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Memory of the Modern: experience, heritage and the impacts of growing up modern

9 December 2021, 3:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Professor Roger Benjamin, University of Sydney
Virginia Rigney, Canberra Museum and Art Gallery

Session Moderators

Virginia Rigney, Canberra Museum and Art Gallery

Session Speakers

David Brand, University of Melbourne, Faculty of Architecture Planning and Building
Associate Professor Antony Moulis, The University of Queensland, School of Architecture
Professor Roger Benjamin, University of Sydney, Department of Art History

An ambition for architecture, design and art in public places in Australasia post WW2 was to create a new way of living. In the planned city of Canberra, family life revolved around American labour-saving appliances, European design, the motor-car, and the hygenics of modern architecture, all couched in democratic intent. How did these experiences impact the generation which grew up in such conditions? The focus is on the planned city of Canberra, which achieved its urban form in the years 1950-1975. Papers are solicited dealing with first-hand recall, and critical design studies. The former will contribute to the emerging field of architecture’s oral history. For Canberrans, growing up in a newly-established city engendered different feelings about place than those felt by residents of older 19th-century Australasian cities. What is the role of memory in bringing together experiences of the planned city? How does the historian bring criticality to the slippery territory of personal memory? The second stream considers modernist design in the context of heritage studies. Issues might include the fad for “mid-century modern” design and furniture; the dialogic relationship between immigrant and locally-born architects; or the impact of dual occupancy redevelopment in changing the face of Australasian suburbs.

PAPER #1
Around the Block on Grey Street Deakin

PRESENTER
David Brand, University of Melbourne, Faculty of Architecture Planning and Building

Growing up in Canberra of the 1950s and ’60s, a society imbued with the broader ideals of the Modernist Idea, was an immersive formative experience. This paper reports on a recent exercise in oral history aimed at unlocking memories of life in the newly-founded suburb of Deakin between 1956 and 1968. The oral account took the form of the commentary recorded on a walking tour around three suburban blocks - some 70 houses - surrounding the author’s Grey Street childhood home. Street by street, childhood memories were mustered of each house and its occupants. The result is a structured profile – almost a census survey – drawn from memory, of life as lived. This memory-work was deliberately kept free of subsequent fact-checking. It is, nonetheless, first-hand and authentic. A portrait of Canberra emerges from this corner of Deakin: at once the epitome of Modern suburban Australia – forward-looking, full of egalitarian spirit and modern thinking. And, also, as the exceptional, in its demographic of diplomats, politicians, public servants and academics, all from somewhere else. The design of the many modernist houses and gardens of Deakin express the ideals of Modern living in the Post-War age of optimism in the face of austerity.

PAPER #2
Living modern, writing modern: From Canberra to Le Corbusier, at a distance

PRESENTER
Associate Professor Antony Moulis, The University of Queensland, School of Architecture

The Swiss-French modernist Le Corbusier, one of the most significant architects of the 20th century, considered modernism a global project covering art, architecture and urbanism. Central to this project were a set of formal and aesthetic techniques made available for use in regional circumstances and spread to the distant periphery. He travelled extensively over his career facilitating this agenda but never visited Australia or New Zealand. Le Corbusier's absence from those nations did not diminish his presence there – his work and ideas would ‘travel’ without him – but how was it that Le Corbusier generated influence at locations on the global periphery were he never actually set foot? Writing directly to this question for my book, Le Corbusier in the Antipodes (2021) provided an incidental opportunity to understand the influence of my own lived experience in 1960s and ‘70s Canberra, and how, through the spaces of Australia’s own modern city, I had already encountered Le Corbusier and the techniques of his agenda. Through a personal account of life in the ‘bush capital’ the paper offers observations on how the modern city formed its subjects and constructed an existence of ‘the periphery’.

PAPER #3
Living in Geometry

PRESENTER
Prof Roger Benjamin, University of Sydney, Department of Art History

The first seventeen years of the author’s life were spent living in the Australian House of the Year for 1957. Heritage listed in 2003, the house exemplifies experimental international modernism. Alex Jelinek’s design for the ‘Round House’ is a complex polyhedron based on a Pythagorean spiral, with Wrightian blade-walls extending into a landscape of old-growth eucalypts. This paper attempts two tasks: the first seeks to define the experience of growing up in a home whose every room was irregular in shape. Drawing on writers like Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty, I examine sensations of compression and openness, light and shadow, touch and smell in the recollection of a childhood spent exploring cyclic quadrilateral bedrooms, irregular pentagonal subfloors, or a dining-room with curved walls and curved table . . . The second task addresses the phenomenology of Canberra’s streets. The capital’s urban plan, derived from Burley Griffin’s 1918 design, features circuits and concentric octagons connected by Haussman-scaled avenues. Derided as confusing by visitors, for the local-born accustomed to the kinetic sensations of driving, there is a poetry in the plenitude of choice and movement. In the artificiality of an Anglo-centric public service town, lived geometry becomes a spice of life.

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Biographies

Professor Roger Benjamin, University of Sydney, Department of Art History

Roger Benjamin is an art historian and curator born and raised in Canberra, and trained in Melbourne and Philadelphia. He has written widely on Henri Matisse, French Orientalist painting, and contemporary Aboriginal art. Supported by grants from the ARC, Benjamin’s publications include Kandinsky and Klee in Tunisia (U of California Press, 2015) and the exhibition Biskra: sortilèges d’une oasis (Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2016). He is preparing a book for publication with Halstead Press entitled Growing up Modern: Alex Jelinek and Canberra's 'Round House'.


Virginia Rigney, Canberra Museum and Art Gallery

Virginia Rigney is a curator and writer who has developed exhibitions, digital platforms, short films and public programs within museums. She trained at ANU and the University of Sydney, beginning her career at the Powerhouse Museum. As Senior Curator at Gold Coast City Gallery 2003-2017 she focussed on public art projects and Indigenous art. Former Chair of the art+place fund for Arts Queensland, in 2016 she was the recipient of a Smithsonian Fellowship to research parallels in urbanism between the Gold Coast and the USA. Virginia has been Senior Curator, Visual Art at Canberra Museum and Gallery since 2020.


David Brand, University of Melbourne, Faculty of Architecture Planning and Building

David Brand is an architect, educator and sometime politician based in St Kilda, Victoria. He teaches architectural history and design regularly at the University of Melbourne. He shares a loose affiliation with his partner’s firm OOF! Architecture. For many years he served as a Councillor on the City of Port Phillip, and consulted on planning, heritage and urban design issues in between. David was born in Canberra in 1954, and grew up in the suburb of Deakin, where his parents lived for almost 70 years.


Associate Professor Antony Moulis, The University of Queensland, School of Architecture

Antony Moulis is Associate Professor, UQ School of Architecture, where he teaches and researches across a range of practices including art, design, architecture and urbanism. He is co-editor of the 4-volume Le Corbusier: Critical Concepts in Architecture (2018) and author of Le Corbusier in the Antipodes: Art, Architecture and Urbanism (2021), which examines the reception and legacy of the architect in Australia and New Zealand. He creatively explored the imported language of European ideas in Canberra’s modern city plan for the exhibition "Imprint: Growing Up Planned" (2013), Canberra Contemporary Art Space as part of 'Canberra 100' (curated by Virginia Rigney).