Looking for Henry

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Henry Ebenezer Clay died just as Perth was getting started as a real city, gold having been discovered to the east a few years earlier. At 4pm on Monday 28 December 1896, his body left his home, Esperance Cottage on Hutt Street, Perth, Western Australia, for the last time. Enclosed in an attractive coffin of polished English oak, with brass mountings and a name plate, he was carried in a hearse to its last resting place in the Church of England section of East Perth Cemetery. The Anglican bishop, Charles Riley, conducted the service himself, and mourners included employees from the Post and Telegraph Department. The closeness at his funeral of Church and State was no coincidence. Henry Clay was both civil servant and son of a preacher man. And Western Australia’s leading poet.

Seeking out graves as a hobby is something left over from the medieval obsession with pilgrimages. But instead of looking for holy men and women to look down from heaven and recommend us to the Spirit in the Sky, we now desire posthumous blessings from our new saints: pop stars, artists and, for me at least above all those, poets. I have stood next to the body of William Wordsworth while a light snow started falling and read lines from his works. Same for the tomb of another Lake Poet, Robert Southey, except there was no snow on this occasion because it was April. Less well-known than Wordsworth and Coleridge, Southey is probably mostly famous for writing Goldilocks and the Three Bears for his children. I have even walked with a tent and heavy backpack across the ancient Quantock Hills in England’s west country, just to be near to the spot where The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written. All these things were exactly as pretentious as they sound, but–what the hell?–I enjoyed doing them anyway.

So now I was at the gates of East Perth Cemetery to seek the final resting place of yet another poet, Henry Ebenezer Clay. To describe the cemetery as a tourist attraction would be to push the meaning of both tourist and attraction beyond breaking point. It had been the original burial place for the fledgling Swan River Colony, which would one day grow up to be Perth. After a larger metropolitan cemetery opened elsewhere in 1899, the East Perth site was almost instantly abandoned. Uncared for, bones started appearing on the surface for children and dogs to play with. People complained, of course, but nothing was done. Today, almost all the graves are unmarked and unknown, while the few remaining ones are of people you would only know if local history was your life-long obsession. A grocer who owned more than a couple of stores, a newspaper editor who wrote nothing of interest, and a politician who must have given a speech with relevance at some point, presumably.

As you enter through the gates and head towards a small chapel, there is undeniably an atmosphere to the place, but pinning down that feeling is difficult. The cemetery is not exotically located on a hilltop, or so far out of town it requires a pilgrimage and a car park to access it. In fact, East Perth Cemetery is conveniently sited near Perth’s world-famous cricket ground, the WACA, as well as new suburbs which sprang up on artificial inlets cut into former industrial estates. Conveniently located, sure, but not convenient to access, being open only for two hours on Sunday afternoons. Yet even this limited availability overestimates the demand from the public. In short, hardly anyone ever goes to commune with the dead here.

In part this is because this cemetery is, for the most part, boring. The only real reason to show up would be to visit a relative or, like me, someone for whom you were making a pilgrimage. Perhaps local schoolchildren are shuffled through with ten questions to answer on a clipboard. Maybe the odd tourist discovers the place on TripAdvisor and pays ten dollars to stare at carved names that mean nothing to them. But I suspect the main reason locals stay away is because of Perth’s ambiguous attitude to the past. Heritage is all very well if it serves some practical (read moneymaking) purpose, but it can bugger off if it gets in the way of anything. Literally anything. It’s recognized that the past is a marketable commodity, but beyond that it has no value to the majority of Western Australians. Footy, yes; beaches, yes; barbeques, of course; museums, history books, old buildings, sure, but don’t ask the taxpayer for a subsidy or expect them to be around in a few years. Unless they’re making money.

East Perth Cemetery, despite being staffed by unpaid labour, is not making money on the day I visit. The four volunteers, as is typical for such a place, are older to the point of being old. They seem genuinely surprised when I enquire about a name even less famous than the not-particularly-famous people included in the thin guidebook. After consulting an online database and a large map on an easel identifying the location of the few remaining memorials, one volunteer offers to walk me to the grave of Henry Ebenezer Clay. He’s not at all curious as to why I want to locate this memorial, instead offering stories of his ancestors who bred horses in Western Australia to sell to Mauritius. Did I know why Mauritius? I did not. The sale price of each horse was greater there than selling them to the British Army in India. So now I knew.

Like every headstone, Henry’s had once been upright. But decades of neglect, or perhaps vandalism, had broken it off at the base, so now it lay on the ground cracked in multiple places. Grass, browned by the sun, was growing through the cracks, forcing them wider and shortening the life of this memorial just a little more. The original lettering had been formed in lead, but many characters had fallen off, or were lying on the stone out of place, so it resembled a game of Scrabble about to be played by teenage Goths. Around the horizontal headstone was a simple iron fence. Whether to stop further damage to the grave or prevent the dead from escaping and complaining about the neglected cemetery was not stated in the guidebook.

When he died in 1896, the newspapers described Henry as having a “deservedly high reputation in this colony for his literary talents, which were of no mean order.” Yet his headstone only alludes to this, for below his name spelt out in full are three letters: ‘H. E. C.’ And it was under this nom de plume that Henry had published his few books and many poems in the West Australian newspaper, as was the normal way of sharing the written word in the 19th century. The headstone bears Henry’s literary signature but otherwise gives no indication as to why. There are two lines underneath, now difficult to read thanks to the scattered lettering, but which once said:

Who self forsaketh angels are his friends
Who loveth all hath found the Heart of God

If these lines are by HEC, I haven’t found them yet, and they don’t appear to be the product of anyone with poetic talent. Perhaps a relative composed them, or the monumental mason felt inspired to add his own tribute to Henry’s memorial, perhaps modelled on an 1891 couplet actually by HEC:

Himself forsaking — angels close him round
Who, loving all, the Heart of God hath found

One thing that is certain, however, is that Henry is not alone in his grave. His nephew, Arthur Reginald Brooking, predeceased him by four years, at the age of just 16. The 1890s saw several epidemics of ‘fever’, and one of these might have been Arthur’s cause of death. The headmaster at Perth Boys School said he had been one of their most brilliant students, and he had excelled in geology and history. Henry never married, and all his immediate family died before him. His executor was his niece, Laura Brooking, so she must have organised for his body to be placed in the same grave as her younger brother.

Yet the headstone itself reveals nothing poignant. Did Laura grieve for her uncle? Did the service remind her of the death of her brother and open old wounds? Or, like the unpoetic two lines of ‘verse’ on the stone, was the whole affair ordered and dignified without ever reaching the level of emotions? As these thoughts ran through my mind, I suddenly realised this was stereotyping colonial society: so used to death, they scarcely felt it. But I knew they hurt when people died. I needed no more evidence than the man in front of me, and I could turn to Henry’s poetry where he had written so touchingly on the loss of each member of his family to see what death meant to him. To understand HEC, I needed to get rid of the historic clichés.

Photographing Henry’s headstone was difficult. The shadows were all wrong and I had forgotten my camera, instead relying on an old model mobile phone. I would need to return to get a better shot. And this made me pause. Didn’t I decry the cemetery as boring, filled with pointless people who had led pointless lives? What made me so special that my returning was understandable, and every other visitor, few as they are, was being fooled by this tedious ‘history’? Could I be wrong?

My volunteer guide didn’t return me to the front of the chapel, since he had a couple of other graves he wanted to show me. They were relatives of his, people involved in horse breeding, horse racing, and related industries. As he spun well-rehearsed stories, I was reminded of Wordsworth’s child who refused to admit the deaths of her brother and sister meant they were no longer members of the family:

Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”

For my guide, these were not names on tombs, but people he could, and did, proudly point to on an enormous hand-written family tree. They were still people he could relate to, not simply dead relatives. For him, East Perth Cemetery was a place to talk about his family and their achievements. Without the graves he would just be an older man telling tales, but with the cemetery there in front of us, he was doing history, and loving every minute of it. Just as I needed HEC’s headstone to form a physical connection with the past, or it was all just words on a page, not real people who lived, loved and hurt when their family died.

I’d like to say I walked out the cemetery a wiser man, but you know that wouldn’t be true, at least not in any dramatic way. People don’t change as a result of one encounter in a graveyard. And in many ways my criticisms of the place still stand: it’s not very exciting. For most people. Unless you have or make a connection to one particular grave. Which is what I’m doing here, with Henry Ebenezer Clay: trying to get you, the reader, to want to find out more about his life, to read his poetry, to make a connection. Then maybe you will visit his grave and East Perth Cemetery will be very slightly less boring than it was.

The Nazi plan to destroy Bayswater Subway

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Once, crossing the railway at Bayswater was difficult, with vehicles forced to travel some distance away, and school children having to dash across the track in a dangerous manner. So the local council decided the best course of action was to go underneath it.

The first plan for a subway at Bayswater was as early as 1903 when the council asked for one to link King William Street to Coode Street. Nothing happened as a result, so they asked again in 1908. By now the problems associated with draining such a subway had been raised, and the council offered its engineer to sort these out.

Despite having promised a subway, the Government now claimed it was short of money but said they would do what they could. Some people, though, questioned if it could be done at all. After all, to get the road low enough it would have to be underneath the water table, and so drainage was impossible, and it would become a small lake with any amount of rain.

These misgivings were ignored though, and on 14 February 1910 the Chairman of the Board, Mr I. C. Granville, drove his horse and sulky through a ribbon held up by two young women and on into the new Bayswater Subway. It doesn’t seem to have flooded, at least not to any noticeable extent. However, the open drains from the subway flowing down King William Street did keep making that road subside.

Terrifyingly, in 1942 a group of Perth’s Nazi sympathisers planned to blow up Bayswater Subway to paralyse both rail and road networks. The plotters included a Post Office employee, an insurance agent, and a dairy farmer. While their intention was to establish a National Socialist government in Australia, they were infiltrated by the police and arrested before any of their schemes came to fruition.

Today, of course, the subway is best known for being repeatedly struck by trucks. We don’t mean to suggest the drivers are just trying to finish off what the Nazis couldn’t, but so far they have failed to destroy a 108-year-old underpass and bridge. And let’s hope it stays that way.

Pennies from heaven?

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With the opening of the new children’s hospital there has been interest in the origins of the first one, Princess Margaret. One popular retelling of the tale is:

In 1897, a young girl entered Charles Moore’s department store. She was drawn to an unusual moneybox into which she put three pennies. When Mr Moore asked her what she would like in return for her money, she asked to give it to the children’s hospital. Moore said there was no such hospital and the girl replied, “Then why not have one?” Moore responded, “We certainly will, and we will start it with your pennies.”

When Charles Moore told this story in 1909 at the opening of the hospital there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the room. And since Moore himself related the tale, it must be true. Mustn’t it? Well, no, so let Dodgy Perth debunk it. But first, why is the moneybox always described as ‘unusual’?

The following section contains racially charged language and an image some may find offensive.

Moore said the moneybox was a “negro” one, where a coin placed into the hand would be thrown into the box. These were sometimes called ‘jolly negro’ moneyboxes or, worse, ‘greedy n****r’ boxes and were popular around the turn of the 20th century. Casual racism like this was the norm in the Perth of a century ago, so we shouldn’t read too much into Moore’s story, or the fact that this box apparently stood on the hospital’s front counter for years. However, today it is obviously unacceptable, which explains why modern accounts of Moore’s tale like to leave out some of the details.

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So, there was a moneybox and Moore said it was part of the hospital’s origin. So it must be true, right? Not so fast. Let’s introduce two golden rules of history which will never lead you astray. First, if a story sounds too good to be true, it is almost certainly too good to be true. Always suspect a good story. Secondly, the older the account the more reliable it usually is. Let’s see what story Moore told back in 1897 when he started to raise funds for the children’s hospital.

Then he said he’d been in a rival’s shop, Bickford & Lucas, and noticed they had a penny-slot musical box, an early form of jukebox, probably something to keep the kids entertained while the parents shopped. He thought he should get one for his store and give the proceeds to charity. It was then he decided Perth needed a children’s hospital and the pennies collected in the machine should go towards that.

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Quite a different story. No little girl with her three little pennies, a simple question and Moore’s sudden realisation the young lady was right. Just an imaginative idea of starting a new fund for charitable purposes, and one he carried out tirelessly from 1897 until the hospital opened some years later.

Why did he invent a new story? Perhaps it was simply modesty about his own role, perhaps he just thought it was better tale. Either way, we can’t take anything away from Moore as a philanthropist and Perth owed him a great deal. But just because he was a good citizen, it doesn’t mean we have to believe everything he said.

Beer and Buildings

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What could be better on a cold winter Saturday afternoon than drinks with friends in a few different venues? Especially if you can introduce them to Perth’s heritage and make yourself look clever at the same time. Welcome to the Dodgy Perth ‘Beer and Buildings’ self-guided tour. At a mere 2km you will pack in a number of drinking establishments en route. We recommend pacing yourself carefully.

Drink One: The George, 216 St George’s Terrace

Meet around 2pm. You can start earlier, but a few later venues don’t open until 3pm on a weekend. When you’ve finished your first drink of the tour, step outside and look at the buildings opposite. None of them are heritage buildings, but a lot have classical references in their pillars. You’re going to see a lot of pillars today, so just soak in the fact that architects have never stopped using them.

Walk towards the CBD, passing The Cloisters (1858) on your left. Designed by Richard Roach Jewell, it was originally a secondary school. Keep going until you are opposite Newspaper House.

Drink Two: Newspaper House, 125 St George’s Terrace

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Discover more about this 1933 building by clicking here. Then go behind the place and take a couple of flights of stairs up to Bob’s Bar. This rooftop venue (it has a retracting roof if the weather is not ideal) will provide an opportunity for a wide range of beers.

When you return to St George’s Terrace, keep going in the same direction, cross over William Street and take a right turn into Howard Street.

Drink Three: Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building, 18-20 Howard Street

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Discover more about this 1907 building by clicking here. Then take the small laneway opposite to find Helvetica, one of Perth’s top providers of fine whiskeys.

Afterwards, return to St George’s Terrace and keep going towards Barrack Street. Cross over, and enter Stirling Gardens, heading towards the Supreme Court.

Interlude: The Old Courthouse, Stirling Gardens

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Discover more about this 1837 building by clicking here. Don’t worry too much about your next drink, it’s coming soon.

Return to St George’s Terrace and stop opposite the State Buildings (now COMO).

Drink Four: State Buildings, St George’s Terrace

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Discover more about this 1890 building by clicking here. Then enter Petition Bar, either through the St George’s main arch, or round the side on Barrack Street. We recommend the tasting tray of four different beers, but your mileage may vary.

When you’ve finished the last drop of beer or wine, leave by the Barrack Street exit and head north. You will pass the Town Hall (1870) on your right, and now comes the longest stretch without beer in the entire tour. Keep going over the bridge, past the Court Hotel, until you reach Dominion League. It may be best to cross over to other side of Beaufort Street to get a good view.

Drink Five: United Friendly Societies Dispensary, 84 Beaufort Street

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Discover more about this 1911 building by clicking here. A great wine list and a cosy atmosphere inside, although it can get a little busy as the evening goes on.

On the home stretch now. Leave the Dominion League, turn left towards the pedestrian crossing, go over Beaufort Street and head into the Cultural Centre. For the best view of the PICA Building look for a raised area to your right, just in front of the library.

Drink Six: Government School, 51 James Street

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Discover more about this 1897 building by clicking here. Now chill out for the rest of the evening at the PICA Bar, knowing you’ve discovered all about Perth’s heritage, had a healthy walk, and possibly (just possibly) more than a single drink.

Since the tour ends here, you will find public transport back home is within a short stroll, whether you need a bus, train or Uber.

An unFriendly attack on a great wine bar

 

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Before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: we love the Dominion League. One of those cosy bars with such a fashionably dark environment you can’t read the menus without the aid of your phone flashlight. We still love it, though.

It’s the building containing the bar that is, let’s say, problematic. The fault lies with four issues: the subsequent history of the area, the changing nature of retail, the client, and the architects themselves. All four will be explored below, but first one common myth to clear up. Despite what it might look like, the building was not erected in 1899.

It’s common to assume that a four-digit number on the front of a building tells you when it was put up. But not always. In this case, 1899 is the foundation date of the United Friendly Societies, and the place was designed by Wright, Powell & Cameron in 1911. If you don’t believe us check out the badly installed (probably repositioned) inscription below.

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For the later history of the area, look at the building on the left of the Dominion League. This was erected in the early 1920s as a billiard saloon and linked the Ferguson Building (1907) further to the left with our place. The cornices on the linking building make no attempt to line up with those on the Dominion League and just smash into empty space. This was a builder (we doubt there was an architect involved) who clearly gave no f*cks. And let’s not talk about the monstrosity set back on the right. Just no.

The 1911 building was commissioned by the United Friendly Societies to operate as a pharmacy on the ground floor with residential flats above. As the nature of retail changed, along with different construction technologies, the bottom of a commercial building could now have large plates of glass enabling shoppers to more clearly see the goods on display. This resulted in the absence of structural pillars on the ground floor, since the frontage was no longer structural.

Which leads to the two Corinthian piers (the rectangular ones at the edges) and columns above the shopfront. Since there are no structural elements below, these simply terminate on a concrete beam. Although we cannot be certain what the original shopfront looked like, it is unlikely that any architectural elements carried the piers and columns visually down to ground level. They don’t even line up with the door on the right which gave access to the flats. In theory, the verandah is meant to introduce a visual break, and allow the columns to sit happily above a modern frontage. It doesn’t work.

And the pediment is grotesquely oversized, with far too many twiddly bits, with no relationship to the scale of the building below. All in all, it looks like the client’s ego demanded a classical building but with a modern shopfront, and the whole had to look really impressive, but not cost too much to put up. We imagine the conversation went something like this:

Client: Make us a classical building on this spot. With modern retail on the bottom.

Architects: It won’t work. How about a nice entirely modern building instead?

Client: No, we want classical and modern and cheap.

Architects: Here is a quick sketch of what such a monstrosity would look like.

Client: We love it. Make it happen.

But, and there’s always a ‘but’, for all its flaws the Dominion League has its own endearing quirkiness on the outside and needs to be retained as an example for future architects about what not to do. Oh, and keep it for the wine list inside as well. Definitely for the wine list.

Great bar with an art gallery attached

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Sometimes it isn’t easy doing history and heritage for a living.  Sometimes we have to tell people that they are wrong for liking a particular building for various technical reasons, which we will tell them at great length. Mostly they just back away slowly and find someone else to talk to at the dinner party. But it is a duty we will not shirk. Welcome to the PICA Building.

Designed by George Temple Poole and opening in 1897, the Government School is clearly in a classical style, with a sort-of Italianate tower between two wings. Built as a primary school, the reason for its classical details is initially a bit of a mystery. Especially when the internal design was based on the most modern educational principles of the day, with a central double-height hall and classrooms leading off this. Boys on the ground floor, and girls on top.

Further, it is basically a steel frame with concrete floors, with pipes and other services concealed between double brick walls. This is a very modern building, both in intention and construction, so why does it have a historic façade?

The answer probably lies in the school’s controversial location: the middle of a city. By the 1890s it was thought that kids needed fresh air and large ovals to become healthy citizens. The James Street school had tiny playgrounds and no oval at all. In addition, it was located near corrupting influences, such as pubs, prostitutes, and rampant capitalism in the form of retail and industry. This was not a place to develop the young mind to its full potential.

Another issue facing the architect was that government schools were themselves controversial. While the government had been involved in education for some time, it was only towards the end of the 19th century it started taking a leading role. Some parents worried that compulsory education would turn out over-educated children unsuited to be good housewives or labourers. Poole had to find an architectural solution which would pacify the concerns over both location and intention.

He chose to envelop a thoroughly modern school building with a traditional design. This would emphasise the importance of the building, its distinctiveness in a commercial environment, and show this was a great place to send your kids. So far, so good, but it all goes downhill from here.

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As early as 1909, one architectural critic noted that the school was “notable for its large dimensions rather than for graceful design”. The style of building Poole intended requires that the central tower has two identical wings. A glance at the PICA Building shows that the two wings have nothing in common. The bricks are a different colour, the windows are different proportions, and there is a decorative frieze on the west wing (right as you look at the building) completely absent on the east. No competent architect would have designed the building this way, and Poole was far better than merely competent, so the only conclusion is that a lesser hand designed the west wing later. But not too much later, since the earliest photographs we can trace all show both wings as they are today,

Then there is the central tower. This is meant to be Venetian, but fails dismally. It is not hard to find good Italianate towers around the world, which all show elements of good design. Here, for example, is a fire station in Brandon, Manitoba, by W.A. Elliott in 1911.

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The vertical element is stressed through the brickwork at the corners, and the wrought iron balconies add to the beauty of the whole. Or consider a local example, Bunbury High School by William Hardwick in 1923. Perhaps a little more Spanish than Italian, the vertical is stressed by the openings in the tower, and it was described as adding a ‘monastic’ air to the school.

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Now compare the tower on the PICA Building. There is no sense of the vertical, the brickwork fails to convey an upwards movement, and the whole thing looks squat and, to be honest, fairly ugly. Even an attempt at a vertical element on the front is swamped by the brickwork and fails to do its job.

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Was there a budget cut or was this Poole’s original intent? We will never know because the original plans have been lost, and we only have ‘as built’ blueprints from the 1920s.

So, having criticised the building, does this mean it should be knocked down? Not at all. There are many other reasons for keeping PICA. Asides from the environmental costs of bowling over an old building and putting up a new one, it functions as a popular art gallery.

But most of all, we at Dodgy Perth would chain ourselves to railings to stop anyone taking away the PICA Bar, which is where you will often find us after a hard fifteen minutes of research at the State Records Office or State Library. Sometimes we don’t even last fifteen minutes before hitting the bar. So it has to stay. Seriously.

A bit of Paris in Perth

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Next time you drop into Petition, make sure to order something French. They have a Petit Chablis which has good reviews, so that’s on our must-drink list (yes, we have a must-drink list) when we take another look at George Temple Poole’s Old GPO building. This is now part of the Central Government Buildings or, as they are more commonly known, the Old Treasury.

One of the things architects fear the most, other than mislaying their designer glasses, is being seen as derivative. A difficult job to undertake is designing additions to an existing building or set of buildings. The new work has to complement the structures already there, but not copy them so closely that you don’t look an original architect. In other words, the architect must triumph over their predecessor, but not look too arrogant while doing so. This is a very difficult feat to pull off, but it is exactly what George Temple Poole achieved with his additions to the Central Government Buildings, which opened in 1890.

Poole was faced with a site which already had two older building, both designed by Richard Roach Jewell, and are now the wings along Barrack Street and Cathedral Avenue. These were proving completely inadequate for the needs of civil servants, and Poole was asked to link the two buildings with new offices and to include a post office while he was at it. His solution was so effective that some architectural critics believe he was simply showing ‘architectural good manners’ and respecting Jewell’s earlier work. He was most definitely not.

The only acknowledgement of the existing buildings was to use Flemish bond brickwork, which is alternating ‘headers’ and ‘stretchers’, usually in two different colours. Speaking of colour, have a look at how the new bricks are completely different to the older ones. This is most noticeable in the third storey of each of the wings, since Jewell’s original buildings only had two floors and a flat roof. No attempt was made to match the shades of the bricks.

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Under construction, 1889

The inspiration for the central element on St George’s Terrace was definitely French architecture. One possible model is the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which shows similar chimneys, Mansard rooflines, and dormer windows. But Poole did not copy this building, he just took some of the ratios and overall concept, adding in a little English Queen Anne style for the windows and other details. Poole was declaring that this was his building, and his alone.

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To link the central element to the older buildings, the setbacks either side of the middle gives more prominence to Poole’s contribution, and once again clearly shows what is old and what is new. Finally, the windows on Jewell’s portion were redecorated with the same design as the new ones, and when third storeys were added, they also got Mansard roofs. The new skin on Jewell’s earlier buildings transformed their character, making them just another part of Poole’s overall project. His project.

And it works. The style conformed to expectations for what a government building should look like, integrated existing buildings, and created what was the most impressive building in Perth at the time. Plus, this was no simple addition, it was a novel work, one which showed Poole could meet head on the circumstances he was faced with and triumph as an original architect. Not bad for a simple linking element.

And now for that glass of Petit Chablis to celebrate our unusual French(ish) building on St George’s Terrace.

How architects exorcise their demons

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One of our favourite bars is Helvetica, in a laneway off Howard Street. If you’re a whisky fan there is no better place to be. Before heading in for a dram (or two) pause on Howard Street to look at a very fine piece of Gothic architecture, the Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building, which opened in 1907.

The history of Gothic Revival architecture is complex, but it basically boils down to a rejection of industrialisation and a longing for a time when objects were not mass produced. Its leading supporters saw Medieval cathedrals as the greatest buildings ever, whose every stone told a story of an individual skilled artisan taking pride in their work. And now for a brief digression on pubic hair. Seriously.

A significant figure in promoting Gothicism was the English art critic John Ruskin, and the story goes that he was unable to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because his entire knowledge of the female body came from Greek statues, which don’t have much going on down below. As a result, on their wedding night the sight of her lady parts revolted him, or as Effie put it: “He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was”. Eventually she left Ruskin for his protege, John Millais, with whom she had eight children. So somebody appreciated her body, anyway.

Anyway, back to the Howard Street building. Designed by Charles Oldham to be used as offices for lawyers, it is a no-expense-spared construction (we wanted to say erection, but see above) with fine Gothic detailing on both the exterior and interior.

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Yet the Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building was not erected by teams of traditional masons struggling for decades to produce fine stonework, but is thoroughly modern in design and construction. So what is going on here? The answer almost certainly lies in how big an architect’s ego is. Every architect wants at least one building which is impressive enough to guarantee their name will go down in history. But they have the problem that the components of architecture are derived from tradition, and even more so when it comes to the Gothic.

If Medieval cathedrals were the greatest buildings ever, what else is the unfortunate modern architect going to do except copy certain elements and always look derivative? Poets and novelists often face this same heart-breaking dilemma as well. Fortunately, the answer came with the arrival of steel and concrete.

George Temple Poole bemoaned the fate of the poor architect in 1909 when he pointed out that every building since 1400, when techniques of construction were perfected, was just a pale imitation of the original. All the modern designer could do was “play with our buildings”. But Poole was not going to let history beat him, and he announced that steel and concrete, things unknown to Medieval architects, allowed him a way to surpass his predecessors. Buildings could now be designed to any form or shape, and style can be introduced to any scale and (as the people paying for it will love) much cheaper than in the past.

In effect, Poole is putting a middle finger up to all the architects of history and saying that he can design and erect anything he likes, whereas they were constrained by the physics of the stone they were working with. You want Gothic? You got it. Italian Renaissance? No problems.

This did lead to complications for the architect, such as handing a lot of power over to engineering firms for the structural parts of a building, which would come back to haunt them a decade or so later. But for the meantime, architects could rejoice in the fact they had beaten the system, triumphed over history, and could now produce innovative works for which they would become famous. And our Howard Street building tells us exactly that story.

The Old Courthouse, Frankenstein and Ancient Greece

old court

What connects Frankenstein to Perth’s Old Courthouse? What links the columns at the entrance to Ancient Athens? And why hasn’t the courthouse been turned into a small bar like every other old building in the city? Answers to two of these three questions will follow.

Acclaimed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to a daughter. Her grieving partner didn’t feel able to cope with a new baby, so she was brought up for several years by friends, who had a young boy named Henry Reveley. This led to a life-long friendship between the young girl and Henry. She would grow up to become Mary Shelley and write the classic Frankenstein.

Henry became an engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, and comrade of Mary’s partner, the poet Percy Shelley, whom he even saved from drowning on one occasion. Unfortunately, Henry also persuaded Percy to invest in an expensive engineering project which came to nothing, and this must have put some strain on the friendship.

After a brief stay in Cape Town as colonial engineer, Henry was recruited by James Stirling and travelled with him on the Parmelia to help found a new colony in Western Australia. He was now responsible for all public works, under which circumstances he had to be less engineer and more architect. One of his buildings which still survives is the Old Courthouse.

Opening in 1837, this building was controversial from the start. Due to a lack of funds, Henry was instructed to erect something which could serve as both court and church. In America this would have been a clear violation of the separation of Church and State, something Western Australia did not have, but it still made a lot of people very uneasy.

It also created enormous difficulties for the architect. Courts and churches have very different internal arrangements and making one building which could do both jobs was no easy task, especially with a very limited budget. The solution involved a number of compromises, which meant it was neither a great court nor a great church, but the young colony muddled along with the end result anyway.

But there was still one problem left for Henry to solve. The very plain exterior of the building, there was no money for ornamentation, required some kind of grand statement to show that it was an important place in the new colony. Yet it also had to reflect the dual function of the new edifice. Henry’s answer was inspired: he designed a portico with Doric columns which are a replica of those at the Parthenon in Athens.

Over the centuries, the Parthenon had been many things: temple, court, parliament, Christian Church and Mosque. This made it the ideal model for a mixed-use building. In addition, in more recent times Henry would have known the Parthenon also stood as a symbol for democracy itself, especially in American architecture. Increasingly, Ancient Athens was the model for any new republic or way of organising a democratic society. Of course, the Swan River Colony was not yet a democracy in 1837, but one could always hope.

parthenon

How do we know Henry’s Doric columns are definitely modelled on the Parthenon? The capitals (the tops of the columns) are simple, mere ‘buns’, the shafts are fluted (the grooves), and the columns smash into the pavement with no base, which is a definite sign of being patterned on the Athenian building. No other ancient building could have been the reference.

There are still a few mysteries, such as why the pediment looks so modernist, being simple rectangular strips. If we didn’t have old photographs of the courthouse, it would look like a replacement for something more complex. But it does appear the pediment is exactly the way Henry designed it.

The only other mystery is how long it will take to kick out the Law Museum and get ourselves an upmarket small bar in the building. We suggest ‘Henry’s Place’ for a name.

Is this Perth’s greatest building?

newspaper house

Welcome to the Stripped Classical, our favourite architectural style named after our favourite way of not wearing clothing. You are certainly familiar with Newspaper House on St George’s Terrace, but probably only because it now leads to a range of different drinking establishments behind. But before you drop into Print Hall for a glass of Shiraz, take a moment to study the façade.

If the building looks almost perfectly proportioned, that’s because it is. Designed by warrior-architect J. J. Talbot Hobbs and opened in 1933, every ratio, every line, every window is exactly (and we mean exactly) according to the rules laid down by architects from the Renaissance onwards. To see what we mean, look at the building below.

deutsche bank

This is the Deutsche Bank building in Bremen, Germany, which was finished in 1891 and is designed in the Historicist Style. It obviously has many more pretty bits than Newspaper House, but if you were to overlay a picture of Perth’s building onto the German one every column and window and floor would line up perfectly. Talbot Hobbs did not copy this building, he just used the same mathematical rules as the German architects.

But where are all the famous columns, entablatures and architraves (and other technical words it is necessary to know to convince people you are a real architectural historian) that we associate with classical architecture? They are simply missing. Well, except for two Ionic columns we will return to later.

Stripped Classicism is a response to two things: Modernism and the Great Depression. Modernists were obsessed with getting rid of all the decorative elements on a building, and façades should only reflect exactly the function of the rooms behind them. No ornament, no trimmings, no colours, just arrangements of spaces. A mechanised architecture for an increasingly industrialised society. And, yes, Modernists thought this was a good idea.

The Depression meant developers had less money to spend on buildings, so anything that saved cost, like not having ornamentation on the outside, suited them perfectly. Yet Newspaper House is not a Modernist building, and its shape does not simply reflect the functions going on behind the façade. So what is going on here?

There is a big argument in the history of architecture as to whether the Stripped Classical is anti-Modernist or just another development of Modernism. We won’t go into details here, but simply state that we hold to the second opinion. Talbot Hobbs was Modernist enough to want to get rid of details, something the owners, The West Australian, would have loved, but didn’t want to go down the route of plain white concrete walls. Instead, he chose classical proportions and allusions to pillars, while keeping the building thoroughly modern and cheap(ish).

munster house

For a very different Stripped Classical building, although slightly less naked than Newspaper House, look at Munster House on Murray Street, not too far from King Street. Designed by Frederick Upton and opened in 1929, it has slightly more going on at the top and a few more twiddly bits, but exactly conforms to the mathematical principles of classical design.

So, if Stripped Classicism was cheaper than standard classical architecture, and more pretty than Modernist buildings, why did it only exist for a such a short time? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is two people: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. They fell in love with Stripped Classicism and many Nazi and Soviet buildings show exactly the same design principles. After World War II, doing things that Hitler liked was, for some strange reason, not very popular, so it fell out of fashion.

DSCF0246

And now to return to those two Ionic columns in the middle of Newspaper House. Why are they there? Did Talbot Hobbs suddenly regret his use of a modern idiom and start to long for a return to older architectural motifs? Probably not. The answer almost certainly lies in the fact that Newspaper House was built in the centenary year of The West Australian, and they would have wanted this connection with the history of the State to be reflected. Look at what they hold up: the words ‘Newspaper House’. The whole building is supported by real history, although thoroughly modern at the same time.

So Talbot Hobbs created one of Perth’s most interesting buildings, by combining history, modernity and the needs of the owners. And now you have our permission to go inside for a glass of wine.