I’ve begun a small publishing concern for handsome brochure length works that exist at the crossroads where architecture and music meet. It’s a life affirming activity. Concentrating on buildings, particularly mid to late 20th century civic buildings, that are remaining useful through the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those who use them reinvigorating their purpose without the need for elaborate architectural interventions. And musicians, particularly those of the punk rock era, whose music has become so beloved it’s broken away from them, and created its own life, become a part of the life force of the city … the Sydney Opera House as an iconic rock venue … the Australian music vault at Arts Centre in Melbourne … INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” defining an ad showing a surprising and quirky side to the city of Adelaide’s character …
With magazines ceasing publication … book publishers narrowing their genres to best serve the 1,000 or so customers they can meaningfully reach … my books will be sold online, alongside music merchandise. Each title will be a collaboration between a musician + an artist / designer + a writer.
WE KILL THE FLAME
It’s a positive venture. Honouring both architecture and music. But around me all I perceive is loss.
There are equivalences to be found between music and architecture. They run on parallel tracks but are asynchronous, given that architecture moves more slowly.
Leonard Cohen released the album You Want it Darker 19 days before his death in 2016 on the day before the election of President Donald Trump. The year had begun with the loss of David Bowie, in January, the day after the release of his album Black Star. And so many others were lost in between. Their music will always be illuminating but without them as living presences it seems harder to lift ourselves above the meanness and smallness of our time.
On Australia Day in 2018, the commemoration of a troubled and dark aspect of the nation’s history, the lights on the sign in an upper window of the brutalist Sirius public housing building in the Rocks were turned off as the last tenant was moved out. The sign was an acronym for the campaign. Save Our Sirius. S.O.S. More than a building it was an ideal of an equitable, community minded civic society. Its demise seemed like a Greek tragedy. The last tenant was blind, unable to see the ‘million dollar view’ of the Sydney Opera House that developers hunger for.
MORE WITH LESS
David Simon’s television series The Wire imagined the citizens of the city of Baltimore as hapless cogs within the machinery of the city’s services. He cast the city’s institutions as Greek gods sitting up on high zapping the citizens with thunderbolts … Law Enforcement … Industry … City Hall … the Education Department. The final series, following the city’s main newspaper, parallels the Greek myth aspect of the Sirius. No one was watching. The newspaper was sold to out-of-town owners who introduced layoffs and buyouts leaving no-one to report on the life of the city while one journalist invented the gritty Dickensian details that bring stories to life. Some of the remaining journalists stood watching from a window a fire burning in a building faraway. No-one rushed to cover the story.
The death of the Australian’s music critic Iain Shedden in 2017, sad because of his youth and the void he’ll leave in his family, was sad too for the void it’s left in the paper’s Saturday supplement. Reviews still run but no-one talks to musicians and writes about the music world beyond interviews with visiting megastars. Fairfax had already laid off its critics and before that the sub-editors. The resulting errors are dispiriting … the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre called the Joan Sullivan Theatre … errors of judgement and fact as aggregated stories ripple across the internet … fast autocorrect errors: “is so love to see”, dropped apostrophes, “so” instead of “to”, aren’t overturned.
“THINGS FALL APART; THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD” from a Yeats Poem
It’s perhaps no wonder there’s a current fetish for the detailed reporting and editorial polish of magazine writing from the 1970s. Joan Didion’s essays collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem are being celebrated all over again. She observed the sinister undertow in the euphoria of the 1960s. The restlessness and lack of focus: “…children who were never taught and would now never learn the games that had held the society together.”
“I had not been able to work in some months,” she says in the book’s introduction, “had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.”
While a critic for the Village Voice in 2004 Michael Sorkin wrote a rough equivalent of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay from an architectural perspective, focusing on the collective Ant Farm and their art installations.
“It wasn’t just the music that was inspirational; the rock group also emerged as a model of practice for Ant Farm and others, reflected both in the organisational routines (sleep late, drop acid, brainstorm, and riff), the spirit, the road trips, and the nomenclature; calling their collaboration “Ant Farm” is to immediately signal that the work is to be of a different order to that produced under the gray-flannel imprimatur of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (whose nerdy button-downomie ….)”
“Ant Farm would have none of this, and besieged the dopiness of the profession with their lusty nonconformity. One must remember that ‘freak’ carried a positive valence in those days. Freaks opposed the regimentation of the suburban orders of consumption and celebrated the possibility of the self-invented singularity. Their defence of the creativity of difference continues to be a bracing model of architecture and its politics. In todays climate — in which the social irrelevance of architects is exacerbated by a retreat into formalism, arcane theorising, and supine co-optation — the idea of a practice motivated simultaneously by private enthusiasm and public critique is tonic.”
NO CENTRE TO HOLD
Consider today the difficulties we ordinary citizens face in comprehending how the built city is changing around us in Sydney. Industry specific online architecture publications cover new buildings and competitions. Renderings of glassy commercial skyscrapers drawn as thoroughly transparent and seeming to float may be captioned with an asterisk and the caveat *conditions apply. It’s an ‘artist’s impression’. Even proposed public buildings may be artist’s impressions with caveats. To illustrate the possibility of a relocated Powerhouse Museum in Parramatta an artists impression of a building not unlike the Diller, Scofidio & Renfro Broad Museum in Los Angeles was generated. But who created the impression?
In 2016 the New South Wales State Government Architect’s Office dematerialised. After 200 years in operation it would no longer design and construct civic buildings. It would now guide and advise. On January 12, 2018 the Sydney Morning Herald posted a story quoting the NSW Government Architect calling for “more design competitions and review panels of designers and architects … to lift the standards of new buildings and the way they interact with public space.”
And architecture critics have dematerialised, becoming a form of software known as an ‘article parser’. The byline for the story is “License” and clicks through to a Copyright Agency Rights Portal. “If you know there should be an article here, help improve the article parser by reporting this page. Thanks!”
THE LIFE SQUEEZED OUT OF MUSIC AND BOOKS, BECOMING AN ANALOGY FOR BROKERS SELLING CONDOMINIUMS
The paradox of the broadcasters SBS and the ABC getting rid of the physical items in their music libraries, including the librarians, as vinyl is becoming the preferred and valued platform for music again has been discussed by Clint Caward in the Neighbourhood Paper in Sydney.
He’d been a music librarian at SBS:
“Broadcasters came to pick our brains, get recommendations, create thematic playlists, source royalty free production music, sound effects or archival materials, or just wander the shelves, making serendipitous discoveries of musical oddities they could share with their audience. The library sparked program ideas. Around 2010, drastic changes at SBS Radio meant no more ‘music rich’ programs. We were now an ‘information network’. Only five percent of a one hour program could be music, three minutes, one song, and that one song had to relate to the program’s content. Broadcasters weren’t happy and neither were their audiences.”
“SBS bought an industrial Rip Station to ingest our 65,000 CDs. It was impossible not to feel we were digging our own graves. Once every audio file was in the new Media Asset Management system and accessible from every desktop, who would need the arcane music knowledge and customer service of Librarians.
Public Libraries aren’t safe either. In 2017 the Citizens Defending Libraries blog pointed out the paradox of public libraries being sold off to developers to build condominiums on the site whose selling point is a private library within. And a library in new buildings may add an extra layer of luxury the New York Times reported in 2012:
“As part of a two-year sponsorship, Lincoln Centre provided an extensive list of performing arts-themed books for the Avery condominium, its neighbour on Riverside Boulevard. Titles like “101 Stories of the Great Ballets,” The Columbia Encyclopaedia of Modern Drama, “Celluloid Power” and three dozen others were duly purchased, said a spokeswoman for Extell, the condominium’s developer. A spokeswoman for Lincoln Centre declined to discuss its arrangement with Extell.”
JOURNALISM REDUCED TO A METAPHOR
The Chicago Times architecture Critic Blair Kamin lamented newspapers moving out of their buildings and places in the city.
“Last year, that same 14-story [Des Moines Register & Tribune] office building became R & T Lofts, a stack of 164 rental apartments whose assorted floor plans have cutesy, journalism-themed names like ‘Scoop’ and ‘Byline’.
“… more news organisations are severing their ties with buildings that endowed them with a civic identity on a par with banks, city halls and courthouses.”
“… Architectural visibility matters, even if its absence won’t stop journalists from getting to the bottom of things.”