- Article by David Neustein
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This article originally appeared in AR 129: The Price of Building.
At interval, we skittered out into the theatre lobby: shocked, confused and titillated. Forming a ragged cluster around our high school teacher, we nervously began to relate the various outrages we had witnessed since the curtain’s rise. The actors wore giant penises! There’s techno music and it’s lit like a disco! IT’S JUST NOT SHAKESPEARE. The year was 1998 and the play was Barrie Kosky’s production of King Lear at the Sydney Opera House. Unknowingly, I had just had my first encounter with architect, set designer and provocateur, Peter Corrigan.
The architecture of Australian practice Edmond and Corrigan is internationally regarded, but outside the practice’s home state of Victoria it is yet to be truly embraced. Frequently derided as postmodern and kitsch, the work of Corrigan and partner Maggie Edmond is insistently, alarmingly cheap in its motifs, details and materials, their specifications seemingly sourced from the local hardware store. While architects have forever been concerned with exoticism, dropping high culture on the masses as if by crop duster, Edmond and Corrigan finds value in the everyday soil. “There is enough resource for us architects in our own urban culture,” Corrigan has said, “to nourish a national expression and put aside ‘the cringe’.” Looking out over a landscape blighted by commercial edifices and suburban ‘featurism’, architect and writer Robin Boyd memorably decried the “Australian Ugliness” of the 1950s. A decade later, Edmond and Corrigan surveyed the same landscape and discovered beauty.
Cities of Hope: Remembered/Rehearsed reconstitutes Conrad Hamann’s 1994 Cities of Hope, an excellent monograph on the work of Edmond and Corrigan that has long been out of print. The updated edition sandwiches the original within thick slices of tasty new material. Picking up the rather hefty softcover edition from Thames & Hudson, it is easy to identify the new sections by their multi-coloured page-ends, which emulate the rainbow tile patterns of Edmond and Corrigan’s RMIT Building 8. The ‘Remembered’ section presents the considerable work amassed by the practice since the time of the first publication. ‘Rehearsed’ provides a long overdue survey of Corrigan’s parallel career as a theatre designer. The bracketing and updating of the original text also takes advantage of the opportunity for enlarged colour photographs, extensive drawings, project details and post-occupancy recollections. The new parts are designed by Melbourne studio Chase and Galley in collaboration with Corrigan, who has left his mark in the commentary and ephemera, which occasionally finds its way onto the page. Fleur Watson edited the combined volume, while Winsome Callister, who contributed to the original book, returned to provide extensive appendices. Interspersed with the new material is a number of essays, reflections and articles, some of which are new and others reproduced.
While Hamann has remained as author, the tone of the text has altered somewhat with the years. Cities of Hope opened with Corrigan’s ascetic introduction, in which he described a “poor architecture” wherein “modest means, pedestrian imagery, and bush details are employed in an attempt to make public statements within tight budgets”. Since then, the practice has completed its most significant projects: RMIT Building 8, the School of Drama at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Academic Centre of Newman College and St Mary’s College at the University of Melbourne. In 2003 Corrigan was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal. Hamann’s new preface is appropriately celebratory: “As with the Griffins, as was said of FLW, this little office set itself the task of challenging an entire continent – and more – through design.”
Many years ago, I transferred my architectural studies from the University of Sydney to RMIT, and signed up for one of Corrigan’s infamous design studios. I enrolled because I had heard that the studio was a rite-of-passage, and that, as Corrigan was on the verge of death, the current studio would be his last (years later, students continue to sign up for the “final Corro studio”). Our first face-to- face encounter did not go well. “I see you went to Sydney University,” Corrigan remarked mockingly. “I regard that august institution right up there with Singapore Polytech!” This harsh welcome was a precursor to weeks of intense work that gradually removed the stylistic blinkers I had acquired – allowing me to see beyond what Hamann calls the “comfort zone” of Australian retro-modernism. “The widest general assumption in Australian architecture is the vileness of the suburbs,” writes Hamann. “[Edmond and Corrigan] are not frightened to draw from this context, to see again that which to others might seem prosaic and ordinary.” Published fifty years after Edmond and Corrigan commenced work this book provides a wonderful opportunity for new pairs of eyes to encounter the vision of Edmond and Corrigan, and for the rest of us to ‘see again’.
Cities of Hope: Remembered/Rehearsed, Conrad Hamann, Thames & Hudson, 2012. Paperback, 704pp, RRP AU$70.
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