Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Demolishing the Cahill Expressway has been mooted for a generation. Converting George Street into a pedestrian mall similar to Martin Place has been done in Melbourne. Now, Clover Moore has taken advantage of a slow news week to spruik plans that would make her as well-known as Joe Cahill, the NSW premier who launched the Opera House.

The Sydney Morning Herald has given over a two-page spread as well as half of the front page to Sydney redevelopment plans. The fault lies with ex-prime minister Paul Keating, who on the weekend hit the papers to tell planners to keep their hands off the Opera House.

They were looking at the idea of building a new concert hall nearby on Botanical Gardens ground. Today, Joyce Morgan has added words by the Herald's architecture reporter, Elizabeth Farrelly, to those of livable city pundit Jan Guhl.

Guhl was frequently in the news late last year blaming automobiles for Sydney's perennial malaise: overcrowding. It's true, though. Over the Easter break I visited the central business district (CBD) and, with a friend, sauntered about taking in the various architectural styles on show, many dating from before WWII.

In addition to the glabrous General Post Office building (now a hotel), and the Commonwealth Bank building at 5 Martin Place, there are some striking examples of Art Deco modernism. Possibly the best is 44 Martin Place (the Henry Davis York building, formerly the MLC building).

'Inter-war art deco' is the label attached to the headquarters of law firm Henry Davis York, which is owned by a Lend Lease subsidiary. MLC stands for Mutual Life and Citizens Assurance Co. There is virtually no information online about this lovely structure, although the National Library holds a drawing that is an "alternative design" dated 1937 by photographer Sam Hood.

On the front of the building as it currently stands, facing Martin Place, is a figure on one bent knee holding a faggot. It is the same faggot that Mussolini used for warplane wings and flags following his switch from Communism to Fascism. In fact, the 'fascio' of the political system's name means 'faggot' in Italian.

The company was created in 1908 when the Citizens' Life Assurance Co (founded in 1886 by Irishman James Patrick Garvan, a friend of notorious toymaker and politician Henry Parkes) merged with the Mutual Life Association of Australia.

Garvan came to the colony in 1847. As an associate of Parkes he belonged to the class then referred to as the 'middling sort'. Parkes was vociferous against the resumption of transportation and was thus against William Charles Wentworth, a major sheep grazier.

The faggot is interesting, fitting within the tendency of the then-style of stripped classicism. Nevertheless, dating from the period immediately prior to hostilities in Europe, the symbolism is curious.

Parkes and his ilk were eager to slough off the 'taint' of convict history and tried to make themselves respectable.

It was an aspirational trend that inhered in the middle classes - the tradesmen, small traders, manufacturers, and lesser businessmen of Sydney. Among other things, they hoped that a self-sustaining economy would reduce the power of the squatters, whose Whiggish politics was already looking dated.

The 'new men' were the heralds of future growth. But one cannot just shuck off the notion that their desire for a 'healthy' and 'virile' society lent itself rather easily to interpretations we, now, tend to overlook.

Isobel Crombie's book, revewed here recently, is instructive. Intent on improving the 'race' and preventing 'degraded' folk (especially Irish ones) from coming to Australia, the ideas of the middle classes verge on being seen as some sort of (admittedly relatively benign) ethnic cleansing.

The building is an enduring illustration of many ideas Crombie develops in her book on the photographer Max Dupain.

After slouching around Martin Place, we visited the Museum of Sydney, near Circular Quay. As well as photojournalism exhibits (some very nice pieces by Trent Parke and his wife, Narelle Autio) they've got a permanent, interactive kiosk where you can hear the 'real' voices of early subjects. And see their faces, as 'imagined' by conservators.

Among them is a 'conservative amateur historian'. What you do, if you want to see him, and the others, is select two characters and listen to a pre-recorded conversation with a video component. Listening to this character discuss the 'realpolitik' of colonialism is to experience the disgust of the inner-city elites expressed in concrete form.

According to the caption under his (unfortunately) florid face, the man is convinced of the superiority of Western culture. This of course is WRONG.

Naturally eminent figures such as Parkes would agree with the amateur historian. But it is unfortunate that contemporary politics ("I never read Quadrant" etc) should cloud our understanding of what, in reality, is the emergence of a significant democracy.

As to whether Australia has its own 'style' of democracy, I'll need to read more. I think that Clover Moore would agree with the kiosk's authors. I wonder what Joe Cahill thought?

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