Tuesday 6 November 2012


I wondered at the Victorian quality of the evening - Wednesday, 15th November 2000. That formal Brontesque hairstyle hovering behind the misty glow of the lectern was not the only image to elicit such a romantic recall. The subject was Yemen. That extraordinary place with extraordinary landscape and extraordinary architecture was being introduced to an awed audience by an individual described by Professor Holden as an extraordinary lady with extraordinary skills. In all it was to be an extraordinary evening. And that is why it felt Victorian - or as one might have thought such an evening could have been experienced over one hundred years ago. It was a night abuzz with the expectations of the revelation of unknown delights: a true extravaganza.

Just imagine Carter showing slides of Egypt; of Woolley with his illustrated treasures of Ur. Once these were the unknown places of this world where the classic English traveller would meander with exuberant Britishness - an odd mixture of cheek and respect; of the brash and the sensitive. Tibet and China were once such mystery places too; and the Hindu Kush. These classic, learned, intrepid travellers can be imagined returning to London and being invited to present on an evening at The Royal Geographical Society where the unimaginable wonders of these hidden cultures could be revealed to amazed eyes. So the evening felt Victorian, where an encyclopedic delight in learning of new differences was the core of attention and expectations.

But this Yemen evening was in Brisbane at the Royal Australian Institute of Architects rooms in 2000. Professor Jennifer Taylor was presenting a talk on her recent trip to this remote place introduced as the last (one of) place where ancient culture and society remains alive in cities that were established in pre-biblical times by Biblical names. A relative of Noah was said to have been involved in this place with landscape appropriately - the flood - ripped apart by ancient riverbeds. There was once much water here, but not now.

The maps illustrated locations of names never previously heard of, while the slides flipped through amazing images of multistorey mud that looked like something else much more controlled. Fringed lime-white decorative mud passed into multicoloured facade details that looked crisply surreal and clear like a Jeffrey Smart painting. The beautiful illustrations were accompanied by a read text that was expanded with asides from the traveller – “we did…; it was; then we  ;etc.”

The evening presentation, precisely an hour's duration, always seemed that it might be more than a travel chat, but it retreated into this easy, lazy format. The promotional material, (complete with the formal Registration Form and cash payment), suggested the session was to offer much more than a traveller’s reverie, but it really was just a matter of look at this – “how it lives with the landscape; organic; at one; amazing; beautiful; stunning; etc.” And this became a concern.

This was the other reason that gave the evening its Victorian touch. These cultural delights were treated as aesthetic wonders just as the Victorians might have viewed them. There was no effort to try to understand the whole and its parts as those that made them might have seen them. Those attending that night were encouraged to look at these wondrous things as though they were indeed works of Jeffrey Smart - just self-conscious, composed, aesthetic things to delight the eclectic modern eye, nothing more. We were asked by way of the commentary to see these things alone in our world with our eyes only: WOW!

That the question about food elicited such a response of horror was odd. One felt that the real Victorians might have been a little more tolerant of impossibly different food. But how can food be separated from form? This circumstance only highlighted the position that saw only the difference we were invited to gaze at. No mosque was isolated for discussion, but these form the core of the community. The bathhouse was mentioned, but never illustrated. How might these relate? The amazing clutter was ogled at, but the laws of settlement and adjacency were not touched upon. What if a tower was built up to on three sides? How does the organic and chaotic get controlled? Dare we imagine that the forces of innocence in nature in this third world void gave this result, as a growing crystal might form in its solution?

A questioner raised the important issue of the stairs in these towers, a point that was never touched on by illustration; and one never saw a construction site either. What was in the core of the stair tube-core? Only the idyllic masses of towns were photographed along with the endless quaint details. It was indeed all very pretty. But if we are to really understand what these places stand for apart from some functional explanation of wastewater spillage, and shit collection for the baths, and wall thicknesses, then we need to get closer to the meanings. Why were the decorations painted the same as those sculpted?

It is not good enough to assume that these cultures saw (see) their world as we see it today in our time and place. For us to make no effort to try to understand the other culture from its point of view only continues the egocentric importance of the misguided twentieth century. These buildings, if one can interpolate from other mud brick cultures, are no silly self-help exercises that can be likened to the randomness of squatters’ homes outside Delhi or Rio. No, they are the work of skilled masons; and so on for the carpenter, the glass worker, the lime worker (more than a mist of white), etc. Intelligence lies here. It is too easy for us to assume some third-world poverty-driven endeavor assembling all this by chance and inexperienced effort. If we are to learn anything of other people and places, we have to overcome this prejudice and warm to unknown possibilities that we could learn from. The concept of 'architecture without architects' has not been not useful for us or our conceit.

The latent questions in this truly extraordinary work are: why is it so beautiful? Why so richly human? Why do we still respond to this wonder? To presume an answer along the lines of naivety, time and innocence (ignorance) is as absurd as believing in the ad hoc beginnings of these structures that, like all traditional art, leaves us to wonder in amazement: where, as Martin Lings noted, we cannot marvel enough.

While modern architecture and art can surprise with its difference, it knows nothing of marvel other than man the artist as 'marvel man,' when traditionally every man was a special kind of artist - not every artist a special kind of man. And to truly marvel is an experience of a humility and a seeking for an understanding that involves wholes, that our fragmented world only touches upon as isolated parts. It does involve religion, like all good art and architecture. It is never a fluke or born of chance or the ad hoc.

Traditional art is an art of remembrance. The question we have to ask and seek an answer to is: what is it that this art/architecture is seeking to remember? This is the core quest for modern man when confronted with all traditional art that is never art for arts sake or self-expression. If we are to exhibit art/architecture or talk about it, then we must address these questions. Admiring pretty things is never enough if we are to really understand. And we must accept this quest to know as one that can change everything we hold to be important. Without such a point of address, we will only continue to drag our madness into other minds, in the same manner as the presenter who seeks brownie points by being the one to show such hidden delights - I was there; look at me.

But “What is the rock of the landscape?” was the question. The traveller did not know. I pick up a rock and carry it to touch for recall. “Perhaps basalt?” was the blind guess. I thought it was buff to red colour. In an eroded desert? Volcanic? We must challenge ourselves to regain even, at the very least, a meagre interest in knowing more about the unknown so that our own architecture might revitalise itself and our lives beyond complacency and Gehry-ish self-importance. Frustrated pencil tapping will never know this world in which love thrives and enriches spirit - and still can. The silence of the audience told more of the awe than the formal questions that could only touch on the facts of function and planning. “How does one plan such a trip?” seemed to miss the point. It was like the man looking at the finger rather than the full moon being pointed too.

Let us hope that Yemen will not become the tourist 'Mecca' and self-destruct. It is different. The Americans found this out; and the British tourists too. Art and architecture are more than things to gawk at; and the experience is always much more than that whimsy of a place full of people full of themselves.