Mirka Mora – Order of the day

A few years back I worked at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Each morning I would visit Mirka’s painted glass mural in the sunroom 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.

Nicole Cullinan

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 not awarded an Australia Day Honour or 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 traveled across Victoria. That book planted a tiny seed in her heart, and in 1951 she boarded a 305-airplane 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 supercharged with sexuality. The time she cut little holes in her dress over her nipples and then cheekily regarded the restaurant patrons’ reactions. On another occasion, she went to the bathroom and returned without the slip under her dress, revealing a beautiful 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 is 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. Artists and like-minded creatives surrounded them. “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; Mirka attracted bohemians to this place: like bees to honey. “They were crazy about my Mum,” recalls son Phillipe. Mirka Cafe was a hotbed 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 while Charles Blackman was employed as a cook.

During the 1950s, artists were poor, and paint was expensive. Arthur Boyd would make his 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 as though she was an outsider looking in at a beautiful 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 extramarital affairs on both sides, his began within a year of arriving in Australia and hers sometime later. During this time, Mirka painted the murals at Tolarno Hotel for some years after the separation, one of the most beautiful examples of her art; it incorporates many elements of her colourist and symbolist painting style. Large angels and serpents can be seen and many other symbols: 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 lifetime, 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.” Because the opposite of love is not hating, it is indifference, and I propose Mirka did not feel this towards Georges.

Me in front of a Mirka mural at Tolarno Hotel for the Mirka and Georges book launch.

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 Galleries. In 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, the 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 while 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. This handsome man entranced Mirka. “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 great novel.” When I hear this, I am very moved; she was still connected to her sexuality, just like me; and other women of a certain age. The simplicity of a handshake stirring such strong emotions is a fleeting moment that passes but will always be remembered for how 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 Mirka’s interviews throughout her life, she repeatedly returned to a few keywords. 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; it’s 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 except for 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 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 notable additions, like koalas. It is very inclusive and representative of our nation’s people.

At this time, her peers continued to receive honours. Sidney Nolan was highly decorated with a Knight Bachelor in 1981, followed by The Order of Merit (OM) in 1983. 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, and this is slowly changing. Furthermore, historical quantitative data is indicative of migrants being underrepresented in the allocation of honours. It is disappointing that Mirka was not formally recognised during her lifetime. A woman who made meaningful strides in the development of contemporary art in Australia over 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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Bohemian Modernism -Heidi II McGlashan Everist – Art meets Architecture…

To think of Heide is to conjure thoughts of post-war bohemian modernism. A place where mythology and dreams filled an artistic landscape that would endure for decades. John and Sunday Reed acquired the parcel of land in 1934, they named it ‘Heide’ for Heidelberg. They had a strong vision of an honest life that would be fulfilled by supporting creativity in others. John and Sunday commissioned young architect David McGlashan to build Heide II in 1963. Everything was a joint activity with John and Sunday.

In function they envisioned a gallery to be lived in that would be ageless. In form, they desired romance, ruins, and mystery. It was to be a good match, David, John, and Sunday. David was half of a design duo McGlashan Everist, an architectural practice founded in 1955. It still exists today in Drummond Street Carlton. The two Directors are John Lee and Geoff Saunders, they have been there for more than thirty years, so there remains a connectedness that bridges the bounds of time.

McGlashan says ‘they tried to design houses that were without a time scale’. The practice became known for its modular style of building. They often built on steep, sloping sites. Heide II is unique because it is made from Mount Gambier Limestone. This was chosen because it would weather and age gracefully on the outside and stay light and pristine on the inside. It would provide a neutral background for hanging art.

Heide II was designed to be a physical experience of moving ‘through space’, transitioning from the house site to the art and then extending into the garden. McGlashan used techniques of framing to facilitate this experience. He wanted it to look as if it belonged to the landscape, as elegant as a sculpture, and as timeless as a ruin.

Construction was laboured and took far longer than anticipated. The limestone required precision placement and the build became fraught with tension as the builder nearly went bankrupt. He had underquoted substantially on the cost of labour during construction. Finally, Heide II was complete. There were no skirtings or plaster traditionally associated with houses of that time. Terrazzo tiles, timber, glass, and leather door pulls had been utilised to maintain a connectedness with nature. It was a modern masterpiece that fulfilled the essence of the brief.

John and Sunday moved into Heide II just after Easter in 1967. They had been in the Victorian farmhouse on the property for more than thirty years so this was the beginning of a new era for them at Heide. In 1968  McGlashan Everist won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Award for a residential building of the year. John and Sunday resided at Heide II until the winter of 1980.

Life had become extraordinarily difficult for John and Sunday, around this time and they had suffered some great personal losses, but their love for Heide and one another endured. In 1981 Heide II was to begin a new phase of its life as a public art gallery. John and Sunday spent the last year of their forty-seven years at Heide back in the Victorian farmhouse. They both died there ten days apart in December 1981. They never left Heide, their ashes scattered at the base of a scarred red river gum. In 2015 Heidi II received an Enduring Architecture Award, a triumph for modernist architecture.

A literary reflection of my time working at Heide II – 2015

My office, the former guest bedroom, with desk abutting wall, where the bed once did. Perpetual distraction, a tantalising essence of the incorporeal. Those who had lay in this tiny den, three stone walls, no windows. I place my hand on the limestone, little fragments of dust coming away. I go home, and the day comes with me, smudges of lime, little chalky writings adorn my dress. Another pair of heels ruined on the stone steps. Desire and destruction float in equanimity. The air is cool, and the light is thin, this little box I languor in.
 

Nicole Cullinan

For a taste of Bohemian Modernism -Heidi II McGlashan Everist is open 10 am-5 pm Tuesday to Sunday, 7 Templestowe Road Bulleen 3105 – twenty minutes from Melbourne’s CBD.

For more information on Heide MOMA https://www.heide.com.au

For more information on McGlashan Everist https://www.mearchitects.com

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Searching for your soulmate?

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.

Photo credit Robert Doisneau

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.”

Aristophanes

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.

For more Robert Doisneau photos http://www.artnet.com/artists/robert-doisneau/

For more Greek Mythology https://www.greekmythology.com/Olympians/Zeus/zeus.html

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Architect Enrico Taglietti was a talisman of the time.

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.

Dear Enrico,

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.

Dingle House

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.

Yours fondly,

Nicole

Enrico Taglietti passed away in 2019 at ninety-three years of age.

A Love Letter…Address Unknown

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 the same. I walked down the driveway 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 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 think 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 the sound was our slumber. There are novels and notes and textbooks 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 unvarnished wooden base and a 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 do not need to leave, not even for a glance.

Happy 26th Wedding Anniversary my love.

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 that 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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Le Corbusier…a complex character

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.

Esprit Nouveau Pavillon

Dear Charles,

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.

Purism Le Corbusier

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.

Villa Savoye

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.

Open Hand Sculpture

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.

Yours truly,

Nicole
 
 

To learn more about Le Corbusier

http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr

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My favourite Australian Architect – Harry Norris

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.

Cathedral Arcade Nicholas Building

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 hometown. This collision course that Harry and I share began long ago at the G.J. Coles Building in Bourke Street, which 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 of patterns, each sits inside one another—fans and scallops and triangles, 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 learned 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 included entrance signage in Jazz Moderne typography and stylised floral and zig-zag motif. 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 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, I, 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 a fantastic art installation there, and now Burnham Beeches is 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”. 

Lift Nicholas Building

Now it is time to get back to work. My children have 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 great example of the ‘Commercial Palazzo’ style. The lifts are the longest-running manual lifts in Melbourne. I have visited three times in the past year, 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 are long gone, but I think he would honour your work, it would be a beautiful collision; his name is Robert Simeoni”. 

Harry Norris, my all-time favourite Australian architect.

For further information or to do a Harry Norris walking tour http://melbournewalks.com.au/architecture-jazz-age/

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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Robin Boyd Walsh Street House

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 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.

If you would like to learn more or do a tour here is the link to The Boyd foundation https://robinboyd.org.au

If you would like to learn more about Beaumaris Modern then here is a link https://beaumarismodern.com.au

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