Harry Norris and I have a long history. It began in the Coles cafeteria when I was four and now I am in my forties. I suppose you could call him my other lover, for I have occupied his space and he mine for as long as I can remember. He has been there for me on so many important occasions.
Norris was born in 1888, part of the Victorian era. A man of ordinary means who became a prolific interwar architect. One of the first to introduce the Art Deco style to major commercial projects, completing over twenty notable buildings in a career that spanned forty years from 1925 to 1965. These buildings are in Melbourne, my home town. This collision course that Harry and I share began long ago at the G.J. Coles Building in Bourke Street, opened in 1930.
One of my favourite things, other than Harry, is to daydream. Others have always been critical of this past time, but not me. Daydreaming is about details. My vacant brown eyes staring at the ceiling in the Coles Cafeteria on level six. All of those squares, layers and layers of patterns, each sitting inside one another. Fans and scallops and triangles and columns extending down the wall. And so, began my love affair with Harry, comparing him to all others. After our visit we would walk up the hill to get the tram home. I would turn and look back at the façade, something I now know is called faience. It was mauve, the colour of the building, it fascinated me. Norris had learnt about faience in America from the Chicago school. It is a glazed architectural terracotta that can be used as a skin for a building. I came and went from that building for ten years and then it changed, like everything changes. It became David Jones and they hid the ceiling.
Before I knew it, I found myself working full time in town. After some years I ended up in Block Court Arcade. In my early twenties and with my own office. I had arrived. Norris had remodelled this Victorian building in 1930 to insert a shopping arcade connecting Collins Street and Elizabeth Street. It includes entrance signage in Jazz Moderne typography and stylised floral and zig zag motif throughout. A multi-coloured terrazzo arcade floor, ornamental bronzes and copper shop fittings. Divine. Upstairs I had an arched internal window looking down on this scene. More food for my hungry eyes. And then I met ‘the one’, my love.
“But you dear Harry are coming with me. It is not the time for divided loyalties. We shall be three”.
It was time for a Wedding. I wanted a ballroom as romance was the only reality I had ever considered. Finally, I found it, the northern extension at The Windsor Hotel designed by Norris in 1961. My lip quivered as I stared at the ceiling, it was a homage to the old, not decorative like the Victorian ceiling of the original hotel but imprinted with the memory of it. A parquetry oval dance floor beneath. And so, me, my betrothed and my other lover had a wonderful Wedding reception. And we danced and danced, it was just as I had imagined it would be. I come and go from that building every year to mark the date. First there were two and then three, four, five and six, each of us participating in this shared experience that is a celebration of our love. The ballroom no longer exists, it became the Hard Rock café and then something else.
“I didn’t like this Harry; but acceptance is something I am good at.“
I went on a journey recently to Burnham Beeches in the Sherbrooke Forest, built in 1931. It was a day of surprises. A beautiful streamlined building, reminiscent of an ocean liner, she is listing. But there has been a spotlight placed on her now and I am confident it will be okay. Empire Rone had an amazing art installation there and now Burnham Beeches is to be a five star hotel. It was a lovely excursion to the countryside, a chance for me to think.
“I didn’t know she was one of yours Harry, a treasure you left hidden in the forest for me”.
Now it is time to get back to work. My children grown up. All roads seem to be leading to the Nicholas Building, designed in 1925. It is commanding with its large scale classical elements, a grand example of ‘Commercial Palazzo’ style. The lifts the longest running manual lifts in Melbourne. Three times in the past year I have visited; and now this week I see there is a little room to rent for a modest price. My eyes enjoy the kaleidoscope of colour as I walk under the leadlight barrel vaulted ceiling in Cathedral Arcade.
“Is this where I am supposed to be Harry? This was the beginning for you, perhaps this is the end for me. Is it time for us to part? I think this is your masterpiece. Coffee in hand as I walk to the lifts, I look at the others, their eyes are turned down. They do not see you. But then I feel grateful for all of those stolen moments, the times I have got to keep you all for myself”.
Harry Norris died at 78 years of age in 1966, only six months after he retired. To my knowledge he was not awarded during his lifetime. He worked in an era where there was emergent opposition to decoration and ornamentation. Nevertheless, he was a man of strong vision and unwavering in his design ethos. A number of his buildings have been destroyed in recent years. But his work endures in many prominent city locations.
“I think it would make you sad to see them now Harry, these spaces you created for us. They are in desperate need of rejuvenation, someone to bring back the romance whilst keeping synergy between the old and the new. I have someone in mind. It is hard to be loyal since you have been gone so long but I think he would honour your work. And so, I think it would be a beautiful collision, his name is Robert Simeoni”.
Harry Norris, my all-time favourite Australian architect.
For further information about Robert Simeoni click on the following link . Start with the short film: an exquisite example of the synergy that can be found between old and new. https://robertsimeoniarchitects.com
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On enduring love. Thirty years ago today I met my love. I am in my forties. He calls me ‘Cosi’, although only occasionally now. It was a childhood name. Reserved for grandparents and parents and my love. It’s very affectionate. Everyone else calls me Nicole, this is the way I prefer it, I don’t like nicknames.
I don’t have strong memories of meeting him. I met many people that day. I recall he was shy and had beautiful eyes. At some point I became curious. And so there was the slow revelation of truths over the coming months. There was no internet at that time. Things were different. A stalker was someone who hid in a tree in your garden not a person at home hunting on their computer for pieces of information that would disqualify or promote someone’s worthiness. How different the genesis of love can be today.
As the months passed I would recall my Grandmothers words ‘ Patience is a virtue. Possess it if you can. Found often in a woman and seldom in a man’. We lived in a narrative of binary beliefs with a total lack of awareness. Everything was uncomplicated. Slowly we migrated from friendship to love. There was never a moments doubt for me. I’ve always known what I want. Such burning desire.
First ten years and then twenty. I was engulphed by breathless adoration. Should all loves be so lucky to have twenty years like this. Life was easy and we knew it. We didn’t sweat the small stuff. We never have. The affection and devotion upon which I regarded my love was intoxicating to those around us. I fielded constant inquiry as to what the secret is. I thought I knew. With unrivalled arrogance I would tell others the secret is ‘not to let the sun go down on an argument’. The ability to forgive. A lesson I learnt from my loves Grandmother. She was married for more than fifty years to a man with a similar temperament and the same moniker as my love.
And so we slid confidently into our third decade. Me, my love and our four children. I can hear the children’s laughter, it fills my heart with joy. The days pass with a satisfying exhaustion that comes from giving everything. The bedtime stories. The silence of them sleeping. The time for us. The closed doors, the fire, the heat, the dry skin, the moistness. I remember everything, like it was yesterday. Time and space recorded in little dioramas for my thoughts to browse.
Do you remember my love? The beginning, we had nothing and everything. Materiality was meaningless. I was a well that could not be emptied. I was young. I don’t want to be patient anymore. I feel a sense of urgency, like time is moving too fast. The world has changed. I have changed. There is only one thing I am certain of, the passion I have for you my love. Tomorrow we begin our fourth decade.
Touch me and you will know what it is to be loved… Just touch me, my love.
Sometimes I think my memories are catalogued like a library, rows and rows of drawers filled with reference to time and place, somewhere for my mind to visit when I am feeling melancholy. Other times I am reminded of these records and they are like a book that has slipped behind the shelf, a delightful discovery. Memories form part of who we are and contain our sense of self.
On being five – a literary recollection
Most school holidays I would stay at my nana’s, in a red brick post war house that my grandfather built in the 1940s. The bedroom I slept in was my mothers, the furniture was built in and my little bed had a shelf for books. When I was five the shelf was filled with Enid Blyton books, my favourite was ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’, a story about fairies. In the evenings my nana would read to me and I often fell asleep as she read. This would be the last thing we would do each day. A day that had usually been spent in her garden. She taught me all about flowers and plants. When I stomped on the moss, she said to be careful ‘because that is where the fairies dance’, and when I was too talkative, she asked me to whisper, so that I didn’t ‘frighten the fairies’. One day I saw a fairy at the back of her garden. I couldn’t believe my eyes and when I told her she was so delighted for me. She said that very few people can see fairies and I was privileged.
I feel thankful that my nana nurtured my imagination. She has instilled a love of gardens and literature within me that has remained throughout my life. Many holidays passed by in that little bedroom with the built-in bookshelf and it would be another decade before I was to learn about desire.
On being Fifteen – a literary recollection
Although years had gone by our days were still spent in the garden, and our evenings reading. I loved books. The shelf contained different books now. My nana said I could read anything in the shelf except the book wrapped in brown paper. I opened it to discover the title ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, by D.H. Lawrence. The next time I visited my nana I brought a torch.
I was relieved to discover the book still sat in the shelf and I couldn’t wait to go to bed that first evening. I slid under the covers and pulled the sheets up over my head. My torch wasn’t very powerful. I lay there in the dark cavern with a pinhole spotlight on the page, two or three lines being revealed at a time. And my torch became like a little camera obscura that allowed me to see into a world that I never knew existed.
I quickly fell into the story of Connie and Oliver, from the moment they met everything began to feel warm. He looked at her as though he was totally self-possessed with a perfect, fearless, impersonal gaze. Before too long she surrendered to him. It was hot under all the bed coverings and I tingled with little pins and needles. It took three nights to read the book and I was exhausted each day desperately waiting for bed time. Days spent in the garden, a perfect place for me to relive this awakening.
It was a deep garden with a soft mossy lawn at its base and ferns overhanging the foliage below. The air was thick and warm and the ground moist. The mossy floor like a plush velvet cushion and with each careful step I took into this little oasis my footprints left a subtle impression of where I had been. My mind was filled with the scenes from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and I knelt down to touch the wet green earth. My fingers sunk into the moss and I imagined what it would be like to lie there with flowers scattered all about my flesh, to feel the coolness of the ground beneath and then the warmth of being enclosed by a body.
This book held the promise of what was yet to come; and I had been changed forever by the discovery of desire. And this act of surrender could be a powerful revelation if it is of both body and mind.
Sometimes I think my memories chase me; as I covet more and more, an insatiable need to be delighted again and again. Other days I feel trapped by my memories and the times they reference, a longing to revisit something that has been lost forever. As each new day begins my mind catalogues what has gone before. And my memories are like books in a library. I have no awareness of what will become important, each card that enters the catalogue looks exactly the same, some of them will never be borrowed.
And as one season blends into another I lie in the grass of my garden at home. My fingers patting the mossy earth, and I imagine what it would be to surrender in the quiet seclusion of a forest floor…something to look forward to.
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I’ve always had a fascination with the idea of a soul mate. The mythical story told at Plato’s Symposium seems so romantic, the thought that one could possibly spend an eternity looking for their other half. Searching for your soulmate; the one who knows what you are thinking, the one who understands you, the one who will desire you forever.
It was Aristophanes who told the story at the symposium. He states that humans originally had four arms, four legs and a single head made of two faces. They were very powerful and would cartwheel everywhere; moving very fast. It is said they also had great strength and threatened to conquer the gods. Zeus, King of the Greek gods came up with a creative solution to split them in half as punishment for their pride, doubling the number of humans who would give tribute to the gods and halving their strength. Each one then longed for its other half.
What does all of this mean for us today, in modernity? We’ve all experienced the ‘we just clicked’ or ‘we are on the same wavelength’ feeling. We can all identify that there are people for whom we have a natural affinity. For me, a soulmate also has to be desired. Some people describe they have a soulmate with whom they have a platonic, non-romantic relationship. This is a best friend, not a soulmate. Searching for your soulmate is different. The narrative of the soulmate is seeking the other half from whom you have been severed. It is passionate, romantic and profoundly moving. Aristophanes says his speech explains the source of our desire to love each other.
“Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a matching half of a human whole…and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him.”
So where do we find this someone who can ‘cure the wound of human nature’, the soulmate who will make us complete and restore our joy and optimism. Ancient Christian philosopher Augustine proposed this wound could not be cured. He says we bare a kernel of the infinite within us, thus finite things cannot fulfil us. Our desires can never be satisfied and this is the ultimate flaw of humanity. We always seek more, never satisfied with the beauty and love and riches we already have.
As our search continues some of us have many soulmates; because we no longer believe there is just one. There is one that satisfies our physical desires, the one that meets our emotional needs, the one we cry with, the one we talk with, the one who holds our secrets, the one who shares our joy. We become so fragmented that everything and nothing is meaningful.
How did this happen? When searching for your soulmate you are constantly told one person cannot satisfy our every desire and that we should seek out these deficits of nature in others. What does this do to us? When we have so many encounters with others, does this satiate our souls more thoroughly or just exacerbate the sense of what is missing. Our days are punctuated by moments where our hearts quicken and we feel desire and excitement and passion. But they pass by so fast, these little moments. We can barely remember them months later as they are not part of a meaningful accumulation of a lifetime of memories with one. How can we ever be certain we chose the correct one when the others are so alluring. Each of us deciding whether there is one or many whom will pass through our lives with the honour of having been a soulmate. Each of us settling on a story that is the truth we need to believe at that moment in time.
By proposition the soulmate is someone who makes you whole, someone who can cure the wound of human nature. It is someone who knows what gives your life meaning. It is someone who wants to lie entwined with you every-day. It is someone who hears you when you are silent and laughs with you when you are loud. It is someone we all search for.
Taglietti inspired us to regard our country with optimism at a point in history where we still coveted a desire to be the same as our international counterparts. He helped shape Australia’s architectural identity by showing us the beauty of a blank canvas.
Enrico Taglietti was born in Milan in 1926, he spent his youth growing up in the African city of Eritrea, a colony of the Kingdom of Italy until 1941. The city of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa was a cosmopolitan place to grow up with many official languages and cultures. A city of palm lined boulevards and European architecture with coffee houses on every street corner and a vibrant art scene.
After the war, Taglietti returned to Milan where he graduated from Milano Polytechnic in 1954 as an architect. During his time at Milano Polytechnic he participated in the Triennale Milano and met Lucio Fontana and Alvar Aalto men who would go on to be very famous in their fields. In 1953 Taglietti spent time with Le Corbusier in Marseille France. When asked about his experiences of meeting these people he explains that it was an interesting time and good to meet them but in terms of influence he feels more connected to artists than to architects.
I know you don’t like to talk about the past but that is how we make sense of things today. And you do have an interesting past, the small part of your life that happened before you became mine. Before Australia claimed you as their own.
You say you want me to be ‘full of wonder and to think about what I feel when I am in one of your spaces’. I ponder possibility and the capacity for some to create. Is this what you mean when you say that ‘we need poetry with architecture’?
Taglietti arrived in Australia in 1955 to do a small job for David Jones Sydney, he was supposed to be here for six weeks. Soon after his arrival he was invited to Canberra for the commission of the Italian embassy. Taglietti regarded Canberra as a void, a place that is not influenced by history, unlike Europe, with an oppressive past. He believed Canberra’s lack of tradition created a silence and space for design work. It was like a blank cnavas. Taglietti had an enormous desire to change the world.
I like to listen to you talk about the magnificent sky at night and the fantastic light. But it makes me sad that you want to be dispossessed of your own history. And when you talk about your desire to arrive at a place of non-memory, I imagine you are seeking original thoughts. I see them everywhere in your work, the original thoughts; but I also see a layer of complexity and I am certain it is impossible to escape our past. There are stirrings that fall below the thresholds of consciousness.
Taglietti has more than thirty prominent buildings in Canberra and many residential projects in his home state too. His work can be described as modernist and sometimes brutalist in style. He describes his work as belonging to organic architecture explaining that he creates from the inside out. He designs for a void and then later determines what the best materials will be for that project. He places an emphasis on atmosphere, light and poetry.
Taglietti’s commercial work has a distinct look and is reflective of his desire to create something modern for the times. He designed many schools, churches, libraries and public buildings of note. A favourite of mine is Giralang Primary School designed in 1974. It looks like a happy place and I can imagine laughter and learning easily taking place in this space.
One of his well-known residential projects is Dingle House designed in 1965, situated in a cul-de-sac and turned at ninety degrees to face the golf course. This three-way split-level plan responds elegantly to the sloping site and blends seamlessly into the environment. Taglietti took a very personal approach to his residential projects and would ask uncompromising questions of his clients in pursuit of understanding. Having once asked a man ‘if he loved his wife’?
When you say ‘an unhappy person in one of my buildings makes my building unhappy’ I understand why you must ask these difficult questions of your clients. I think it is generous of you to say ‘architecture is produced by the user in the end’. I wonder if you know how important your work is to our sense of self.
Taglietti was recognised during his lifetime for his contribution to architecture. The first accolade came from overseas when in 1979 he was featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2007 he was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects gold medal. And then in 2018 at ninety-two years of age he was celebrated at the Canberra Design festival as the feature architect that year. An event he was able to participate in.
And when you tell us ‘it was a pleasure to have created something that will last’ I look to you for more; and you say ‘but the value of it in relation to your dreams is less so’. A lingering melancholy; like there is something left unfinished.
Taglietti tells us that he designs from the inside out, and the aim of his architecture is to express joy, music, silence and the desire to be. He states inside is the ‘real architecture’, the void where he designs the ‘concept of unity’. He tells us the interiors are where life takes place and when I look at the exterior, I see his desire to protect this life.
Triangles feature prominently in the exteriors of Taglietti’s commercial work and a cascading shape is notable in most residential projects. I believe the triangular composition points towards a position of power. A repeating pattern throughout history, the pyramids, the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia and then in modern history at Iwo Jima in Japan during WWII. The shape is associated with strength from both an engineering and emotive standpoint, representing victory.
And this is the poetry, that your focus was to give us something original, something that represented freedom whilst still ensuring we would be powerful and protected. And as we grow up, we will remember you for your modernist buildings that form part of the canvas of Canberra.
Enrico Taglietti passed away in 2019 at ninety-three years of age.
Normally I rise at six forty-five in the morning. I have done this for years, I like the mornings, the silence of everyone sleeping. It took weeks for this to change. First it was seven and then seven fifteen and this morning eight fifteen. They say we should maintain a routine, the people whose job it is to keep us sane.
I have a new routine, I didn’t plan for it, it just evolved. I get up and make tea and toast. Then I return to bed and gaze out the window. I look upon the most magnificent jacaranda and I daydream; this is an activity usually reserved for Sunday mornings but now I get to do it every day. And then I wait to hear my son’s voice, do I want coffee? Yes. I have my coffee in bed and then I dress for my day.
For some this means donning a tracksuit or staying in pyjamas; which is fine. We should each do what brings us a sense of satisfaction. They say we should control the things we can control. I like to wear skirts and dresses, it has always been this way. I like my undergarments to match and I love the feeling of running my hand over a leg that is in pantyhose. And so; I continue with this routine as a way to maintain order.
And then I set about conducting the activities of a usual day. But everything is slower; like time has been stretched. When I am hanging the washing on the line I stop and hold the sheets up to my cheeks. They smell fresh and the coolness of the fabric provides relief in the warm autumn sun. I hear the birds. I see the sky and I feel a gentle breeze lift the edge of my skirt. Things I mightn’t have noticed before.
I eat my lunch and go for a walk. I do this because that’s what they say to do. Then I work at my desk in the afternoons. Like many people I don’t have much work at the moment. I find my mind wandering, I worry for all the sick people. Some days I feel powerless and I get nothing done. Other days I feel grateful that we are all well and I am excited by the prospect of having this free time.
Those are the good days. The days when I take a long lunch on the lawn in my garden. Afterwards I lie on the grass staring at the sky. The suns gentle rays lulling me into a stupor and my imagination taking me on a journey. And one day blends into the next and time becomes ambient. Measured by the sameness of our usual lives but different.
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A while back I asked my father what is your favourite language. He didn’t hesitate, ‘Italian’ he said, ‘because it is romantic’. He speaks many languages. It is strange for me to be unable to speak this beautiful language; but to know it and feel it. For it to be part of who I am. I know how to sing in Italian and the song I know, it is a love song. And the words, they sound rhythmic; and they lap at the edge of my soul. And when I sing it I am transported to another time.
My father’s name is Alfredo Antonio, he was born in 1946 in Alexandria Egypt. He takes his name from his Italian uncle who had died in a knife fight some months before his birth. Not an illustrious beginning. His parents, my grandparents were born in other European countries. This was common in the port city of Alexandria and led to many people being polyglots.
My father spoke six languages as a young man and today he speaks four. They are being lost in time as he is now the last remaining from his childhood family. And I worry, will I forget the little that I know, will that be lost too. Such sweet memories.
1975 Papa (grandfather) and me
I feel his big hands around my rib cage as he carries me over to the swing. He holds me away from his body like I am a plastic doll and my legs just hang as if that were so. It would be quite mechanical were it not for our faces looking at one another. His face looks earnest and even a little worried. I never wiggle like my sister and cousin because then he becomes stressed and this little nerve on his temple twitches. He didn’t have daughters and even the smallest of whimpers renders him useless as he ponders if he has injured one of us. He places me carefully on the swing. And then he sings, and I sing and we sing together. I am supposed to get off when the song ends and give someone else a turn but that rarely happens. They don’t like the swing as much as I do. It is predictable and peaceful. And on a summers day we stay out there until we hear the words ‘vieni e mangia’(come and eat). And then we go inside for dinner.
During my early childhood I would often have a sleep over on Saturday night and then my parents would come for Sunday lunch and pick me up. I remember my grandparents telling me not to talk any Italian at home because I could get in trouble and so would they. I did talk and I remember there being ‘words’. My mother doesn’t speak Italian. The next thing I knew my grandparents had enrolled in english classes. They were an abject failure, not my grandparents, the english classes. And for me, Italian became something that lay dormant within.
I became a teenager and I didn’t need a babysitter anymore and I didn’t go on the swing. We still had Sunday lunch at their house each week and I would sit in the fig tree by the window so that I could eaves drop on the adults. But from then on I became a listener and not a participant. Sometimes they would change language mid conversation. They also spoke Greek and French. And it stayed with me this love of Italian but it is not an easy thing. It gives me moments that are both exhilarating and frightening.
2013 Memories of Milan
“I am tired when I disembark an overnight train from Paris to Milan. I am with my sixteen year old daughter. We get in a cab to go to the hotel and I am chatting with the driver. We are speaking in Italian. I feel very relaxed. But then I look at my daughter and she has a confused expression ‘I didn’t know you knew how to speak Italian’. ‘I don’t’ I say. And then this spell; it has been broken. And I can’t understand the driver anymore and I feel overwhelmed and he is annoyed.”
And whilst this was a simple exchange it reminds me that this language lives inside of me. But I don’t know how to bring it back. And then I dream. I dream in Italian but I have never remembered a dream. I only know this because my love tells me I sleep talk in Italian. He says I sound happy.
This song, this love song I sing. I wonder about it. What do all the words mean? I understand little pieces. I sit in the garden with my father and I ask him what is the meaning of this song. And he tells me it is a prophecy. It speaks of the future and it tells the story of a young woman who goes out into the country side searching for the love who is fair and good. And I know in that moment that my destiny was written when I was a small child.
I ask him to read me something in Italian. And when I listen it is like a rainbow on a summers day, it has no beginning or conclusion. And the treasure at the end of this rainbow, it is hidden in my mind. Perhaps it is destined to be trapped in my childhood forever. This perfect sound that reminds me of love and security and romance.
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Do you remember my
love…you wrote me a letter asking for my hand in marriage. You paid someone to
write it because you didn’t like your handwriting. I still have it. What would
you say if you wrote me a letter today? Address unknown…for I have been feeling
a little lost lately.
You keep telling me that we can’t go back. I went today, to where it all began; 35 Fitzgerald Street South Yarra. It looks exactly the same. I walked down the drive way and took some photos. I felt like an intruder, I didn’t look like one. I wanted to walk up the stairs and open the door and go in.
The Year is 1993
The apartment, it is profoundly ordinary. A one bedroom box with a bed, bookcase, table and two chairs. No TV; as we have no money. It has a bath and a little basin that is attached to the wall. We pay $110 per week in rent.
I’m wearing navy and my hair is up, it is always up. It’s the end of the day. I place my keys on the bookcase shelf, I won’t be leaving until the morning. You are home, you are always home. I work and you study. I take off my coat and head into the kitchen. You are there; right behind me. You want to know what’s for dinner. I’m thinking as I lean back into you. Your hand is on the top of my shoulder, four fingers resting over my collar bone and a thumb sliding down my spine. How was your day gorgeous…you say. Sometimes we eat, sometimes our hunger is satisfied in each other’s arms.
The bed dominates spatially and emotionally, we spend days in there, leaving to get food or go to work. We fall asleep every night touching one another. I like that we still do that. And when we wake up there are remnants of the previous day resting on top of the bed, like we barely moved in the night, so sound was our slumber. There are novels and notes and text books scattered about. Do you remember we would read to one another? Something I have continued to do for others but not for you my love. Perhaps I should bring that back.
The kitchen drawer with its unvarnished wooden base and grained pattern. We place the spare coins in there and every few weeks we count them to see if there is enough for a pizza and a bottle of red wine. There are many windows in this flat but I can’t tell you what they look upon. My whole world exists within this little box and I have no need to leave, not even for a glance.
And so, as my mind roves the landscape of our lives it chases the good times, the serendipity that sustains me. If I were to write you a love letter today I would say I still feel young and hungry. Lately we have been talking about our future life together. And the reason I keep wanting to go back is because I want to live in a room without windows and then I will never be lost. I keep trying to find this place but so far it has eluded me. Let’s be time travellers together.
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A few years back I worked at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Each morning I would visit Mirka’s painted glass mural in the sun room at the Heide farmhouse gallery, the light was diaphanous; gone once the sun reached the top of the world. It was cool at this time of day as the windows faced westerly, the crisp air providing clarity. I would think about what each of the mural symbols meant to me, I knew what they meant to her. Mirka’s art is often regarded through a lens of shared identification and experience, creating a feeling of connectedness. I want to tell her story with honesty; the way she lived.
Mirka Mora was born in Paris to a Lithuanian Jewish Father and a Romanian Jewish Mother in 1928, she died in 2018. I find myself reflecting on why Mirka was never awarded an Australia Day Honour or a Queens Birthday Honour. So great has been the outpouring of grief over her passing. Her life was destined to be extraordinary although she was born ordinary. She narrowly escaped death in a concentration camp as a teenager. At the age of sixteen she read Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger; a novel that spawned the famous Opera; La Boheme by Puccini. The story is of a photographer who had travelled across Victoria. That book planted a little seed in her heart; and in 1951 she boarded a 305-aeroplane destined for Melbourne; with her husband Georges and her first-born son Phillipe.
Mirka’s life was laden with loving stories of random acts of silliness, many of them super charged with sexuality. The time she cut little holes in her dress over her nipples and then cheekily regarded the restaurant patrons’ reactions. Or the time she went to the bathroom and returned without the slip under her dress revealing a beautifully naked body; thinly veiled by fabric. The day she went to the shops with no underwear and the wind caught her dress. The time she walked out into the ocean fully clothed, hat bopping atop the water. She was brave and made the everyday act of living a celebration.
Mirka’s artwork was inspired by both her new life and her old. An example of this are the lovers featured prominently in her artwork as an intertwined pair. Sometimes her lovers reminded her of a mother and son she saw on the train on the way to the concentration camp Pithiviers. “They always held each other, all the time, then they would walk in the camp holding each other” said Mirka. This melancholy admission just hung in the air silently. But then moments later her joie de vivre can be seen, and she states the lovers can also be her children. “I think of them, think of my children when they were in my arms. I’d give anything now to have them one afternoon, little and just holding them, you don’t know what it is, this tenderness” said Mirka.
A year after arriving in Melbourne, Mirka and Georges moved to Grosvenor Chambers at 9 Collins Street; an already famous address. It was a custom-built art studio building where many famous artists had resided, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, and Ola Cohn to name a few. They quickly settled into a bohemian lifestyle and lived a very liberated life, often hosting parties. They had already experienced so much fear that it was likely a relief to be so free. They were surrounded by artists and like-minded creatives. “The atmosphere could be scooped up with a spoon” she said. As the studio was such a bustling busy place with all of the visiting artists, occasionally Mirka would go next door to the Windsor and take a room; just for some peace. She lived in Grosvenor Chambers with her family for sixteen years, and had two more children during this time, William in 1953 and Tiriel in 1958.
In 1954 the Moras opened Mirka Cafe on Exhibition street, bohemians were attracted to this place like bees to honey, Mirka being the honey. “They were crazy about my Mum” recalls son Phillipe. Mirka Cafe was a hot bed of artistic talent, including everybody who was anybody; except Sidney Nolan, who had left Melbourne for good in 1947. Mirka Cafe hosted the first art exhibitions of Joy Hester and Charles Blackman. Georges and Mirka opened a second restaurant in 1957, Balzac; as Mirka Cafe was over-run with patrons. John Perceval would sit in the window and smoke whilst Charles Blackman was employed as a cook.
During the 1950s artists were poor and paint was expensive. Arthur Boyd
would make his own paint and one particular day, he gave paint to his fellow
artists. “I was so honoured to be given the paint. One day he gave a tube to
Blackman, Perceval and Mirka. He treats me equal to the boys, such a boy
(Arthur Boyd), a rare man.” Mirka retells this story in the third person, like
she was an outsider looking in at a wonderful scene. A scene she had replayed
many times in her mind. The joy it brought her to be treated as an equal.
Mirka had her first exhibition in 1956 followed by thirty-five more over the next six decades. She spent long hours painting, her style represented both figurative and abstract art. Her works incorporated many forms of media including drawing, embroidery, soft sculpture, mosaics and doll making.
In 1966 Mirka and her family moved to the Tolarno Hotel in St Kilda, it
was their private residence, an Art Gallery and Café. It was also the last home
she shared with Georges. After 23 years of marriage Georges and Mirka separated
in 1970; citing extra marital affairs on both sides, his began within a year of
arriving in Australia and hers some time later. Over this time; and for some
years after the separation Mirka painted the murals at Tolarno Hotel. This is
one of the most beautiful examples of her art, it incorporates many elements of
her colourist and symbolist style of painting. Large angels and serpents can be
seen along with many other symbol’s birds, rabbits, flowers and the sun. Angels
represent love and serpents represent sex. “My work is about the angels and the
serpents fighting, sometimes they are happy together and sometimes they fight
together” said Mirka.
Over her life time she was an avid reader, enjoying history and
philosophy and believed books gave her the ability to understand life better,
she had a way of taking her thoughts out of the book and into the everyday. She
was particularly fond of Freud. Freud believed in the importance of the
unconscious mind and the power of sexuality. His writings teach that it is a
part of nature to have a mixture of love and hate in close relationships. Mirka
said later in life “that the affair with Georges never ended.” This is because
the opposite of love is not hating, it is indifference; and I propose Mirka did
not feel this towards Georges.
Mirka had become well known to the public by the early 1970s. She had held
exhibitions at the Gallery of Contemporary Art; hosted by John and Sunday Reed
and had several showings at the Tolarno Gallery. During 1971 she exhibited her
dolls at Realities Gallery Toorak and the people loved them. Following that
Mirka had a series of erotic charcoal drawings appear in Vogue. Mirka had grown
and became nationally recognised, Melbournians had to share her. She also began
teaching at the Council for Adult Education (CAE), an association that lasted
23 years. Mirka conducted workshops in Australia, France, USA and Japan. During
her lifetime she taught everyone from children to jail inmates.
Whilst at the CAE she was awarded a Sir Zelman Cowan Award for her
contribution to adult education. Her peers were receiving awards too. In 1970 Arthur
Boyd was awarded The Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 1977 Charles
Blackman was awarded an OBE.
In 1978, twenty-seven years after Mirka arrived in Melbourne and the
year she turned fifty she met Sidney Nolan whilst he was visiting Australia.
She had attended an exhibition at the National Gallery and needed a rest, so
she stepped through a doorway into an empty room, naked of paintings. Moments
later Sidney Nolan entered the room and they immediately recognised each other,
finally they met, having been connected for so long by many intimate
friendships. Mirka was entranced by this handsome man. “I was very honoured. It
was the most seductive handshake I have ever had in my life, and I’ve had a lot
of handshakes. His hand in my hand said everything. His was a novel, you know,
a grand novel.” When I hear this I am very moved, she was still so connected to
her sexuality, just like me; and other women of our age. The simplicity of a
handshake stirring such strong emotions; a fleeting moment that passes but will
always be remembered for the way it made her feel. Not everything of meaning is
a grand gesture. Life is made up of a series of minor moments that we choose to
notice or ignore.
Reading and listening to the interviews Mirka gave throughout her life
she repeatedly returned to a few key words. She often recounted what a lucky
life she had. She was lucky to miss Auschwitz. Lucky to have the hands of a
child. Lucky to be a painter and lucky to paint every day. Her use of the word
luck forms part of her Australian identity. The French word for luck is chance, its good luck, sa bonne chance. Many French words are
the same in English and when I listen to Mirka I hear that overwhelmingly she
doesn’t change from the French word with the exception of luck. She didn’t say
‘it was by chance I missed Auschwitz’.
Another word that Mirka continually returned to was honour, the same in
French and English. It was an honour to meet Sidney Nolan. It was an honour to
receive a tube of paint from Arthur Boyd. It was an honour to have a book
published about her and Georges. Honour was something she considered to be
important. A person of integrity and right-mindedness who referenced honour
throughout her interviews yet who also appeared to be frivolous and fun; always
maintaining the child.
During the 1980s Mirka was a very busy artist and a recognisable
personality on Melbourne streets. In 1986 she completed a significant mural at
Flinders street station. This mural speaks to her professionalism and her
commitment to the Australian public. It is a combination of mosaic and painting
and took approximately a year to complete. It is a mural for everyone,
combining symbols unique to her; and some special additions, like koalas. It is
very inclusive and representative of our nations people.
At this time her peers continued to receive honours. Sidney Nolan being
highly decorated with a Knight Bachelor in 1981, followed by The Order of Merit
(OM) in 1983 and then he rounded out the decade with a Companion of the Order
of Australia (AC) in 1988. In 1991 it was John Perceval’s turn with an Officer
of the Order of Australia and then in 2008 David Boyd was awarded a Medal of
the Order of Australia (OAM). Mirka’s turn never arrived.
Women make up approximately one third of Australia Day honours, it has
been this way for decades with little change. There have been many calls by
prominent Australian women for change to the system, but this strong advocacy
has failed to make an impact. Furthermore, quantitative data is indicative of
migrants being underrepresented in the allocation of honours. It is a national
shame that Mirka was not formally recognised by the Australian Government
during her lifetime. A woman who made influential strides in the development of
contemporary art in Australia for more than sixty years. She enriched our
cultural and creative landscape. She dedicated decades to educating others in
art and her works are held in galleries around the world.
In 2002 Mirka was awarded one of France’s highest artistic honours, Officier des Arts et des Lettres. The
award was presented by her long-time family friend Marcel Marceau. He stated
that “This award is not just a title, it is recognition of what she has given
to her country; Australia, to her country of origin; France, and to the world
in general.” But the ‘big time’ Australian honours were not to be the order of
the day for Mirka, she died on August 27th, 2018.
Mirka loved unconditionally, produced insane art, three sons and a nation of daughters. She deserved more than she was given. Nostalgia has me returning to the farmhouse. It is late in the day; the glass is warm to touch; the sun is setting. I can hear her voice, “I love life so much and I love all the problems as well, people are the best thing in the world.”
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I know when it is time for winter to end. It’s a morning slightly warmer than the others, and I rise from bed after having thrown off my slip in the night. I contemplate spring and removing all the layers, I desire the sun’s gentle kiss upon my skin and I want to lie in the soft grass and read novels and daydream. Spring is the season for soulful pleasure and the epicentre of my world is the garden. But the first part of spring is renewal; and I have to work if I am going to enjoy all the spoils of this season. I place my emotions somewhere between sadness and satisfaction, for winter was wonderful but now it has gone.
And so my busy mind orders what has to be done in the garden. I begin with the roses, they need to be pruned. The Pierre de Ronsard, it grows so tall now; and covers a large fence. I have a great sense of anticipation as I work away, my arms extended above my shoulders for hours. As I sweat I wipe my brow with the back of my dirty hand, it leaves a little smudge on my face. And my hair, the curls, capturing little leaves and twigs. When I come inside at the end of the first day I have a strong sense of fulfillment. I walk past the mirror and can’t help but notice I look content. That evening I ache with the satisfaction of having re-claimed my garden. The six or seven weeks I was absent have been erased.
The garden is continually calling me, and I can’t stay away. After pruning the roses I bring the orchids inside, then I shape the hedges, then I do the weeding. I gently trace my fingers across the earth in testimony of new growth. Engaged in this process of discovery and feeling like an explorer searching for treasure. I find holly hocks and dahlias emerging from the ground, already surging towards summer. My hydrangeas are covered with new leaves. All of these living things absent of senses yet bestowed with being keepers of time. Every night my thighs ache with all the rising up and down, less so as the days pass, and the dormancy of winter recedes.
The birds, there are
nests everywhere. So many birds, doves and swallows and black birds. The
sweetest sound, the chirping of baby birds. I wait patiently for my favourite
bird of all, a tiny little finch. It builds its nest along the fence line. And
every year I worry that it won’t come. It comes late in the season. This tiny
little finch, it flutters rather than flies. It’s small wings moving so fast my
eyes struggle to see more than a blur, almost otherworldly, like the fairies
that danced in the moss when I was a child. I can still see them, a tiny
figment of my imagination. When I am in my garden it as though time doesn’t
And as the weeks pass
I feel myself becoming stronger and stronger and each evening I feel less achy
until finally the equinox arrives. The day when the earth has twelve hours of
daylight and twelve hours of darkness. Noticing the refracted sunlight and
being mesmerised as it dips below the horizon and night time falls. And I know
then that this newness has arrived. I check the setting sun most evenings, it
is my barometer for the following days weather. The colour of the sky, the
translucence of the light, more reliable than any other measure.
Time passes and I
admire the growth of the roses, the leaves, they are thick and lush, a royal
burgundy colour. I watch them quickly turn to green. I am constantly checking; I
need to make sure there is no black spot. And then the aphids arrive, hundreds
of them, almost in unison with the buds. I worry and wait and worry and wait.
For I want the ladybirds too, they love to feast on the aphids. But I don’t
want my buds spoilt. And so I painstakingly remove the aphids; willing the
ladybirds to arrive. My fingers repetitiously sweep from the base of the bud to
the tip and they become stained green with the bodies of the aphids as I wait
for the ladybirds. Finally they arrive, not a moment too soon.
A month gone and spring is everywhere, the remnants of winter a fading memory. My garden is filled with the fragrance of hyacinths and primrose and jasmine and my heart is happy. And the tulips, they look at me with their expressive faces; and the pansies; they honour me with their resilience. Finally, it is time to rest. I luxuriate in the sunshine of spring; for it is genteel, my senses satiated by feeling warm. I can hear the birds singing. I lie in the grass unsure of whether I am tired or relaxed but certain I am exactly where I want to be. Spring is the season for soulful pleasure and this beautiful scene, it becomes the wallpaper of my life.
Le Corbusier was a complex character. I was first introduced to his work as a university student, young and impressionable. He brought about a desire for me to understand the way in which we live, an effect that has been long lasting. His work centres on trying to make sense of the world through architecture.
There is so much to tell, I am not sure where to begin.
Le Corbusier was born Charles Edouard Jeanneret in a Swiss Village in 1887. Early on he showed interest in the decorative arts. As a young man he travelled Europe extensively and these experiences strongly influenced his desire to become an architect. At the age of thirty he moved permanently to Paris, at this time he was engaged in both the arts and architecture. During 1920 he wrote a manifesto with artist Amedee Ozenfant, titled ‘après le Cubism’ (after Cubism). It was a criticism of highly decorative art and architecture and an ode to a new artistic movement he labelled Purism.
I wish you didn’t name the Cubist movement a ‘romantic cobweb’. I fear you will be misunderstood. I see your desire to bring order to this busy world. When I look at your paintings I see the beauty in their simplicity. With such ease you direct my gaze, I see earthy nature and stillness. I note you have changed your name, you will always be Charles to me. It is just as you say…there are “Eyes that see and eyes that do not see”.
Shortly after his Manifesto on Purism Le Corbusier realised his passion lay in architecture. In 1925 he completed the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion in Paris for an important International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Industrial Arts. It was designed with Amedee Ozenfant and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. Built in a simple standardised modernist style with little decoration, it was widely criticised by the exhibition authorities and journalists. Le Corbusier stated at the time that “Right now one thing is for sure, 1925 marks the turning point between old and new”. Within months of the exhibition Le Corbusier had a dozen housing projects in Paris. He quickly became a well-established architect with his own unique style. A simplicity of form with a strong focus on function.
In 1928 he began work on Villa Savoye, a home that was to become iconic of modernist architecture. Villa Savoye was completed in 1931. The home was a purified example of Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture. It had reinforced concrete columns, free design of the ground plan and façade, horizontal windows and a roof garden. So brilliant was this home he announced to the public that it was “Poetry and lyricism supported by technique”. The house leaked continuously, and the owners complained ferociously. Le Corbusier was virulent in his own defence and widely accused of being arrogant in public. But there was no denying this house was visionary and it went on to lead a new international modernist style. At this time Le Corbusier also got married to a model named Yvonne Gallis. They were together for twenty-seven years until she died in 1957. By all accounts he was an attentive husband although not a faithful one. He conducted a long term affair with Marguerite Tjader Harris.
Charles, when you pontificate with such enthusiasm they do not see you. They do not see your erudite doubtfulness, that you swing from being elated to depressed in turns. They do not see how generous you are in private. You should never have told them about her, especially not shortly after your wife died. They do not understand it is possible to love two women at once.
Le Corbusier wrote more than fifty books during his long career, expounding his numerous theories on how people should live, frequently implying the uneducated masses needed to be saved from themselves. For a period of eighteen months he worked on urban planning designs for the Vichy government. This has caused significant concern to historians recently. Was he also a Nazi sympathizer? His focus seemed to remain firmly on the potential of architecture. It was always about the building and the buildings ability to provide. In some ways his point of view was utopic. On housing he said, “what modern man wants is a monk’s cell, well-lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars”. So there exists a dichotomy within this narrative. Always striving for a modern, standardised profound simplicity but leaving a little space for the stars, for dreaming and wonder.
Charles when you told me you “prefer drawing to talking” I didn’t understand. But now all of this time has passed, I see what you mean. They pore over all of your words, searching for the truth, but they forget you were an architect. They are trying to decide if you are still worthy of their adoration. Do they not look to your buildings? I think it was right of you to say, “drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies”.
Over the course of his career Le Corbusier completed projects in fourteen countries, many of them large institutional projects. Perhaps one of the most famous was the building of a city for the Indian government in Chandigarh, begun in 1952. The buildings are a fine example of Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture. Chandigarh has been lauded as one of the most successful planned urbanisations in modern history. Chandigarh is also the site for Le Corbusier’s largest open hand sculpture, it stands twenty-six meters tall. Le Corbusier designed the open hand to be a sign of peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and receive.
Le Corbusier was recognised during his lifetime with awards of the highest order in both France and America. His contribution to modern architecture continues to be influential today. In 2016 UNESCO added seventeen Le Corbusier sites to the World Heritage List. These projects were completed over a fifty year period and represent both his residential Villa Style homes and his large institutional projects. Le Corbusier died in 1965 at the age of seventy-eight. He had pre-determined that his grave would be inscribed with his birth name Charles Edouard Jeanneret. Underneath that in quotation “Le Corbusier”.
When you cast that spell on me all those years ago I could never have imagined you less than good. I think your life was dedicated to an exploration of temporality and where we find our place in this beautiful world. I remember you said “To be modern is not a fashion, it is a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, this which is and that which will be” I think about you often.