Architecture: What Matters?

Symposium, National Gallery of Victoria

‘The country lives like something with a memory, a force of the past prevailing in the landscape still.’1

The Australian landscape is a charged stage. The often fraught and contested narratives of our past have injected our landscape with an intense and uncanny weight. This curious, idiosyncratic and often contradictory understanding of our natural surroundings seeps into the Australian psyche. Sometimes in the most bare and nebulous sense, but often with a profound intensity this relationship with our landscape forms a definite component of the Australian identity. This term, identity, can be a difficult thing to define. The rhetoric surrounding it can often be territorial, jingoistic and defensive. The fraught and un-reconciled history of Australia informs this unease, there is a strange insecurity here; an elemental and primitively emotional trigger surrounding simple language and attempts at honest appraisal of self and belonging.  The definition of self here can be loose. It is ever changing, ever evolving. It is not based upon one ethnicity, religion or class and it does not hold onto, or at least has not yet reconciled, its colonial past. This characteristic of inconsistency in our identity and landscape is also its strength. It allows a kind of openness, an opportunity to reflect uniquely without a dominant subconscious cultural and formal predisposition. We are not weighted and anchored by generations of cultural specificity, and as such can aim to define an identity of our choosing.  It is this diverse and at times contentious history that is present in our hills, coastlines and plains. Our histories, myths and stories matter, and the way these histories and stories are wedded to and lay dormant and buried in our landscape matter a great deal. The architecture that we choose to create in these places has a unique capacity to draw out latent storylines. By working within landscape alongside an understanding of the dense social and cultural associations that reside there, there is the possibility for architecture to be a facilitator to access often unspoken qualities, establishing a necessary dissonance between built work, person and place. Architecture can act as an interface for our own cultural lens, a device to challenge or redefine our understanding of landscape drawing out old myths for re-appraisal or acknowledgement and thus allowing new myths and stories to be sowed back into the soil. In this way our built works have the capacity to not only be sites of rich phenomenological encounter and inhabitation, but to also become totem; contemporary relics that pay respect to our past and present occupation of this land.

“Knowledge rather than fear might be the emotion governing the landscape. This could be a time when people could know themselves in their place rather than in spite of it, a time when [Australian’s] get lost in the profuse negotiations of everyday life, a time at last when difference and change can be welcomed rather than quarantined.”2

1.    Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, 2002. 2.   Ibid.

Media link: Sibling Architecture