had been photographed exactly from the seat I once sat at. One could guess which drawings were the work of ‘P.E.N.’ without looking for the initials. Peter Newell had a distinctive, bold hand, as well as an avuncular character. Neville Lund’s churches were recognisable too. His name brought back memories of this talented, gentle, caring man; but where were his houses? Has he been forgotten? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/lund-haunting-place-memory.html  He and Ian Ferrier are remembered for their remarkable book on Queensland architecture. Indeed, this exhibition had somewhat the same feel as this publication: a collection of the times, a small catalogue. It was good to see this book again. Indeed, it was good to see all of the buildings again, as well as the familiar names and faces. It brought back many memories, too numerous to speak about here. The surprise was the John Railton house. His was always beautiful, fine, rigorous, elegant work. Why was the Grenier Street house at Spring Hill, his own, not included?








A little space opened up in one corner. This turned out to be the Torbreck exhibit that was apparently trying to relate to the city high-rise vista, but the glare appeared to have been too great. Dark drapes grimly concealed the city view. How was this space conceived in the redevelopment of this Gibson library? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/on-death-of-robin-gibson-architect.html  The glass box seemed to create a problem here. One had to pull the curtains and peep through to see the hidden city and ponder a likely response to one of the set questions. Were these part of a CPD campaign? Why is everything being turned into a school exam?




The dead end

Time moved on. One likes to review what one has seen, to make sure one has not overlooked something, or misread an image or text: to summarise. After this last stroll through the exhibition, one thought about getting out, so one walked along the exhibition route looking for the ‘natural’ exit. Where on earth was it? At the place that seemed to be where one might expect the exit to exist, there was a ‘EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY’ sign with a strange ‘all yours’ lettered in below, and another forbidding curtain. Gosh! How did one exit. There was no indication, so one backtracked to the entry to check, to make sure that the exit had not been overlooked. The space started to feel claustrophobic. Yes, the dark curtain did open up into this entry zone. There appeared to be no exit! Was one to exit through the confined entry with its double set of automatic glass doors? It seemed that the exit from this exhibition was as confusing as the entry. One could praise the consistency, but it was truly unbelievable that such matters could be left so uncertain, so ill-defined, especially as it was an exhibition about things architectural. Why did this occur? Why was it seen as acceptable? Were prettiness, style and reputation more important than achieving an ordinary functional layout? Even the Jewish Museum in Berlin recognised the need for clear directions. It uses arrows on the floor to help one negotiate the maze of spaces. There was nothing here.

The 'natural' exit


Having exited through the entry, the visit was over: so back to the train station. The train ‘terminated’ at the station at the end of the line after nearly an hour and a half of aggravated discomfort, this time in a crowded train and in the full glare of the sunny side of the carriage with no opportunity to move or sit diagonally. At least the female driver had the refreshing wit to remind passengers to take all of their personal belongings when leaving the train, “and the children!” One left wondering what one might take from the exhibition that had just been visited, other than a flood of memories.

Exiting the entry



# One has to comment on the use of materials during this period. In a 1952 War Service home familiar to the author, every piece of timber was good quality hardwood: structural timbers, external cladding timbers, flooring timbers and joinery timbers.* The gable , eaves and roof were the notorious asbestos sheeting, James Hardie’s legacy. Interior walls were plaster, asbestos sheeting and hardboard, used where appropriate: plaster for rooms; asbestos for wet areas; hardboard around cupboards. Cupboards were made from 2x1 inch dressed pine framing, (as I learned to do them in the H&S office in the pre-particleboard era), with 2 x 1 pine framed doors sheeted in hardboard and shelves made from timber flooring off-cuts or hardboard. Plastic laminate covered timber flooring off-cuts for the kitchen benches. Pelmets were inverted skirting boars decorated with a D mould on the upper edge, with a strip of hardboard nailed to the architrave to finish off the top and support the whole. Facings between the hopper windows were strips of hardboard. Cupboards were cleverly incorporated into the walls, some being only a little thicker than the studs. One divider, a classic 1950s servery complex with sliding hardboard panels and shelf surrounds, used every available square inch, with some encasings being only the thickness of the paster or the hardboard, or the asbestos sheeting. One can admire the rigour and inventiveness of the careful, frugal use of materials and space.

Standard plaster and timber mouldings played an important part in ordinary decoration in this time. Decorative plaster cornices were used in the living room. Plain plaster cornices were used in the kitchen, dining and bedrooms and the passage space.  Quad mouldings were used as cornices in the bathroom and the deck that was half-covered. D mouldings were used to cover joints in hardboard and asbestos sheeting. The simple D mould was used on the front door that had been framed up on site and sheeted in plywood, (complete with vent holes top and bottom to prevent distortion, a detail Cam Scott would have appreciated), to create a distinguishing, decorative Z on the outer face, to define the door as the ‘main’ door: entry. Other buildings of the time used the D mould in the same manner to decorate ceilings, creating diamond panels and other ‘ornamental’ shapes. The carpenter was able to invent these variations when arranging the sheets, as he felt appropriate, using nothing more than a selection of standard pieces: D moulds, quad moulds, and scotia moulds of various sizes that came from the local timber yard.

Perhaps, instead of treating this work as mere asides, architects might learn from such examples as these little homes that have sheltered, and still shelter, so many families in an enclosure of about 12 metres by 6.5 metres: one living room; one dining room; one kitchen; one entry / laundry; one passage; one bath room; two bed rooms; one deck - surprisingly for this era, suspended concrete. Interestingly, the newspapers that were used as a bond breaker on the formwork remain in place to date this ingenious, ordinary little cottage. Will anyone discover any newspaper used by a builder in any new house? Will any newspaper be found in any architect’s design other than perhaps in a time capsule?

One is reminded of the old ‘Queenslander’ homes where newspapers were used under loose linoleum floor coverings. This paper packing/underlay provided the date of the laying of the linoleum, if not the construction, for later owners who redecorated these houses. They were always an exciting to discover. The most extreme case of the use of newspapers under floor coverings discovered by this author is that where whole papers were folded to fit into the curvature of the swollen board, such was the effect of moisture on the timber.

*For the record, the structure of the recent extension to the 1950s cottage used only treated pine and treated particleboard, and both of these together in the engineered timber beams. The only hardwood in the whole of the new work was the floating floor: spotted gum.

For more on Hot Modernism see: http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/hot-modernism ;
for Hayes and Scott housing, including the Jacobi house and plan, see:



HOT MODERNISM SHADOWS, REFLECTIONS & GLARE GALLERY
The following images record the difficulties this display has with lighting and general arrangements. For a commentary on this repeated problem with exhibitions, see:


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