remembering Australian modernism

This is looking back to the work of Wolfgang Sievers and more specifically to his photographs of the Adelaide Festival Theatre.  Sievers was a modernist Australian  photographer who specialized in industrial photography and whose design roots lay in the Bauhaus.  Sievers wanted to show that Australia was an advanced industrial nation rather than a producer of raw material and agricultural products;  that industrial technology could be humanized; and that the craft work of photography produces art objects that express the vision of the artist.

Siever's work, along with  other Australian modernists in the visual arts, is usually interpreted in terms of a narrative or discourse which positions  Australia as 'provincial' and whose culture has been derived from elsewhere. 

Historically, Australians, living in a settler colony,  lacked their own cultural traditions,  and so they  created their local or national culture by  appropriating bits or fragments  from the  cultures of the imperial centres. The next step was to find a possibility of originality in Australia within this relationship of dependency between centre and periphery. 


The key text here is Bernard Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific. In this text Smith argued that  European  generated concepts and visual design are not simply imported and assimilated,  but are also transformed by the experience of the regional culture into a hybrid form, which in turn informs the national tradition. The originality lies in the interpretation of the overseas influences and concepts as expressed in the work produced  within Australia.

Unlike the US no  institutional offshoot of the  Bauhaus was established in Australia,  and so  the worn-out  pre-modern design clichés of traditionalist Australia remained locked into place. The modernist style--- that is, geometry of  form, clarity, sharp angles and straight lines--- only emerged in the 1960s. This was  40 years after the Bauhaus was first established in Weimar Germany by Walter Gropius, with its emphasis on founding a  new utopian language of colour and form. 

Hence the sense of Australia as being a provincial and conservative culture hostile to modernist art by those migrant artists fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany in the early 30's and soon after from most of Europe.   Hence their  need to ‘de-provincialise’ Australia  by providing expanded cultural horizons through responding to an emerging industrial Australia by  embracing an international modernist  art (abstraction) with a universal language. 

According to this vision of modernity Australian culture was to be made continuously modern, Australian photography could become part of the art institution,  and Australian visual culture  could be internationalised. This European modernism, with its contempt for the aesthetic forms of the past and its celebration of the machine, envisioned a world cleansed of traditional forms and hierarchies of values. Modernism celebrated the romance of cities, the healthy body and the ideals of abstraction and functionalism in design.

The American formalist  modernism of Clement Greenberg overlaid this 'new way of seeing' with an emphasis on the  concept of medium specificity. In his texts Greenberg argued that there were inherent qualities specific to each different artistic medium, and part of the modernist project involved creating artworks that were more and more 'about' their particular medium. Abstract  modernism in the higher arts (ie., painting and sculpture) represented a withdrawal from reality to pursue their self-reflexive exploration of formal problems, whilst  photography was left to get on with its routine (pre-modernist) task of picturing the world.

John Szarkowski argued the modernist case  for art photography as a specific medium by outlining the specific characteristics of the medium in The Photographer's Eye. These unique characteristics---the thing itself, the detail, the frame,  time, and vantage point---- differentiate the photographic medium  from other visual art-forms such as painting or printmaking. Photography for the American formalists was a specific type of medium with its own seeing and aesthetic. 

This formalism  offered  straight photography a bridge into the art gallery and art market; into a world where style was the means of histyorical evaluation  and  the autonomy of art was translated into a space constituted by discrete objects linearly hung on austere white walls to be  viewed by the gaze of  the disinterested  spectator.  Modernism became the official culture of the art institution--galleries, magazines, market, academia--- and it defined the agenda for institutional collecting, exhibiting, research and scholarship and histories. 

outside the pale of modernist art history

As the 1970s came to a close Minimal and Conceptual Art  had run their course in the art institution. Minimal Art had eschewed the image, the end game of formalist modernism, and   deflected visual  art (ie., painting) from its representational agenda to a new agenda in which the means of representation became the object of representation. 

Conceptual Art had produced socially and politically-orientated works often combining snap-shot like pictures with text to impart messages and to circumvent the  modernist art establishment.  For conceptual artists, the typically black-and-white and often amateurish photograph was a document, which often combined with text and exhibited in open-ended series.

The deskilled, amaterurish photographs of Conceptual Art (eg., Ed Ruscha's book Twentysix Gasoline Stations) were seen to open up the possibility of art offering  sufficient resistance to the equalization of images produced by the culture industry. Conceptual artists rejected and deconstructed the traditional aestheticism of art photography,  and conceptual art demonstrated that there need not even be a palpable visual object for something to be a work of visual art.  Hence the end of art talk.

The new love of photography that emerged in the 1980s after conceptual art involved a photography that took its cues from painting: it was pictorial and in colour, thus abjuring  both the abstract, black-and-white characteristics of the late modernist art photography,  and Conceptual Art's conception of black-and-white and often amateurish photographs as a document.This new colour photography  included William Eggleston, Jan Groover, Joel Meyerowitz, Lucas Samaras, Stephen Shore and Richard Misrach.

It highlighted that modern art  had a stylistic meaning and a temporal meaning, that painting and photography were different ways of making pictures and that contemporary art had stopped being modernist  art.


What emerged from this pictorial turn was an understanding of  a photograph as a picture that was both based on depiction or representation and was an autonomous image. It was a return to, and enfranchisment of,  what lay outside the pale of modernist  history.

Today there is no longer any pale of history. The idea of pure medium has been deconstructed with the hybrid art practices of Jeff Wall and Gerhard Richter that merged the mediums of painting and photography. Everything is now permitted. Artists are free to make art in whatever way they wished, for any purposes they wished, or for no purposes at all. 

Urban Life

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, first published in 1961, Anne Jacobs argued  for the virtues of close-knit, inner-city life, developed organically and built over time in opposition to  the modernist  kind of postwar planning  of the mid-century city planners. These favoured free way building, exemplified  best  by Robert Moses  who wanted to run a 10-lane elevated highway through the middle of Washington Square Park.  

The modernist planners  assumed that they knew best, and saw the wholesale remaking of the urban landscape and along with it the displacement of entire communities as essential in creating the  modernist city of the future. This form of  planning theory blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems.

 Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. Jacobs argued that modernist urban planning rejected the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. Jacobs advocated for “mixed-use” urban development – the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. 

Opposing expressways and supporting neighborhoods were common themes in  Australian cities in the 1960s. In Adelaide this took the form of The Metropolitan Adelaide Transport Study or the MATS Plan which was deeply opposed.  In opposition to the vision  of a cookie-cutter corporate city of glass-box office towers, high-rise apartments, and limited-access highways some of those who opposed the MATS Plan  wanted Adelaide to develop as a more European type city with high density housing and a stronger emphasis on public transport.

Those who advocated the latter  held the view that  a mixed-use, densely populated but still human-scale city  was  best fostered not by suburban plots or indeed by towering residential high-rises but by something in between, by a mix of four- or six- or nine-storey buildings in which people live and work and go back and forth “on different schedules” and for “different purposes.” 

What has happened since the 1970s is that urban neighbourhoods  have gone  from being edgy and gritty working class  to trendy and chic-- the process of middle-class gentrification. What has emerged is what Richard Florida terms the ‘creative class’: the trendy little shops of entrepreneurial designers, nouvelle cuisine restaurants and cappuccino bars, microbreweries, galleries, and the like. 

Smart Growth

Smart growth is the new buzz word for urban development.   This is understood by  the Adelaide City Council as a vibrant, populous and sustainable Capital City built upon Adelaide’s heritage and lifestyle. Behind it sits the UN's Agenda 21 that addresses sustainable development in the world’s cities.

This primarily takes the form of  a residential development that aims to bring more people into the city and to develop under-utilised land into medium to high density residential land uses. It is a reaction to a sprawling,  doughnut city;  and  it is designed to  both reduce car use and to intensively redevelop within established suburbs (greyfield areas) in order to  transform Australia's major cities into more sustainable environments.

The state government's 30 year Plan for Greater Adelaide  includes easing urban congestion, expanding public transport, preserving open space, bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances. It encourages redevelopment around public transportation hubs, valuing communities and neighbourhoods and promoting equitable and affordable housing.  

There is a lot of resistance to smart growth and the new urbanism's high density mixed use living.  This urban design  is seen as anti-suburban and  lefty green. Those opposed say that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights. 

drifting

The Situationist idea of psychogeography is structured around the interplay between the subjective imagination and feelings on the one hand and urban space and built environment on the other. One of psychogeographical  principle means of exploring an urnan space was dérive or drift. To drift was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonates with  the walker's states of mind,  inclinations and desires, and to seek out 

I  often aimlessly stroll through the city to take photos. It is an an escape from daily routine  that  enables  me to look at my urban  environment in a fresh way.

During  my photowalks in the city I notice the empty offices and empty shops and  the newspaper headlines about the empty factories as manufacturing goes offshsore.  I shudder, and drift into a new car park.  This, along with the  freeway and ring road,  is an icon of  the automobile age. Cars are an object of desire; a status symbol for the wealthy, an aspiration for the poor.

In the carpark electronic music rings in my ears and  I hear the sound of heavy metal on a car radio as it races around the car park looking for a parking space. The music expresses  the starkness of the modernist conception of a city---a machine for machines to live in.  I remember Le Corbusier's  1925 "Plan Voisin," that was sponsored by a then famous automobile manufacturer.

Corbusier's  "Plan Voisin,"  was designed for a flat topography devoid of natural features such as hills and rivers. In it, Le Corbusier  proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine, and replace it with his sixty-story cruciform towers from the Contemporary City, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. 

The carparks located on the street grid in Adelaide signify the city as a work and pleasure centre in a commercial culture.  Car parks are devoid of people and social hope. They are sites of surveillance and security guards, with wire netting across the bars of the open  edges to prevent people from jumping off the roof to the street below.  Their eerie silence suggests the clsoing  of the sprawling car-based  city of the late 20th century.

 

We walk amongst the changes to the city and accept them, but if you scratch beneath the surface of urban life you uncover different historical layers, oddities and particularities that are currently being erased by a global culture and market. 

 

Car park dreaming

I dream about carparks after I’ve spent time walking the city with a camera.  The dream is about Adelaide’s renewal coming from  the building  of carparks  in the CBD. If Adelaide in the past was known as the city of churches,  then its  future is to be known as the city of carparks. Such a bleak future. 

In the influential chapter “Walking in the City” of his  The Practice of Everyday Life  Michel de Certeau argues that ”the city” is generated by the strategies of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies who produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole. Certeau uses the vantage from a skyscraper in New York to illustrate the idea of a unified view.

By contrast, the walker at the street level moves in ways that are tactical and never fully determined by the plans of organizing bodies, taking shortcuts in spite of the strategic grid of the streets laid down by the urban planner. As a walker/photographer  wandering  the streets of the city  by letting go of my habitual routes  I just stumble upon car park after carpark.

In drifting, like an unmoored ship caught in the undercurrents of the urban ocean,  I find my wandering in and out of car parks. Old ones, new ones half built ones. The car is everywhere. There is little urban diversity, few pockets of resistance to the car. The decisive transformation of everyday life is the intensification of  our car culture, not its roll back. The spin of  the developer-led urban regeneration says   ”Urban Energy”. 

I often feel that,  in wandering through the urban renewal in the context of the aftermath of the global financial crisis,  I am experiencing the new ruins when peak oil arrives and  the oil start to run out. I start looking for the weeds that might be growing out of the new ruins. 

Renewing urban life

Adelaide is a doughnut city growing ever outwards. The suburban sprawl  primarily runs north and south as the city  is hedged in between the sea and the hills on its west and east sides. A doughnut city is one where growth is faster on the edge of the city than it is in the centre; where businesses and people start to abandon the downtown core; where, just like a doughnut, the centre is empty. The suburbs were designed as a refuge from the bustle of inner city life.

It is a "doughnut" because it has nothing in the centre outside of the 9-5 work hours.   There is not much inner city life in Adelaide.  Often the streets are empty.   What inner city life there is clusters around the shopping precinct in Rundle Mall or the restaurant precincts in Rundle  and Gouger Streets. Elsewhere the streets are  empty. So much for  "the community" appealed to by urban planners and politicians, or the talk of the  transition to a cafe society. 

If I want to include people in the 'urban view' along the lines of the nineteenth  century  photographer's trade views, then I hang out on Hindley Street, early in the morning. This is  when it is not jammed with cars and it is recovering from a night  out in  the alcohol focused late night economy. 

 By definition, liveable cities are where people want to live. The Adelaide City Council is committed to renewing Adelaide by  encouraging people to return to  living in the the  inner city --its goal is a vibrant, populous and sustainable city. Similarly with the state government, as stated in its  30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide.  Urban renewal means city-centre regeneration.

 
The assumption of this new urbanism for both appears to be that if you push enough people into the city, it’ll become  ‘vibrant’ and ‘diverse’.  Another assumption is that those living in the city seek the sight of emptiness as it means order and quiet that is ensured by a strong administration that controls urban life. 

What  the policy of renewing Adelaide needs is actively trying to develop a cultural economy  that helps cultural producers  create  financially sustainable enterprises.They would then stay in the city rather than migrate to Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne. Underpinning this is the idea of a European city, proposed as counter-model to the  modernist idea of the city.

Instead of redevelopment projects that swept away everything in their path, urban motorways, brutalist concrete estates and segregated commercial centres, the European city model is built around density, mixed use areas and protecting the historic built fabric.

Urban views + urban design

We have to turn back to  the nineteenth century photographers working with their large format cameras if we want to reconnect  with the photographic explorations of  the cityscape in  Adelaide. This style of photography--urban large format--- is a niche in the  digital world of today.

The fashion in the mid-nineteenth century  was urban panoramas.   In 1865 Townsend Duryea, using the wet plate process,  took a 360 degrees bird's eye view of the capital city of South Australia from  the scaffolding of the nearly completed Albert Tower of the Adelaide Town hall. It was a snapshot that celebrated  the development of the state's  capital business district and its  public buildings.

I know very little about urban photography in colonial South Australia apart from Duryea's panorama and what has been called trade views of the built environment.  Trade views refers to the commercial trade in views and the work is of a topographic nature. It  documents the city , its developing urban environment and its civic events. The photographs were produced to be sold as documents and records. 

Despite photography being very influential in the visual culture of the late twentieth century 19th century photography  has, until recently, been  mostly been ignored by art historians. So I am researching the books that have published on 19th century photography in settler Australia to become familiar with  the work of the  photographers of this period.

What urban views like this one don't show  is the lack of pedestrian through ways in this East End precinct that would help to revitalize the area. The apartments go up in the CBD without the  urban design that would allow people to wander the alleyways and through ways. Adelaide is not a people-friendly city,  and it needs an urban design that  would make the CBD an inviting and desirable place to live.

In the Globe apartments case the building is situated  are just off Rundle Street,  and the possible throughways to both  North Terrace and  Frome Rd remain  blocked by fences and carparks respectively. Private property stands in the way of the public good.

This is an issue  because the shoebox student apartments bring an enormous amount of street life, cafe/pub life that luxury apartments don't and so invigorate the precincts urban life. The urban design is not aiming at a redevelopment that will  prioritise people, cyclists and public transport, there by making the precinct a more inviting place to live and socialise.

A smart city

Adelaide is not a smart  or hip city, even though it desperately wants to be, given the emergence of the National Broadband Network. The high speed fibre broadband technology  would allow  a rustbelt Adelaide  to reinvent itself as a hub for high tech and advanced manufacturing. The City of Chattanooga in the US  is a model of what could be.

Adelaide  struggles to reshape its old  doughnut structure,  to embrace experimental urban design, become  more people friendly or even make itself more sustainable. But it just doesn’t have the vibe. Melbourne has it. Adelaide has the appearance of a backwater.

Despite its extensive free Wi-Fi coverage and being home to three  public universities,  Adelaide is stuck in a stasis between what it once was—a rustbelt city—  and what it could be—-a smart European style city. There is a  desire to have  cosmopolitan lifestyle with an inner city full of young creative professionals and a white-hot arts/design scene; but it cannot deliver. 

The rustbelt is manifest in  the region of the  northern suburbs of Adelaide.I t is similar to the postwar industrial cities like Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong and Whyalla and the traditional industrial parts of our cities such as within the central and south-western sub-regions of Sydney, the central-west and northern suburbs of Melbourne.  

These areas have the highest concentrations of workers displaced by job loss in australia’s manufacturing industry; and while unemployment rates have improved in these areas over the last decade, higher than average numbers of disability support pension recipients and lower than average employment ratios across all age groups, male and female. Compounding the problem of the old industrial regions has been the migration of welfare dependent families into these regions, chiefly in search of cheap housing. 

Adelaide talks about the revitalization  of the doughnut centre a lot with its extensive thinkers-in-residence programme. These experts come up with lots of wonderful and interesting ideas to make Adelaide a more exciting and vibrant place,  and these place-based ideas are then  widely discussed through various  community forums. Nothing happens. Another thinker-in-residence arrives, studies the place,  comes  up with more great ideas, and then shares them in public forums. Nothing much happens after the talking.

The cycle repeats itself. 

An optimistic interpretation of the stasis is that it feels like two steps forward, one and half steps backwards. All the energy and money appears to go into subsidizing Rundle Mall—the departmental shopping precinct. This emphasis on commercial  boosterism results in a “with us or against us” mentality; a knee jerk defensiveness in which  the critics of boosterism are dismissed as anti-development and the critics outside the state (eg., in Melbourne) are deemed to be misinformed and pushing an agenda.

So we have a rigid defensiveness  of the status quo.  Stasis. 

High Rise

Australian capital cities are going high rise in their CBD areas as part of the shift back to the city from the suburbs. Melbourne, especially the Docklands,  comes to mind. 

In his 1975 novel  High-Rise the English novelist  J. G. Ballard suggested that the nature of the modernist high rise  buildings produces a “new social type.”  

 His argument is that high-rise flats incite maniacal aggression and perversion in ordinary people. High-Rise is about a 40-storey apartment block, and how from innocent beginnings it reduces people to murder, incest and above all a passionate love for chaos.

Geoff  Manaugh, a writer and essayist who runs the BLDG blog,   argues  that Ballard’s sarcastic over reaction to the modernist high rise urban development is iilluminating. He says:

Ballard…realised — and articulated, in brilliant ways — what constructing huge high-rise apartment blocks, surrounded by empty parkland, would actually accomplish: domestic violence, race-based social segregation, and utterly pointless rivalries between makeshift gangs over everyday services.

The idea that buildings are innocent shells that can do no harm to anyone is a total intellectual failure.

While tower blocks in reality were mostly associated with social housing, often provided to the very poor, the High-Rise tower is a private development populated by the wealthy middle class  probably comes closest to matching Ballard’s creation in real life. Despite its glossy, hopeful origins, things go rapidly wrong in the high-rise.

To overcome the isolation and boredom of tower block life, residents form clans amongst their neighbours and the block divides itself into three ‘classes’ – upper, middle and lower – based not on income but on how high or low people are within the building.The groups battle for control of the shared facilities, raiding rival floors.

As facilities like the elevators, rubbish chutes and electricity begin to fail, people leave their jobs, give up washing and shaving and are reduced to eating pet food and then their pets themselves. Indiscriminate, violent sex and eventually murder spread through the building as people indulge their every random instinct. Eventually the residents enter a kind of primal state where they begin to forget their own and each other’s original identities and in some cases even lose the use of language.

What makes High-Rise stand out is the way this outbreak of seemingly regressive energies is directly made possible by the modern developments that were supposed to improve society: utopia flips into dystopia.