Sunday, 5 November 2017

A tour of the Reserve Bank of Australia

“Planned for progress,” boasts the PR video made for the launch of the Reserve Bank of Australia building, at 65 Martin Place. The building was designed by the government architect through the NSW Department of Public Works.

To develop their ideas for the building, the architects visited New York where they saw the Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and which incorporated ideas out of the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany. The Bauhaus was founded by visionary Walter Gropius with the aim of creating culture from the same otherwise destructive technologies that had led to WWI. The school prized undecorated simplicity. The Bauhaus teachers moved to the US and taught, spreading their aesthetic after the Nazis, who didn’t like their style, shut them down at home.

The construction of the RBA building was presaged by the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1959, but Nugget Coombs, who was the RBA’s first governor and had been the governor of its predecessor, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, started buying modern art for its collection earlier. The RBA collection has a Grace Cossington Smith interior purchased in 1955, even before the painter had achieved the fame that was to accrue to her in later years.

Coombs believed that culture was a potent means of communicating certain ideas to the public. He started the RBA’s national collection of paintings, which has around 700 pieces in it, and many are found on floor 11 of the building, which is where the conference room that is used for the RBA’s monthly meeting is located. Today, floor 11 was open to the public and I ventured up through the marble-lined hallways to see it. John Murphy, the RBA’s curator, took us through the rooms.

There is a Brett Whiteley painting of a lyrebird, a Sidney Nolan painting of a man on a camel, and two Clifton Pughs, including one showing a lizard eating a butterfly.

The new building had 375,000 feet of gross floor area. Construction involved the installation of 110,000 sq ft of Australian marble and granite. For the outside – again, borrowing an idea from the Seagram Building, which had a Juan Miro sculpture outside it installed on a plaza – a competition was hosted for a piece of freestanding sculpture. It was won by sculptor Margel Hinder, an American immigrant. Hinder was frequently asked what her design represented and she always replied that it was purely abstract.

Lyndon Dadswell was the runner-up. Bim Hilder (son of the artist JJ Hilder) designed the abstract forms in the vestibule. Gordon Andrews designed the bank’s logo, and it also was designed to be purely abstract. Fred Ward designed the furniture used in the bank, on commission.

The building was finished in 1965. It has a transparent curtain wall on the fa├žade facing Martin Place. Coombs wanted a contemporary building in the international style and the RBA was designed to be free of any reference to previous styles. Coombs wanted the bank to be open to what was happening in the community. It was seen at the time as part of Modernism. Coombs thought the bank’s appearance reflected its role. When he retired, the RBA’s staff gave him a Leonard French painting. Collecting of art by the bank unfortunately stopped in 1975.

The bank’s public messages around ideas of Modernism entered into the clash within the artistic community between figurative and abstract styles, which centred on the Antipodeans.

The original central bank – the Commonwealth Bank of Issue, Deposit, Exchange and Reserve – was established by the Australian Labor Party In 1912. In 1910, The Australian Notes Act had passed through Parliament, enabling the issue of the country’s first banknotes. Before that, notes issued by private banks were legal tender. Australia in those early days adhered to the gold standard, which meant that all banks had to hold enough gold in their vaults so that people could redeem the value on the face of the banknotes they gave out, for gold if they wanted.

The Commonwealth Bank was opened in 1916, and it was a major event. The bosses on the facade of the building have the coats of arms of the Australian states. The war was on, and by 1915 England had called on Australia for funding for the war effort, which was its first job as the central bank. 250 million pounds were raised, 50 million more than were asked for.

The first notes were 10 shillings (showing a depiction of water), 1 pound (mining), 5 pounds (fishing), 10 pounds (wheat), 20 pounds (timber), 100 pounds (waterfalls on the Yarra River and at Leura), and 50 and 1000 pounds (wool).

There was another notes issue in 1923/24 then another in 1933, when manufacturing appeared for the first time, on the 10 shilling note.

Gordon Andrews also did the design for the new currency that was issued in 1966, when the country went metric. There is, for example, an abstract representation of flight on the original $20 note.

Above: A crowd assembles outside the Commonwealth Bank of Australia on the bank's opening in 1916.

Above two images: Scenes from a PR video produced to mark the opening of the RBA building in 1965.

Above: A watercolour showing the RBA board room.

The RBA's foyer wall design designed by Bim Hilder. It articulates the bank's logo, which was designed by Gordon Andrews.

Above: The runner-up in the RBA's sculpture competition, by Lyndon Dadswell.

Above: The freestanding sculpture outside the RBA, designed by Margel Hinder.

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