Glenn Walls

IMITATING MELBOURNE ARCHITECTURE by Simon Gregg

RE:BUILT ENVIRONMENT:

IMITATING MELBOURNE ARCHITECTURE

8 July to 24 September 2006

DIRECTOR’S FOREWORD

Jo-Anne Cooper

RE:Built Environment is the fourth exhibition since the launch of City Museum at Old Treasury in September 2005. It continues our ongoing mission to define what makes Melbourne special, by providing intimate insights into aspects of the city’s social fabric and built environment.

RE:Built Environment is a joint effort between City Museum’s curator Simon Gregg, architectural historian Peter Andrew Barrett and contemporary artist Glenn Walls. The exhibition addresses and appraises the tradition within Melbourne architecture for eclecticism and openness, which the arrival of Post-Modernism in the 1970s served only to intensify. Today Melbourne brims with buildings that quote freely from history, incorporate a blend of styles, and that embrace homage, pastiche and irony.

For many, homesickness was a considerable factor in gold-rush era Melbourne, and much of the colonial built environment was designed to replicate the grand cities of Europe. A fine example of this is the Old Treasury building itself, which is today home to City Museum. RE:Built Environment surveys tendencies to emulate in Melbourne architecture, right up to the present day with the popularity of Post-Modernism making its indelible mark.

We are indebted to our sponsors of this exhibition – Helen McLean of Limelight Design Studio, Toth Bienk & Associates printers, The Age, Marianna Berek-Lewis of 5678 Design, and the wonderful team from Aalto Colour.

RE: GLENN WALLS

By Simon Gregg, Curator, City Museum, Melbourne

As you approach the work Men (2005) by Melbourne artist Glenn Walls, you are at first struck by the clean, immaculate surfaces of this large-scale model of Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s celebrated Modernist edifice the Villa Savoy. The edges are concise, the exterior is rendered in glowing pristine white, and the shapes and proportions are indelibly, fluently modernist – cold elegance made concrete and impenetrable.

Then, as you get nearer, you become aware of images moving through the windows. Figures, portrayed as occupying the spaces within the edifice, represented through TV monitors mounted behind the windows, are reacting adversely to or in spite of this pristine environment. They can be observed tearing down the walls, smashing things, acting irrationally and in stark contrast to the ethos of stark geometric rigidity which houses their movements.

So it is that with Men, we are presented with a model manifestation of the rupture between the architecture of International Style, and the personal lives of its inhabitants. The work is a dextrous metaphor for the contradiction between the pure architectural concept of clean, sophisticated living – home to an exaggerated and idealistic vision of life as architects would like us to live it – and actual human behaviour as an irreverent and unpredictable proposition.

Homage, pastiche and irony are driving factors in much Melbourne architecture, as we have seen. It may be considered in large part to be a compliment, or an acknowledgement of the influence of another architect, such as in the case of Alan Powell’s RMIT Building 94, which like Walls’ work Men, pays homage to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy, of 1928-31.

The employment of homage and irony is central to the work of Glenn Walls. A core element of Walls’ practice is concerned with articulating ideas by replicating scale models of some of the best known examples of Modernist architecture. This is done as both a compliment to the timelessness of the original building, but also as a means of communicating contemporary ideas about the elevated role of the architect in society.

The models are simple and benign in their creation. They are elaborately crafted and give little indication as to their manufacture. They bear a keen resemblance to their source building, but allow one to circle around it and take in the whole form as a sculptural object.

Many of the models include figures, and bear captions imprinted on the outward face of the base. As such, the models engage a duplicitous role as both an accurate descriptive agent, and as host to a fictitious narrative. This dual role, as objective document and as speculative diorama, enables Walls to blur the line between real and fake. On the surface it appears the building is real and the narrative is fake – but is this really the case?

Wall’s background as an architectural student at RMIT provides a decisive influence on the conceptual ideas driving his work. He understands the motivation which underpins many of the buildings he has recreated in his work. His key point of interest is the idealistic, utopian vision of the Modernist architect, and how that idea, once manifested in concrete form, is subject to the corruptive and disruptive forces of everyday life.

The prime focus or target of Walls’ scrutiny is International Style, an architectural movement that developed out of the Bauhaus in Germany under the direction of Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The purpose of International Style was to create buildings and especially homes which bespoke nothing of the lives of those who resided in them. Stripped of any sentimentality and anything deemed old fashioned, the aim of International Style architects was to create a structure which would achieve the status of ‘High Art’.

The International Style house was no longer a place to be lived in, but a place where life was staged. Walls’ work shows that no matter how attempts are made to suppress, hide or remove the functions of domestic life from the built environment, the insatiable human need to mark out and clearly define our individual perimeters of our public/private, masculine/feminine self, is a universal theme[1]. Walls employs traditional domestic motifs such as decorative print patterns, wallpapers, curtains and veneers to counter the homogenisation of International Style, which sought to erase all traces of its inhabitants, and to neutralise cultural and personal tastes and differences.

A large-scale work like Men in particular, addresses the propensity for International Style to be created as a monument to the architect, more as a piece of sculpture, with no consideration of its inhabitants. It is presented as clean, slick, sterile and geometric, with the surfaces flat and devoid of ornamentation, in keeping with the architect Le Corbusier’s aim to create ‘a machine for living in’[2]. It is the embodiment of minimal, clean living with little indication that a ‘normal’ person could possibly reside there[3].

That International Style is designed as a timeless edifice, immune to the eccentricities of humankind, and that it shows no evidence of change, also renders the space as one unconnected to memory and narrative. Walls ruptures this characteristic by introducing elements of human activity in and around International Style buildings, and so demonstrates an element of irreverence towards architectural purity – eliminating the elitist hyperbole and making it something consumable and appreciable to a general audience.

These ‘signs of life’, in a work such as Men, comprise moving images of men in suits, confirming formally to the ideal occupant, equipped with baseball bats, hammers and other weapons of destruction, carrying out attacks on features of the architecture. This is where Le Corbusier’s fascination for white walls meets Wall’s intense concern for the loss of the indicators of human emotion, such as fear, anger and pleasure. The resulting work addresses the possibilities of what goes on behind the façade and introduces narrative and human intervention, thus newly imbuing the construction as one associated with memory.

Of the International Style architects’ resolve to elevate their buildings to ‘High Art’, Christopher Reed noted in 1996 that, ‘The domestic realm, seen as simultaneously popular and old fashioned, became the perfect foil for architects aspiring to avant-garde status’[4]. Wall’s small scale models expand on this, and reveal how little conceptual ideas, developed independently of any practical considerations, actually count for once posited in the real world. That Walls chooses to recreate buildings that in actuality have little interaction with the turgid street public is irrelevant – what he demonstrates in his work is the cavernous divide between puritanical architectural thinking and the way a public actually interacts with a building.

Walls’ collection of mini models, inscribed with acerbic titles such as Mary was obsessed about having sex in the house below. She wanted her wild sexual fantasies to be associated with good taste, and “I’m a fucking artist. I deserve respect and money,” Billy yelled at his father as he condemned him for making yet another useless minimalist sculpture, use humour and playfulness to expound their conceptual agenda. Imposing and stark Modernist structures are reduced to harmless domestic toys, through combined application of Wall’s fey witticism and deftly rendered observation.

Walls’ models are not intended as insults or personal attacks on any one architect or building. Instead, like all engaging art, they articulate and give form to a recurrent and symptomatic ailment in our society – the alienation caused by much urban architecture in our daily life.

 


[1] Glenn Walls, in conversation with the author, 15 January 2006

[2] Dennis Sharp. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture. New York: Quatro Publishing, 1991. pp 92-94.

[3] Glenn Walls, op.cit.

[4] Reed, C. 1996, Not At Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Architecture, Thames and Hudson: London. Pg 7

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