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Musing on the material

[Harmonious proportions] arouse, deep within us and beyond our sense, a resonance, a sort of sounding board which begins to vibrate. An indefinable trace of the Absolute which lies in the depth of our being. This sounding board which vibrates in us is our criterion of harmony. This is indeed the axis on which man is organised in perfect accord with nature and probably with the universe.

Le Corbusier

This fabulous quote by one of the great figures of modernist architecture is my springboard for today’s blog. It’s a beautiful statement, rich with meaning, and I want to touch on some aspects of it.

Le Corbusier is talking about architecture, but his ideas extrapolate to any artform, any endeavour that puts us in touch with that something which is greater than our selves.

Whenever I get down to Canberra, I always try to drop by the High Court building and spend at least a few minutes in the public hall. To sit silently for ten minutes on a comfortable sofa and gaze up into the cavernous atrium, absorbing the space all around me, fills me with a deep peace. I feel that peace now just thinking about it.

Like a cathedral, it gets you the moment you step inside. But, for me at least, churches are loaded with imagery and memories that disturb and confuse me. In comparison, the High Court foyer is primarily an aesthetic experience. It has the grandeur and height typical of court buildings the world over that are designed to express power. Here I feel reverence without the intimidation.

Main atrium, High Court, Canberra (Photo: Joe Lewit)

The space, the light, and the acoustic all contribute. But also the material. Architecture is essentially a relationship between material and space: the former defines the latter. In a sense, space does not exist without the presence of material to give it ‘form’.

But space is not just ‘nothing’. The Buddha said that experiencing space is nothing but entering into infinite consciousness.

In his breathtaking 2019 book, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Tyson Yunkaporta talks about the significance of space in Indigenous thinking. ‘[The Greeks] viewed space as lifeless and empty between the stars; our own stories represented those dark areas as living country…’ Dark Emu – the dark shape that stretches across the southern night sky where stars are absent – is filled with spiritual power.

The next time you look at a favourite tree, try looking at the space between the branches rather than the branches themselves.

Piet Mondrian, Grey Tree (1911), Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Netherlands.

In the High Court building, the mass of the construction is palpable – sure, it’s cold concrete, but the bush-hammering somehow makes it silky soft. The building is an example of Brutalist architecture, a style inaugurated by Le Corbusier himself. The term brutalism is misleading in English; it is really about truth to materials – allowing the nature of materials to speak for themselves.

Le Corbusier, Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, France. (Photo: Cemal Emden)

I wonder if this change of direction for Le Corbusier was a minor reversal in the march of modernism: having vanquished gravity through the innovations of steel and reinforced concrete, Brutalism gives a backward glance to the tradition of monumental mass.

‘Progress’ is one of the great products of the Enlightement. It is a double-edged sword. To create something new you generally have to let go of something old. This can be acceptable to a culture only when the value in the traditional is no longer recognised, when ‘old’ has become simply ‘in need of replacement’.

I realise now that most of the buildings which really stir my soul employ massive materials to some degree. Lightweight, manufactured materials – steel frames, sheet metal, plasterboard, glass, plastic – don’t seem to affect me in the same way. Is it just me? Or does our ancestral mind pine for the reassuring enclosure of a cave?

Mass production has largely devalued material to a matter economics; uneconomic material goes in the skip. As a builder once told me, ‘If in doubt, throw it out.”

In the words of another wise old bird:

To be fully human, one must be an artist. Our culture does not value this. We value efficiency, economy and function. Therefore, we create ugly things out of our values. Mass production is irresistible because it makes things so cheap, but we lose a part of our humanity.

John Daniel

Okay, so I’m biased – John is my brother. He and his wife Lynn run the Kindlehill School, a Steiner-based school in Wentworth Falls, NSW.

A number of years ago they constructed a new building at the school which makes great use of organic shapes, traditional materials, construction methods and integrated artworks. There is something special about Steiner school rooms – they just make you want to be a child again. This new building is full of that magic.

Kindlehill School, Wentworth Falls, NSW. (Photos: John Daniel)

The human-environment relationship was front and centre.

“The artistic brings us into relationship to our environment and to each other,” John explains. “Whatever we make, be it a shirt or a house or a bucket, if it is made by a human expressing their humanity then it will reflect the spiritual.

“When we did our building at the school, we spoke to the children about the essential building ingredient: the love and good will of all of those people involved – built into the straw and the mud and the timber. It is the spiritual within the material.

“In our life on Earth, we live within the material – we shape it, it injures us, we struggle with it, it temps us, but it is also maya. It is the field of our endeavour, but the endeavour is not about the material, it is about being human, meeting your destiny through your relationship to other beings and the beingness of the world.”

We’re just scratching the surface of this one. Expect to hear more.

Kindlehill School. (Photo: John Daniel)

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