This year, most of us have become much more familiar with our direct surroundings. For a while I stopped walking by the sea because the path was too busy and so I walked instead along the quieter streets of my suburb. While I missed the chance of seeing dolphins, I enjoyed discovered buildings and laneways that I’d never seen before. I began to notice how certain houses had similar motifs or brickwork details that spoke of the same architect or builder. I would imagine what the area had looked like before anyone had built anything and then how the suburb evolved, from its beach shack beginnings to the busy, buzzy place it is today. It was like seeing it all with new eyes.
My radio pieces (here) are all about the history of design classics, focussing on the buildings, objects and people who changed the way our world looks, however small (I’m looking at you, Biro brothers). I try to see them through new eyes, too, imagining how they would have seemed when they first appeared. It gives context, without which we can’t truly understand why something is remarkable, why it caused a stir, why it was so influential.
The most obvious context is physical, like how a building sits in the landscape. Photos can only do so much. Being there gives you a deeper understanding of a building’s impact, just as sitting in a chair gives you a better understanding of its comfort or using a pepper grinder gives you a greater understanding of why it works so well.
More important, perhaps, is the context of time. Can you imagine how mind-blowing a huge stone cathedral with towers and buttresses might have looked to someone in the 1300s who had only ever experienced small buildings made of timber, plaster and mud? What did people think of the first pencils? How revolutionary (miserable pun intended) did the rotary clothes hoist seem to those who had only ever seen clothes lines?
Viewing things through other eyes is the writer’s stock-in-trade. In ‘Loving Le Corbusier’ I tried to imagine the domestic life of an architect who wanted to change the world but I wanted also to capture the atmosphere of Paris when it wasn’t the glamour-puss star it is today and imagine life on the Riviera when it was still considered rather strange to holiday there in the summer. Visiting Le Corbusier’s buildings in France and Switzerland, I tried to view them as someone might have when they were first built.
Children fanaticise with ease. I remember visiting ruined castles as a child and visualising them in full flight, battlements filled with archers, majestic and terrifying. I do that still, even with much more modern buildings. Like Le Corbusier’s unité d’habitation in Marseille. When I first saw it I could imagine how perplexing it would have appeared when it was rising in the late 1940s and there were no other tall buildings nearby. It would have seemed bizarre that one huge building could house the population of a small town. The mayor of Marseille saw it as a visual affront and wanted it demolished, and locals dubbed it the maison du fada, the mad house. Now, of course, it’s cherished as one of the twentieth century’s most important buildings, although some can only view it as the forerunner of thousands of dismal public housing blocks throughout the world and see it as a Bad Thing. Looking at it through different eyes invites you to appreciate its novelty and understand how it did influence so many poorer versions.
Nothing was more shocking than Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin in 1925 to demolish part of the historic centre of Paris and replace it with tower blocks. Today it seems unfathomable, when the Marais is so fashionable, so gorgeous. Who could suggest doing such a thing? But in the 1920s that part of central Paris was a dilapidated and unsanitary place. Corb was evangelical in his desire for people to live with natural light, with views into greenery, and for every home to have bathrooms and kitchens with hot and cold running water. That’s not a bad aim when seen in context, even if there was no thought that the people already living there might be perfectly happy, and there was maybe some anti-Semitism, given this was the Jewish quarter of the city. Le Corbusier was presenting a what-if scenario, not a serious plan, but even so, to look back at such an idea and consider its merits we have to forget about Brasilia, Chandigarh, Milton Keynes and the endless large-scale public housing developments around the world that followed. Only then do we really see why, as an idea, an architect would even consider it.
It’s sometimes difficult to imagine just how different the past was. I’m old enough to remember the centre of British cities being soot-encrusted, their stone and brick walls completely blackened by a century or more of pollution. I can remember the gaps where buildings had once stood before being destroyed in the Second World War. Public buildings, banks, and libraries (and even many shops) were dreary, dark places, painted in gloss paint and with little user-friendliness. No wonder that new buildings, with tiled walls, gleaming windows and concrete walkways, were so impressive, and ‘new towns’, with their pedestrian malls and indoor shopping centres, seemed like a great idea. Now, of course, we see them as period pieces and failed experiments. We hunger for diversity and character, which is why we love places like Tate Modern, repurposing an old power station. Design is either trying to make better what didn’t work or it’s an evolution of what has worked. To understand why something was designed a certain way it’s important to set aside what you know now and put yourself in a different place.
The loveliness of seeing something through different eyes struck home, not just with my walks around my suburb, but when I was asked to take part in a new initiative. Since the late 1990s, Sydney Open has been an annual event, a special weekend when a variety of different buildings have flung open their doors and welcomed in the curious. I remember the surprise of discovering a lush modernist garden tucked away on the roof of the fortress-like Readers Digest Building in Surry Hills, and then visiting an apartment on the 24th floor of Harry Seidler’s Horizon building, an apartment block that pokes up in an area of low-rise Victorian and Edwardian terraces, showing that Corbusian ideas were still prevalent eighty years later. Experiencing buildings that are normally off-limits helps give you a new insight into the city.
With Covid, of course, the idea of flung-open doors is verboten so the creative minds at Sydney Open have produced a programme of online discussions and even a couple of self-guided walks using an app on your phone. I’m hosting these walks, and what a pleasure it has been chatting to people who know so much. One walk is through the green spaces of central Sydney with landscape heritage consultant Colleen Morris, the other is in the company of heritage architects Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill, the authors of ‘Public Sydney’ and looks at the urban planning of the city. (You can learn more about the Sydney Open programme here)
On both walks I was invited to look at Sydney through different eyes. I was asked to visualise the harbour before the British invaded and imagine how the local Gadigal people plucked oysters the size of dinner plates from the rocky cove where the ferries now come and go. The type of trees in Sydney’s central parks say much about the way the city evolved, with a sudden desire for palms in the late 1800s, the use of Queensland fig trees for shade. I stood in a rather insignificant snippet of greenery, Lang Park, shoehorned between busy streets, and it was suddenly brought alive when I learned that this was where a grand boulevard was once planned in the early nineteenth century that would lead from the harbour quay to a new governor’s residence. Over the course of both walks, I began to see the city as it might have looked a hundred or two hundred years earlier. Now I can appreciate why the Museum of Sydney has seven sizes of stone block on its façade and why an avenue of trees seems to lead nowhere in the Domain. I can imagine boomerang contests and horse races as I cross Hyde Park and I can almost see the waterways of the city that are now gone or hidden away. There’s a story at every turn. The place I call home has been put into context.
Strange it is, that in a year I’d seen myself travelling across the world to see new things, my own immediate surroundings have held me back and offered up so much. It was, it seems, just a matter of opening my eyes.
What have your surroundings revealed to you this year?