Category Archives: Architecture and Urban Design

Neons and museums

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William Street, Sydney about 1968. Photo by David Mist, Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of David Mist.

A few years back I was interviewed about the fate of Sydney’s neon advertising signs:

‘The great age of neon has passed,’ laments Charles Pickett, a curator of design and society at the Powerhouse Museum, an institution that houses the AWA sign that once sat atop the eponymous1930s skyscraper, and a red neon greyhound removed recently from Wentworth Park Raceway. ‘The days of William Street being a gallery for neon are long gone. The Coca-Cola sign is all that’s left.’

Since then we’ve added the Sharpies Golf House sign to the Powerhouse collection, another of many well-known neons to disappear from Sydney nights (there’ll be an article about the Sharpies sign in the next issue of Powerline). The decline of neon as a marketing and visual medium is partly one of advertising fashion and technological change – LED signs are cheaper, less fragile and use much less electricity than neons.
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Design for happiness: George Korody furniture designs

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Seven designerd

Screen by Steven Kalmar, Sydney, c1955. Coffee table by Douglas Snelling and made by Functional Products Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1955. Settee, ‘RS161’ designed by Grant Featherston, Melbourne, c1951.

If you’re a fan of mid-century modern furniture, the Powerhouse Museum’s current display is a must-see. 7 Australian Designers profiles a number of Australia’s celebrated modernists and includes iconic furniture by Grant Featherston, Gordon Andrews, Douglas Snelling, Clement Meadmore and Steven Kalmar.

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Casinos and stadiums: Philip Cox

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Model, Aquatic Centre for the Asian Games, Bangkok, Philip Cox/Cox Architects, 1995. Powerhouse Museum collection.

The architect Philip Cox recently told us what we already knew:  Star casino in Pyrmont is by far his worst building. Needless to say a Star flack was immediately reassuring the media that almost none of Cox’s 1997 design had survived the casino’s recent renovations. Whether the casino genre is a likely inspiration for good architecture need not concern us here – for his part Cox declared casinos a toxic genre and wished he’d never designed one.
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The Opera House industry

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Photo by Max Dupain 1966, Powerhouse Museum collection. Courtesy Max Dupain & Associates.

We’ve just installed a small exhibition to mark the fortieth anniversary of Sydney Opera House on 20 October. The anniversary, by the way, is of the official 1973 opening by the Queen, not the first public performance there on the 28 September 1973, an interesting choice of dates.

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Learning from Denise Scott Brown

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Denise Scott Brown outside Las Vegas, 1966. Copyright VenturiScottBrown.

You might have been following the controversy about Denise Scott Brown and the Pritzker Prize. In 1991 Scott Brown’s husband and professional partner Robert Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Prize (often described as architecture’s Nobel Prize). Scott Brown was not, although it was widely recognised that she was Venturi’s equal creative partner.  She did not attend her husband’s award ceremony while Venturi appealed to the Pritzker jury to co-award his wife. No deal, on the grounds that Pritzkers are only awarded to individuals, not partnerships. Continue reading

Condom architecture

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Tin Men

Danny De Vito, Richard Dreyfus and Cadillacs in Tin Men, 1987. Copyright

Re-skinning of buildings takes several forms, not all of them particularly reputable. During the 60s and 70s salesmen prowled the suburbs, seeking out fibro and weatherboard cottages that could be re-clad with aluminium or vinyl. The hard sell would then begin, with promises of capital gains, improved appearance and insulation. I’m not sure that many houses were actually improved, especially as the new cladding was usually screwed on over the existing one.

This business was immortalized in a popular US movie of the 1980s: Tin Men was both satirical and nostalgic about two competing aluminium cladding (‘siding’ in US lingo) salesmen, played by Danny De Vito and Richard Dreyfus.
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Museums and modernism in Marseille

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Villa Mediterranean

Marseille: Museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations (left) and Villa Mediterranean. Photo by Charles Pickett, 2013.

I’ve been holidaying in Europe recently; mainly Italy and Greece, but we also managed a day in Marseille.

France’s oldest and second-largest city is European City of Culture for 2013 so there is even more to see than usual. Focusing on Marseille as a cultural address is partly an attempt to stop the city being bracketed with the likes of Naples and Chicago: capitals of crime, corruption, poverty and drug gangs. There’s reality behind the negative image but it also reflects the long-standing rivalry between Paris and Marseille and resulting urban caricatures.

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The Home

Cover, The Home, 1 November 1933, artwork by Eileen Gray. Powerhouse Museum collection.

A couple of month’s back I was contacted by a Daily Telegraph journo, doing a story about Sydney’s ‘Gatsby-style’ mansions. Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby had just hit the screens and the media was searching for evidence that 1920s Sydney had glamour to match that of New York.

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Suburbia, apartmentia, adapturbia

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Nelsons Ridge

Nelsons Ridge housing estate, photo by Marinco Kojdanovski 2012

Are baby-boomers responsible for Sydney’s unaffordable housing? It’s becoming a common theme of the property media with story headings like ‘Boomers put super squeeze on first home buyers’. And similar arguments are being made in the planning and architecture world.

Former NSW Government Architect Chris Johnson: ‘The big issue right now for Sydney is the pendulum swing from low density detached housing to more urban apartment living.…With a growing army of ageing baby boomers wanting to protect suburbia, Sydney needs a new swat squad of younger urban dwellers to support the new apartmentia’.
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The Big Trousers has a new friend

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CCTV model

Powerhouse Museum collection: Architectural model, China Central TV Headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of OMA, ECADI, Arup, England, made by Micromodel, Beijing, China, 2004-2008. Gift of Arup Sydney.

Thanks to Arup Sydney we acquired a model of the China Central TV headquarters in Beijing. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, its a sophisticated and controversial attempt to reinvent the office tower. Architects, journos and others have debated its pros and cons at length.

But in Beijing they can’t be fussed with that. To taxi-drivers, commuters and all manner of smarty-pants, Rem’s masterpiece is just the Big Trousers.

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