New Traditional Architecture 1: A Frankfurt Reconstruction

The New Traditional Architecture Facebook site is interesting, not least because of its European (often Central European) focus. While Putin seems to be revisiting WW2, as Hitler needing Lebensraum rather than Stalin resisting an invader, this site often engages with the failures of post-WW2 reconstruction in Central Europe. It is a site for enthusiasts, with a very simple ideology, summed up in a post on 6 April 2022: ‘what bombs could not destroy modernist ideology did’.[1]

It is the creation of Michael Diamant, who has also created an atlas of New Traditional Architecture.[2] Diamant tells us a little about himself on the website and more in this particular post. [3] He studied planning, and his interests are in ‘urban sociology, architecture, city planning, demography, history and social anthropology’. He lives in Stockholm and speaks Swedish, English and some German. He states that he comes ‘from a family background that lost almost everyone and everything’ in WW2 and is aftermath.

The post in question deals with a proposal to restore a tower in the Old Town of Frankfurt called Lange Franz to its pre-war state (Figs 1–2). In it Diamant sets out his historical framework, which is that, in spite of the fact that ‘in the late 1930s Germany initiated the most destructive of wars with the most cruel of intentions … German history is so much longer and richer than the Nazi period.’ He then refers to reconstruction projects in the last thirty years that ‘restore some of the country’s lost grandeur.’ This phrasing is not as political as it sounds: he is referring to buildings.

Fig. 1. Proposal to reconstruct the upper parts of the tower ‘Lange Franz’ and another in Frankfurt.

His attitude to memory is that: ’while we shall not forget why they [the buildings] were destroyed in the first place’, by reconstructing them we ‘bring back beauty and heal history’.[4]

Fig. 2. ‘Lange Franz’, Frankfurt, in 1924 and today..

There is a certain naivety in these statements, but the core ideas are worth exploring. ‘Beauty’ is what old buildings have, which Modernist buildings do not. And ‘history’, meaning the suffering and destruction that occurred in the past, can be ‘healed’ by restoring the architectural body to its state before its injury.

The preoccupation with restoration to a pre-WW2 state is a particularly European preoccupation, for obvious reasons. ‘Modernism’ becomes code for the ugly buildings erected in Europe, both in the capitalist west and Communist east, since 1945, and specially during the 1960s. In many ways Diamant wants to revisit the task of reconstruction faced by his grandparents’ generation, and do it differently.

Although referring to ‘history’, there is not much history on this site. There is no attempt to understand why the post-war generation reconstructed Europe in the way they did, and the believe in social progress that underpinned this and the Modernist project. In 1945 people did not want to return to the world of 1939, because it was that world that created the rubble of 1945. That world was divided by class warfare, with Fascists and Nazis, Communists, Capitalists and Royalists traditionalists at each other’s throats.

Medieval towns were a part of this. The most evocative mental image I have of pre-war Germany is Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, written in America in 1943–46 as Allied bombs were destroying the world that Mann describes. Mann’s retelling of the  Renaissance myth of an artist who sells his soul to the devil evokes for me magical, but troubled, German cities, where medieval and Renaissance townscapes are overlaid with nineteenth-century bourgeois culture, where trams ratted below old towers and historicist apartment buildings, and where the Devil could still claim men’s souls.

In the rubble of these cities, Modernism gave visual form to a better, more socially equal, future. It was optimistic at a time when pessimism was pointless because things could not be any worse than they already were. For that generation the old cities were compromised. To reconstruct them as they were was to be sucked back into the evils of the past, into an endless cycle. And they were right. The future, in (West) Germany at least, did turn out to be better, and Modernist architecture was part of this.

Having mentioned Thomas Mann, it is worth also mentioning Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited, written at about the same time as Dr Faustus (it was published in 1945). It is also a book about the end of an old architectural order which indeed did almost occur, not by bombs, but from the social egalitarianism that came to a head in the twenty years after 1945. When writing Brideshead, Waugh believed that the age of great country houses was ending, based on the then widespread belief that no-one would ever be rich enough to maintain them, let alone live in them. Their future was either institutional use or demolition. But starting in the 1970s the conservation movement, which was strongly nationalistic, moved to save such buildings, and tourism gave them an economic base, and those not owned by the National Trust often moved back from institutional to private use. By the twenty-first century society was spectacularly unequal once again, and grand country houses were being built again by the super rich (sometimes Russian oligarchs). Such buildings are heroes of the English stream of New Traditional Architecture. (The American equivalent are often to be found at the private universities where American oligarchs send their children, where traditionalism and wealth are comfortable bedfellows.)

The rich have always been able to do what they like, and for them there is little distinction between buying an eighteenth-century trophy house and building a new one, except that in the latter the plumbing and services will be better.

There is a strong element of cosplay in all this. These oligarchs were not born into these buildings, as were Sebastian and the decayed English aristocracy of the 1940s and 50s were; rather, they are peasants who made a pile so big they could choose which of the great periods of (Western) art  they would like to inhabit.

But the less wealthy young have no difficulty in inhabiting a fantasy past. The other day I was waiting for a coffee and I was trying to understand the clothing of the woman standing near me, wearing long skirts, a cloak, boots and suchlike. I had learned recently of  ‘Cottage Core’, and I deduced that this must be ‘Medieval Core’. I looked it up and, sure enough, there is such a thing. Millennials, or perhaps it is Gen-Z, seem to have a play-acting view of history. Shows like Bridgerton have abandoned any pretence at history; apart from the ethnically blind casting, there is no attempt to portray realistically the world in which it is nominally set. Jane Austen adaptations do attempt this, and succeed because that clean, genteel world is attractive to us, but such programs, we are now told, are a thing of the past. But, as a recent newspaper article pointed out, most of the Bridgerton characters would have had syphilis; much of London had it anyway in 1810, which was a very good reason for locking up your daughters, and the very modern sexual promiscuity of the characters would have meant that they would have had it too. We are now a long way from the gritty realism prevailing in the 50s and 60s, Bicycle Thieves and so forth.

Arguably, then, New Traditional Architecture is all cosplay. It is an attempt to turn cities back into film sets, or to make damaged cities better tourist towns. We have completely lost the association between old buildings and squalor. There is an old working-class pub in Carlton (Melbourne) that recently was for a while had been reinvented as ‘the Shaw-Davey Slum’. For millennials and Gen-Z, a slum is a place that is merely picturesque, lacking even the mild horror the term held for my generation, let alone the intense horror of the early twentieth century generations of social reformers who had experienced at first hand the squalor and poverty of the poor parts of old cities.

In Melbourne in the 1950s blocks of narrow nineteenth-century terrace houses were demolished because they were considered to be slums, and replaced by mass produced concrete high rise buildings. The terrace houses that were not demolished are now worth 2 million dollars apiece, and the high rise buildings are where the social problems are to be found. All it required to transform slum to millionaire’s row was a few generations of gentrification that led to a reduction in population and internal reconstruction (and better sewerage). This happened through the efforts of the Boomer generation bored with the quarter-acre blocks of their parents further out, long before house prices went silly.

An interesting novel in this regard in Margery Allingham’s The China Governess (1963) This deals with a 1960s housing estate in East London in the early 1960s, and what happens when the residents of the pre-war East End slums were rehoused there. It tackles, novelistically, the question of whether the criminality of the pre-war ‘Turk Street Mile’ lives on in a clean new housing estate. The least sympathetic character is the  progressive councillor behind the project, and the building Allingham has most sympathy towards is an Elizabethan half-timbered house that somehow survived both war and social reform.

The China Governess already in 1963 signals the social failure of high-rise post-war housing estates, and anticipates the mindset of the protagonists of New Traditional Architecture. Because of its refusal to address social issues, New Traditional Architecture’s anti-Modernism can imply a hostility towards 1960s social housing, invariably Modernist, on both side of the Berlin Wall, and its pro-Traditionalism means that the palaces of oligarchs and the urbanism of autocrats get plenty of mileage.

(There is a counter-narrative to this, which is successful social housing that did not pursue the Le Corbusian high-rise fantasy but occupied a middle ground between tradition and modernity, the traditionalist examples being mostly English, the Modernist ones mostly Scandinavian. Interestingly, in his TV show, Railways Journeys of Britain, Michael Portillo, a member of the Thatcher government that privatised council housing, presents positively the council housing estate of Chadwell Heath in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, built in the years after WW1.[5] In this program an historian points out the neat brick architectural detailing and the fact that each house has a front garden (with a privet hedge) and a back one. (My next book will be titled ‘A Short History of the World According to the Privet Hedge’. Because of associations with such housing estates privet had been despised for generations, until Paul Bangay discovered it was in fact a very useful hedge plant for the houses of Melbourne oligarchs in Toorak.) There is an interview with a resident of Chadwell Heath, originally from Dubai and his visually impaired daughter, both of whom stress the good social environment that the estate provides.)

The supporters of New Traditional Architecture, then, are disposed to condemn the reconstruction efforts of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations for failing to reconstruct things exactly as they were before the war. But it is because of that (Modernist) reconstruction that those streets are clean and uncrowded, and everyone has a clean interior with good plumbing. It is only because this can be taken for granted that it is possible to perceive those old towers as being beautiful and desirable. And indeed in 2022, when there is enough cash available to splash on urban decoration, this building would undoubtedly look better with its towers recreated.

The problem with this debate is the unhelpful polarisation between Modernism and New Traditionalism, as I will discuss in the next post. It is more useful to redirect the discussion to a more substantive polarity: architecture as historical revival versus architecture considered in terms of psychology. Between architecture of the past as a resource, rather than something to return to; and architecture that is truly responsive to human psychology, rather than to an architect’s ambition. In Figure 3, the contrast between the old tower and the buildings beside and behind it needs to be framed in terms, not of Traditionalism versus Modernism, but of variety versus monotony, humanity versus inhumanity, of what ought to be done versus what can be done.

Fig. 3. ‘Lange Franz’, Frankfurt, in 1924 and today, showing the urban context.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/groups/Klassisknyproduktion/permalink/2523704377843404. 6 April 2022.

[2] https://newtrad.org/atlas

[3] https://newtrad.org/aboutme/.

[4] ‘In the late 1930s Germany initiated the most destructive of wars with the most cruel of intentions. Tens of millions of lives and 100 000+ buildings and artifacts of immense value destroyed later, it was finally over for one half of Europe. The other half had to wait another 50 years to get free from either Soviet occupation or communism. But German history is so much longer and richer than the Nazi period. I say this coming from a family background that lost almost everyone and everything. Since the 1990s a wave of reconstruction initiatives have sprung up to restore some of the country’s lost grandeur. While we shall not forget why they were destroyed in the first place, lets be a part of their reconstruction to bring back beauty and heal history.’ https://www.facebook.com/groups/Klassisknyproduktion/permalink/2523704377843404. 6 April 2022.

[5] Great British Railway Journeys, series 12, episode 7, first broadcast in the UK on 4 May 2021.

Posted in All Posts, Architecture, Baroque architecture, Comment, Country Houses, New Traditional architecture, Restoration and Conservation, Town and Village, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Traditional Architecture 3: On Vernacular Architecture

In one posting on the New Traditional Architecture Facebook page is illustrated the ‘Villa Tällberg’, completed in 2019 in the Swedish vernacular manner. It is by a Swedish architectural firm Byggnadswerk, led by Tommy Janssen, who does some rather beautiful buildings in this manner.[1] This particular building is painted in ‘Falu red’, a red paint made from mining sludge associated with the copper-mining city of Falun in Sweden (Fig. 1). Janssen also has an Instagram site where he posts pictures of old Swedish buildings that can be called vernacular, such as farmhouses, but also others employing similar constructional techniques that are clearly architect designed bourgeois houses.[2]

Fig. 1. Villa Tällberg, Sweden. 2019 (Byggnadsverk architects)

The New Traditional Architecture post states that: ‘Sweden has like all countries a rich legacy of vernacular and classical architecture ….’[3] Without labouring over what is a brief Facebook comment, I nevertheless find interesting the assumption that  ‘all countries’ have ‘vernacular’ and ‘classical’ architecture.

Both of these terms are highly freighted. ‘Vernacular’ has the resonances of the concept of ‘folk/volk’ as it was develop in the eighteenth century; that is, the ’natural’ expression of the nature of an ethnic group, one that emerged during the deep past of that group. It is a term that originated with reference to language, as in a Merriam-Webster definition: ‘using a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language’.

‘Classical’ is, of course, the concept most central to western art theory, and Gombrich usefully argued that all western art terms (like Gothic and Baroque) were formulated in opposition to the classical, but each were ‘unclassical’ in different ways. The usage in this post, however, has a resonance that owes much to English architectural historians and philosophers of the late twentieth century, especially David Watkin and Roger Scruton, who reasserted the claims of classicism to be a universal architecture. This claim had general acceptance from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, but was undermined by the partisans of the Gothic and demolished by the cultural relativism of nineteenth-century historicism. The claim of architectural universalism was appropriated by Modernism in the twentieth century, and in polemical opposition to this but Watkin and Scruton attempted to reattach it to Classicism. In this they are followed by many adherents of New Traditional Architecture, which often subsume all of what they consider to be good architecture under the term ‘classical’.

From an Australian perspective these terms are particularly problematic. It could be argued that the almost obsessive preoccupation with things Aboriginal in contemporary progressive culture is an attempt to recover an Australian cultural vernacular, a ‘folk’ culture, even though such a project must necessarily fail, given that aboriginality, like the ‘volk’, is defined racially, and most Australians are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. And it must necessarily fail in terms of architecture, since architecture was not central to Aboriginal culture. So for a vernacular architecture Australians fall back on what was built by early settlers and which can be construed as ‘a dialect native to a region’ that is not ‘literary, cultured, or foreign’, namely timber woolsheds, to which may be added cast-iron lace verandas in the cities. Or possibly one might identify as ‘the Australian vernacular’ what was the standard mode of construction of ordinary nineteenth century buildings, which involves wooden stumps and corrugated iron roofs, gables, sash windows, and  weatherboards, what I will call the ‘weatherboard and corrugated iron style’.

The more aspirational urban architecture of the nineteenth century, found in parliament buildings, post offices, town halls, and to some extent terrace houses was ‘classical’, but few in Australia would accept that the style of these buildings has a claim to architectural universality. Indeed, they are as often as not seen as the embodiment of Britishness, and as something un-Australian, Eurocentric, and tarnished by colonialism. At the time they were built and for long afterwards they may have been thought to have spoken a literary or cultured language, but not a foreign one, since Australians were British. Consequently the architecture that has the best claim to be considered an ‘Australian vernacular’ style is Federation architecture, which was created at the point when Australian nationalism was created, and which, helpfully, is not very classical: it is one of Gombrich’s ‘unclassical’ styles, more concerned with invention than correctness, and rooted in the English attempt to return to their own vernacular, the Arts and Crafts movement.

Yet a century and more on from Federation, Federation architecture has become a period style, relegated to a past in which contemporary Australia is uninterested (they are unprotected and steadily being demolished).  Arguably, what can be considered ‘vernacular’ architecture today are the buildings that constitute the vast and ever increasing acreage of suburban housing estates (Fig. 2). These have been for decades been built either in a bland, brown, hip-roofed manner, devoid of any architectural inflection, the successor to the weatherboard and corrugated iron style, or in a kind of boxy modernism, with abrupt shifts of materials on the exterior. The former are difficult to admire in the way the fans of New Traditional architecture admire European vernaculars, while the latter are difficult to hate as dreary Modernism, since they are not devoid of architectural interest.

Fig. 2. Housing estate, sunbury, victoria. (Google maps.)

This is not for stylistic reasons, but sociological ones. The social problems of such suburban developments swamp any concern with style. In looking at them one does not debate beauty or the lack of it, but recoils at the smallness of the allotments relative to the footprint of the houses, the tiny back yards, and the sheer repetitive monotony of it all. An even more one is prompted to consider issues of population growth, mass immigration designed to depress wages, social isolation, and cultural mores.

Looked at from another direction, one could argue that in Australia there is no vernacular at all. Byggnadswerk can create beautiful buildings in the Swedish vernacular, especially because that vernacular had already been worked up in the nineteenth century into a more artful, bourgeois style. Once again, the parallels with the Federation style are significant.

These buildings are of interest in their own right, and prompt a positive aesthetic response. But were one to be erected down the road here in Australia it would be considered merely a curiosity. I know this for a fact. A New Traditional building immediately prompts the question: why? A Modernist one (to embrace that simplified dichotomy) does not: it is just a building. Why build a Swedish building here, is the inevitable question? It has been argued that Modernism, in its 1930s formulation, was a Central European style exported to other countries, buts its ideology, as I have been asserting, successfully claimed universality. The New Traditional Architecture movement is dependent on restoring local architectural traditions, not introducing ones from other countries. This is why classicism is so important for it: you can build ‘classically’ anywhere in Europe, not because classicism is indeed universal, but because classicism is a Europe-wide vernacular in its own right.

So in an Australian context, where the local vernacular tradition is so dire, one could theoretically embrace classicism, since this was also a colonial ‘vernacular’ in Australia (and, of course, the USA). Yet what matters with the contemporary adoption of a regional vernacular is the opportunities that vernacular offers for new invention. Unfortunately, the weatherboard and corrugated iron style is extremely basic, and offers little in the way of architectural excitement. Victorian public buildings in Australia, and especially Victoria, are, quite frankly, suffocating. They demonstrate so little in the way of creative originality that they depress invention rather than inspire it. Federation architecture is another matter, which brings us back to where we were before, but I will not go there, but instead continue with the idea of using these Swedish ‘vernacular’ buildings, and other such inspiring buildings found elsewhere, as models.

In abandoning the search for an ‘authentic’, ethnically based local vernacular, in favour of foreign vernaculars as models, we face the problem faced by nineteenth century historicism; namely, that there is too much inspiring architecture out there, and we want to draw on it all. In the nineteenth century this led to free-style eclecticism, but today it might be more productive to adopt the modernist (and arts-and-crafts) strategy of privileging construction. But not to make construction an end in itself, but to  adopt a process that starts with materials rather than image, is eclectic in forms and details, and ends up having an image that is original.

Such a building might sit more comfortably in the local built landscape. Yet how did we arrive at this being desirable? This, surely, is as much a Eurocentric import as the forms of our Swedish vernacular buildings. Contemporary Australian architecture never aspires to sit well with the landscape of buildings in which it is situated, although it often claims to sit well in the natural landscape. Robin Boyd in his 1950s polemic on Australian urbanism, The Australian Ugliness, condemned Australian suburbia as it then was, and as Victorian country towns still mostly are (though not for much longer) because it lacked the unity imposed upon old European villages (Mykonos, say) by a lack of options imposed by circumstance, or that might be possible in new developments if the hero-architect was given a free hand to impose his creative genius. (This would eventually happen, with the sophisticated planning regimes of Poundbury, Seaside, or Dinner Plain.)

Boyd was referring to streetscapes where buildings of different styles and periods stood side-by-side without formal unity or conscious design. This was the consequence of the Australian practice of property developers selling off land as vacant allotments that were then built on as circumstances allowed, with allotments often unbuilt upon for decades. But perhaps in an age when ‘diversity’ has become the most hallowed moral concept, Australians might get to enjoy a Swedish barn in Falu red next door.


[1] https://byggnadsverk.se/

[2] Instagram: byggnadsverk.se.

[3]https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10164397998910010&set=oa.1522779977935854 (Michael Diamant.) ‘I think it was Roger Scruton that said something like “an unspoiled landscape is not without buildings, but without modernist ones”. This is of course very true as the old villages and manors dotting our cultural landscapes makes the view even more pleasant. This new large villa near the lake Siljan in Dalarna, Sweden, may not move the world of new classical architecture, but it is important nationally. Sweden has like all countries a rich legacy of vernacular and classical architecture but since the 1960s there has been lots of destruction with ever increasing uglification. Showing people that you can build new high quality vernacular or classical is therefor of utter importance. Because money is never the problem, knowledge and culture always is. For now that is a feather in the hat to the owner that had the courage to ask for something different.’

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Sky Barrels: Lake Daylesford, Neighbourhood Character, and Imagistic Architecture

In Daylesford there has been a recent planning application for ‘Sky Barrels’ on Cornish Hill (Fig. 1).[1] These are five one-bedroom holiday cottages in the shape of compressed (elliptical) barrels on metal stands. The ends of the barrels are windowed, and there is a sitting room on one level and a bedroom on the other. Cornish Hill is an old gold mining area, formerly the Argus mine. (It is better known to local children as ‘the Argie’).

Fig. 1. ‘Sky Barre;ls’. From the plannig application.

The Cornish Hill area ends on a ridge overlooking Lake Daylesford, a short distance above the Ballan road at Lake House (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Lake Daylesford, looking East. Cornish hiss the ridge in the centre distance.

There are various houses on the slope above the road and on a dead-end road parallel to the Ballan road, many of which function as holiday accommodation. At the junction with this road there is a house offering spiritual readings, and at this point the uphill road degenerates into a track that goes across Cornish Hill. Here there is a large allotment which is the site of the planned structures (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Aerial view of Lake Daylesford, with Cornish Hill at lower right. (Google Maps.)

This area forms a prong jutting into the Cornish Hill reserve, so that the allotment in question is enfolded by the reserve on the north side, with a long frontage against the reserve (Fig. 4). Immediately below the allotment to the right in the direction of the lake is a grove of trees that obscures the view to the lake from ground level. The high point of the ridge is a little above the allotment, which is thus part of the slope down to the lake rather than being visually part of the moonscape of Cornish Hill.

Fig. 4. Sky Barrels allotment in red.

Neighbourhood Character Overlays

The Victorian planning system has provision for what are called Neighbourhood Character Overlays, which apply to much of the Daylesford township. (There is also a Heritage Overlay, which is slightly different.) This was introduced some years ago and I remember at the time attending a public meeting that sought input. ‘Neighbourhood character’ works best when there is a relatively intact townscape that has an architectural coherence, usually because all the buildings were erected at about the same time (for example, the nice part of Parkville). Neighbourhood character in such cases can be fairly strictly defined in architectural terms, and can effectively control infil, redevelopment and additions to ensure that they are ‘in keeping’ with what already exists.

Unfortunately, the Neighbourhood Character planning framework in Daylesford does not work.

Daylesford’s housing, like that of other country towns, has traditionally been poor, shabby, ncoherent, and of all periods. I remember when I first came here being told that people’s cars were worth more than their houses (!) The planning system was weak to nonexistent, and unauthorised building was common. Houses were on large (quarter acre/1000 sq. metre) allotments, often double ones, with numerous empty allotments. There was often quite a lot of vegetation, randomly planted with exotic species. On Wombat Hill there were a lot of walnut trees, a great many of which have been cut down over the years. Many properties still had the hawthorn hedges planted in the nineteenth century, which were either trimmed ferociously low or not trimmed at all. Almost all are now gone. There were also some high cypress hedges on some of the more middle-class housing, and hedges of other species like pittosporum. There were also many chook sheds. And pigeons: pigeon racing was a popular local hobby.

A disinterested description of the town’s ‘neighbourhood character’ at the time the rules were formulated would have stressed the shabby housing, the open spacious country town feel and the exotic vegetation moving to scrubby native vegetation towards the periphery. I remember pointing out to the planners at the abovementioned public meeting how important to the town’s neighbourhood character were the large allotments. I was told that this could not be accommodated in the overlay because State Government policy was to maximise density in order to maximise the usefulness of infrastructure and to contain urban sprawl.

At that meeting it was suggested that fence heights, according to the overlay, would be restricted to 1.2 metres. I am not sure if that made it into the final version. This is based on a principal of planning theory that is on one level admirable: that low fences encourage social communication and a friendly environment, and that high fences and walls prevent this. This was out of touch with what the town was and is. When I asked ‘what about high hedges, will they be permitted?’ I was met with a blank stare. It had simply not occurred to anyone. So I took that as a ‘yes’. In fact the height of fences has always been beside the point; most homeowners either opted for privacy or not, and the former mostly used vegetation on a spacious allotment to achieve this. 

In desperation the planners turned to materials, in an attempt to find something definable, but these prescriptions are feebly formulated (typically, ‘if possible’).  In practice if you look about the town there is absolutely no consistency in materials in any building in any precinct that I have seen that have gone up in the last twenty years. The overlay may advise light coloured weatherboards but bright red bricks are used anyway. One can even say that there is an inverse relationship between conformity to the neighbourhood character overlays and a real contribution to the character of a precinct. The term ‘character’ is in fact employed to avoid any requirement that a building should look good.

Indeed, I recall at the abovementioned meeting an architect speaking against the proposed overlays, on the grounds that it would restrict good architect-designed architecture. At the time I felt conflicted by this point of view: on the one had I saw the Neighbourhood Character overlay as a way of containing unsuitable development; on the other I thought that a building designed by an architect was likely to be better looking than one not. The outcome, of course, was that the Neighbourhood Character overlay has done nothing to prevent the construction of nasty buildings, nor has it inhibited architects doing their thing (which includes designing nasty buildings). 

The core of the problem is that there is nothing in the overlays that actually guides creation. While the prescriptiveness of private developments like Seaside in Florida or Dinner Plain in the Victorian Alps may be inappropriate for a pluralistic country town, some vision of what the town might look like ought to be in the loop somewhere. But in that the Neighbourhood Character overlay has failed.

Inagistic Architecture and Lake Daylesford: The ‘Monet Bridge’

But where the shores of Lake Daylesford is concerned, a ‘neighbourhood character’, unrecognised by the planning scheme, already exists.  The criss-cross parapets around the lake are often admired by visitors and feature prominently in tourism publicity, no doubt because they can be read as being a somewhat festive detail appropriate to a holiday town (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Holiday accomodation beside Lake Daylesford (Lake House).

This feature was begun by one party and imitated by others, a process that spontaneously created a distinctive neighbourhood character for the lakeside area (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Criss-cross parapet on holiday accommodation on Lake Daylesford.

By accident, the criss-cross theme is reflected in the 1980s bridge on the north-west side of the lake (Fig. 7). This is one of several such features created in the heritage-friendly 1980s, and so was painted in ‘heritage’ colours: Indian red, Brunswick green, and cream, unlike the parapets, which are all in whitish colours. This bridge is sometimes referred to by locals, in a fit of wishful thinking, as ‘the Monet Bridge’.

Fig. 7. The ‘Monet Bridge’ seen from the Boat House.

This is a classic example of spontaneous imagistic thinking. It is also an example of how imagistic thinking with regard to architecture goes unrecognised. This bridge was recently repainted, for the first time, in its original colours, which was a lost opportunity. The multiplicity of colours means that from across the lake the bridge is hard to read: the cream crosses detatch themselves fom the darker colours of the posts and railings (Fig. 6).

Fig. 8. The ‘Monet Bridge’ on the north-west side of Lake Daylesford.

It would have been better to have painted it a uniform blue-green, which would have made it truly a ‘Monet bridge’. This is the power of colour in architecture: even though the structure is nothing like Monet’s bridge at Giverny, and there are no waterlilies, a similarity of colour would be sufficient to cement the association. (Incidentally there is an explicit representation of a ‘Monet Bridge’ at the gardens of Tieve Tara in Mt Macedon, complete with waterlilies.) 

If the Lake Daylesford bridge were to be painted vermilion, it would become a Chinese bridge. This could be glossed as an allusion to the Chinese gold miners and the Joss House that stood on a site now covered by the lake. Indeed, the barbecue pavilion on the other side of the lake, designed by architect Clinton Krause, also in the 1980s, is in Chinese style in order to make exactly this allusion (Fig. 9). Its colouring, however, is not very Chinese, being muted reddish-brown and pale turquoise. While the bridge was painted in ‘heritage’ colours,  the barbecue pavilion was painted in ‘designer’ colours, alluding to Chinese colouring but denying it at the same time, so as to look ‘contemporary’ rather than ‘exotic’.

Fig. 9. ‘Chinese’ barbecue shelter. architect: Clinton Krause.

Alternatively, if the bridge were painted white, it would become a ‘Palladian’ bridge, but the allusion would be lost on most. A number of bridges in European landscape gardens directly inspired by Palladio with criss-cross parapets painted white are commonly identified as Chinese, a rare instance where form (their curvature and criss-cross motif) prevails over colour in generating meaning, though context also plays a part (Chinese bridges are expected in such gardens, while Palladio is not associated with ornamental bridges in the popular imagination).

The Transience of the lakeside ‘Neighbourhood character’

I am arguing, then, that the criss-cross verandah parapets around the lake help to create ‘neighbourhood character’. To this we could add gables and pitched roofs (Fig. 10). But this neighbourhood character, like all neighbourhod character prescriptions, has an historical dimension: it already seems to belong to the 1980s and 1990s. More recent buildings, especially those with architectural pretensions, emphatically avoid these features. This is because cutting-edge contemporary architecture is inherently anti-contextual. It considers local building traditions to be design constraints, rather than design stimuli. And it speaks, not to place, but to the architectural profession. Its meaning, architecturally, is to advance the reputation of the architect and, by reflection, assert the status of the owner. This meaning exists in the world of architectural prizes, trade magazines, and Country Style magazine.

Fig. 10. View of Lake House across Lake Daylesford. Much criss-crossing.

Sky Barrels

Apart from the brief flowering of Postmodernism, contemporary architectural theory has generally been hostile to imagery, while valorising function and materials. Presumably for this reason neighbourhood character overlays never mention imagery, even though this is what most people think of when they hear the term. Imagery is highly context sensitive and a very powerful generater of cultural meaning, as the bridge example shows.

The design of the Sky Barrels project is explcitly imagistic, as is expressed in the name (Fig. 1). These structures are not buildings, or houses: they are barrels. As barrels they must be wine barrels, as winemaking is the only context where barrels are met with today. Such an association would inescapable for anyone seeing these structures were they to be erected.

Wine Barrels as functional design

It could be argued that the developer and architect did not intend this project to say ‘wine barrels’, and that it is just good, functional design that happens to adopt a form corresponding to squashed wine barrels. There is undoubtedly a functional component to all this, and that is to get the windows high enough to have a view over the trees to the lake. If one were to built a house this high one would exceed height restrictions without having a way of justifying doing so. But one can exploit the strangeness of barrels on stilts by arguing that it is something other than a set of houses, or dwellings. And this is what the planning application does. It argues that the proposed structures are neither ‘dwellings’ nor ‘residential buildings’, but ‘group accommodation’, and height requirements do not apply:

…the maximum building height requirements do not apply to the proposed Group Accommodation units (as Group Accommodation is not considered a ‘dwelling’ or ‘residential building’ pursuant to Clause 73.03 of the Hepburn Planning Scheme) …

Legal precedent at VCAT is cited:

This view is supported by the findings of Maclean v Yarra CC [2021] VCAT 614, in which consideration of a proposed group accommodation use in the NRZ was adjudicated on. As per paragraphs 18 and 58 of the written reasons, Deputy President Bisucci agreed with Council and the permit applicant (respondent in this case) that the maximum height requirement did not apply to the application for planning permit because the proposed use of the subject land was neither a dwelling nor a residential building.

Yet the applicaton states that ‘the proposal has been designed to adhere to the height controls’. Which makes one ask, why is this paragraph needed? All very confusing,

Justification in terms of mining imagery

One argument in the application is that the structures recall mining headframes.

‘The built form … whilst clearly identifiable as a later addition to the Heritage precinct, … draws from the existing heritage fabric within the area in its emulation of the old gold mining headframes’. … ‘Galvanised steel frames proposed in a manner that emulates the old gold mining headframes in interpretation and to reference the Cornish Hill Mining precinct.’

This is supposed to have us believe that these Sky Barrels conform to Heritage and Neighbourhood character overlays for Cornish Hill, a former mining site where the Argus mine which had such a headframe, although almost certainly not galvanised.

The resemblance of the Sky Barrel frames to such towers is spurious; they don’t look remotely like them (Fig. 11). A few exposed steel girders does not a similarity make. It is regular planning casuistry to extract some abstract structural feature and claim that it an allusion or sympathetic response.

Fig. 11. Historic photo of the first Cornish Battery, 1885.

In any case, what is the point of this observation? Is it being argued that, by accident, the developer is creating a mining site theme park? The long gone mining structures of Cornish hill were not on this ridge. And why should we want to recreate them? Mining was and is a destructive activity, as the historic photo shows. While we might want to preserve the remnants of this activity for historical reasons and because what remains has been mellowed by time, why would anyone want a new pseudo-mining rig disfiguring the ridge?

Tourism as heritage history

In fact the Cornish Hill ridge facing west and everything below it has a heritage history that has little to do with mining, and everything to do with a quite different industry: tourism. The Lake Daylesford area was once a mined wasteland like Cornish Hill, When the mining was finished the stream was dammed to make Lake Daylesford (the appearance of the lake area before this can be seen in a drawing by Eugene von Guérard made in 1864 (Fig. 12)). After a few decades it became a tourist destination, which it it has never ceased to be. (Never say never: it is now being transformed into an outer suburb of Melbourne.) The Cornish Hill ridge seen from the west is the culminating feature of a tourism-created townscape that has long ago obscured the mining-created one, and, as described above, much of that character is created by criss-cross holidayesque verandahs and gables.

Figure 12. Eugene von Guérard, View of future Lake Daylesford area on May 1, 1864. Sydney, State Library of New South Wales, Dixson Galleries DG*G 17 vol. 1 f. 10.

Modernism, duration and imagistic architecture

Imagistic architecture has a heightened temporal dimension. Modernist architectural theory was concerned to establish architecture as something outside of time. This was because it was created in opposition to nineteenth-century architectural historicism, which was wholly about reference to the styles of past architecture. The most repeated refrain of modernist architectural theory is that one should be creating the architecture of this century, not of past centuries. It is interesting that this trope deals in centuries. It was first enunciated in the nineteenth century as ‘we need an architecture of the nineteenth century’. By the time this idea gained traction, it had become ‘we need an architecture of the twentieth century’. It is still being enunciated today, for example by Kevin McCloud in Grand Designs, who praises a building for being ‘of the twenty-first century’. It is, in essence, a call for a period style to add to those of past periods.

Imagistic architecture escapes from the need to be of ‘this century’, because it connects directly to the time and place of whatever it is an image of. The planning application for the Sky Barrels predictably states that ‘the built form is unashamedly contemporary’. This appears in the in the paragraph dealing with the heritage context cited above, and is a reflex modernist response to the implication that reference to historic precedent is necessarily bad. But this centuries-old opposition between contemporary (or ‘this-century’) and historicist architecture is here beside the point. The potential historicism of some metal girders pales beside the in-your-face assault of wine barrel imagery. Nineteenth-century historicism conceived of architectural imagery in period-style terms: Ancient Greek or Roman classicism, Gothic and so on. Wine barrel imagery does not take us down that path, but the path of association with what wine barrels are associated with, namely, the winemaking industry. It becomes a kind of trade logo, an advertisement for a winery or vineyard theme park.

At Passing Clouds vineyard at Musk you are greeted by carved wine glasses on the fence posts, and the entrance area is barrel-themed with galvanised steel hoops.  But these are contained within the vineyard itself, and signal the purpose of the business. They are meaningful ornament, playfully reminding you of why you are there. But there are not many vineyards near Daylesford, and it is not what the town is known for. And if the town collectively wanted to brand itself in this way, it should be the decision of the town, not the random whim of a developer. If this were the advertising hoarding of a wine company or vineyard, it would be rejected by the planners from the beginning.

And the imagistic associations don’t stop there. The barrels are squashed laterally, which sets up other association; such as with cartoon drawings of wagon wheels at speed. Once a building suggests an image, any change to its form that departs from that image has exceptional expressive force. Mannerist architects in the sixteenth century understood this.

This kind of imagistic architecture implies a temporality of a different kind. Period-style historicism made connections with a past that aspired to timelessness. But the Sky Barrels project has a temporality corresponding to advertising and social media. It is inherently transitory. This project is presumably intended to appeal to Instagrammers, who can post a picture of themselves in front the structures, with the caption ‘I spent a night in a wine barrel!’ The excitement of this activity is good for about 5 minutes. Ars longa, vita brevis. Novelty is not a virtue in urbanism; what is good for an Instagram moment becmes tedious if you have to see it day after day, year after year.

‘Yes, it looks horrible, but don’t worry, you won’t actually be able to see it.’

Planning applications, like this one, are preoccupied with establishing that the proposed structure does not cause offence. The term ‘impact’ is frequently employed, as in ‘the impact of the comet was not so bad, even if it did wipe out the dinosaurs’.

This planning application is typical in this respect:

‘The low site coverage (7%), compact building design, central positioning in the site, and cuts into the land when viewed from the more sensitive eastern boundary results in a proposed that provides new built form that is subservient to the natural surrounds against the backdrop of the Cornish Hill to the west [sic].

 ‘These design aspects result in only limited (and clearly acceptable) visibility from the public realm (Houston Street), and it is considered that the design provides a negligible (and acceptable) visual impact to the streetscape and the wider precinct.’

 ‘The proposal provides dark and muted colours to assist with the subservient presentation of the built forms within the natural landscaped setting (especially as the Cornish Hill rises to the west [sic] of the site).’

‘Noting the high sensitivity of this setting, we are advised that the proposal’s exposure is acceptable with the impact limited to the immediate western valley.’

Such applications never assert that the building’s visibility can be a public benefit: that it will look good.

The public benefit of a proposal is, as here, normally framed in economic terms: the building will boost the local economy:

‘The proposal will make a positive contribution to tourism accommodation options in Daylesford and the wider Hepburn area, without causing unreasonable amenity impacts for adjoining properties or unreasonably impacting on the valued heritage and landscape qualities of the area.’

Viewing to and viewing from

The appearance of the building is assumed to be a negative, and it is assumed that the public economic benefit comes at the expense of public visual amenity. This is why the application keeps insisting that yes, the sight of the building is a negative, but really, you won’t be able to see it. This is not believable. The whole point of the sky barrel concept design is to give the occupants a view of the lake, and if you can see the lake from them, they can be seen from the lake. The ‘viewshed’ diagrams (which map all the parts of the town from which the Sky Barrels will be seen) show that they will be able to be seen from most of the town.

Inherent in this is the problem of views. Views are selfish things. In your new ugly building you get a beautiful view; but if someone is in this view they get a view back to your ugly building. A prime instance of this is the new tourist developments on the side of Mt Franklin. These are designed to appropriate to themselves the view painted by Eugene von Guérard from the upper slopes of Mt Franklin towards Maldon (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13. Eugène von Guérard, View North-west from Mt. Franklin. Sydney, art Gallery of NSW, Dixson Galleries.

But these buildings destroy the view back to the once beautiful hillside running up the side of Mt Franklin.  At night it is like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: lights hover eerily over the road, like an alien spaceship. In any country but Australia such a landscape would have heritage value and be preserved. But Australia is the paradise of selfish people: all the matters is the view from, never the view to.(Fig. 14).

Fig. 13. Eugène von Guérard, View North-west from Mt. Franklin. Private Collection.

[1] https://thewombatpost.com.au/2021/12/16/controversial-skybarrells-proposed-for-cornish-hill/. Hepburn Shire Council website, PA-3333-Advertised-Plans-1-of-2-Camp-Street-DAYLESFORD-Property-200369_Redacted.pdf

Posted in All Posts, Architectural paintings, Architecture, Comment, Daylesford, Design, Fabriques, Town and Village, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Montsalvat Part 1: Less an Artist’s Colony than an Ideal Burgundian Village, an Australian Portmeirion

Montsalvat at Eltham, a suburb of Melbourne, was created from 1935 to the 1960s by the painter Justus Jörgensen as a ‘colony of painters and art workers’ (Fig. 1).[1] By the 1960s it was difficult to sustain economically and following Jörgensen’s death in 1975 it was managed by his son Sigmund, who turned it into a successful wedding reception venue and an active arts centre with gallery spaces and events,[2] while trying to retaining the original vision of his father and his father’s colleagues.[3] In 2019 plans were announced for an art gallery for Nillumbik shire (flagged in the 2017 Montsalvat strategic plan[4]) on the lower slopes of Montsalvat, above the Eltham Cemetery.[5] The then executive director, Dr Jacqueline Ogeil, is no longer there and there seems to be no mention of this project on the Montsalvat website, so perhaps this has been knocked on the head by Covid.

Fig. 1. Monstsalvat, the Great Hall. This is the ‘hero view’ used in most publicity.

This would be no bad thing. To build a new gallery would simply push Montsalvat itself into the background, and bury the vision of the Jörgensens. Unfortunately arts managers and artists have ony one idea: to build a new art gallery. But Montsalvat has no shortage of gallery spaces, but, as it has no doubt been argued, these are a motley collection of repurposed spaces, not the glossy new building that arts managers and artists crave.

In this respect Montsalvat suffers in comparison to its neighbour down the road, Heide, which is successful both as a series of contemporary art spaces that are also a series of historic buildings, and as a place of homage to its creators. At the heart of this comparison lies the fact that the Heide crowd were the winners of a critical war. Jörgensen was a pupil of James Meldrum, a painter whose style, a tonal painterly realism that looks more to Velázquez and Rembrandt than to Matisse and Picasso, became the whipping boy for Melbourne modernism. Although he still has plenty of admirers and even followers today among painters who like painting (as opposed to artists), the Meldrumites have been relegated to the dustbin of history, and along with them the Jörgensens and their associates.

It is assumed that the Heide crowd were the better artists, and there is some truth in this, but the problem is that the Montsalvat group were at best reluctant Modernists and, perhaps even more importantly, following Meldrum, who was born in Scotland and who is categorised as a Scottish painter on the NGV website, they looked back to European ‘Old Masters’ rather than being nationalists looking to a progressive future. European art pundits, when looking beyond their own world, invariably look for something that is distinctively non-European, and are blind to any continuities with their own. I was reminded of this when rewatching Around the World in 80 Gardens TV series, in which Monty Don does this for gardens around the world, and ends up in New World countries with a dreary selection of gardens, or no gardens at all, because he averts his gaze from those gardens that look to Europe. This has much to do with the fact that such pundits are nationalistic about their own art, and expect other nations to be equally so, denying a transnational European cultural diaspora. Hence when Kenneth Clark ‘discovered’ Australian Art in the 1950s he focused on Sidney Nolan because of the obvious (indeed crass) Australianness of the Ned Kelly series. This process was completed by the subsequent valorisation of Indigeneous Australian art (to which Helen Lemprière, part of the Montsalvat circle, became responsive) but any Australian artist of European origins who goes down that path becomes guilty of cultural appropriation. This was not a problem for Nolan but there is only so much mileage in an art about bushrangers.

Hence although many of the Montsalvat group are not negligible, including Lemprière, the most successful of them as an artist, but who rejected Montsalvat (or was made to reject it by her husband), and Matcham Skipper,[6] their critical standing is low. Sigmund Jörgensen’s history complains that there are still no paintings by Jörgensen in the National Gallery of Victoria. (There still isn’t, as far as their website is concerned.)

But while Montsalvat was an artist’s colony, it was also a Portmeirion (Fig. 2). That is, it was one man’s dream of building a village that romantically alluded to old Europe.  For his generation Europe represented a dream of civilisation, a flame that required extraordinary efforts to keep alive in the cultural wilderness that was Australia. The difference is that Clough Williams-Ellis, the creator of Portmeirion, had plenty of money and provided his village with its economic basis as a hotel and visitor destination from the beginning, even if that was not fully realised until the post-WWII era. Jorgensen was not so good a painter as Williams-Ellis was an architect, and his economic base was teaching art. By fostering the cult of the artist as counter-cultural alternative to stuffy social orthodoxy, he succeeded in harnessing a not inconsiderable free labour force of those attracted to a life that promised more than conventional Melbourne life did. This included the wealthy, such as Helen Lemprière who contributed funds.

Fig. 2. Wales, Portmeirion. Architect Clough Williams-Ellis, most buildings from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Melbourne in the 1930s seems to have been exceptionally stuffy and wowserish place. As a result, Montsalvat had a reputation for the sexual license expected of an artist’s colony, which, Sigmund Jörgensen tells us, was not the case; rather, Jorgensen senior was merely opposed to the conventions of formal marriage rather than being a promoter of promiscuity. And at the end of his life Jörgensen, a lapsed Catholic, built a chapel. Today, when nobody cares whether or not a couple is formally married in a church, the thought that comes to mind is that Montsalvat was perhaps the site of the patriarchal pedophilia also found in artist’s colonies (Eric Gill comes to mind), but it was not that either. Yet in the end what emerges from Sigmund Jörgensen’s book is something that today is almost as bad: that Montsalvat was run by a self-important dogmatist who treated the women in his ménage à trois badly in a controlling way. Montsalvat as a site of ‘free love’ would go down rather better.[7] 

It is perhaps for this reason that in its current form Montsalvat fails to foster a cult of the artistic personalities of its founders. There are no boards explaining who these people were and what they achieved artistically, and no signage on any of the buildings to explain what makes them interesting, how they came into being, and who used them or once lived in them. And there is no useful and affordable and up-to-date guidebook. The best source of information about the buildings is buried as an appendix in Sigmund Jörgensen’s book, which ought to available separately to guide visitors.[8] Indeed, without it the visitor will miss much, if not most, of the art created by the Montsalvat community.

Montsalvat today remains as Sigmund Jörgensen left it, a wedding venue with a café and associated gallery spaces. The various sheds on the upper part of the site now apparently function as artist’s studios, though they seem to be devoid of life. Management seems primarily interested in the galleries, and the visitor who wants to experience Montsalvat the place is treated in a way that can only be considered hostile. It is open daily to casual visitors, but little is done for them. There is a reception area, with an entrance fee of $14, which implies that visitors are welcome and will be provided with a worthwhile visitor experience. Not so. Although mangement clearly wants you to visit the galleries any buy works of art (although I have a problem with paying to visit a commercial art gallery) they actively discourage casual visits to the core buildings. The mindset seem to be that these are for paying weddings only, not for (paying) day trippers.

There is a map given with the ticket but it is quite useless. There is no signage of any kind, apart from warning signs. It doesn’t send a good message when the only sign you do find is one that tells you to keep your children from drowning in the pond. There is no directional signage, and nothing to tell you that a door that is firmly shut is, in fact, open. You soon learn to try every door. None of the sculptures dotted around, and none of the paintings in the Great Hall, are labelled. There are no signs identifying any buildings other than the artist’s studios, and it is unclear whether these belong to the artists in residence or are historical names.

One can contrast this with Portmeirion, which functions as a venue that actively welcomes day-trippers during the day, before transforming itself to a private fantasy resort with a high end restaurant after 5 pm..

There are ferocious signs about photography not being permitted, which is absurd in the Age of Instagram. Management makes money from wedding photos but this is not impacted on by casual snapshots. Perhaps they are trying to protect the copyright of works of artists, but if this is necessary it should be confined to the exhibition galleries, not Montsalvat the place.

Although it is billed as a romantic village, as a site for wedding photography Montsalvat is dreadful. The sample wedding photo met with in the publicity material shows a bride and groom beside the swimming pool (Fig. 3). But what you do not see clearly in the photo is the fact that the pool is surrounded by a glass wall to stop drunken wedding guests falling in. The bridal couple are sandwiched between this and the buildings, with the photographer peering over the glass wall on the other side. There are in fact very few pretty spots—most of the grounds consists of a nondescript grassy slope—and the lower area, which could be a nice garden, is poorly maintained, besides being targeted as the site for the proposed new regional gallery.

Fig. 3. Monstsalvat publicity photo promoting it as a wedding venue.

Yet the potential for Montsalvat to be a beautiful wedding venue is inherent in Jörgensen’s original concept, which seems to have been lost sight of. While Montsalvat began as an artist’s colony, an artist’s colony does not really need much in the way of buildings. But Jörgensen had the Portmeirion bug (although he probably did not know of the Welsh project), and his real passion became the building of a Portmeirion type ideal village inspired by Europe. The Europe he was inspired by was not the Genoese Riviera of Williams-Ellis, but the villages of Burgundy.

He went there on his one overseas trip in the 1920s, where he and his friends drove from Paris to Madrid to see Velázquez, being bowled over by Burgos cathedral on the way. A little later he rented a medieval barn near the village of L’Isle-sur-Serein which he set about restoring.[9] It is easy to forget just how difficult it was back then to travel from Australia to Europe. It was a once in a lifetime event for most of the few who could manage it. I still have diaries from my paternal aunt and maternal grandfather’s trips to England and Scotland around 1950. They reveal both their provincial attitudes and their hunger for the culture of a country that was their birthright but which they had never seen. They never really looked beyond England and Scotland, and seem to have been unimpressed by what little they saw of continental Europe. It is difficult for us today to understand the mindset of a people who were effectively cultural exiles, forever dreaming of a world that had shaped their imagination but which they could not access. Nevil Shute books of the 1950s describe this world well. In one, the daughter of a farmer who had been in the Australian army in WW1 and had married an Englishwoman and had returned with her to Australia, where he struggled through the depression and WWII and who has an unexpected late flowering of prosperity thanks to the Korean war wool boom, wants only to escape to England. Meanwhile, for the main characters, the English niece of the couple who, like Shute himself, wanted only to escape the poverty and grey misery of the post-WWII Britain of rationing, and a Czech refugee doctor working below his pay grade in a labour camp, Australia is a land of opportunity, a place to start afresh with hope.

In Jörgensen’s Australia of the 1930s the promise of the good life was not there, as there was a depression on. There was plenty of space, but this was taken for granted and considered to be culturally barren. For an artist there was hardly any good old or contemporary art to see. Everything that mattered culturally was to be found in Europe. And like all temporary Australian expats, Jörgensen wanted to bring the magic of Europe—a place where you could become a stonemason and (re) build a medieval barn—back home with him.

This is what Jörgensen’s was trying to do at Montsalvat. With only the memories of that one trip, he was trying to create in Eltham the dream of Europe that had shaped his youth. Interestingly, there seems to have been little ethno-nationalism in this dream, as he did not hanker after his ancestor’s Norway the way my grandparents hankered after their ancestral England, and as Australians of Irish extraction hankered after Ireland. This, I think, was largely a matter of culture: his culture, like my grandparents’, came from England, so there was probably little cultural pressure to experience Norway for himself. His France was more like the boomer’s Italy: an exotic world that went beyond the Anglocentric cultural experience; it was the next step in our cultural progress.

So Montsalvat is the dream creation of a Burgundy vision. An old issue of Country Life has a photo of a Burgundy village on the cover which gives an insight to what Jorgensen found there (Fig. 3). By the standards of European tourist towns it is pretty ordinary. There are some window boxes but it is not as prettied up such places are. There are messy downpipes and door frames of no interest and uncertain date. There is rough pebble masonry and pantiles. These all point to what Jörgensen would have seen in the 1920s, before the age of tourism. It would have been rough edged, a bit dirty. Romantic because so unlike Australia, but a rough romanticism, not a pretty one. In fact the appeal of the Burgundy vision to Jörgensen seems to have been the roughness of its masonry and the fact that it was masonry. Stone buildings are rare in Melbourne, and for many still have an overpowering romantic attraction. A few years ago Eurocentric Australians were buying up village houses, preferable stone, in France and Italy if they had the means and opportunity.

Fig. 4. Cover of an issue of Country Life, showing a Burgundy village.

Parts of Montsalvat display just this kind of picturesque roughness (Fig. 5). This scene came together in an ad hoc way, as did the villages of Burgundy. The house at the right, the first building, Lil’s House, was made in 1934-35. Sue’s Tower in the middle came in 1936-38. At the left is the Students’ Quarters, built in 1936.  This makes for a picturesque composition that is indeed like a French village. This all looks better in photos than in the flesh: no effort has been expended on presentation. Any old European village today would be far better presented, even one not pitching itself at the tourism or wedding venue markets but simply at house-proud locals.

This view includes not only the rough vernacular masonry and cobbles of a Burgundy village, but specific picturesque motifs. The first building has a nice ironwork balcony that looks very French (Fig. 6). Sue’s Tower has an arched passageway beneath through which the pathway descends unevenly. At the left the ground rises a little to an external staircase, such as one finds in medieval buildings. This kind of up-down-through movement is reguarly found in old European towns, especially in Germany, such as Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber. The roof is a specifically French type that is probably a bit grander as a form than one might expect to find in an authentic Burgundy village, but you never know. The building at the left looks more ‘modern’ – that is, eighteenth- or nineteenth-century, with a nice slate roof.

Fig. 6. Balcony of Sue’s house.

Within the archway on the left, as the ground descends, is a is a ‘rustic’ figured fountain (Fig. 7). This kind of detail is found in innumerable old European town, especially German ones, although it was so overgrown and neglected at the time of my visit you have to part the vegetation to see it. This really ought to be a feature, but it has about as much effect as a gully trap. You notice the basin and then have to peer up under the vegetation to see the statue. Whatever you do you can’t see it properly. This statue is the kind of sexualised piece characteristic of the period that does not go down well in the #metoo era. It depicts a woman raising her skirt as if to bathe, but there is an unfortunate association given with fountain source imagery, so that it seems that the source of the water is a woman urinating. That aside, this was clearly intended to be a picturesque and romantic touch, but today it’s effect is completely lost. Once again, there has been no effort put into presentation. It would not take much to bring this to life.

Fig. 7. Fountain under the arch.

The potential for picturesqueness is drawn out by a carefully hand drawn sign in Gothic script on deteriorating paper under perspex that tells you about what you can see through the window of the first house (not visible on my visit).  This is the only signage to be found, and itself needs signage to explain its context as one has to be of a certain age to get the references (Fig. 8). It was evidently made in 1965 or shortly afterwards and left to moulder ever since.

Fig. 8. Signge, c. 1965, under the arch.

It reads:

‘Another View of the Interior. Both the interiors and exteriors of this little house have been featured on Channels 2, 7 and 0, also in a Cinesound newsreel. Used by Eric Pearce at Channel 9 for reading of Xmas message 1964. Here also many weeks were spent making the prize-winning films, Italian G. Mangiemele’s ‘Clay’,[10] and Australian Tim Burstall’s ‘The Prize’[11] also Patrick Barton’s televised production of ‘A Time to Speak’.[12] Vivien Leigh during her recent tour of Australia on a visit here called this room the most intrigueing [sic] and beautiful she had seen on her travels.[13]

Keep walking around outside of house. Through each window you will see a different angle of the beautifully proportioned room and its all-hand-crafted antique furnishings.

Lord de L’Isle stood on this very spot and said ‘It[14] makes me want to hurry home to my place in England, “Penshurst”’, where he now is.’[15]

The naïve provinciality of this sign has a certain period charm. That someone has followed around behind important visitors gather up the crumbs of politeness falling from their table is rather sad. Who has even heard of the governor-general, Lord de l’Isle, chosen by Menzies and the last truly colonial Governor-General (1961-65)? And how hungry for praise must one be to swallow his comparison to his grand English country house as anything but the polite nothings that such people are paid to utter? Or that of Vivien Leigh, not on her famous vist with Laurence Olivier in 1948 (which features prominently in the narrative of Heysen’s house in Hahndorf) but evidently a later trip on her own in  1961-62?

More interesting are the films, which are prompted by the fact that Montsalvat as a place was indeed unique in Melbourne, which was and is a relentless sea of suburbia punctuated by practical commercial buildings and (once) more aspirational public buildings. I had never heard of Mangiemele (apple-eater!) but his work may be familiar to film buffs. The plot is clearly site-driven (‘it follows a killer on the run who finds refuge in a colony of artists’). Tim Burstall, but contrast, is better known, having had a significant career in movies, and ‘The Prize’ was the starting point of his career, winning a bronze medal at the Venice film festival, and evidence of the way an ‘artists’ colony’ could truly nurture creativity. Burstall was bulding a mud brick house opposite, everyone at Montsalvat chipped in, Matcham Skipper was the star and their children and locals recruited as actors. There is potential for site-based narratives here that are not compomised by the personality of Jörgensen.

The visible vegetation is devoid of interest. A few signifiers of romantic picturesqueness, like some vases of flowers, trees in tubs and artisanal seats, would make a world of difference. The wall on the left cries out for a terracotta tablet in the Montsalvat style. It is as if no-one is aware of what Jorgensen was doing. To be sure, such prettification may well be antithetical to to Jorgensen vision, which valorised the amateurish roughness of masonry, but this is what a wedding photographer is looking for.

And this is the way forward for Montsalvat: the recognition that its true artistic nature is as a picturesque European fantasy village like Portmeirion. If you recognise this, then you have a master plan for continuing Jorgensen’s work: a guide for new constructions that are not yet another boring modernist art gallery.


[1] DNB. These observations were based on  visit in early 2020, prior to Covid.

[2] https://www.montsalvat.com.au

[3] See his history of Montsalvat: Sigmund Jörgensen, Montsalvat. The intimate story of Australia’s most exciting artists’ colony, Sydney, 2014. Available from the Montsalvat bookshop.

[4] https://www.montsalvat.com.au/strategic-plan

[5] https://www.theage.com.au/culture/art-and-design/rediscovering-montsalvat-the-bid-to-revive-a-national-treasure-20190926-p52v8w.html

[6] There are useful biographies of all the protagonists in Jörgensen, Monsalvat, pp. 93–142. On Lempriere, pp. 115-17.

[7] I will return in a later essay to the problem of the vision of Montsalvat.

[8] Jörgensen, Montsalvat, p. 275-197.

[9] Jörgensen, Montsalvat, pp. 28-29. Apparently Colin Colahan introduced Jörgensen as an important architect from Australia. The owner though he said Austria, and gave him a free hand. Sigmund Jörgensen writes that he failed to identify the building it in 2012. 

[10] “Mangiamele was an Italian/Australian photographer who made a unique contribution to Australian art cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. …Clay (1965). 84 Minutes, Australia. Director: Giorgio Mangiamele. Cast: Jean Lebedew, George Dixon, Sheila Florence, A later production by Mangiamele, Clay was the first Australian film to be nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or. Moody and complex, it follows a killer on the run who finds refuge in a colony of artists. Films courtesy National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. http://www.cmag.com.au/events/reel-classics-ninety-nine-percent-1963-and-clay-1965

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Burstall

[12] A Time to Speak, TV Movie, 1965.    Director Patrick Barton. Writer Noel Robinson. Stars Raymond Westwell, Wyn Roberts, Keith Eden. ‘A drama set in a religious community in Australia during 1900. A doctor stands up to the corrupt elder.’ 1h 15m. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4116790/

[13] A ‘recent tour’. This was presumably not the famous tour with Laurence Olivier in 1948 but one in  1961-62. ‘In 1958, Leigh began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who knew of Leigh’s medical condition and assured Olivier that he would care for her. … Merivale proved to be a stabilising influence for Leigh … Merivale joined her for a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Latin America that lasted from July 1961 until May 1962, and Leigh enjoyed positive reviews without sharing the spotlight with Olivier.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivien_Leigh, accessed 26 January 2022.

[14] Unclear.

[15] Governor-General of Australia 1961-1965. Significantly, his portrait was painted by Clifton Pugh, not Jörgensen.  ‘Seeking a replacement for Governor-General Lord Dunrossil while visiting England in March 1961, Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, unable to ‘think of an Australian who would be satisfactory,’ selected De L’Isle. Appointed GCMG in May, he reached Canberra with his family on 2 August and took office next day. Some six feet (183 cm) tall, affable, and active, His Excellency enjoyed the vice-regal trappings and travelled widely. He bought two cattle properties near Armidale, New South Wales. Lady De L’Isle died in Canberra on 16 November 1962. Her husband gifted a chime of bells cast in England to the Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, in her memory. When De L’Isle welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to Australia on her second royal tour in February 1963, his daughter Catherine carried out the duties of hostess at Yarralumla. No political controversies occurred during his term. … The last Englishman to be appointed Australian governor-general and the last (so far) to wear the uniform of office, De L’Isle relinquished his duties on 6 May 1965 and resumed his London business career. … Viscount De L’Isle died on 5 April 1991 at Penshurst Place, London, and was buried in the family vault.  His wife and the son and four daughters of his first marriage survived him. His portrait by Clifton Pugh is in the Parliament House art collection.’ See https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-lisle-viscount-william-philip-bill-17369: Chris Cunneen, ‘De L’Isle, Viscount William Philip (Bill) (1909–1991)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-lisle-viscount-william-philip-bill-17369/text29118, published online 2014, accessed online 26 January 2022. This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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Fabriques in Paintings 1: Sebastian Vrancx. Part A. The Trelliswork Fabrique on the Terrace

This series of posts (A-C) discusses depictions of small buildings that I feel inclined to appropriate to the category of fabriques. They work outwards from the fabrique to the image as a whole, as required. Images by the author unless otherwise stated.

The Fabrique on the Terrace

A painting by Sebastian Vranx in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, depicts a banquet in a villa (Fig. 1).[1]

Fig. 1. Sebastian Vrancx (Antwerp, 1573 – Antwerp, 1647), An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors, c. 1610–1620. Oil on oak. 91 × 126 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Inv. 58.27.

It has been dated 1610–1620. Vrancx was a pupil of Paul Bril in Rome in and this painting seems to draw on representations of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, outside Rome, by Bril (see below), and probably the Villa d’Este directly. The building with two towers at the top left is how the main building of the Villa d’Este appears from the main side of the garden (that is, the fountain of the Organ area), which is how it appears in a frescoed view within the villa itself, which is probably the ultimate source (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Fresco of Villa d’Este within the villa.

The details vary, but Vrancx and others around Bril, such as Willem van Nieulandt I and II, did not (mostly) paint accurate topographical views (the veduta as a popular genre had to await the eighteenth century), yet the topographical origins of their works, or sections of their works, are often evident.

To clinch the connection with the Villa d’Este there is, at upper left, a statue of Pegasus striking the rock to create the spring of Hippocrenes, the inspring well of the muses on Mount Helicon (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Vrancx, Elegant Company, detail, statue of Pegasus stroking the rock.

This was a common trope in Renaissance gardens, and one of the most influential instances was at the Villa d’Este, where it is located in a position corresponding to the one shown by Vrancx. Brill, Vrancx, and Jan Breughel all made topographical drawings at Tivoli. The disposition of the garden, in the loosest sense, with a distant view to a city are also reminiscent of the ‘classic’ view in the Villa d’Este, where the city is Rome.

The fabrique of interest here is clearly a garden structure (Fig. 4), on a terrace above the sunken garden where the main action takes place.

Fig. 4. Vrancx, Elegant Company. Trellis building on the terrace.

It is quite a solid little building, but it is not clear what Vrancx is trying to tell us about its materials. The barrel vaulted roof is ribbed, like corrugated iron, which suggests trelliswork. On the other hand it appears very solid, with thick corner piers and a frieze shaped like coarse stonework, as if Vrancx is trying to tell us it is made of brick and pantiles (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Vrancx, Elegant Company. Trellis building on the terrace, detail..

There is an aedicular doorway on the long side, and the ends appear to be solid. But inside the doorway one can see hints of a criss-cross pattern. In the centre of the roof is a drum zone on a rectangular plan with volutes at the corners, with round windows, a horizontal ellipse on the front and a circle or vertical ellipse on the side. There is a round window in the lunette of the end bay. Above this is a shallow vertical dome with external ribs and horizontal bands which is hard to read as other than trellis work. Yet the ribs on the fancy umbrella-like finial read better as tiles. There are round knobs on the top the arched ends of the bilding. Around the base are tall vases with tall plants. In the wall is a barrel vaulted gateway, which is necessarily masonry, but the extension at the back appears to be trelliswork, and there is a crowning ball, all of which points to the fabrique being trelliswork. The gate has a rectacgular extension to accommodate a niche, perhaps with a staue, with a shallow domed roof and gilded finial.

Typologically it reads like a chapel, but there are no crosses anywhere, Aesthetically it is interesting without being exciting. Usually with Vrancx there is a source somewhere, however transformed, and in this case I wonder whether it is the Villa d’Este, probably as represented by Paul Bril.

In Duperac’s well-known engraving of the project Villa d’Este (and its derivatives) in the sixteenth century (not everything shown was executed) we can see on the flat ground is a system of trellis–work tunnels with pedimented openings, octagonal crossing features, and gateways (Figs. 6, 7).

Fig. 6. After Dupérac, Villa d’Este, engraving, coloured.
Fig. 7. After Dupérac, Villa d’Este, engraving, coloured, detail of trellises. .

These are clearly the inspiration for the trellis work and domed building in Bril’s drawing of Work in the Vineyards: March, in the Louvre (Figs. 8, 9).[2] In another Bril drawing (Fig. 10),[3] where a version of the Villa d’Este main building can still be discerned, we see a more elaborate octagonal domed trellis work building.

Fig. 8. Paul Bril (1554-1626), Le Mois de Mars: le travail de la vigne, 1598. Paris, Louvre, Inv.19786. Recto
Fig. 9. Paul Bril (1554-1626), Le Mois de Mars: le travail de la vigne, detail.
Fig. 10. Paul Bril, Palace and Park with Terrace overlooking a River: May. Drawing, Paris, Louvre. Ruby, cat. 25.

(These are combined in Fig. 11.)

Fig. 11. Comparisons of trellised buildings in Vrancx, Dupérac and Bril.

It is interesting that Bril in the first drawing shows a pepperpot with a ball finial on the top of the octagonal trellis structure. I am not sure what other data there is about the form of the Villa d’Este trellis-work as executed, but it is possible that it had such pepperpots, and that this is why Brill shows them. In the second drawing (Figs 10, 11) the octagonal building is separated from the rest, but it looks like it rises above a section of barrel-vaulted trellis-work with an arched opening. The frieze breaks out into a compound pediment, or else a shallow triangular pediment with a shallow segmental opening. There is a round opening in the octagonal dome and a pepperpot with a ball finial. Putting this against the Vrancx suggests the following scenario. The main barrel vault of Vrancx’s structure derives from the barrel-vaulted trellises, especially the one in the second Bril drawing, if not the Villa d’Este itself. The round-headed entrance was suggested by the one in the octagon in both Bril drawings, marriedto the pedimented opening in the barrel-vaulted trellis in Duperac. The rhythm of this with the round heated features in Duperace suggested the pedimented opening-rounded headed window sequence in Vrancx. Vrancx’s round dome can be seen as a variation on the octagonal ones, the oval windows a development of the round one in the secomd Bril drawing. The volutes and umbrella finial, however, Vrancx’s contribution, or are from some other source, as in the blockiness of his ‘frieze’.

Some may find such a reading too speculative, and there are a number of ways one can formulate Vrancx’s assumed choices, but I believe that this is the way an artist like Vrancx worked. The result is a building which can be understood an an original architectural creation (not such a pictorial one) that riffs on the trellis work of the Villa d’Este as seen through Bril’s eyes.

Bibliography

Marianna Haraszti-Takács, ‘Un tableau de Sebastian Vrancx à la Galerie des Maîtres Anciens’, Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, 1961, 18, 51-62. BHR (1947-): Per K 540-5470.

Louisa Wood Ruby, Paul Bril: the drawings, Brussels, Brepols, 1999. UniM Baill 741.9493 RUBY 


[1] Sebastian Vrancx (Antwerp, 1573 – Antwerp, 1647), An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors, c. 1610–1620. Oil on oak. 91 × 126 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Inv. 58.27. Harlequin in Renaissance pictures It is discussed by Haraszti-Takács, but I do not have access to this at the moment. Katritsky. says that it is signed. See the summary of Vrancx;s relationship with Bril in Ruby, p. 45, which focuses on his Roman ruin drawings. Vrancx arrived in Rome in 1596 ‘and clearly went right to work in the Bril studio’. From the beginning he drew Roman ruins, and some of his drawings ‘have motifs that stem from the Bril studio.’ But views corresponding to Bril’s are often made from different angles, indicating that he drew to the same motifs independently.

[2] Paul Bril (1554-1626), Le Mois de Mars: le travail de la vigne, 1598. Encre brune; lavis brun; pierre noire; plume, 196 x 340 mm. Paris, Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, Cabinet des dessins, Fonds des dessins et miniatures, Inv.19786. Recto.

[3] Paul Bril, Palace and Park with Terrace overlooking a River: May. Drawing, Paris, Louvre. Ruby, cat. 25.

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New Traditional Architecture 2: Right Wing Conspiracies and Leftist Divisiveness

An article in the Art Newspaper by Robert Bevan on 7 January 2022 (‘The ugly pursuit of beauty: how traditional architecture has become a battleground for right-wing politicians’) comes out firing on all barrels against New Traditional Architecture as a right wing plot, a favoured by white supremacists and Great Replacement conspiracy theorists.[1]

‘Reactionary ideas hostile to the cosmopolitan, to Modernism, to modernity itself, are in the ascendant.’

He cites Viktor Orbán, dictator of Hungary, Prince Charles, creator of Poundbury, and Donald Trump, the President who decreed that new federal buildings must be in a classical style.

This nexus is certainly real, and is the most worrying part about New Traditional Architecture. But articles like this are designed to increase the polarisation  between ‘traditionalist lunatics’ and ‘Modernism, and modernity itself’, the latter, by implication, being true and real. (While Modernism can be rejected, our existential state of modernity cannot be; therefore an anti-Modernist position is false.)

But this is crudely framed. Orbán and Trump may be authoritarian Fascists, but Prince Charles, the flag bearer of it all, is not (Fig. 1). Because of his situation as king-in-waiting he is necessarily a traditionalist, but by temperament he is a radical progressive. The conservative status quo during his lifetime has been, for want of a better word, Modernism, and it required radical courage to take a stand against it (his ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech) of 1984, not on the grounds that it was ‘socialist’, but on the grounds that it was not beautiful; that is, ugly. Bevan sweeps all this up into the crude statement that

‘Beauty and tradition have become dog-whistle words to white supremacists drunk on the Great Replacement conspiracy theory that sees a cultural genocide of Christian Europe at the hands of immigrants’.

Fig. 1. Poundbury, Dorset.

The problem is not New Traditional architecture as such, but the polarisation that these players inflame. This polarisation was made possible by the death of art history. Trump’s decree that new Federal buildings should be in a Classical style is a touchstone. In the 1930s stripped classical buildings were produced by democracies (America and Britain), Fascists (Italy) and Nazis (Germany).

Stripped classicism was a stylistic choice shared by all factions. This was possible because of the inbuilt teleological structure of art (and architectural) history: the belief that there was a right and inevitable shift from nineteenth-century historicism to twentieth-century modernism. To its protagonists, and certainly to Nikolaus Pevsner and the post WWII generations, stripped classicism was an intermediate step on the way to a ‘styleless’ modernism that gave us the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, the architecture (and urbanism) against which Prince Charles was reacting.

Teleological polemicists saw Otto Wagner’s Postsparkasse as being better than his Secession buildings because it was more ‘modern’, and both as being infinitely superior to his earlier historicist buildings which were devoids of even the glimmerings of the modernist enlightenment. Even if Wagner did not get to the point of Mies van der Rohe, that was where he was heading, even if he didn’t know it. But one could equally apply a Vasarian (and originally antique) organic model to this triad, categorising Wagner’s historicist buildings as ‘early; showing promise’, his Secession buildings as ‘high and best’ and the Postparkasse as ‘late, with signs of decadence (too many straight lines)’. This decadence led to Mies van der Rohe, in that same way that, for Bellori, late Michelangelo ushered in the decadence of Mannerism.

In spite of theory differences, both accounts assume that architecture is an entity distinct from politics, which is applied to political ends as circumstances dictate.

Unfortunately, the belief that art and architecture have their own history, that they are entities in themselves, has died. In its place is identity politics. So a building is either right wing or left wing, good or bad, black or white, depending on your social identity and political views. In this scheme there cannot be, for example, good architecture employed to bad ends; it is only as good as the end to which it is put. A statue of a slave trader can never be great art, because a slave trader is a bad man. It cannot even he art historically important (for, say, introducing a new style) because its subject is a bad man. Architecture, as distinct from the ends it serves, no longer exists: it has been collapsed to those ends. Hence the fact that new traditional architecture has been taken up by Orbán, means that it is necessarily bad.

But what if we can still bring ourselves to believe that ‘architecture’ still exists as an independent entity? If so, we could continue to follow this entity through its historically situated phases: historicism, modernism, post-modernism, back to modernism, but add at the end ‘new traditionalism’. Such an historical development transcends political difference.

Looking at things in this way allows us to recognise that many people may agree with Prince Charles on architecture while remaining supporters of a progressive social democracy. It allows us to recognise that it is possible to prefer ‘traditional’ architecture to ‘modernist’ on aesthetic grounds, not political ones. To be sure, ‘aesthetic’ here is not a simple concept, and the aesthetics of new traditionalism invokes of necessity the associations that buildings have and an awareness of history. Conversely, the aesthetics of modernism is ahistorical, and concerned primarily with abstract form, materials and function. But also novelty.

Novelty is important here. The theory of new traditionalism, like that of Baroque artsts, insists on novelty within the boundaries set by tradition. For modernism, novelty is open ended; anything is potentially a modernist form, which is its fatal flaw. One could frame this is much wider terms. We could argue that we all need novelty, but that modernism’s novelty is of the Muskian ‘lets go to Mars because we have wrecked earth’ kind, whereas new traditionalism’s novelty is of the ‘we have a finite world and must innovate within its limits’ kind.

Perhaps, pace Bevan, it is not that  ‘the traditionalist lunatics have succeeded in taking over the asylum’, but that they are the only ones who recognise that it is an asylum.


[1] Robert Bevan, ‘The ugly pursuit of beauty: how traditional architecture has become a battleground for right-wing politicians’, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/01/07/the-traditionalist-lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum.

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The New National Gallery of Victoria Contemporary Design and New Traditional Architecture

The design of the new National Gallery of Victoria Contemporary art gallery has just been announced (Fig. 1). The architects are Angelo Candalepas and Associates. The new building is in addition to the building build by Roy Grounds in 1968, visible in the foreground of the rendering, now NGV International (Fig. 2). The NGV was originally housed in the State Library of Victoria building, now wholly the State Library (Fig. 3).

The original State Library building is a conventional exercise in classicism by Joseph Reed opened in 1856 that looks to the British Museum but without the severity of William Wilkin’s Greek Revival.

The Roy Grounds building owes much to Boullée in the blankness of the entrance façade with its row of high windows under a cornice, and to the Royal Palace at Caserta in its twin courtyard plan. The arched entrance is also Boulléesque. (The water wall behind has become a Melbourne icon.) The arches on the new building are clearly an (overscale, to judge from the rendering) homage to this.

New Traditional Architecture critics generally employ a Puginesque visual rhetoric that opposes good New Traditional Architecture to bad Modernism, an opposition internally visible in the photo of State Library (Fig. 3): between  the formal complexity and cultural references of the Library building and the repetitive monotony of the apartment buildings that overlook it.

With the Roy Grounds building matters are more complex, particularly now that it is over 50 years old. Would we have wanted a New Traditional Architecture version of the State Library building in 1968? Would we want it now in the new building? It is significant that the new building is historicising in its own way, in that in using the arch motif it takes it point of visual reference from the old building. This is the only feature of much interest in what is a bland box that wallows in the the repetitive forms of routine modernist architecture, although handled with a purism not possible in a commercial apartment building (Fig. 1).

But such references are subsidiary to other factors. Like most contemporary architecture, the NGV Contemporary building is designed from the inside out; what we see in the rendering it is essentially something that forms a convenient enclosure for a series of showpiece interiors and view-directed spaces. The historical referencing on the outside is tokenistic. New Traditional Architecture, by contrast, is about wholesale historical referencing on the outside, with the result that possibilities for the interior can be quite limited, unless it embraces facadism.The interiors of NGV Contemporary are what the building is all about, each space determined to outdo in spectacle any other such spaces in any building, anywhere.

Culturally, New Traditional Architecture has a strong political component, never articulated by its protagonists, which is a political statement in itself, and it is frequently attacked from a leftward directon. In 1856 Victoria was a British colony attempting to recreate London in the antipodes, hence Reed’s design. In 1968 Victoria was emerging from a strong cultural conservatism (wowserism) into a progressive and increasingly prosperous world led by the US, for which an adventurous modernism, led by local architectural heroes Robin Boyd and Roy Grounds, was the only possible choice. A neo-traditional building was the last thing anyone wanted in 1968. (European New Traditional Architecture, by contrast, is in large part driven by a desire to replace 1960s post WWII reconstructions with something closer to what had been destroyed. It seeks to restore the integrity of disrupted townscapes.)

At the same time, Grounds’ building has none of the purism of hard-line functionalism: it is explicitly a cultural monument with cultural associations, although in formalistic art historical thinking these are sources rather than associations. Significantly, those associations/sources are international (revolutionary France, Royal Naples) because a universalist, albeit Eurocentric, art historical world view prevailed over narrow national associations.

Today the tradition of the 1960s modernists has strengthened, as has local nationalism. Architects in Melbourne that are accepted by the Europeans as New Traditional Architects reference earlier Melbourne architecture, especially that of the first half of the 20th century, such as Neo-Tudor or Art Deco, but never go back to the sources of that architecture, because that would constitutes Eurocentrism, even Cultural Appropriation, rather than being a response to local conditions. In this respect these architects do not differ from the architects of the NGV Contemporary, who would be horrified if they found themselves referencing any non-Modernist architecture from overseas, especially Europe. (Modernist architecture is, by contrast, considered to be universal and immune from nationalism or historicism.) And the references to Art Deco and Neo-Tudor acceptable in domestic architecture would be quite unacceptable in a showpiece public building like the NGV Contemporary. But referencing the local modernist tradition (Roy Grounds’ arches) is acceptable. Referencing French Revolutionary Boullée, however, is not, even though this was Grounds’ source.

There is little doubt the the NGV Contemporary design would not fare well in a New Traditional Architecture critique. And not without reason. It is a building that has lost its moorings. High Modernist architecture of the more adventurous kind, such as Grounds’ NGV, Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, and above all Joern Utson’s Sydney Opera House, presents C coherent, often exciting image. This is because they are designed from the outside in. While this presented problems in the case of the Sydney Opera House, the result was a building that is, in the contemporary cliché, iconic: it presents an image that is memorable. NGV Contemporary completes fails to do this. A few token Groundsian arches do not an architectural image make. It is a building that appears to be designed from the inside out by committee, with the result that as an object it is a mess.

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Grosssedlitz and the Grassy Pool

Grosssedlitz (yes, it has three s’s) is an intriguing unfinished baroque garden outside Dresden. It was begun in 1719 by August Christoph Count von Wackerbarth before being acquired by Augustus the Strong, who lost interest in it apart from having it as the site for festivities for the Polish Order of the White Eagle. It was never finished and suffered from neglect until being acquired by the Free State of Saxony in 1992. There is no palace since what there was there was constantly being pulled down and not rebuilt, but there are two orangeries completed after 1992 (Fig. 1). These house bitter oranges which are brought out in pots to populate the garden in summer. Presumably much of the planting dates from after 1992.

The main feature is a theatre, populated with bitter oranges (Fig. 2). It displays the vast scale and repetition of fine detail of some of the best late Baroque German garden designs. There is a fine water display at the ‘stage’ end of the theatre (Fig. 3).

The simplicity of this scheme- just grass, gravel, and regular formal topiary, is strangely restful, far more so than any other Baroque garden I know, all of which have brights displays of colour (Figs. 4, 5).

The statues at Grosssedlitz are rather fine examples of Rococo garden statuary, including a nymph and satyr which has some interesting passages (!) (Figs. 6, 7).

The most memorable feature is the way many of the fountains and terraces never reached the operational stage, so that we only have the raw, but intact stonework in place, and everything around it that was intended to have been pools and paths is grassed (Figs 8, 9, 10) This gives it a remarkable serenity.

The grassed pools are quite fascinating, and almost constitute a design idea in its own right. Waterworks on a decent scale are difficult and expensive, and require heavy investment in pumps and plumbing, as without them they become mosquito farms (at least in Australia). So the idea of a grassed space that appears to be, or represents, a pool is an attractive one. Grosssedlitz is heavy on stonework, which might be hard to justify in a pool that is not a pool, though if you think about it the situation is no different: both are instances of useless garden features.

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On Historical Chinoiserie and the Repertory of Oiserie

The challenge of Oiserie is that there are no rules: it is a field for invention. But its starting point is seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinoiserie. Compared to Rococo, there are many more components in Chinoiserie. The Rococo relies on a relatively restricted range of forms: c-scrolls, shell forms, basket weave and a few others. Chinoiserie is much more open. But as with all styles, there are clusters of components that recur. By identifying some of these and going from there it is possible to create some kind of analytical order. I want to select one of these: the combination of red and black.

This choice is interesting for a number of reasons. It could be argued that by selecting this colour combination I am inventing ahistorical concepts. Yet the red and black combination is so common that I am sure that the artisans in question, or their patrons or supervising architects, did consciously choose it as a theme. Indeed, I would argue that this choice was as conscious as that between the Doric and Corinthian orders, except that the parameters of  the ‘red and black colour order’, if we may so call it, were less rigidly codified than the Classical orders. Indeed it may be worth running with this kind of language, as Batty Langley did with Gothic, and William Chambers with Chinese architecture.

But is ‘red and black’ an order? An order, like the Doric order, is assembled from a system of named components controlled by fractions and ratios. The ‘Red and Black Order has no components, or rather only two: the colours red and black. Or perhaps these colours are associated with particular forms, though I doubt it.

Historically, these colours have their origins in oriental lacquer, which was usually in these colours.

Let me begin with the example of a Chinoiserie room from the Sternberk Palace in Prague, now in the National Gallery, Prague (Fig.1). The walls were decorated by Jan Vojtek Ignaz Kratochvil (1667-1721) (museum label).

Fig. 1. Chinoiserie room from the Sternberk Palace in Prague, now in the National Gallery, Prague

The museum label calls the black ‘lacquer’ and the red forms ‘brown pilasters’, though they look red to me (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Whole panel.

Harlequin in Renaissance pictures

These red pilasters are rendered at the top as relatively classical caryatids (Fig. 3), but the body of the pilaster is unclassical in being a free shape. In many ways they are more like balusters than pilasters, and perhaps the designer had this in mind. But more probably the ‘pilaster’ was a means of getting from caryatid head to base, beginning with a columnar form, broad at the top and rounded anthropomorphically to form ‘shoulders’ for the caryatid, and then concave-convex-concave with some steps, done freehand according to the designer’s innate sense of form, and drawing on long experience with such sequences. None of this is Chinese in any way.

Fig. 3. Caryatid.

One can intuit that the artisan’s thinking ran something like this: (1) the colour theme is to be red on black. (2) The red component needs to be tall and thin to fit the available space. (3) I will make it a caryatid. (4) The pilaster ‘body’ needs to be ‘Chinoiserie’; that is, fantastic and over the top, while being made from a thin flat sheet of wood.  (5) I will make the upper part broad to support the caryatid bust, the rest I will let myself go within the limits of the space. (6) I will use the kind of linearity I am familiar with from balustrades and mouldings: that is, curves, steps, short straight sections. (7) I will enrich this with gold shells (there may be an iconographic reason for the shells) (Fig. 4) and ormolu (Fig. 5), with little pictures in the Chinese style to keep it Chinoiserie (Fig. 6). (8) But mostly, as with the base (Fig. 7), I will rely on my classical tradition of mouldings, scrolls and masks.

Fig. 4. Shells and Chinese picture.
Fig. 5. Ormolu.
Fig. 6. Chinese picture.
Fig. 7. Base.

The museum label follows (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Museum label.
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Fabriques in Paintings 1: Sebastian Vrancx. Part C. The Figures.

This series of posts (A-C) discusses depictions of small buildings that I feel inclined to appropriate to the category of fabriques. Images by the author unless otherwise stated.

Sebastian Vrancx’s An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors, c. 1610–1620 in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, depicts a banquet at a villa (Fig. 1).[1]

Fig. 1. Sebastian Vrancx (Antwerp, 1573 – Antwerp, 1647), An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors, c. 1610–1620. Oil on oak. 91 × 126 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Inv. 58.27.

The table is spread with food, but the party is breaking up and entertainers have begun their act. There are plates, and hence places, for six people down the left side of the table, and there are corresponding plates on the right except for the fifth. There is one plate at the head of the table, and one at the foot. Assuming six settings per side, the seating totals 14. I can see twelve people who aren’t servants, including one on the stairs and a couple beside the parapet. If we privilege the figures over the plates, and assume that the extra plate on the left is an inconsistency, we would have five persons on each side with one at each end, so perhaps the true setting is 5+5+2 (12 in total).

At the head of the table the chair, a ‘captain’s chair’ of higher status han the others, has been pushed back, with some linen folded over it (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The host’s chair.

This is clearly the chair of the host, but where is he? The couple by the parapet would have been on the right side, which leaves the man on the stairs as the host, though what he is doing here is unclear (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. The man on the stairs

He wears the same tall grey hat as the two mean on either side of the host position, both of whom wear swords, which may mean that they are all part of the same household.

If we go clockwise around the table the seating is as follows (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. The guests at their table

A man receiving wine from a waiter (Fig. 5), whose left hand is close to, but does not touch, the hand of a woman beside him (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5. The man at the left.
Fig. 6. Hands of the man at left and the first woman.

This had seems to be resting on something; her other hand touches the edge of the table. She stares straight ahead at the woman opposite but is evidently with the man beside her. Next is a standing man wearing doublet and breeches who holds a fold of linen matching the one on the host’s chair over his right arm, and he supports his left arm on the table. Next is a woman in pink with a glass in her left hand and the other hand on her lap: these two must be a couple. Next is a woman wearing black with red hair and a ruff (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. The group at the end of the table.

She holds hands with the man at the foot of the table, also wearing a ruff and doublet. He has his arm outstretched, as if in conversation, Corresponding to the woman with a ruff is man in a tall black hat, ruff and doublet. One is prompted to read him as a woman but the clothing is male. He has no obvious partner unless it is the woman opposite and the man at the foot of the table is unattached but making progress with the woman beside him. Next would be the couple by the parapet (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. The couple at the parapet.

The woman was probably seated next to the foot of the table, which means that on either side of the foot of the table there would have been two pairs of women. The man wears a tall black hat, matching doublet and tunic-like breeches and a sword. Returning to the table, next comes a woman in blue and then the man to the right of his host, who wears a tall grey hat, leather doublet, and a roman-style leather(?) slashed skirt.

The Table

Looking more closely at the table setting, beside each plate is a small loaf of bread; I count 11, or possibly 12, loaves (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. The table setting.

The plate in front of the host has what looks like fruit peelings (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10. The host’s plate.

The plate to his left has an oval object, probably a slice of bread, perhaps taken from the host’s loaf. The other plates are bare. Each placing seems to have a knife, of which seven are clearly visible. Down the middle of the table are seven serving plates, four of which contain roast birds with this claws visible (and possibly a fifth), one of which seems to be in a foetal arrangement. One plate has a pie of some kind with a gridded pattern, perhaps strips of pastry. The last plate looks messy, perhaps because what it contained has been consumed. Two placing have wine glasses, one empty, one half full, while one woman holds a glass in her hand and the man at the left of the host is having his glass filled.

The Entertainers

The party is being entertained by a troup of Commedia dell’Arte entertainers who emerge from a porch in the style of imaginary architects like Vredeman de Vries.[2] Between the columns of the porch is the Doctor (I think) (Fig. 11), behind him an Innamorata, Pantaloon, and at the side is a lute-Zanni) playing his lute like a rock star (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11. the doctor.
Fig. 12. The Commedia dell’arte troupe.

Between the steps and the table is a tumbler, which I think recalls Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13. the Tumbler.

A stool nearby may be part of his act. A white dog is reacting to him and a boy, or perhaps dwarf, flees from the scene; this is surely part of the act.

The most fascinating member of a troupe is a woman whose headgear is an extravagant, and perhaps trangressive version of the headgear of the two women nearest the head of the table, who must be aristocrats (Fig. 14). She is presumably the Innamorata, although in commedia dell’Arte the Innamorata is not normally masked.

Fig. 14. The headdresses of the two women at the front and the Innamorata.

I do not know the name of the starched-looking hairpiece. The player has a piece attached at the back of the hed to which red, blue and white plumes are attached, as well as semi-transparent forms that look like the wings of a giant insect like a dragonfly (Fig. 15).

Fig. 15. The Innamorata (?).

There is another plume or feather attached at the top of the starched part. Her lace collar is artfully spiky and her decolletage is slightly more prominent than the other women. It would be good to know about the history and signaficance of the headgear of these three women.

Venus and Cupid

Another figure of interest is Venus in the group of Venus and Cupid at the foot of the stairs (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16. The Venus and Cupid statue

This is rather unclassical in that Venus is as animated as the ‘living figures’ as unclassically alive. She has her hair up in a contemporarty style and displays a pert profile with uptilted nose (Fig. 17).

Fig. 17. Head of Venus statue

Her body displays a twist hat goes beyond classical contrapposto, and she displays it artfully displays using a cloak that is draped over her left arm and tied around her neck so that it falls down her back. Her hips are somewhat narrow, so that her right side forms a shallow undulating vertical line from armpit to Cupid. Her presence, of course, signifies hat it is a pleasure garden, as the acivities of the living figures make obvious. Matching her position at the base of the stairs us a statue of Apollo.

Bibliography

M. A. Katritzky, ‘Lodewyk Toeput: some pictures related to the “commedia dell’arte”’, Renaissance Studies, March 1987, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 71-125 JSTOR Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24410012

M. A. Katritzky, ‘Harlequin in Renaissance pictures’, Renaissance Studies , December 1997, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 381-419.


[1] Sebastian Vrancx (Antwerp, 1573 – Antwerp, 1647), An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors, c. 1610–1620. Oil on oak. 91 × 126 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Inv. 58.27. Image from the Museum website.

[2] The main discussion of Commedia dell’arte in paintings like this seem to be by Katritzky. My identifications of the figures is a little hazy.

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Fabriques in Paintings 1: Sebastian Vrancx. Part B. The Setting and Architecture

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Fig. 1. Sebastian Vrancx (Antwerp, 1573 – Antwerp, 1647), An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors, c. 1610–1620. Oil on oak. 91 × 126 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Inv. 58.27. Image from the Museum website.

This series of posts (A-C) discusses depictions of small buildings that I feel inclined to appropriate to the category of fabriques. They work outwards from the fabrique to the image as a whole, as required. Images by the author unless otherwise stated.

As with all paintings by Sebastian Vranx, his An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors the in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest is a composite of elements derived from various sources, which is what makes it interesting (Fig. 1).[1] In part A I discussed the elements drawn from the Villa d’Este.

The foreground is essentially a stage set, with a portico with veined columns at the right facing a horseshoe staircase that encloses a statue of Pegasus striking the rock inspired by the one at the Villa d’Este. The middle ground sends mixed messages. There are formal gardens on either side of a pool which is almost impossible not to read as being set at a lower level than he main stage, but there are no steps on the path which is at the same level as the main stage. Similarly the wall at the left is both a wall with a gateway and a retaining wall of a terace that supports the trellis fabrique. The third distance is an open square surrounded by walls with a tower in one corner and a rusticated gateway. This has the air of being a space with topographical roots in some open space in Rome. Beyond this is the landscape proper.

The vanishing points of the porch, pool, and terrace are consistent and located low on the centre line of the rusticated gate (Fig. 2). The vanishing point of the wall with a tower is shifted slightly to the right, and possibly fractionally lower. The trellised archway at the end of the pool is in fact huge, much higher than the porch if it were repeated at the near end of the pool.

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Fig. 2. Vrancx Elegant Company with perspective construction lines added.

The Pool

The pool (Fig. 3) has steps leading down into the water on three sites. There are ducks on the water, but the steps imply that one could enter the pool,perhaps for swimming.

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Fig. 3. Detail of Vrancx, Elegant Company, showing pool, garden, courtyard and landscape.

The Trellis Herms

Although difficult to see, it is clear that the ends of this trellised archway are terminated with grotesque herms in what is presuably blackened wood (Fig. 4). They are highly elongated with big bellies and possibly male genitalia (or is the right hand one female?), with some drapery above the shaft. The heads are indistinct and possibly grotesque.

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Fig. 4. Herms on central trellis arch.

These seem to be derived from a source like plate 29 of Vredeman de Vries’ Hortorum Viridiariumque, Antwerp, 1583, plate 29 (Fig. 4a).

Fig. 4a. Vredeman de Vries, Hortorum Viridiariumque, Antwerp, 1583, plate 29.

The Rusticated Gateway

The rusticated gateway is seen through the trelis arch a nd is set in the wall of the final courtyard (Fig. 5).

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Fig. 5. Courtyard with rusticated gateway.

It is a fairly standard Mannerist gateway with banded columns, stepped voussoirs, an oval shield over the keystone, a split pediment and transitional volutes (Fig. 6).

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Fig. 5. Rusticated gateway.

[1] Sebastian Vrancx (Antwerp, 1573 – Antwerp, 1647), An Elegant Company Dining Outdoors, c. 1610–1620. Oil on oak. 91 × 126 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Inv. 58.27. Image from the Museum website.

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