Contemporary architecture has a range of characteristic features, such as; the collision of different styles, the expression of ideas in shapes, the use of cutting-edge technologies, experiments with materials and colors, energy efficiency, interaction between indoor and outdoor space, and other peculiar trends. At the same time, contemporary architecture has one more important characteristic. It is still able to astonish people.
Contemporary architects create works that make the viewers of their designs feel controversial emotions about them. Maybe, one day the society will get accustomed to the constructions of incredible colours and shapes. However, today such buildings as London’s 30 St Mary Axe (or the Gherkin), the Sage Gateshead in north eastern England or the City Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, the U.S. Kansas City Public Library and the Aqua Building in Chicago, Illinois all engender heated discussion within society.
Australia is no exception, besides its Sydney Opera House which is famous throughout the world, this country has amazed us with Melbourne’s Federation Square, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and many other incredible buildings. Australian architecture is considered to have its distinctive features that have no precedent in the World.
“Bright orange and curling overhead like a roller-coaster…”, “A vibrant palette of crimson, orange, bronze, gold, black and brushed silver”, “a great light and open space with curving walls, windows and ceilings” (Nma.Gov.Au), it would be quite difficult to guess what this conundrum is about. Nevertheless, this is the description of the National Museum of Australia building. It was constructed by Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM), one of the prominent Australian companies of architects famous of originality of their works.
In this essay, the works of ARM are discussed as the incarnation of postmodernist ideas in architecture. The purpose of the essay is observation of ARM’s style and definition of postmodernism “outside” and “inside” several projects fulfilled by them; critical reactions on the works by Ashton Raggatt McDougall are observed as well.
To advance in the discussion, it is necessary first to discuss the essence of postmodernism as a phenomenon in modern culture. The characteristic features of postmodernist culture are the switch from content to form, collision of different styles and techniques, elimination of standards, canons and the framework of traditional values, aspiration for experiments and originality, exaggerations and play with meaning (Storey, 2009, p.183).
Postmodernism tends to eliminate the borders between art and everyday life, “low” and “high” culture”, commercial and not commercial, seriousness and entertainment (ibid.). These principles turned out to be possible to embody in architecture as successfully as in other kinds of art, and the works of ARM are the evidence for this statement. Below, some of the projects by ARM are discussed from the perspective of postmodernist trends in their design.
Bingham-Hall and Goad (2005) highlight that the style of ARM has no analogy in the world. They characterise it as not concerning with “orthodox notions of architectural space, linguistic conventions or tectonic truth” (p. 75). This is an eloquent illustration of how the postmodernist desire to follow to no standards and frameworks is embodied in architecture.
The authors emphasise that the ARM do not demonstrate “commitment” to a single aesthetic” (ibid.). The architects experiment with shapes and textures, meanings and contexts. Their aim is “transfiguration, transformation (visual, sensual and spiritual)” (ibid.). The description of the Storey Hall (p. 76) makes one involuntarily think about how strong the aspiration of postmodernism culture for possessing, copying, “quoting” and then fusing is.
The “devotional” building is coloured “a vivid green in honor of the Hibernian Irish Catholic Community” and “purple and white, the colours of the Women’s Political Association” (ibid.). The building has the allusions to “much loved Melbourne monuments” (ibid.). Moreover, Jackson and Johnson (2002) also mentions the resurrection of the “ideas from the Romantic period of the early Enlightening” .
Another good example of the incarnation of postmodernist ideas in architecture is the “open book” extension of the St. Kilda Library constructed in the early 1990s. Jackson and Johnson discuss the incredible “literal symbolism” of the building. In this object constructed of “bluestone grave like monumental tomes found in local cemeteries, the ARM embodied the idea about the gradual elimination of paper book publishing that existed in 1990s (ibid).
This construction is the embodiment of the postmodernism’s desire to focus on “manners” making “matters” only a source of new original ideas and associations and express ideas literally (even very literally). The idea of the Library extension makes one think about time and changes that it brings; the idea is significant and important, but the architects prefer to express it in an eloquent, clear manner, not veiling the “content”; thus, the construction is the “open book” in all senses of this expression.
Thus, it is possible to notice several distinctive features of ARM’s style, which are shifting the balance between content and shape, originality and experiments, fusion of history and the present, and “literal symbolism”. It is easy to see how these principles took shape in one of ARM’s most significant and famous projects, which is the National Museum of Australia (NMA).
“Avoiding traditional museum interpretations, the architects developed a post-modern structure reflecting the diversity of the Museum’s collection”, announces the official website of the NMA (NMA.Gov.Au).
This approach to construction of culture and scholarship facilities seems to be ARM’s favorite subject when one recollects the St. Kilda’s Library and the Storey Hall, “ARM’s architecture highlights the chaos of transforming scholarly institutions into commercial sellers of new packages of knowledge to international customers” (Johnson and Jackson, 2002).
This quotation eloquently reflects the approach of design of the NMA building: the museum is much more than a store for historical knowledge preserved by the exhibits for the select few; today, it has turned into one of the most popular places of tourism and entertainment in Australia being incredibly popular with the guests of the country. Indeed, the museum sells “packages of knowledge to international customers” (ibid.).
In the construction of the NMA, ARM’s “literal symbolism” and eagerness towards exaggeration are displayed quite eloquently. Each of its parts is connected with a certain idea. A certain part of the museum’s exhibition spaces the Garden of Australian Dreams, “a symbolic landscape” with “large sculptural forms within a body of water” (Nma.Com.Au).
It is described as “a 3D Pop Art street directory of an “other” Australia” (Bingham-Hall and Goad, p.77), the giant loop and the bright Uluru line (Nma.Com.Au).
The architects also play with colours (“crimson, orange, bronze, gold…”) and textures (“from smooth finish of the anodized aluminium panels… to the deeply patterned moulded concrete surface…) (ibid.).
Thus, the NMA has been constructed in ARM’s traditions outlined by the authors of the sources discussed above. Indeed, having constructed their “most controversial building to date” (Bingham-Hall and Goad, p.77), ARM have done their best to turn the museum into the facility that is able to successfully sell “packages of knowledge to international consumers”.
At the same time, together with the “postmodernist exterior” of the Museum, the inner space and the exhibitions offered in the NMA diverge from traditional approaches that exist in museology and incline to the ideas of postmodernism, which awakens critics’ controversial remarks but excites the majority of visitors.
The buildings discussed above have been constructed during the previous decades; it would be interesting to see how postmodernist trends show themselves in ARM’s works today. Now, it is necessary to allude to one of ARM’s latest projects, which is the so-called Portrait Building (completion due 2014) (ARM).
During the last decades, the works architects from different countries of the world contributed to the fact that today it is quite difficult to impress citizens with design of a skyscraper. The Gherkin building mentioned in the introduction is just one example, and it is possible to recollect many others. ARM’s new project does not amaze with its strange shape or bright colors.
Nor does it imply using some peculiar technology or materials – the building is planned to be constructed of concrete. Its facade just displays… the portrait of William Barak, “the last traditional ngurungaeta (elder) of the Wurundjeri-willam Clan”, originally designed by sculptor Peter Schipperheyn (ibid.). The portrait is formed by a series of panels on the balconies and can be seen by viewers from a big distance.
The architects describe the project as the “symbolic representation of Melbourne’s indigenous culture and history” (UAP Marker), which makes one think about the expression “literal symbolism” by Jackson and Johnson mentioned above. In this project, one may see the fusion of the past and the future, everyday life and culture, painting and architecture, which is very peculiar to postmodernism.
The Portrait Building provides high-quality apartments, gives credit for a significant personality of the Australian history, and impresses the observers. In fact, the approach to design of the building is quite similar to that used in construction of the National Museum, where history and modern times, learning and entertainment co-exist and interact.
After getting familiarised with ARM’s works, one may be interested in the critical responses to them. It is quite difficult to imagine that they may not awaken hot discussion with contradicting opinions. It would be reasonable to mark that attitude to ARM’s style has been changing.
It has been marked above that there are certain similarities in approach to the design of the Museum and the Portrait Building. At the same time, the critical responses on both projects demonstrated how the viewers gradually “get used” to ARM’s postmodernist ideas.
The projects of the National Museum and the Portrait Building are separated by almost a decade; at the same time, despite the mentioned similarity between the approaches to the design, the responses on the Portrait Building are much warmer than those devoted to the National Museum.
The reviews devoted to the National Museum emphasised the presence of postmodernist trends in NMA’s design and, as well as in the approach to developing exhibitions. For example, calling the NMA a “mishmash”, Tim Lloyd discusses the exhibitions of the museum and compares it to the South Australia Museum (2003, p.68).
Lloyd emphasises the eclecticism, inconsistency and presentation of the “politically charged version of history”. However, this did not hinder for the museum to become a commercially successful project since the first years of its existence (ibid.).
Having described the landscape of the Garden of Australian Dreams, Catherin Bull makes the conclusion that it “has met one of designer’s goals, to challenge the traditions and mores of the profession, and, just as importantly, to be seen to be doing so” (Bull, Stead and Ashton, 2002).
At the same time, analogically to Lloyd, Bull mentions that the professional debate about the Garden does not hinder its popularity with children and adults who enjoy the sensation of hyperreality. Talking about the museum and museology, Naomi Stead marks the “overriding allegory – Australian nationhood as many stories tangled together” (ibid.), which sounds quite consonant with the discussion of ARM’s “literal symbolism”.
Stead nevertheless mentions that in the ways the exhibitions are organised and placed, “the relationship seems less successful” (ibid.). This makes one think about Lloyd’s statement about the inconsistence of the museum. Thus, though admitting that the NMA is popular with visitors, reviewers are somewhat critical regarding the postmodernist approach in NMA’s museology.
Postmodernist trends are considered as the way to attract attention and impress rather than deliver useful, serious information. Despite this criticism, the NMA also had a range of positive reviews – for example, Drayson says that “its value to our cultural heritage… cannot be measured in dollars and cents” (2001). When viewing the bidy of critical response as a whole skepticism was nevertheless prevailing rather than excitement and approval.
However, comparison of the NMA reviews and those devoted to the Portrait Building demonstrates that today the society is more ready to accept the architects’ ideas expressed in the “postmodernist manner”.
The reviews devoted to the Portrait Building emphasise that besides its originality, the project has a significant message which is important to deliver to the modern Australian society. In a bright, “popular” manner, the architects give viewers opportunity to think about history and keep its outstanding personalities in their memory.
“The Wurundjeri community is very moved by this gesture and appreciates the respect that both Grocon and ARM have shown in developing this exciting concept”, says Megan Goulding, the Wurundjeri Tribal Land Council CEO (CSR Wire).
The government also supports the idea of the Portrait building, “…This commemoration of the life of William Barak is one that the Victorian Government certainly applauds”, says Richard Wynne, Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Minister (ibid.). Architects also give positive evaluation to the ARM’s project, “Congratulations to ARM on an excellent site-specific integration of artwork and architecture.
It is sure to make a strong and lasting contribution to the site and the city” (UAP Marker). It is interesting that not only architects and critics give positive evaluation to the Portrait building; ordinary citizens also support the project. The poll carried out by Heraldsun (Barry) demonstrates that about two thirds of the participants (711 of 1101) like the design of the building, and only 390 participants expressed their dislike towards it.
Thus, it is reasonable to emphasize two changes that are demonstrated by the critical reviews of two abovementioned buildings. Firstly, the society is not afraid of “literal symbolism” any more; nor is it irritated by it. For a long time, absence of any allegory in art, particularly, in architecture, was considered the manifestation of bad manners.
A library building in the form of a book, a portrait on the building – yet several decades ago such approaches to expression of ideas would be evaluated as shallow and tasteless. However, today “manners” are not expected to be an unpretentious instrument used to tell about “matters”.
The second dramatic change is the reduction of the gap between education and entertainment. The National Museum was criticized by many critics, as museums were expected to provide visitors with important information and hardly be the place for fun. Today, the “educative function” of the Portrait building is beyond question for people. “…I suspect a lot of people will read a whole lot of things into this”, says Daniel Grollo, Groco chief executive (Barry).
The review of four projects developed by ARM gives us opportunity to notice eloquent manifestations of postmodernist trends in ARM’s creative works. The NMA and other designs of ARM are considered to be full of “literal symbolism”, eclecticism and aspiration for breaking the rules of architecture.
The exhibitions of the museum, despite being evaluated by some reviewers as inconsistent and politically subjective, prove to be commercially successful, which means that ARM really succeeded to construct an object that has become a “commercial seller of new packages of knowledge to international customers”. The architects do not tend to create “empty” shallow projects; each of them has its idea, a message to the community.
At the same time, ARM do not “draw a veil” over these ideas like artists of the period of modernism did; the message of ARM’s works is clear to ordinary citizens, which is the manifestation of the postmodernist elimination of the border between “elite” and “popular” art. Observation of the reviews devoted to ARM’s projects has demonstrated that the society is gradually “getting used” to the postmodernist trends in architecture and now welcomes the mentioned approaches in design of buildings.
ARM, 2010. Portrait. ARM. Available through: http://www.a-r-m.com.au/projects_Portrait.html [Accessed 20 December 2010].
Barry, E., 2010. Building with Portrait of Leader to Become Melbourne’s newest landmark. Heraldsun, Sept 15 2010. Available through: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/apartment-building-featuring-portrait-of-aboriginal-leader-to-become-melbournes-newest-landmark/story-e6frf7kx-1225923026503 [Accessed 3 January 2011].
Bingham-Hall, P. and Goad, P., 2005. New Directions in Australian Architecture. Singapore: Periplus.
Bull, C. Stead, N. and Ashton, S., 2002. Landscape, Museology, and Alliance. Architecture Australia, 91(2). Available through: Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre. [Accessed 11 Nov 2010].
CSR Wire, 2010. Portrait Building Launched at Carlton Brewery Site. CSR Wire. Available through: http://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/30682-Portrait-Building-Launched-at-Carlton-Brewery-Site [Accessed 20 December 2010].
Drayson, N., 2001. National Museum of Australia. Australian Geographic, 61. Available through: Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre. [Accessed 11 Nov 2010].
Jackson, D. and Johnson, C., 2002. Australian Architecture Now. London: Thames & Hudson.
Lloyd, T., 2002. Museum a Cultural Mishmash. Advertiser, The Jan 27 2003. Available through: Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre database [Accessed 11 Nov 2010].
Storey, J., 2009. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 5th ed. New York, London: Pearson Longman.
UAP Marker, 2010. Portrait Building. UAP Marker 16 Sept 2010. Available through: http://uapmarker.com.au/2010/09/16/portrait-building-arm-architects [Accessed 20 December 2010].
4 Pictures (Illustrations for the text)
St Kilda Library