Spatial Explorations as a Response to Landscape
Responses to the conditions of landscape and nature inform rituals and beliefs that have developed as religions, knowledge systems, social structures, art and architecture. The combining of belief systems with precise observations of landform, natural phenomena and planetary motion has been the underlying principal of sacred architecture throughout the millennia.
The most basic form of architecture is the reconfiguration of natural materials into a symbolic arrangement. The stone cairns of New Grange and Stonehenge, the great pyramids of South America and Egypt, the astronomical observatories of Jai Singh, the grand Gothic cathedrals and the mosques of Islam are lasting examples of architecture expressing a comprehension of the earth's dynamic and nature's order.
In the case of nomadic cultures, such as those of the Australian Aborigines, American Indians and Micronesian Islanders, the physical manifestation of knowledge and culture is more ephemeral. The telling and retelling of stories and histories, and the making and retracing of journeys through the land(scape) acts as collective memory. Land, understood as the primary text, is the repository or embodiment of knowledge that can be read directly from it. Maps and markers can prompt recollections of events and conditions while the landscape holds all these understandings simultaneously.
In Australia, the colonial history of landscape painting has been a gradual movement from the European traditions of the 'realistic' depiction of scenery towards the abstract recording of the dynamic of the landscape. This can be seen from John Glover's attempts to capture what to him were alien forms of trees and foliage, to the French Impressionist inspired works of the Heidelberg school, which for the first time caught the harsh glinting silver light of the Australian summer. Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan laid a common ground of myth and symbol, merging the human figure with the land. While the taut abstractions of Fred Williams and John Olsen worked the features of the landscape into a calligraphic language of dots and swirls of paint which sought to map the essence of place.1 In 200 years, white Australian painting has come to a form of representation of the landscape that begins to approach the ancient knowing of the land expressed in traditional Aboriginal art.
Despite an essential dislocation from the landscape and its primary knowledge, Western thought in the twentieth century has developed a fascination with the primal and its symbolic representation. First Sigmund Freud and subsequently Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz proposed that myth articulates the deepest levels of experience and so voiced a universal language. Modernist artists such as Hans Arp, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali sought to connect with the subconscious and the primitive through their work. The sculptures of Henry Moore express archetypal forms of nature as abstracted humanistic poses. The abstract expressionists - Jackson Pollock, William De Koonig and Marc Rothko - searched for an artistic means to match the rhetoric of 'universal', 'primal', 'archaic' and 'symbolic'.2
Modern architecture and engineering have witnessed the development of an 'organic' approach to the conception of structure. Structural lessons derived from a study of the physics of natural forms have been explored in conjunction with the development of new materials. Architects such as Antonio Gaudi, Luigi Nervi, Felix Candela, Frei Otto, Bjorn Utzon, Santiago Calatrava and Renzo Piano have used the principles of dynamic equilibrium, parabolic form and the stressed skin to create lightweight and elegant shelters, buildings, and bridges.
Modern physicists probing the structure and dynamics of the universe, from the smallest fractions of an atom to galaxies and nebulae, are continually defining the 'blueprint' of matter. Within their hypothesis, models and formulae they extend the limits of scientific knowledge and our comprehension of the physical world. As Leonard Shlain illustrates in Art and Physics,3 these revolutions in science have corresponded to parallel movements within the language of the visual artist. Similarly, Fritjof Capra in the Toa of Physics4 and Robert Lawlor in Sacred Geometry5 point out that modern scientific thought has reached a stage where it is echoing the traditional and holistic knowledge systems of the ancient world.
The Masters project sought to bring the elements of the landscape and natural phenomena, physics and engineering, the subconscious recognition of symbolic form and the precepts of ancient knowledge together as a structure for architecture and design. The work in its entirety tends to the abstract. The working method involved a collation of observations and references, speculations, designs and constructions as a deliberate open-ended weaving of ideas. Design knowledge was proposed as information that exists as potential within a field of ideas. In connecting intuitive and intellectual thought, this method of design research created a complex ordering of relationships through the manifestation of projects. The term 'project' is used here in its literal sense as a throwing forth of ideas, the projection of collected knowledge and its synthesis into a singular tangible form.
The project shifted in focus and content: from drawings, paintings and writings to installations, earthworks and sculpture and into the realm of design and architectural space. The work is presented as a series of series; fragments arranged to communicate in a raw state and uncover a multiplicity of correlations and tensions within the juxtaposition of their content. The resultant accretion of ideas created an interactive language that codified form (and space) as a narrative, a storytelling device, which implicitly related to natural phenomena. Propositions became complete within themselves, generating their own logic, conditions, requirements and mode of communication - a world of knowledge in their own right.
In a sense the work became a kind of meditation. Projects were not ends in themselves. Within their specific probing they uncovered deeper levels of understanding, adding to the developing body of knowledge and thus taking a place in an expanding field of potentials. They generated more questions than answers, becoming signposts of continued development, fragments of a larger dreaming.
Extending this design methodology into the realm of architecture and design involved the development of spatial languages in direct relationship to the landscape and its phenomena. This technique and the abstractions it encompassed was termed the 'anterior'. Anterior space was considered as the conceptual space that preceded the generation of physical space. Within the logic of anterior thought, site is perceived as an integration of physical, phenomenological, cultural, historical and symbolic trajectories. The comprehension of these trajectories of site alludes to architectural responses, structural languages and spatial consequences that were specific to place. In the matrix of the anterior, the architectural response becomes a collector/ reflector of the simultaneous phenomena evidenced on a particular point on earth.
The developing language of symbolic interpretation and spatial generation was refined and focused as architectural/sculptural spaces in the final project of the Masters, Observatories for a Featureless Plain. These 'pavilions' were sited in the Australian desert. Vast and exposed, this is a landscape of extremes where elemental forces visibly weather and shape the landscape. The huge sky, endless horizon and sharp piercing light render the desert-scape with a timeless spirituality and silent grandeur.
The five pavilions each address a different aspect of environmental phenomena (sun, wind, rain, earth and stars). The phenomena both inform the symbolic form of each pavilion and are focused on as a spatial event.
The Museum of Shadows intertwined - as a symbolic juxtaposition - a collection of specimens, relics, skeletons and memories of place into the weave of two vast walls. The structure sits within a concave crater dug from the earth. Descending from the rim, the horizon disappears and the curved sides of the dish-like form complete and wall the gallery. Within this space the vertical plateau of the site is rendered as a horizontal assemblage. The walls are aligned to catch and focus the shifting light of the sun, illuminating the collected symbolic forms, raising distant shadows and casting a trace of the past.
The Singing Structures trace the forms found in sand dunes and correlate them with the physics of aeronautics and harmonics. Within the deep subsonic wavelengths of nature lie the shape of the wind and the form of the land. The pavilion is a sculpted orchestra of cast bronze monoliths resting on fine bone-like struts. Each element performs to the whims of the wind in specific ways. Membranes, air columns, strings and bells are integrated within the acoustic forms. Tuned, amplified and arranged, the singing structures compose the void between them and the space vibrates in deep resonance.
The Rain Catcher echoes the forms of seedpods, droplets, clouds, beached vessels and water tanks. Stranded in the centre of a dry lake, sitting in anticipation of life-giving rain, the pavilion is a monument to hope and futility in a drought-ridden land; a marker of the rural tragedy. On approaching the structure, the path of the bridge rises to give the viewer a vantage point above pavilion and site. From here the earth ripples outward from the raindrop-form's projected trajectory. Crossing the bridge to the apex of the vessel's focus, the scale shifts once again and the viewer is confronted with the focal point of the form's dynamic. Descending into the dry lake, the enormity of the structure becomes apparent. The huge weight of the boat-like structure curves overhead, held in a seemingly fragile stasis by the forest of fine support struts.
The Tecton is a buried insertion; a sunken monolithic vessel partially exposed. Sited at an abandoned mine it plays on the geometry of geological substrata. The form is created from the extraction and re-assemblage of layers of the earth's crust. In realigning the scars of the industrial process, the mark of modern civilisation, the Tecton acts as a reclamation of lost spirituality from the devastation site. The stone stairway sharpens to an accentuated point, extending to the heavens and descending towards the earth's core. At the bottom step, the viewer is bathed in a wall of light, penetrating from an aperture at the surface. The shaft of light illuminates the richness of the hidden depths forming a gateway to the underworld. Ascending from this cavern the stairs converge towards the infinite and disappear in the bright expanse of the sky.
The Star Garden reflects the imagery of a landed satellite. Within a white impact crater, the split nucleus of the central space aligns itself to the south celestial pole. On entering this black curved amphitheatre, the sky would appear to dome and become deep with stars. A tapering silver bridge traverses the space and beneath you a pool of water mirrors the galaxy. Sliding into this reflection and facing the pole one would feel the sensation of the earth turning whilst adrift in a map of the universe.
Focusing on elemental forces the observatories are pure essences. Small sublime moments where art and nature, landscape and space can harmonise in a comprehension of the earth's dynamism. Ultimately the pavilions are designed to engender wonder, solitude, serenity and contemplation. They represent an attempt to connect twentieth century Western culture, art and architecture with a primal knowing, a deeper archetypal understanding of the magic of the planet.
While the observatories are examples of realised theory, they are not fully completed designs. Rather they are expressions of a developed series of ideas. They exist as finely crafted, sculptural models, objects for contemplation and development which represent rigorous methodology and intent. The models are in this sense symbolic points within the field of ideas, marking a specific knowing of, and response to, the Australian landscape.
The research contained within the project was primarily an exploration of design knowledge. The development of an intellectual and intuitive methodology to research that is expressed through the production of finished artworks and designs. The object of design became an uncovering of correlations previously unsighted. The knowledge uncovered by this process continually forging new platforms to base further work upon.
From explorations of the subconscious and the symbolic, and their connection with landscape and nature, the project developed its own logic and knowledge systems. In striking a balance between subconscious archetypes and elemental forces a deeper dimension of the language of form was exposed and manipulated. The thought processes employed in the final works continually oscillated between considerations of symbol, form, space, landscape and phenomena.
The search for the primal has, paradoxically, led to the scientific. The research is now on the brink of an intellectual voyage engaging with the physics of the planet. By matching intuitive knowing with analytical thinking, and viewing physics as the endeavour of seeing the essential nature of things, a new phase of investigation has been set in motion. The horizons of this philosophy are yet to be charted.
2: David Anfam, Abstract Expressionism, London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
3: Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics, New York: William Morrow, 1991.
4: Fritjof Capra, The Toa of Physics, London: Flamingo, 1992.
5: Robert Lawlor, Sacred Geometry, London: Thames and Hudson, 1982.
RMIT University School of Architecture and Design 1999