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.
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.
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.”
Success, where do you hide? You are nascent in love and hate. Your scorn makes me smile like a snap dragon. Praise be evil as you bathe in her populist fragrance. Disdain glorious like a rainbow on a summer’s day. Your affection like a bee-sting on my soul. Desire like a daisy on a grave. Discord dancing upon hearts and heads. I want you to love me and hate me in equal measure. For now I have tasted you, I want more.
By Nicole Cullinan
I feel this poem needs an explanation…It is about how I regard success. It is written in a metaphysical format. This is writing I enjoy but am often very fearful of sharing because it is a little abstract. Metaphysical poetry is about conceits. This is often imaginative and explores specific parts of an experience.
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? There is no doubt he was an ideologist, but his focus remained 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.
It has been a season of loss, this winter just gone. Too many have departed. They never die for me, they leave a little imprint on my heart. But my heart is heavy, it beckons the climes of spring and a changing of seasons. I’m a little tired. Three people departed, all within quick succession. And why is it that even when we know it’s coming; and we know it’s inevitable we are still a little shocked. Perhaps it is because we are inherently hopeful, and it is that hope that leads us to acceptance.
I’m from a small family. I grew up with one sister, two parents, four grandparents, three great grandparents, one uncle, one aunt and three cousins. We are a very tight knit bunch. Sixteen in total, now there are eight. Does that mean I only have half of what I had before, half of the laughter, half of the love, half of the heroes?
Four weeks ago my Uncle left us. Most people will remember him for his stellar career but that is not how I will remember him. I remember his laugh and his love for my aunt. Theirs was one of life’s great love affairs, tumultuous, passionate and enduring. I told him that was how I would remember him. I had a chance to say goodbye, a couple of weeks before. I haven’t had that before, but it still felt hollow. He was worried that day, I tried to reassure him. As I left he still had strength for a genuine squeeze and I whispered something in his ear from my childhood, it was a very happy thought and we tipped in slightly closer and laughed. That was the last time I saw him. It was not the time for me any longer. It was the time for his wife and children; and my Dad; his only brother.
Waiting. This was the easy bit and the hard bit. It was easy for me because I feel most relaxed when I am being useful towards others. My sister came to stay a few times over those weeks and it was lovely to have her sleeping in my house, just like when we were kids, under the same roof. It was easy because there was lots of cooking and cleaning and listening and sharing. My parents ate many meals at my house over this time and I enjoyed being helpful. It was easy because I got to place my emotions in a little compartment for a while; as others needed me. But sometimes when you are this person you are misunderstood because you don’t cry readily.
Each of us coping with a departure differently. I notice that some become acutely aware of their own morbidity when they are grieving others. And some are sorry for all that the departed will miss out on, others are sorry for themselves and what they will miss out on. And some feel a combination of all of these emotions, each of them relevant. For there are no rules for grieving. And then finally there is silence. All the crying and laughing and stories and sadness passes. My Dad seems to be doing okay, my sister has returned home. It’s been four weeks. It is my time again.
I go to bed feeling weary. My mind is busy and I want it to be quiet. I lie on my back and I listen to the wind. It is very loud tonight. The window is open an inch and the wind lifts the blind and then taps it back on the ledge. A rhythmic click every few seconds as it is blustering outside, just like my thoughts, busily clacking around my head. I think of my sister, how I could hear her crying in the night when she stayed. Sometimes I wish I could express my own emotions with such freedom. And then the wind begins to subside, it becomes gentler, and the tapping on the window ledge softens. I think of my Uncle. The wind, it is his breath, it is becoming lighter and the gaps longer. The breath, it is barely audible, there is no clacking, it has subsided. I look at my love, he is fast asleep, next to me. I hear my breath, it is ragged. And then two little tears escape the corners of my eyes and then a very long sigh absconds. It is hard to swallow, I am sighing, and breathing and snivelling and trying to be quiet. My pillowcase is soaking. I get up and put fresh linen on my pillow and turn my pillow over. I slip into a sanguine sleep.
So, we each grieve differently, giving tribute in our own way. I think of my family living this shared experience. My sister, three cousins and I have added to the original sixteen…four spouses, twelve children. We have another sixteen. The cycle of life and loss continues. Double the laughter, double the love and double the heroes.
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
I can’t make up my mind if it would be a curse or a compliment to be born into an artistic succession. That is how it was for Robin Boyd, born in 1919 into a family that already had a reputation for painting, sculpture, pottery and ceramics, and his generation would further enhance the family’s creative clout. Robin chose architecture, a career that would see him heavily awarded and recognised for both his residential architecture and his social commentary on Australian identity.
Recently I went to visit the Boyd family home in South Yarra. A house he designed in 1957 and moved into the following year with his wife and children. The house is designed in a modernist style with functionalism at its heart. He wanted a home to share with his wife that had separate quarters for his children.
He designed two pavilions built around a central courtyard. One finds the eye drawn to the central courtyard constantly as though it is difficult to ignore. This outdoor space unifies the home. The side boundaries have glazed glass walls that connect the two pavilions. They are very eye catching and the stippled glass provides a sense of whimsy as one looks through to the sky beyond. A gentle curved covered way following the glass overhead, almost playful. One could imagine a scene from Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree happening in situ. Time could be suspended in this little private oasis of a courtyard. It feels quite secluded from the outside world. But Robin Boyd Walsh Street house is not a place for hiding and I find myself thinking about privacy a lot during my visit. Boyd ensured the outside world remained at large although those that were inhabitants here would have had very visible lives.
There is a large amount of transparent glass throughout. As one enters into the first floor from the street there is a bathroom on the left and then you are straight into a mezzanine space that was used as both the main bedroom and entertaining area. Rumour has it many cocktail parties took place here and I could easily imagine this would be a cool space for a sixties soiree. I am perplexed as to how this doubled as a bedroom. It is a very open space visible from the second pavilion, the ground floor and the entrance hall. But nevertheless, it is an insanely wonderful example of Robin’s modernist point of view.
Robin was part of an elite club and knew everyone who was anyone. He is spoken of as being sociable, kind, charismatic and in possession of unfailing good manners. There are reports he never lost his sense of modesty. He wrote nine books and completed more than 200 homes. He worked in the post war boomtime era when we were passing through a period of great change in Australian society.
Robin held polemic opinions about Australian suburbia and chastised the locals for their ‘mindless emulation’ of America, coining the term “Austerica”. The belief that everything desirable, luxurious and enviable of the twentieth century is American. A number of his books contain derisive comments on society and the way in which people lived. A social commentator for his time and of his time. Much of his literature utilises the hermeneutics of suspicion to convey an unsophisticated people. He describes a mishmash of architectural styles co existing in any given suburb. He also coined the term ‘featurism’ a practise he sights as the thoughtless ornamentation of buildings. A derogatory word used to malign his peers Art Deco aesthetic, something he considered to be very outdated and an unimaginative import from America. These ideas may be somewhat truthful but as we regard the world through a different lens today we can truly appreciate that this was not the whole story. With suburbs like Beaumaris providing a wonderful example of modernist style on mass and Art Deco Buildings finding a new appreciation for their distinct decoration.
The Robin Boyd Walsh Street house received the Australian Institute of Architects 25 year architecture award in both the Victorian and National chapters during 2006. It has featured in many international publications beginning with Japan International design in 1962. It is an excellent example of modernist architecture and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Should you ever have a chance to see the Featherston House in Ivanhoe it is unmissable. It was designed for Grant and Mary Featherston in 1968. A home built around a garden. It won the RAIA Gold Medal in 1969. This home is still inhabited by Mary, but she occasionally allows for visitors.
Sadly, Robin Boyd died in 1971 at fifty-two years of age, this cut short what had been a very interesting and prolific career. Robin Boyd was a great Australian architect. The Boyd family synonymous with painting, sculpture, pottery, ceramics, music, literature, poetry and architecture.
It has been said that when a bottle of champagne is sabred correctly it sounds like the sigh of a content woman. Let me show you how to sabre a bottle of champagne. It begins with peeling off the layer of gold foil, slowly and purposefully; for it is delicate. Then releasing the cage around the cork so that the pressure can escape. Carefully untwisting the wire to prevent the cork releasing ahead of time. Running my fingers along the seam on the neck of the bottle. Being confident; placing the sabre on the seam, careful to apply the right amount of pressure and then swiftly sliding along the neck. I don’t want the cork to be unyielding. An inexorable sigh escaping with a sudden burst of satisfaction. The trick is not to be strong and hard but sure and intentional. Go all the way, it is a clean movement.
The history of sabrage is surrounded by myth and mystery. It goes back to the French Revolution of 1789 when Napoleon Bonaparte would sabre champagne using his sword. It is said that he and his soldiers; Hussars, would drink it in both defeat and exaltation. They were able to sabre a bottle with their brass hilted swords whilst on horseback.
Legend has it that they would visit Veuve Clicquot in Reims and be entertained by the widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, dining at her vineyard. Madame Clicquot took over the champagne business after her husband died in 1805, when she was twenty-seven years old. The bottle is still representative of her today, veuve being the French word for widow. She was a woman of contradictions, described as a formidable business woman and an entertainer of great frivolity. Historians still claim that because of her “no business in the world has been as much influenced by the female sex as that of champagne”. As the soldiers would depart her vineyard she would gift them a bottle of champagne that they would sabre as they rode off to their next battle.
Champagne sabrage has been kept alive in modernity by companies such as Mumm who have made it a feature of their brand to keep this practise relevant. I was trained by a Mumm representative some years ago now. It is possible for inexperienced hands to cause injury to themselves and others but as you can see when done well it is a seamless performance and makes a welcome addition to any dinner party.