It stands in the Jacaranda City on high ground shaped by the bend in the Clarence river, well above the depths of the flood waters that frequently swell the wide waterway to unbelievable heights and incredible velocities. The reference for this extreme event, its physical memory, is the elevated bridge connecting Grafton and South Grafton, that unusually hovers high over a tall void, an open space soaring some thirty metres above the river, defining past limits as if it were a flood marker. In full flood, a person can stand in an open boat and touch the underside of this heroic, heritage-aged structure that quaintly, dangerously, supports a road that narrows to tight, ramped bends at each side of the river. The depth and volume of flood water is truly astonishing, simply incomprehensible on a fine, sunny day when the innocence of the sparkling sheen of the broad flow of the river leaves one questioning the unusual effort that has gone into the making of the old bridge, its clearance. This building on the bend in the river is safe from inundation. It is a pale salmon brick building on an open corner block that has the rigorous austerity of a Romanesque abbey. It reminds one of Cluny, and Clairveaux Monastery too, with its ecclesiastical simplicity, its repetitive openings and massive scale: its weight; its solidity; its austere commitment to an ideal revealed here in the brickwork detailing.
It is a big building, massive, of an unusual scale for a small country town, with thick masonry walls made to appear more solid by the depths revealed at the openings that layer space and its enclosure. Each void has its own brick vault that tunnels back into the wall to the leadlight windows. The concept for this diagrammatic engraving of form starts at the ambitious western front that opens to Duke Street and its large jacarandas at the intersection with Victoria Street, with a huge spanning arch frame form that vaults back to the wall containing the entry door. One is reminded of the yawning jaws of the RORO ferries in Shetland, their height, void and form, and their greeting. This entry layers space too, shaping a visual thickness as it modifies size in the sequence of the approach. The Gothic-arched outer doors open as angel's wings to reveal the small porch recess that is enclosed by a pair of secondary rectangular doors, more unassuming and human in size and welcome. The entry progression moves from the awe-inspiring arch of the cosmos, of God, to the glory of angels, to the modesty of man, to reveal the inner intimacy of axial sacred place. The arch is repeated identically inside the church to define the eastern sanctuary – God's place/face. It is a ghosting that enriches the approach through remembrance.
RORO ferry, Shetland
This is Grafton's Christ Church cathedral that was opened and dedicated on 25 July 1884, The Feast of St. James. (Freeland, in his book on Hunt, wrongly records the date as the 15th). The building we see today was constructed in two time frames. It was not until 1937 that the three final three bays of the nave and the western porch were completed. It is the work of John Horbury Hunt, architect. Hunt was a Canadian who stopped off at Sydney on his way to India. He stayed. His is a body of work that is outstanding. His life was an heroic commitment to his profession and to animals. He loved both and was involved in establishing the RAIA and the RSPCA. Sometimes stubborn, sometimes rash, he was satirized as “The Eccentric.” Some say that he was too ' spirited.' He was known to frequently try to supplant other architects to get work. Sadly he died almost penniless, aged 66; John Horbury Hunt: October 1838 – 30 December 1904. His story needs to be read to be appreciated in full: see J.M.Freeland's book, Architect Extraordinary – the life and work of John Horbury Hunt 1838-1904 Cassell, Australia, 1970.# Freeland tells how Hunt even designed his own clothes. His waistcoat had pockets for pens and scales, while his hat held a roll of paper. Freeland quipped that Hunt could prepare a detail literally at the drop of a hat.
John Horbury Hunt
Hunt outside his home, Cranbrook Cottage at Rose Bay
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Hunt was a meticulous architect. He detailed his buildings beautifully and insisted on quality work. 'That famous and amazing old juggler of brickwork' as he was described in the September 1938 edition of Architecture, was known to have grabbed the trowel to show the bricklayer what he wanted. One can see his critical eye and his knowing care everywhere throughout the building. Brickwork was Hunt's medium because it was the locally made and readily available material. Country regions had brickworks; some still do – e.g. Warwick, in Queensland. One needs to know that this lean, wiry man as the images show him, had the best architectural library in Australia. The image of his studio at Cranbrook Cottage in Rose Bay, shows the wall of books. No one knows what happened to this collection of architectural publications. He had a standing order for boxes of books to be sent out from London. He knew what was happening on the other side of the globe. His world was no ill-informed backwater. His works show his understanding of current events. It is Arts & Crafts at its best, at least the equal to the work of Philip Webb et al.
Hunt planned a square tower with a spire for the southern side of the cathedral, but it has never been built
English bond with occasional variations
Even though few perpends align as all of the text books demand, the cathedral is a masterpiece in brickwork, a master class. The building, obviously of cathedral size and scale, is grand but only quietly imposing. It does not boast too much or gloat as it forms its grasp on space and place. It is compactly eye-catching, if only for its obvious rigour, its fineness and finesse: its meticulous attention to detail in every square millimetre. It was Alvar Aalto who, when asked what grid he used in his designs, said that he designed to a 1 millimetre grid. Hunt designed likewise, in miniature. The cathedral is a carefully constructed design, figured out in every way, in every piece, to create the whole, and all of the holes: but one has to say that its success is satisfactory only in part, in spite of the detailing. There is some disquiet about the integrity of the massing. One has to realize that, even though total care and attention might be given to every detail, this effort does not necessarily make a good building. Campbell Scott of Hayes and Scott, latterly Hayes, Scott & Henderson, detailed beautifully and precisely, but frequently his buildings were less in their entirety than the combination of the beautifully considered parts. His brick Queensland University of Technology refectory building, that seems to have been inspired by Colin St John Wilson's Gonville & Cais residential courtyard blocks, is one case in point. Here Scott detailed the location of every brick to the precise millimetre, but the building works too hard to shine. It can be admired for its tenacity, but it struggles as a conglomerate, a collation. a coalition of specific details. It appears to carry a burden.
So too with Hunt's cathedral in Grafton. Christ Church Cathedral seems to have had more effort put into the detail than into the resolution and relationships of some of the forms that can appear randomly ad hoc, too loose; a little messy, out of control. Hunt's gem is St. Peter's in Armidale. Freeland used a photograph of its interior for the front cover of his book. Here the design is complete and satisfying in every way, on every scale, from the smallest of details, to the most complex of architectural parts, to the broadest of town planning gestures realized in its siting and address. It is exquisite. The fence with its gates shapes the boundary that resonates as ripples from the events in the building as they reach out to touch it. The form is monolithic, unquestionably coherent, integral: organic, both in form and decoration. It has all of the elements of a masterpiece, but one instinctively knows Hunt would have rejected this and claimed it only as good work, an attitude a little like Fritz Schumacher's concept of personal responsibility.
St. Peter's, Armidale
Details of St. Peter's, Armidale
The buttress is extended to become a wall
The northern fence pier (southern pier below)
Grafton's Christ Church had a fence too, but now it has gone, leaving the cathedral to stand framed by the ambiguity of street space and trees. Evidence of the fence remains as pillars at the sides of the western end. How a fence might have helped the whole is not known, but the scheme suffers from a fragmentation, a certain random arrangement, an accidental gathering of pieces, as if the concentrated effort to deal with the detail got just too much. One might assume that the detailing took an enormous effort. It is a fatigue not seen at Armidale's St. Peter's that is more solemnly joyous, more carefully resolved as an integrated whole. Newcastle's larger Christ Church Cathedral has similar problems with parts of its massing and its cohesion to those at Grafton. It too is beautifully detailed but suffers a latent awkwardness in parts that seem too self-conscious. Maybe Hunt was able to control smaller buildings better than the larger and more dominant and demanding cathedral forms? His little church at Murrurundi seems to support this thought.
Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle
Hunt's St. Paul's church at Murrurundi
Interior of St. Paul's, Murrurundi
The change in window size marks the end of the first stage of construction.
There is only a slight difference in the new brickwork and the slates
Still Christ Church at Grafton mesmerizes in spite of some gritty, gawky parts. It entrances as it engages the eye with admirable portions, allowing one forgive the larger clashes. The openings are enigmatic, appearing to be semicircular, while actually being slightly pointed arches. The repetition of elements throughout the whole is classic Romanesque; the seemingly random fragmentation is pure Arts & Crafts. The wall extensions and profiling that make the bell tower and the front buttress extensions are classically in style, as are the brick coursing details. Hunt is almost erratic here, adding and shaping the projecting courses, (his first sketches indicate how premeditated these were), all to suit particular functions and relationships, and various juxtapositions, being willing, it seems, to accept less or a mess, as seen in his earthing rod, flashings and his downpipes.
A detail illustrated by Hunt in his sketch plan (see Freeland)
All of these elements display a similar insouciant bravado. Hunt seems to have enjoyed accommodating unwieldy, disrupting clashes between his visionary ideals and raw necessity, almost willy-nilly, with some cheeky perversity. These elements slide and slice and swing down and around the neatly detailed brickwork walls and buttresses, avoiding voids. Peter Cook was unable to achieve this looseness with such nonchalant necessity at the Bond University Abedian School of Architecture in his 'downpipe' wall: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/bond-downpipes.html This apparently uncontrolled outcome in Hunt's work contrasts starkly with the precision of the placing of each brick and the lining and aligning of each joint. The work is a lesson in brick detailing if not in precise plumbing detailing, though we too could learn to be as free with ordinary, simple things; to be less pretentious, more relaxed with our efforts, instead of forcing predetermined 'aesthetic' outcomes and seeking to explain them as clever, intellectual resolutions: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/06/ronchamp-rest-areas-and-meaning.html
Walking around the cathedral one can enjoy some parts, then might cower, wince at others. The primal cringe has to be the sight of the added green rails and concrete ramp access, not Hunt's work that sometimes leaves one pondering, asking why, even as the asperity is admired. These statutory additions that do not appear in Freeland's 1970 photographs, are the work of another who appears to have lacked the drive and commitment of the master, his the eye and feeling, for it does clash rudely with the original effort and intent. Architects sometimes struggle to acknowledge another's efforts and ideals. There seems to be a certain satisfaction in destroying these. For the record, one has to mention Cox Rayner Architects. This firm demolished the entry to the Kangaroo Point Boardwalk in Brisbane, rendered the decorative brickwork on the South Brisbane TAFE Block E, and demolished the sunscreens on Block M – all of my projects. I was never asked about the first or the last; the rendering of Block E took place in spite of my objection to it. So much for Moral Rights!
The more one looks at the cathedral, the more one is repeatedly drawn back to the tiny parts and their refined placements. The building is a beautifully pieced mass that has a few larger scale problems, issues with its wholeness, its completeness. Hunt's houses seem to suggest that he is happy with a cluttering of busy forms, e.g. Booloominbah, Armidale. Could the problem be that a cathedral has fewer parts to bring to the 'interesting' disorder? Is this why his smaller buildings are more successful, having a greater variety of pieces available to amass for the density of the assemblage?
This 'complex' portion of the cathedral is only the equivalent of the top right hand detail in the image above
The entry ledge
The western front is impressively open and bold, echoing the inner sanctuary arch that is similar to that at St. Peter's, but it lacks some certainty in its presentation; not in its marvellous mass, but in the tenuous nature of the idea. There seems to be a formal weakness here. It looks too timid, too shy to sustain its commitment. Perhaps there is really nothing to commit to, other than what looks like a narrow ledge? One looks and hopes for more in the relationship, but it always falls short in spite of its welcoming wonder. It feels empty. Rarely does a brick arch appear so magnificent; seldom does a celebrated entry confirm itself so tentatively. Perhaps in Kahn's work one might see another grand arch like this, or in ancient Persia and Rome. The problem at Grafton seems to be that the generous, high arch frames so little; such a shallow, limited, somewhat mean depth that reads like the top landing of the stair rather than a significant place for congregation. It appears to be at odds with itself, unsure of its bold gesture, lacking the confidence needed in this declaration of entry, welcome. The entry arches of Chartres come to mind too, but these entries have depth and a mysterious darkness as well as the wonder of sculpted delights. St. Peter's has this quality, but not Grafton that has less decoration than St. Peter's. It is far more austere. Hunt decorates with bricks, almost playfully, forming patterns with a caring, predetermined delicacy that results in a calculated hardness, a self conscious rigidity rather than a dance. Hunt knows no dancing delights. His work is all rigour: rational, hard, formidable, tough; certain in knowing how and why things must be. There is no lightness of touch here, just correctness. Hunt limits his approach to the strict rules of the system, as if it were Lego; and he is inventive.
Christ Church Cathedral at Grafton stands as one of Hunt's exemplary structures, but it is not great. It does reveal the man in every detail: brilliant but with flaws, as Freeland tells us. It is a building that has attitude only because it was designed and detailed by a man with attitude, and with the skill and determination to achieve his vision, to implement his ideals. It is a beautifully principled building, a true master class in masonry. One might hope that more architects today might know their buildings and love them the way that Hunt has worked on and cared for this place. It is truly a dedicated project, not just dedicated on 25 July 1884; it is the work of a dedicated architect, one completely devoted, committed to his work. One can see this hand clearly in all of his projects. They are all the result of the exemplary effort of one whose life was his belief. He was a man who could do and would do no less than the very best in every precise detail, in every grain of sand that makes his whole world. Many found this annoying, intimidating and frustrating. Christ Church Cathedral Grafton stands out from the rest of the buildings in Grafton because of this cogency. It does suggest that one's attitude to work and life can and does have an impact on one's output. This idea has become extremely unfashionable, now openly mocked by our era that seeks its indulgence in the ad hoc hope of the primal promotion of unique, uncontrolled, self-importance seen as inspired genius: 'selfies.'
Hunt's world was otherwise, although his taking others and their mediocre efforts to task might have made him appear similarly self-centred, arrogant. His was a world of feeling for form and detail that knew necessity; knew how beauty lay in the rightness of the tiniest detail, in precision, not in some grand gesture of presumed brilliance. Kahn's earnestness comes to mind, and his subtle, caring question: 'What do you want, Brick?' One can see Hunt asking and answering this question everywhere in this structure, time and time again. It is a building that coheres, sometimes awkwardly, in spite of its struggles; maybe because of them? Hunt's effort can be seen to have the same energy as struggles hold in their twisted tensions: a persistence. The wonder of Hunt is that he is able to subdue, to manage, to control these stresses; to embody them; to resolve them into a stringent beauty that holds and demands respect and recognition not for the pure pride of personal glory, but merely for its achievement.
Every brick joint has been lined
Even though high and remote, the brick detailing remains specific and precise
This, one feels, is all that Hunt really wanted. It is what he would have appreciated. We need to come to acknowledge this in our work today and recognize that personal matters do have an impact on outcomes; that the question 'What must I do?' still needs to be pondered and answered if it is 'good work' that we are wanting; for this is what we need, not the singular search for spectacular architecture, although stunning outcomes might be more flashy, make more publications and get more tongues wagging about the iconically clever proverbial 'ME.' Our places will be enriched by an aggregation of good work, not by a few pieces of flashy work, for the built environment is a conglomerate of ordinary things that can accumulate and interact, and generate extraordinary outcomes in lives. Searching only for extraordinary, different things in architecture has become a sad norm that does little for the whole, the holiness of life. They stand alone.
It is never the 'extraordinary' that needs to be captured in things unique, different and amazing. Rather, the qualities that make ordinary things extraordinary need to be sought out: those characteristics that are extraordinary in a quiet and lasting way. It is the “depth and height” of architecture's “length and breadth” that needs to be recovered; rediscovered; revealed: c.f Ephesians 3:18 'May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;' (KJV)
P.S. THE BELL TOWER & THE HALL
At Grafton, Hunt also built the bell tower and the hall on the cathedral grounds, more modest structures that still glow with his deliberate rigour. It is interesting to see how his attention to detail reverberates even into the ordinary, everyday materials like corrugated iron and timber; how he is able to create a hierarchical clustering of open spaces in this relationship in which the cathedral dominates, but not too much. The brick hall has a large corrugated iron roof with neatly detailed miniature gabled vents, decorated fascias and an end wall facing the cathedral that consciously mimics the cathedral's openings in a blank wall. The bell tower acts as a focus/locus, a fulcrum between these two brick buildings that stand in open lawns scattered with trees and bushes. It is interesting to note how form and detail interact to create grandeur and the everyday, with each standing proud and determined, co-operatively, side by side without apology, envy or complaint.
The bell tower and hall
The hall's gable roof vents
The end wall of the hall that references the cathedral with its blind windows
Cathedral, bell tower and hall
# Another excellent publication on Hunt is:
John Horbury Hunt: Radical Architect 1838-1904, Museum of Sydney;
authors: Peter Reynolds, Lesley Muir, Joy Hughes
This publication also illustrates St. Peter's, Armidale on its cover.