Tuesday, October 13, 2015



Aalto vase/schematic map of Australia without Tasmania

Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University, Forum Area - looking upwards

The E-mail promoted a symposium at the Abedian School of Architecture on the subject of the Nordic influence in Australian architecture: The Nordic Architecture Symposium - Connections in the Southern Hemisphere. It was scheduled for Friday 9 October 2015. The event sounded intriguing. More information came in the form of a flyer that was illustrated with an Aalto vase cleverly re-interpreted as a map of Australia, without Tasmania. The brochure outlined the programme for the day, the speakers and the subjects.+ It sounded like something one might choose to go to, so an interest in attending was registered. It was to be a full-day event: the occasion was written into the diary. One instinctively knew from the list of speakers that the talks would concentrate on Aalto and Utzon.

The copse of pine trees

'Cable mania'?

After some showers the previous evening, the Friday morning was cloudy, but the sun was breaking through. On approaching the School of Architecture at Bond University, one noticed that things were very quiet. There was a sudden feeling of panic with the thought that the location of the venue should have been checked and confirmed. It had just been assumed that the symposium would be held at the school. Perhaps a more specialised university lecture room with a larger foyer and more convenient catering spaces was to be used for this event? The facilities at the school were rather limited, rudimentary, and the students working in the open studios might not want to be disturbed by a large number of visitors and other goings-on. The glass door was pulled opened to allow one to peer into the familiar entry foyer. Folk were standing at a table set up for registration, at another for coffee, or just generally milling around. This was the place: things might become inconvenient if the numbers grew to any size. After coffee and a chat, some attendees started to move into the seats that had been set out in the presentation area. The chairs had been arranged to fill the space, with some extra ones spread out over yellow tactile markers along the top of a long set of steps, almost as a dress circle to one side. These looked a little precarious.

After settling in, it was immediately obvious that there was a problem. The bright light of the tall glass walls either side of the small screen had glare problems that gave the screen a fuzzy hazed hue. One kept on checking to see if this fog might be caused by one's 'Transitions' glasses, but it wasn't. It is not the first time problems have been noted in this open forum area: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/exploring-definition-edge-condition-of.html Through these glass walls that reflected one another's sheen, one could see distant things more clearly than anything on the screen: a small stand of pine trees through one opening; other campus buildings and a piece of sculpture through the other. Passing vehicles and people frequently crossed these vistas, distracting the eye and one's attention from the speaker. It was a poor place for such an event. One just had to try to ignore the situation and make the best of things. Occasionally hands were being lifted to shade the eyes from the bright light so that images on the screen might be seen. Were folk just too polite to raise this as a concern? No one said anything.

View through to the open studio areas

Australian rock**

Nordic rock

Nordic colour

The day started a little late with a welcome and an introduction. Adrian Carter (AC) began to talk about the Nordic connections with Australia. His first image showed an outline of a map of Australia drawn over the Nordic region. One hoped that it was to scale! Australia was large, bigger than the collection of Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden; Finland and Denmark. AC proceeded to set the scene for the idea of the symposium, of there being parallels between the Nordic regions and Australia, by showing images that were effectively presented as matching pairs, one Nordic, the other Australian. It seemed a big jump to say that Uluru was similar to another rocky bump in the Nordic landscape, and that the Nordic forest of fir trees was like a eucalypt forest, even one at cooler Mount Kosciusko. Visually, on the screen one could match forms that corresponded in a broad manner, as in a children's book, but there is a great difference in these places as a lived experience, in their meaning and feeling. It was a surreal start. Was this a hoax?

Australian forest

 Nordic forest

Utzon's Sydney Opera House 1959-1965 - Danish 'boat design'
see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-20/40-years-of-the-sydney-opera-house/5025816

One was concerned that this analysis was promoting a superficial overview of the subject. AC noted that Australia might not have had the Olympic Games if it had not had the Nordic-designed opera house. Why? No graphic? He commented that Utzon's Opera House had been based on boat design, boats that the Nordic region Vikings had used upside-down as roofs for their buildings: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/skaw-boat-house.html He finally pointed out that Denmark had an Australian queen, showing an image of the young couple in front of the familiar roof tiling pattern of the opera house. The points being made seemed shallow, superficial. They appeared to ignore a range of rich and subtle matters that one might have assumed was the core of the subject of this symposium, things to do with the senses, perception, feeling, meaning and emotion, rather than merely matching pairs of shapes and ad hoc possibilities.

Sydney Opera House tiling detail

The Aussie queen

Vallance residence

Casey and Rebekah Vallance (CRV) were then introduced. They spoke about their subject, their Paddington house, with a broad reference to Finnish architecture and their studies of Aalto's work that had been undertaken as a part of a thesis. They said that they had been inspired by Aalto's work in Finland – 'been moved.' The house was shown and its history explained. An old ruin of a residence on a tiny, long, narrow block of land covered with easements had been purchased and resurrected, almost literally. It was explained that the couple were evangelical Christians who saw a link between their work and their beliefs. Just how Aalto's work fitted into this was not explained other than they had experienced some nice feelings in its presence. Images of the CRV residence showed a stick-and-screen, timber-and-steel framework that filtered light beautifully. It seemed a very attractive place that worked on various levels. The problem was that here we had the architects talking about their own work in glowing terms, using words that might have been better put together by an objective reviewer. One kept expecting a little more detailed information beyond flowery, romantic words and pretty, poetic images that were being interpreted as a Christian's responsibility to 'our maker.' It was a presentation that grasped at certain indulgent assumptions, being perhaps a little insensitive by ignoring the possible presence of sceptics in the audience.

The theological library nook

Aalto's 1937 Finnish Pavilion

1937 Finnish Pavilion plan

1937 Finnish Pavilion section

Brit Andressen eased matters back into an academic rigour with her talk on two pavilions: Aalto's Finnish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair: see - http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Finnish_Pavilion_Paris.html and Sverre Fehn's Nordic Pavilion at the 1962 Venice Bienniale – see: http://www.architecturenorway.no/questions/identity/neveu-on-fehn/ She began by saying that her own work always related to the landscape, and when in more urban circumstances, to the sky. The site for the Aalto 1937 pavilion adjacent to the Trocadero in Paris was illustrated. It was full of trees. Aalto's sketches and the final site development were explained broadly. BA showed how the building had been designed around the trees as a walk. She said that it had been called 'the forest is walking,' a phrase that relates to Macbeth. Details of the cladding and other drawings of the scheme were shown. The Sverre Fehn Venice pavilion was located in the Venice Biennale park that was again covered with trees. The siting and intentions of the design were explained along with some very feint original drawings that the glare made more illegible. Photographs helped to clarify matters. It was a beautiful scheme that again had been detailed around the trees. A layered grid of deep, thin laminated timber beams had been used to span a large open area made by an L-shaped retaining wall. This space allowed shortcuts for pedestrians through the display area that fully opened up with sliding glazed, timber-framed doors. It was an elegant scheme.

Sverre Fehn's 1962 Nordic Pavilion

Rick Lepalstrier (RL) noted how the lovely metaphor of the 'trees walking' really seemed to relate to this Venice scheme, even though it was the name Aalto had given to his Paris pavilion proposal. RL referred to the image that showed the mature tree trunks arrayed below one of the massive beams: “You can really see them walking.” After checking the Macbeth reference,# it was not clear why Aalto might have chosen the 'trees walking' reference, as it is used by Shakespeare in the sense that this might happen only if 'the sun falls out of the sky': c.f. 'if the forest walks up the hill to the castle,' which is very unlikely to happen. It was a literary prophecy of demise. Is this what Aalto meant in the Finnish Pavilion?

Aalto's 1937 Finnish Pavilion entry

Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) said of Aalto's Finnish Pavilion in New York, 1939, that it was the work of a genius: it was like walking though a forest. Perhaps 'forest walking' needs to be understood in its ordinary sense of moving, walking through a forest? Could it have been an inversion in the translation from Finnish into English? This experiential notion of walking seems to have more meaning than a clever, obscure academic reference, as Aalto had indeed designed the pavilion in Paris as a walk through the forest of trees that he left untouched. Indeed, he even supplemented the notion of forest with a miniature set of trees in a small courtyard. There seemed to be nothing sinister in his intent.++

Sadly the tree has been removed, but the gesture remains

Nordic design in the Italian sun

BA finished by speaking about her last visit to Venice. A Norwegian artist had seemingly smashed out the pavilion doors - was it only an allegory? - lying them around on top of one another chaotically with the glass broken, as part of the theme of sounds from crashing glass that was being promoted as 'art.'  Ironically, it was titled Rapture! The frames had been painted white. All that was said about this 'art' was that it looked strange, surreal. Did she approve of this apparent, perhaps suggestive vandalism as 'art' or not? There was no comment, no judgement at all. One wondered why.

Rapture by Camille Norment, Norway
Might it be better called 'Rupture'?

The original pavilion doors still seem to be intact in spite of BA's expressed concerns

Later in the symposium, during one discussion that asked if other places in Australia had such an interest in Nordic work as Brisbane did, it was commented that BA was responsible for promoting Aalto to her students in Brisbane. One wondered; why not others too, e.g. Kahn, Scarpa, who could be equally intimate? Why just concentrate on one?

Villa Mairea

The Japanese welcome: 'Step up,'

The day was proving to be as difficult as one had expected, given the glare and uncomfortable chairs. Why do architects insist on designing their own chairs when comfortable ones are available commercially? The break was welcome. After a stroll and a stretch, Magi Sarvimaki (MS) spoke to her subject: “Japonisme in Finland and Australia.” She chose Aalto's Villa Mairea and Richard Leplastrier's own house. Things seemed to be getting a little nepotistic. Among frequent happy giggles, aspects of each residence were selected to draw parallels with Japanese references. It seemed to be stretching the symposium's theme to the limit. Bruno Taut's book on the Japanese house had been in Aalto's library. MS noted that Aalto had been close to the Japanese ambassador in Finland, who had given him gifts including books on Japanese architecture and the tea ceremony, and a yakata that Aalto had worn in the studio while designing the Villa Mairea. The parallels were interesting and convincing. Her knowledge of things Japanese was useful for her to bring to the reading and understanding of Aalto's work. The surprise was the roof space of Villa Mairea that looked just like a Japanese rock garden; and the garden work area that had storage shelving arranged just like those in a tokonoma.

Villa Mairea

Leplastrier residence

The 'Japanese' verandah

RL's house was likened to a boat, (hopefully it was more than the 'portholes'), with Japanese connections in the section, the verandahs and the pottery on the shelves. MS noted that her mother had been a potter. This talk brought in a strange diversion to the Nordic theme of the day by linking things Nordic and Australian to matters Japanese. The diversion added a little complication to the subject, but also some interest. It seemed possible that the Japanese parallel might take the day over. The strange thing was that while there was mention of Aalto using American oregon pine poles to reflect the forest form in his Villa Mairea - or was it Japanese bamboo? - there was no mention that the building we were in has tried to do the very same thing in a very self-conscious way, adding a maze of timber verticals externally apparently to reference what seems to be just as many pine trees in a nearby small copse – hardly a forest! Are folk afraid of talking about existing local circumstances, either good or bad? Do we only want to discuss and see value in other places abroad, elsewhere, anywhere but Australia? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/crab-architecture-at-bond-university_4645.html

Villa Mairea stair

Jack House, Wahroonga, New South Wales

The day moved on with Annalisa Capurro (AC) stepping up to enthuse boldly on Russell Jack’s 1957 Sulman Award winning house in Sydney. The house was placed on the Sate Heritage Register in 2013. It was a thorough and detailed introduction that explained and showed a lovely house in a beautiful setting, all sensitively arranged and detailed. It was classic 50's in every way. Memories of the magazines of the day with prim ladies in frilly aprons posing elegantly in new Laminex kitchens with curved shelving, images all printed on a coarsely textured, cream matt paper, came to mind. The Jack house was full of furniture and fittings that had been originally purchased in Finland by Jack prior to building this house. The surprise was that AC had purchased the house. One wondered why the images were not as crisp as they might be. Was this screen getting more glary or had a retro digital camera setting been adapted to 50's style? Jennifer Taylor had written about the house as being a turning point in Australian architecture. Indeed, one could see how this might be. What was unclear was how one was supposed to understand it now – only as a museum piece? It looked like it. The interiors had the same self-conscious feel of a sparse Seidler space, only with more pieces and parts with greater variation in style, materials and colour. There was a certain vacancy here. Little was said about actually living in it; much was said about the materials, structure and details, and the linking of the inside and outside. What has time, change to do here other than to stand still? The chat after the presentation proved useful: the house had a flat roof, a fact never revealed in the images. That Jack had made his letterbox in the form of a model of his house was presented as a charming quirky characteristic. Apparently he did this letterbox-matching for all of his houses. Today this would be seen as terrible, tasteless kitsch. It is something Boyd might have mocked in his The Australian Ugliness along with letterboxes on welded chains. Times and perceptions do change.

'Influenced by the organic work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the craftsmanship of traditional Japanese architecture'
http://architectureau.com/articles/sydney-open/ - not Nordic? Is it only the furniture that relates to the Nordic region?

Already one was sensing something strange was happening here. Was this symposium about history or was it about architecture – philosophy perhaps? Were we looking at a past or a present, in the sense of some subtle quality that persists and might still be relevant? If this was a 'present,' how did it relate to a 'past'? Why was the past so much alive in this present? The questions kept dancing around unresolved. How was one supposed to address this material that was review, personal reflection, facts and historical yarns? Was the proposition that the Nordic influence had been important, or was it that it was relevant now? Could it be both? One had to remember that Aalto died on 11 May 1976, nearly forty years ago. Utzon died 29 November 2008, some seven years ago. Was there something nostalgic here?

Aalto Summer House, Muuratsalo, Finland

Luckily the lunch break came after a short question time. One needed a coffee to get rid of the headache. Looking into the glare was proving to be very testing as the sun grew brighter with its move into the west. A sandwich and a coffee in a near empty student canteen was all that was needed. Why might the canteen have so few folk in it at lunchtime? What were the student numbers at Bond University? Apparently the school of architecture has 75 students, with the aim of eventually reaching an enrolment of 150.

Aalto University, Otakaari, Finland

Aalto posing

Character sketch of Aalto

The afternoon session started late. Some must have had a more luxurious lunch than we did as they were seen strolling along to the school chatting some twenty minutes after the time they had nominated for the restart. Eventually Esa Laaksonen (EL) moved to the lectern to talk about “Alvar Aalto’s way – The ultraviolet spectre of architecture.” He said that he didn't know enough about Australian architecture to include it in his talk as he had been requested, but he did finally mention a few names and show a couple of 'Aalto-esque' images from an earlier trip. His sounded a good title, but the subject was a concern. He wanted to show us the 'real' Aalto beyond the presentable, suave PR image of him. A sketch showing a haggard Aalto drawn by a colleague was displayed to suggest the difference. It seemed that what EL was trying to do in his research was to attempt to rationalise the mystery in Aalto's work. He was interested in the philosophy of the flesh and biological implications for designers. He mentioned texts for future reading. How this related to the 'real' Aalto was unclear.

Aalto vase

Aalto stool

EL explained how the field that one could see and hear was very much a tiny part of what Aalto had called his 'ultraviolet' zone – the unseen, unheard part of experience. Lists of what this zone might include were presented. It all seemed a serious mistake, that the study was doomed to fail, in the sense that it will kill the very thing that was loved. That birds of prey have ultraviolet vision seemed a sundry piece of analysis. Of course we see and sense differently to both birds, and insects too. This talk was a little disappointing, as EL appeared to be the keynote speaker, being Director of the Alvar Aalto Academy in Helsinki who was currently teaching in China. Still, the chat between AC and EL after the formal presentation proved far more entertaining and informative. Maybe the whole event should have been a more casual reminiscence of experiences by those who knew both Aalto and Utzon? The subject of Aalto is complex and involves many sensitivities. These have to be handled very carefully if they are to be shared and sensed by others without any aberrations.

Aalto relaxing

Silvia Micheli's (SM) subject was “Aalto beyond Finland.” It was she who had initiated the whole idea for the day. She has spent many years researching Aalto in various countries, so one hoped for a good presentation. Sadly SM seemed to have taken on the task of merely cataloguing Aalto's life and works in every detail, under numerous headings. She collected facts. One did not expect this, but the research did reveal some interesting statistics that highlighted the scope and variety of Aalto's life, work and travel. Travel was interesting. He loved travel. Other sources record stories that tell how Finnish Airways used to hold a flight up for him. Aalto enjoyed this adulation so much that he would tell his driver to go around the airport block if he was ever early. This was said to be a rare event, that is, being early. SM showed some intriguing images of Aalto at work and at play. These are always of interest, to see the man as he was. SM said that she planned to begin cataloguing Aalto's drawings in the near future.

Aalto exercising on beach at Ronch, Italy 

Alvar Aalto's home in Munkkiniemi, Helsinki

Aalto chair

The day was moving on. The light was changing, so the glare was easing. Richard Johnson (RJ) told how he did not think that he had any Nordic links to talk about, so he chose “Personal reflections” as his subject. He spoke of the early 50s, how his family moved into a new house in North Sydney, leaving all the old things behind. His life included Marimekko, Arabiaware and Parker furniture, the look-alike Danish-styled commercial furniture. As an aside, in Brisbane, Nordic fabrics, dinnerware, cookware and cutlery had been available at Joy de Gruchy's The Craftsman Market at Toowong. Campbell Scott of Hayes and Scott Architects used to design his own Danish-styled furniture pieces and have them fabricated locally. There was certainly something Nordic in the air. RJ spoke of Ken Woolley's work for the Pettit and Sevitt homes, noting how these changed project housing in Sydney. Woolley had suggested the developers visit Finland to see furniture and fittings that they could use for their homes.

Jørn Utzon's 1953 Kingo Housing, Helsingør, Denmark

Utzon's floor plan showing boat building shelter

Ise Shrine, Japan - it is rebuilt every twenty years

RJ told of his travels after his studies, how he saw Utzon's housing, (no one mentioned the Radburn Planning Scheme, just Utzon's brilliance and sensitivity), and Jensen Klint's church during his Finnish trip. He also travelled to Japan. Images of the Ise Shrine site were shown. RJ has seen this rebuilt three times in his life. He is hoping for a fourth. RJ spoke in detail of his experiences working with Utzon for ten years on his Opera House work, then showed some of his own projects, including his exhibition design: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/on-exhibitionism-art-of-display.html for letter on The Arts of Islam exhibition designed by RJ. Yet again, once the formal presentation had been finished, the chat between the two Richards, RJ & RL who both had known and worked with Utzon, gave interesting insights into the man. RJ summarised his talk by saying that he had been less inspired by Nordic architecture than Japanese architecture; and that he now saw himself as a classicist, preferring Asplund, Sarrinen, and other older Helsinki works. He said that he started his projects by organising space and spoke of Kahn on light. Kahn had said that one must know what the light has to be in order to envisage space, as the two are intertwined as one.

Jensen Klint church at Bispebjerg, Copenhagen

Interior of the Klint brick church

Leplastrier's Palm Garden House sectional drawing

Richard Leplastrier (RL) then took over to speak about the quote, “Bound is boatless man”, an old Danish saying. (I guess I am bound!) He started by saying that he had known the Danes since he was eight, through sailing. They were the best sailors. Yet again he had problems with speedy images – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/richard-leplastrier-ephemeral.html The problem was resolved. He spoke of his heroes Jensen Klint, Utzon's father, and Jørn Utzon. It is strange that he did not mention Dr. Manfred Curry - see link above. He saw boats as the core of everything architectural. He explained how 'nave' was related to 'naval,' and 'hull' was related to 'hall' thus arguing, like AC, for the idea of the inverted boat used as a roof as the model for all architecture.^ RL said that Christ could have preached under an upturned boat. This needs to be challenged: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/skaw-boat-house.html Only smaller boats were used in this way, and generally for stores and byres. In Shetland, the largest boat that I have seen used as a roof is a sixareen. The reconstructed Viking house is insulated under sods of turf on a pitched roof: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/skaw-boat-house.html 

Roman galley

While 'nave' does indeed have its origins in Medieval Latin navis - ship, 'nave' is the term used in the Roman basilica, possibly, the dictionary explains, because it looked like a large boat. Just what this means is unclear, as it does not particularly seem to look like a boat should. Could it be a metaphor, a symbol? - see: http://www.jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols/ship.htm The ship was a symbol of the church. Is this why every Danish cathedral has a ship in it, as RL noted? The point is that this is not a specific Nordic reference or one that relates physically to ships. We need to know more about symbolism. The nave was the name for the central space even when, in the original basilica form, it had a gable roof propped off horizontal beams, not a broad vault, framing or arches that might make it look like the shape and structure of an inverted ship. Maybe the symbolism prompted the reading of the basilica roof and its basic framing as being somewhat, perhaps diagrammatically, 'boat-like' in appearance; to 'see it as' a boat? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/seeing-what-we-believe-idyllic-visions.html  Could it be that this symbolic reference is why the cathedral ceilings came to be framed and vaulted in a way that made them look more akin to a boat, the symbol of the church?

Typical basilica plan

Typical basilica section

As for 'hull' and 'hall,' these have no relationship at all. 'Hull,' rather nicely, comes from Middle English 'husk,' Old English 'hulu,' and relates to 'hold,' while 'hall' comes from the Middle English 'halle,' large residence, Old English 'heall' – see: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ Is this a matter of RL not letting the facts get in the way of a good story? Architects need to have greater rigour than this. More stories eulogising Utzon were told. Could one believe these? Everything about the man is, it seems, brilliant. He was a genius; a hunter – “He knew everything that was happening, everything! Everywhere!”' One wonders with some apprehension, did he know that he was to be sacked?

RL did comment on the fact that documentation for the refurbishment of the Opera House was currently being put out for tender for the cheapest quote. He expressed astonishment and alarm at this process, adding that one always needs to take a project right through from the beginning to completion if one ever expects to get quality work. Even site supervision is critical. (Hear, hear!) What is happening in Australia? Is this a sign of the times? How can this be changed?

Leplastrier rowing his much-loved boat

The final video showed RL in his boat explaining its timbers and construction to his Finnish colleagues. AC quipped that it was an appropriate ending for the day's presentations, with Rick sailing off into the sunset! Indeed, the sun had set.

Leplastrier sailing

Laplastrier was critical of Aalto's boat design

While one can respect figures like Utzon and Aalto, et.al., even admire them, one also knows that they had public faces, as EL showed; that stories about them gain their own momentum and are selective. We like to remember the best, even if they have been embellished by time and laurels. One only has to look back on the offices one has worked in to know the difference between the reports and the experience. There can be great gaps. Sometimes reputations are just too blindly hagiographical.^^

Jørn Utzon 

Alvar Aalto 

So the day drew to a close as the evening grew darker. Sadly time had run out and other things needed attention, so the final chat session had to be left for others to attend. Given the struggle with some of these discussion/question times during the day, maybe not much was missed, apart from the cheese and wine! Still the day proved to be interesting, but what did it achieve?

The presentations can be summarised as:
Adrian Carter * illustrated Nordic connections with Australia
Casey and Rebekah Vallance spoke about their house and their beliefs
Brit Andresen* analysed two Nordic pavilions with no Australian content
Magi Sarvimaki* spoke about Japanese influences on Nordic & Australian architecture
Annalisa Capurro spoke about her Jack house
Esa Laaksonen* spoke about demystifying Aalto
Silvia Micheli spoke about cataloguing Aalto's life and work
Richard Johnson spoke about his personal journey
Richard Leplastrier spoke about his heroes, and times with Utzon

Aalto stool

Generally the day involved recollections, historic reviews, personal experiences and catalogues. Is this being over-romantic with Aalto's legacy and Utzon's reputation? One wonders what might happen if some architects went this deeply and enthusiastically, with such singular commitment, into, say, FLW's work. Indeed they have – Eddie Oribin's work in Cairns, e.g., and Conrad & Gargett's church at Hamilton: both were inspired by Wright's architecture. There is always some disquiet about FLW copies. Is Aalto's work the new 'nuts & berries' style? Is there something less idiosyncratic in Aalto's work, less personally referenced, more abstract in its claim, more accessible by others? Is it 'humanity'? Is it a little more like, say, Japanese architecture: more deliberately structured in concept; able to be adapted rather than copied? Is there something universally spiritual here?

Aalto's Sänyätsalo Town Hall

Had the day been been rigged? Was there some degree of self-interest involved beyond academic CVs? Those from the Nordic region are shown listed above with an asterisk: fifty percent of the presenters were of Nordic origin. Was this a yearning for home? All other speakers had ties with the Nordic region either through contacts, commitment, work or research, or all four. Only RJ was equivocal about his Nordic links. It hardly seemed to be a fair debate. Why are we looking backwards in time to another completely different region of the world? Do we believe in Santa Claus? Is this the latent urge that spirits us towards loving this cold, remote, northern place? Aalto died 1976. Why do we look back at him, his efforts? Have we been seduced by his cunning charm? Have we recreated our own perfect vision of his charisma? Have we idealised him; and Utzon too? Have we created our own mythic stories and sources?

Australian landscape

Why do we not look at the Australian condition, feel for it, and respond to it? Nordic light and time is very different to ours. The northern region has dark, freezing winters with very heavy snow, and long daylight summers with very low-angled, soft light. The region has marked seasonal changes. They are stark. It has different histories, different beginnings, different ambitions. The fact that some Nordic architects have come to Australia does not create a necessary connection between these places. Why copy the architecture that has grown out of this different culture, or even its approach? It might feel good in Finland, as a personal discovery or revelation, but why reproduce this strategy here? It is a difficult thing to consider. Perhaps it is a specialised architectural matter – that we are seeking out essences that can be embodied in an Australian expression: but do such things exist? Is anyone prepared to argue this? If so, what are the full implications for architects and architecture beyond Aalto?

Hardly a Murcutt!

Typical new 'Shetland' Norwegian kit house (and above)

Housing, Lerwick, Shetland

I am familiar with islands close to the Nordic region, the Shetland Islands: these are my second homeland. This remote place is closer to Bergen than it is to London, yet it is considered a part of Scotland. It once was part of Denmark, but was given away as a dowry, like a string of trinkets. Shetland has strong Nordic links both in culture, language and history. The Vikings lived there with the Picts, and visited frequently as they travelled west to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and America. The islands have strong links to Norway. The Shetland boat has its origins in Norway. Even today, prefab Norweigian houses are delivered to Shetland in kit form. In the early 1900s they were sent to Iceland. The village of Seyðisfjörður still has some 90 imported Norwegian kit buildings: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/norwegian-wood-and-corrugated-iron.html

Traditional Shetland croft house

Croft house museum, Dunrossness - very close to a Murcutt!

Image of a boat-roof shelter from Shetland archives.
This boat looks larger than a sixareen. Is it a rare eightareen?

Would I want to reproduce any of the vernacular Shetland buildings in Australia? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/shetland-vernacular-buildings.html Hardly.## These shelters are uniquely linked to place, both in materials, form and purpose; but are we really talking about vernacular buildings? Aalto's work has references to the work of other cultures, making it more an intellectual study than a native building style or form. Is this what is being sensed, an intellectual game that we can all play? Is architecture a game? Does this strategy make one look and feel good, significant, important? Maybe it carries the same problem as a Gehry or Hadid approach – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/frank-o-gehry-art-of-war.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/09/zahas-architectural-car-design-strategy.html - under a different, more romantic cloak, a more acceptable, 'sensitive,' dare one say 'loving' approach, itself wrapped in the mythic stories of the heroes? Have we all been seduced by this illusion of hope for me, that I might be like them; that I can do an 'Aalto' in Australia to display my intellectual sensitivity? Is this an ego trip equal to any other? We need to be careful for what we wish.

Australian landscape complete with power line above

Australian aboriginal rock art**

If we are to be true to ourselves, our place, our materials, our culture, then maybe we need to look closely at our own backyard, our own lives, rather than drooling over far away outcomes that always look brighter, better, especially in Australia that glorifies the stranger with the accent from distant countries. Why not study Hunt for brickwork? Why not investigate the indigenous understanding of place and land for context? - see Bill Neidjie Australia's Kakadu Man and Story about Feeling. There are numerous matters that could be listed here. Why do we continually want to be something else, from elsewhere? Is it for some latent prestige; to be the cliche 'world class'?

We need to be ourselves, in our own country, content with our own culture, language, light, time; with our own place being encompassed as an understanding in form and detail, in an everyday, ordinary/extraordinary manner, not in some grand display of intellectual intent that is revealed even in Jack's work. Doing special things only divides, separates, isolates. Little wonder that architects are growing apart from the masses. Only RJ mentioned the project house. What has happened to the ordinary house today? This housing is the real Australia – have a look at it in new suburbia. Trying to pretend that it does not exist has its own problems of elitism that keep architects as special, unique. Is this why no one will listen to architects on the proposed new Brisbane casino? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/09/brisbanes-new-casino-proposal-approved.html We are merely mocked as fools! Is harking after things Finnish, Nordic, cementing this isolation? We need to be wary. If we want to debate/discuss/explore matters, then these issues need to be open to all possibilities, not merely to what can be seen as the continuing hagiography of a group of acolytes. If we are unable to see a potential problem with recreating Finnish/Nordic design in Australia, might we better understand the circumstance and its issues if we see the situation as designing a 'Murcutt' house in the Shetland Islands?## In Shetland, the weather can look clear, sunny and warm, just like an Australian summer's day from the cosy inside of the cottage, but step outside and there is the possibility that you could be blown away by a freezing gale. Everything that moves has already gone with the wind! Shetland hills are bare.

Shetland landscape - Kahn's interplay of light and space, defined here by land, water and sky

Australian aboriginal rock art

This undoubting, unqualified adulation is a real concern, Nordic or not. We need to become Australian, confidently Australian, not in any 'Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie' mad, parochial manner, but in the full richness of place and identity expressed in form: architecture. In art, we need to challenge, to question the egocentric confusion of the 'smashed' Venice pavilion approach, instead of trying to argue thoughtlessly that it is an intellectual delight - pure 'rapture.' Life is too short to be pompously foolish or blindly agreeable, even if both approaches can be cleverly, shrewdly rationalised. Perhaps we make things too easy, too indulgent for ourselves with our feel-good loving involvement with astonishingly beautiful and interesting things?

This is not Shetland: too many trees!

The Prophecy of Birnam Wood
In response to Macbeth's request, the witches present Macbeth with several apparitions (ghostly figures) that each give Macbeth a misleading 'prophecy.' One of the apparitions, a child wearing a crown and holding a tree, delivers the following lines:
'Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.' (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 98-102)
Although the apparition tells Macbeth to 'take no care' of any threats, these lines foreshadow Macbeth's defeat. Foreshadowing is a literary device that gives the reader a hint (sometimes a very subtle one) of what will happen later in the story. Because it is highly unlikely that a forest (Birnam Wood) will walk up the hill to his castle (Dunsinane Hill), Macbeth expresses great relief:
'That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellion's head, rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac'd Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom.' (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 103-109)
Macbeth's excessive pride, or hubris, leads him to believe that no enemy can harm him. Unfortunately, for Macbeth, this sense of security is false. Not long after this moment, the prophecy of Birnam Wood comes true.

And later, in Act 5, Scene 5:
As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.
Liar and slave!
Let me endure your wrath, if 't be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming;
I say, a moving grove.

The Old Haa Museum, Burravoe, Yell

The great irony is that some Shetland architects aspire to create Glen Murcutt houses in the Shetland Islands! They drool over the images in the publications, the open, sunny spaces; the light structures and thin materials. Shetland buildings need to provide heavy, solid and firm, enclosed shelter – such are the demands of the climate and terrain. Little wonder that some hold the hope to be free of these burdens of necessity and see a 'Murcutt' as a wistful dream: if only!

Australian landscape

Schedule for the day:
09:30 – 10:00 Registration & Coffee
10:00 – 10:05 Welcome
10:05 – 10:30 “Nordic and Australian Connections” Adrian Carter
10:30 – 11:00 “Nordic influences on a house in Paddington” Casey and Rebekah Vallance
11:00 – 11:30 “Sverre Fehn and Alvar Aalto – Nordic pavilions abroad” Brit Andresen
11:30 – 11:45 Break
11:45 – 12:15 “Japonisme in Finland and Australia” Magi Sarvimaki
12:15 – 12:45 “Russell Jack’s House in Sydney” Annalisa Capurro
12:45 – 13:00 Discussion/ Moderated by Silvia Micheli
13:00 – 14:30 Lunch break
14:30 – 15:00 “Alvar Aalto’s way – The ultraviolet spectre of architecture” Esa Laaksonen
15:00 – 15:30 “Aalto beyond Finland” Silvia Micheli
15:30 – 15:45 Break
15:45 – 16:15 “Personal reflections” Richard Johnson
16:15 – 16:45 “Bound is boatless man” Richard Leplastrier
16:45 – 17:00 Discussion/ Moderated by Adrian Carter
17:00 – 17:15 Wine & cheese break
17:15 – 18:00 Panel Discussion (main presenters + guests; Lindsay and Kerry Clare, Timothy Hill, UQ and ASA student representatives) Moderated by Magi Sarvimaki  

^Replica Viking longship on Unst, Shetland. It is a large vessel to turn over to make a roof.

**Might Adrian Carter have matched the Nordic petroglyph with Australian aboriginal art too?

This landscape is not Nordic!


Thursday, 15th October 2015

Do we yearn too much for answers when we consider this Nordic world? We forget that an answer is truly no answer. The poet Constantine Cavafy said it best in his poem, Ithaca: arrive 'not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches./ Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.' - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/boro-art-of-mending.html

The relation between music and architecture has been often commented upon. If we really need to understand the difference between the Nordic countries and Australia, we should consider the difference between the symphonies of Edvard Grieg and Peter Sculthorpe.

Friday, 16 October 2015
A week has passed by already since the day of the symposium. Thoughts still flicker into form from time to time as possibilities arising out of lingering questions. Why would Aalto have referenced Macbeth? Might there have been a serious message in his work? It was 1937. Could it have been that he was sensing the tensions building up and warning the world of/predicting the coming war? The place to make such a stinging statement so subtly was appropriate: on the stage at the Paris World Fair. One needs to know much more about context here, for the walk through the forest is the most obvious reference in the title. Does this romantic interpretation seek to conceal the intent with a twin meaning identifying both an innocence and a foreboding?

On Aalto and Utzon: What might they mean to us in Australia, for they are important and cannot be dismissed simply because they are from another culture and a different heritage, or because they get 'promoted' by some? One could suggest that they taught us different ways of seeing; how to 'see . . . as.' The challenge is what one might do with these revelations/understandings. The weakest, most limited outcome is to copy, to replicate the Aalto/Utzon approach. One needs to try to adapt, to incorporate this particular way of seeing the world and one's work beyond the replication of concept, forms and ideas, in the experience of Australia and its unique richness and diversity, if this legacy is to maintain its relevance and true meaning.

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