Peace drums in Europe

Peace drums In Europe

It was impossible to walk back far enough to see the building in perspective because it stood in its own tiny, almost private, square. Yet this Romanesque church that the guidebook had ignored demanded attention in its bulk and its beauty. A note on the church door scolded parents for allowing their children free rein within the church and regretted that, as a result, the church could only be opened for a few hours each day.

My companion had every right to be a bit sick of churches and abbeys but I quickly calculated that, doing all the other things that the day promised, we could still return this way during opening hours. We were rewarded. Impressive as it had been from the outside, within, this church soared. I do not have the words to describe the sense of nobility of the interior. All stone, and the colour—so light and golden—gave a feeling of spaciousness and grace, as if this building, so heavy outside, could simply float away. The place was stunning. One of those unexpected treasures that justify travel.

Even better, this church was in use. Churches work for me when they are used as their builders thought they would be used. There is a sense of time and effort fulfilled; they justify themselves and their makers.
When we entered the building, we found three rows of women at prayer. Sandwiched together when they might have spread out—six to a pew—for the warmth, I supposed. They were praying for peace, these women, in the middle of February, with the news from Washington resolutely bad. In a tiny French village, in a 12th-century church, in the face of a 21st-century war. If the church took my breath away, these women’s prayers forced me to sit down to think.

I had taught a unit on women and war all those years ago at university. Women and war had been a theme in two books I had written on the impact of war on the Australian people. I had worked on exhibitions around this idea at the Australian War Memorial and I had spoken about it on the radio often enough. For me it was a concept, another way of doing history. Here it was real.

When my brother had been conscripted for national service there were women from the Save Our Sons movement outside the Swan Street depot when he reported there to begin life as an Army barman. A paperback reprint of my book on Australians in the First World War featured a remarkable photograph of three women, one quite old, the other two very young, awaiting anxiously but lovingly the tortuous passage down from the troopship of their soldier, made blind in France.

When on battlefield tours, I take my travellers to the Peronne war memorial in northern France. Our troops fought in Peronne and at nearby Mont St Quentin, and we have our own memorials there. This one is from the local people. It shows a woman lying, but raising herself, above the slain body of her son. Fist clenched, arm raised in the direction of the viewer in anger—or perhaps revenge. A shocking image—not the sad digger we are used to, with arms reversed—but a woman enraged. This memorial shocks Australians in its savagery.

To understand it, we need to remember the cost of war to France in the 20th century. Millions of men killed, more driven insane or so badly injured physically as to render them useless for any normal life. This the outcome of that first war. Then war came again, as they knew it would, bringing defeat, invasion, occupation, humiliation. And you do not have to travel far around France to find a plaque remembering one who fought in the Resistance—deported, possibly, or executed there on the spot.

The women in the church at St Martin-de-Londres may have been thinking of these things as they said their prayers. They may have been thinking of the women of other nations for whom war would cause the anguish we can see at Peronne. They may merely have wanted to do something together lest they give way to despair.

A few days later we would see images of people from around the globe—from Canberra and London, Berlin and New York—all marching for peace, all trying to show that they can make a difference. Perhaps the women did not march at St Martin-de-Londres; perhaps they joined the march in Montpellier instead. But they had shown the need to be doing something and the purpose of a place so beautiful and so ancient. 

Michael McKernan

Irish visitor
Mary Mcaleese

In her twenties, Mary McAleese spent three years as a current affairs reporter and presenter with RTE, the Irish radio and television service. In a book to be published shortly, she describes her time at the station as ‘the worst part of my life’. She claims that there were four reasons why it was hard for her: she was northern, nationalist, Catholic and a woman.

When she ran for President of Ireland in 1997 to succeed the popular and successful Mary Robinson, these four aspects of her CV surfaced again. Being female was no drawback (all the other candidates were also women, except for a token man) while her quiet and committed Catholicism made her a safer choice than the bouncily charismatic Dana Rosemary Scanlon who was her main opponent. But being northern and nationalist were serious problems.

People in the south of Ireland regard northerners with a mixture of suspicion and glazed bafflement. Suspicion, because how could you tell which side they were on in the troubles up there, and what they might have done in support of their cause? Bafflement, because they are hardworking and thrifty and lack the devil-may-care, to-hell-with-tomorrow attitude of southerners. All of which is not helped by the famous northern reticence: ‘Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us,’ as Seamus Heaney put it.

I remember driving 350 km to a football game between Kerry and Down many years ago, and being amused to see groups of northern supporters sitting beside expensive cars near Croke Park drinking flask tea and eating sandwiches. My group was certainly not well off, but a few drinks and a proper sit-down meal in a two-star hotel were as much a part of the day as what happened on the field. (To add to our confusion, the northerners won the game!)

To come back to Mary McAleese. The only time she lost ground during the presidential election campaign was when newspapers suggested that she was soft on Sinn Féin and was friendly with Gerry Adams. Eamonn McCann, a left-wing journalist from Derry, put that in context when he wrote that her interest was not in Sinn Féin (We ourselves) but rather in mé féin (Me myself). In his acerbic way, he may have intended it to indicate self-centredness, but there is nothing in her record before or since to support such a charge. That it meant she was her own woman, capable of making her own decisions, is a much more credible meaning and in keeping with what we know about McAleese.

It was easy to assume that she would be sympathetic to Sinn Féin. She was born in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, a noted nationalist enclave surrounded by Protestant housing estates. Although hers was not the grinding poverty depicted by Louis MacNeice in his home town of Carrickfergus:

The Scotch Quarter was a line of   residential houses But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the  blind and halt,there was much in official government  policy that wished such fate on second-class citizens like the McAleese family.

She was a teenager when the burnings and riots broke out in the late ’60s and knew the intimidation and fear of her besieged neighbours. The oldest of nine children, she was a surrogate mother to many of them, including her profoundly deaf brother who was badly beaten by a loyalist gang.

Home duties did not leave much time for schoolwork, but she excelled at her Catholic all-girls school on the Falls Road and won a scholarship to Queen’s University. A first class honours degree, a call to the Bar in Dublin as well as Belfast, Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin—a post previously held by Mary Robinson—journalist in RTE, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, member of the Institute of Linguists in London, and finally selection ahead of David Trimble as pro-vice-chancellor of her old university in Belfast all brought her a long way from the dead end which was the fate of many of her contemporaries. Add marriage in 1975, daughter Emma and twins Sara Mai and Justin and you have a picture of someone who could balance home and career without compromising either.

Whatever her background, if there is one thing that has characterised Mary McAleese’s six years as president it is her commitment to reconciliation and harmony. At her inauguration she quoted one of her predecessors, Cearbhaill O Dalaigh: ‘Presidents under the Irish Constitution don’t have policies. But a President can have a theme.’ As her theme, she chose ‘Building Bridges’. As good as her word, one of her first public acts was to attend a Church of Ireland service and take communion. Catholic authorities were outraged, but not enough to take on either the public’s approval of her action or her formidable knowledge of canon law.

Although she has supported the ordination of women and the full inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church, McAleese is not the stirrer that herpredecessor Mary Robinson was. She is deeply religious, believes in the power of prayer and meditation and has written an inspiring book on the subject, Love in Chaos: Spiritual Growth and the Search for Peace in Northern Ireland.

She is more at ease with people than the patrician Robinson; more unaffected and outgoing. While Robinson was someone to be admired for her courage and respected for her intellect, McAleese is loved for her naturalness and warmth—precisely the qualities that Ulster needs to show the rest of Ireland and that Ireland still represents to a fretful world. 

Frank O’Shea

Travellers’ tales
Moving on in Ireland

County Wicklow, immediately south of Dublin, is promoted as the ‘Garden of Ireland’, and when you follow the lanes that meander through the chain of towns spreading south along the coast from Bray, it’s easy to understand why. For a long time the preserve of Anglo-Irish gentry (and not a few wealthy Catholics), it abounds in lush estates with high walls and magnificent, centuries-old trees. One branch of the Guinness family has a whole mountain valley to itself, complete with lake; the Delgany golf club now occupies the estate of the Huguenot banker who founded Deloitte Touche.

It’s a natural roosting place for much of the new wealth of Ireland. From Dun Laoghaire south, BMWs and Volvos jostle each other in the narrow shopping streets, and the slopes from Bray to Wicklow town are increasingly carpeted with plush new housing estates. Prices for identikit three-bedroom brick homes would make much of harbourside Sydney seem affordable. High streets boast good restaurants and shops well stocked with luxury comestibles (including no small quantity of high-end Australian wines).

The droppings of the Celtic tiger have also littered the landscape: Wicklow has achieved a certain notoriety for illegal rubbish dumps, as Dublin has grown faster than its service infrastructure and dangerous hospital waste has ended up in open tips. Farmers have been paid to turn a blind eye. The hospitals in question don’t ask where disposal contractors take the waste the hospitals give them.
The worst abuses have gradually been curbed, not without some very high-profile scandals. But at a lower level, the system still struggles in its efforts to deal with the by-products of the new affluence, and here the Travelling people—probably the most vulnerable section of the whole population—have often been caught in the middle.

The Travellers’ claim to pre-date the Celts in Ireland seems well founded: the 30 thousand-strong community has a distinctive gene pool, and their speech is studded with words of Pictish origin, which can (at times conveniently) make it impenetrable to outsiders. Many of the economic niches in which they previously survived—seasonal agricultural work, repairing pots and pans—have disappeared. Travellers have always been convenient scapegoats, the contrast between their nomadic—and to outside eyes, disordered—way of life and the increasing affluence of many of the settled people making them even more likely to be targets of condemnation.

I went with a community worker friend on her rounds of some of the halting sites which are supposed to provide basic amenities for Travellers’ caravans as they follow their circuits, which don’t conveniently tie in with county boundaries. There are concrete toilet and shower blocks, power points and partition walls to designate individual families’ sites.

This one was surrounded with a metre-high ring of rubbish: garden waste, old fridges, building debris. Jagged bits of asbestos sheeting lay in the open near where children were playing. A glimpse was enough to confirm to passers-by the received wisdom—that Travellers are dirty and shiftless. But when I talked to a group of women from the site, a rather different story emerged. A small amount of rubbish was originally left there by men linked to the community, but not living on this site (one of the few things Travellers can make a living from these days is the disposal of hard waste). But the pile soon grew into a mountain, as local people saw a convenient place to dump their rubbish, with every likelihood of its being traced back to the Travellers rather than to ‘respectable’ householders. The women were distressed about the danger to their children, worried they might injure themselves on the mounds of sharp and rusty waste, be bitten by rats, or catch diseases from the rotting kitchen scraps.

We were invited into several caravans on this and other sites—each one spotlessly clean, and intimidatingly neat. ‘It’s like a tinker’s caravan in here’ is the term Irish mothers will most often use to express disgust at the state of their children’s bedrooms. From all I saw that day, and from what friends who’ve worked with the community over time reported, the old saying bears little relation to the way the Travellers actually live. They’re also often tritely condemned as parasitic. In fact, the picture that emerges is more often one of family solidarity, and heroic efforts made to care for sick and disabled relatives with no call on outside assistance.

At the end of the day’s circuit, we came back over the hills to Delgany. In really clear weather, you can see Wales from the top of this green rampart. This was hazy spring, a riot of fuchsia and daisies and bluebells among the emerald, but we could still see far out into the Irish Sea. By the time we reached the bottom of the slope, there was evidence of nothing but tranquil affluence. The uncomfortable truths that Travellers, asylum seekers, and the new proletariat of eastern European contract workers might tell about this society could be safely ignored. 

Mark Deasey

Deep structure
All the way with DNA

Literary critics are apt to hyperbolise about the enduring resonance, down the decades, of the door that Nora Helmer slammed at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Fifty years ago, another door was opened and the sound that it created has not stopped swelling since. That metaphorical door was a surprisingly brief paper in Nature, on 25 April 1953, in which the Englishman, Francis Crick, and his younger American colleague, James Watson, announced their discovery of the structure of DNA—an achievement for which they won the Nobel Prize in 1962.


Their paper was, in some respects, as disingenuous as it was short. The history of scientific interest in DNA is long, however, and many people had been striving to prise open that door, especially in the previous 20 years. While Watson and Crick emerged as the victors, some of their actions were decidedly ignoble. In his solipsistic and famous (even notorious) account of the story, The Double Helix, Watson said of his colleague (clearly, the more intelligent of the pair), ‘I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood’. Nor Watson himself, one might riposte. This shared characteristic blurred their ethical vision: they had no scruples about appropriating other scientists’ work.

For example, through reading the letters of the renowned American chemist Linus Pauling to his son Peter (a PhD student in their Cambridge laboratory), they knew far more of his work—its successes and its errors—than they had any right to. They also discovered the crucial, precise details of the outstanding experiments of Dr Rosalind Franklin at Kings College, London. Franklin employed the powerful technique of X-ray crystallography, which involved beaming the rays into DNA crystals and looking at the shadow pattern which emerged—akin to discerning the regular arrangement of trees in an orchard by looking at their shadows cast by floodlight or sun. These patterns prove to be specific molecular fingerprints and can as precisely identify a molecular structure as an aroma, or the pattern of walking or the sound of a voice can identify a person. They acquired Franklin’s data when their ingenuous colleague (and fellow Nobel Laureate) Dr Max Perutz, a member of an external team to review research at Kings, unthinkingly divulged it to them. Without it they simply could not have built their model, but at least they were astute enough to recognise its worth instantly.

So in the end it was not the case that Watson and Crick do not deserve their fame; rather it was that, in bitter circumstances (especially because Rosalind Franklin died of cancer only a few years later), a brilliant female scientist has been denied her legitimate share of that renown. Sooner rather than later (and this was an aspect of Watson’s anxiety), someone would have lighted upon the solution: all of the pieces of this scientific jigsaw puzzle were to hand.

The revelation of that molecular structure has allowed an enormous number of scientific questions to be asked (and, in many cases, answered), many of them simply not previously conceivable.

One of these is the basic question of inheritance. We now know that DNA is a double helix (like an elaborate corkscrew) with four vital and variable compounds (purine and pyrimidine bases) attached to two sugar-phosphate backbones. The mosaic of those bases forms the code that determines the detail of all of the proteins in our body. Four may seem a tiny number to explain all of this diversity but we should consider how rich a code Morse is, with only two elements (a dot and a dash), or the binary system upon which computers operate. In fact, the code works in triplets of these bases, each specifying a specific amino acid constituent of proteins, so 64 combinations are possible. As there are only 20 relevant amino acids—with structure and function determined by the number of amino acids and their sequence in the protein polymers—it is clear that the possibilities of DNA coding are almost limitless (as with a vocabulary built from combinations of 26 letters). A single error, though—however it is initiated—will change the protein, perhaps with serious functional consequences (as in cystic fibrosis).

We now know that the double helical structure is replicated for cell division. The chemical bonds between the two twirls are broken (like sawing through the treads of a spiral staircase) and then each strand acts as a template to allow the production of a complementary copy. Sectors of DNA can be read off and decoded to allow the development of the daughter cells.

Everyone knows of the remarkable use being made of DNA ‘fingerprints’ in forensic investigation and, if vaguely, of the often exaggerated promises made by entrepreneurial scientists and clinicians for cures to a variety of serious diseases. Between the promise and the reality there falls a considerable shadow.

What is less known is the contribution that this modern biochemistry has made to our understanding of evolution. Some proteins—and thus the DNA from which they are coded—have been incredibly constant in their structure. For example, there is a group of proteins called histones, which are tightly bound to DNA in the cell nucleus and which probably exert an influence on the degree to which the DNA can be read off (‘transcribed’ as biochemists term it) and replicated. In one of these histones, only two amino acids out of 102 differ between cells of peas and the thymus gland of calves (a much studied
tissue). As the great biochemist Lubert Stryer commented, this suggests ‘a critical role that was established early in the evolution of nucleated cells and has remained nearly invariant since then’.

There are many other important proteins whose structure and operations have also varied little over the evolutionary aeons: proteins which act as channels for the flow of electric current in and out of cells are more than 75 per cent the same between jellyfish and human beings. In yet other cases, changes in proteins have allowed us to map evolution and to refine our taxonomy of plants and animals.

Haemoglobin, the red pigment which allows our blood to carry oxygen, has been the subject of a dizzying number of point mutations (changes of individual amino acids) which radically alter its capacity to bind oxygen—hence the plethora of ‘haemoglobinopathies’. Studies of the changes in its multi-strand protein structure (and hence which sectors of our DNA are expressed or repressed) during the course of our foetal development have shed light on our evolutionary history.

It is now clear that some parts of our DNA inheritance are ‘expressed’ and others are not—some are ‘intruder’ sequences while others are relics of apparently redundant genes. As Stryer puts it, ‘We see in our genomes both the mighty and the fallen’. So if DNA was, as many have said, the molecule of the 20th century, there is every prospect that its tantalising code and immense potential will make it the molecule of the 21st century as well. This is simply because, however philosophers may fret about it, the meaning of life is surely to guarantee the triumphant march of DNA down the generations.

John Carmody

Counter-terrorism kits
New alertness and old fears

The federal government’s ‘counter-terrorism kit’ is an odd mix of practical advice, self-congratulation, and alarming pictures of people being hosed down in the event of a chemical or biological attack. It provokes reflection on the way Australians feel about this post-Bali-bombing world. It is easy to see Bali as a defining moment: a ‘loss of national innocence’. Yet it seems to me, as an historian, that our current fears reach deep into our national history. Events like Bali reinforce some very old anxieties indeed.

I am sometimes bemused by the ready comparisons made between John Howard’s time in government and the heyday of Menzies in the 1950s and early 1960s. To be sure, there are parallels: Howard’s opponents on the left denigrate him for small-minded conservatism, for his patent lack of ease with Asia, his stiff and unconvincing salutes to multiculturalism. Howard himself, on the other hand, is proud of the comparison. He looks back to a time of prosperity and confidence. Where Menzies congratulated himself on representing the ‘forgotten people’, Howard sees himself as standing for ‘ordinary Australians’.

But the 1950s and early 1960s were very different times from our own. There was a powerful rural lobby, confident that the country vote was central to national life. New houses, new neighbours, new jobs and new babies were central to the lives of many ‘ordinary Australians’. Despite the narrowness of cultural and political life in Australia, the postwar period was also a time of national expansion and an influx of European migrants. The foundations of a modern, secular and diverse nation were being laid, in spite of the insularity of a conservative, Anglophile establishment.

It is true that Menzies’ artful use of Cold War fears for domestic political purposes, and his cultivation of the United States as a ‘great and powerful friend’, are reminiscent of our own time. But the Howard years are an echo of a much older Australia again: the newly federated and insecure nation of the early 20th century.

The parallels are many. After the florid boom of the 1880s, and the terrible bust of the 1890s, Australians were a chastened lot. There was plenty of verve and excitement about Federation of course, but the undercurrents of fear and anxiety were never far away. The nation seemed caught in a pincer grip: a small population, an arid continent, and ‘teeming’ neighbours to the north. A spate of popular novels between 1890 and the First World War played on this sense of an ‘unguarded North’. They elaborated scenarios in which secret settlements of Japanese or Malay invaders might be set up in the Northern Territory as an advance party for a total invasion.

In the rhetoric of the Empty North, racial fears were brought to life in vivid metaphors of corruption, infiltration, even impregnation of the nation by alien seed. We are no longer comfortable with the language of racial purity, so now such fears are phrased in terms of ‘way of life’, ‘values’ and ‘Australian-ness’. As Peter Mares has written (in Borderline, UNSW Press, pp27–28), illegal immigrants are now described either as a ‘flood’ that will ‘swamp’ Australia, or as a contagious menace that will ‘infect’ the nation, either with fanatical ideas, or literally with the dirt and disease of the outside world. The ‘terrorist cell’ is the new cancer in the body politic.

In his cover letter to the counter-terrorism kit, Howard claims that ‘as a people we have always engaged the world optimistically … our open friendly nature makes us welcome guests and warm hosts’. He is quite wrong. We have often excluded, not engaged the world; we have frequently done this anxiously, not optimistically. We may have been welcome guests, but we have certainly been most ungracious hosts at various times in our history, not least the present.

Granted, our insecurities about national borders are not unfounded: we have an enormous coastline, a very small population, and highly volatile, overpopulated islands to our north. Hardly surprising that we look now, as we did a century ago, to three remedies: the patrolling of national boundaries, the cultivation of powerful friends, and the encouragement of a larger, but still ‘truly Australian’, population.

These salves to our national insecurities were all first mooted in the early 20th century. When America’s magnificent naval fleet visited in 1908, the United States was courted by Alfred Deakin as an ally, to Britain’s evident displeasure. Deakin foresaw that the United States would be Australia’s great Pacific ally, just as Howard has stated these past weeks that the alliance with the United States is more important to Australia than our loyalty to the United Nations.

It was in 1901 that the Immigration Restriction Act was passed, intended to prevent the infiltration of the population by alien races and cultures. Migration was strictly limited to those who would blend imperceptibly into ‘Australian-ness’. The early decades of the 20th century saw the gulf between city and country give rise to mutual bewilderment and political difference—acute enough in the 1920s to provoke the creation of underground rural militias. The rhetoric of rural politics of the 1920s is eerily reminiscent of the xenophobic, anti-Aboriginal, nationalistic views of Hansonite politics today.

In 1901–1902, population anxieties reached such a pitch that the New South Wales government set up a Royal Commission into the declining birth rate. The Commission blamed middle-class women, with their small families, for the decline. In 1999, when Jeff Kennett remarked to an assembly at a girls’ selective high school—perhaps facetiously—that they had a duty to bear children, he was roundly criticised as a regressive sexist, but his views have since been echoed by people like Malcom Turnbull, and the many others who are anxious about our low population growth and our ageing population.

I find it hard to listen to such rhetoric when a conservative federal government (with bipartisan support) devotes hundreds of millions of dollars each year to excluding and imprisoning illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. We stumble, as we have done for over a hundred years, along a fine line between holding fast to our ‘Australian-ness’ (once exclusively white, now defined by ‘lifestyle’ and ‘values’) and our need to open the door—at least to prop it ajar—to the world in order to populate the continent and maintain a vigorous national culture.

Like John Howard, I enjoy being Australian. This seems to me a very fine place in which to practise a life of enquiry and personal freedom. There are powerful drives towards tolerance, open-mindedness, optimism, and vitality in our history, alongside the anxieties and fears. However, I am wary when politicians start treating national security and individual freedom as symbiotic partners, as this government does in the new counter-terrorism kit. The need to control and police a population, and the desire to safeguard individual liberty, are indeed related, but they also strike me as natural enemies, to be carefully weighed against one another.

The fortress mentality of early 20th-century Australia was no protection against the bitterness of the First World War and the Great Depression. Our openness to postwar migration has immeasurably enriched our society. Is it possible that we can draw on our history of tolerance and generosity in facing this ‘new and more dangerous’ world, rather than reverting to the well-trodden path of national bluster and insecurity? 

Brigid Hains

Circling the square
Federation space

When I arrived in Melbourne in late 2000, it seemed every cultural institution was closed for renovation or under construction. Of these projects-in-progress, none grabbed the headlines as did
Federation Square.

‘Fed Square’ (as it has been popularly truncated) was designed by Lab architect studio of London and Bates Smart of Melbourne, beating 177 other entries in an international competition. Its position—adjacent to buildings of such cultural and architectural significance as Flinders Street Station and St Paul’s Cathedral—meant this could never be a low-key addition to the city. It seemed a week couldn’t go by without some aspect being publicly debated—especially the revised completion dates and wildly escalating budgets (quadrupled to $450 million at last count). The fractured, triangular shapes behind the hoardings were described with everything from hostility to suspicion to optimism but never, it seemed, with outright, unabashed enthusiasm.

In mid-2002, I left Melbourne.

When I returned last month, opinions on Fed Square had not exactly shifted, but they’d altered in volume. There are still criticisms, but muttered rather than proclaimed. People whose views had been reserved have become more vocal and positive since the square’s opening in December. Some of the commercial tenants have not moved in, a few areas are still fenced off, scaffolding is still in place on some exteriors and pay disputes with subcontractors threaten to put back completion dates. Nonetheless, much of the square is functioning and I was curious finally to walk around what I had known only as an unruly, contentious construction site.

The buildings, with their fractured exteriors, form a ramshackle collection—cohesive but far from uniform. Large sections (most notably the huge atrium that forms the Flinders Street entrance to the square) are made up entirely of a geometric web of steel, filled in with glass. Other buildings are resolutely solid. This diversity is fitting for a site that commemorates the coming together of a nation of so many different peoples.

Colour extends the diversity: grey and pink concrete, reflective steel, green glass and the dappled red, orange and purple sandstone paving of the square itself. These form a pleasant contrast to the ochre of Flinders Street Station opposite, a coherence with St Paul’s (which, in an apparent gesture of solidarity, is currently also clad in scaffolding) and chromatic relationship with the Moorish oddity of the Forum Theatre. These other buildings are also incorporated into Fed Square by nooks and crannies that create peepholes and frames through which you can view other details of the city. The effect is surprisingly
harmonious.

It has been heralded as the structure that will bring the city to the river. Some of the riverside areas are still fenced off but even so, there is a sense that, in keeping its eye on these other buildings, Fed Square has rather turned its back on the river. The Edge, a concert hall, seems the exception. Like the atrium, it is encased only in steel and glass and so has both an indoor and outdoor quality, with views of trees, the Yarra, and the rowing club opposite.

There are two other main non-commercial cultural institutions within the square. One is the Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI), with a cinema and a gallery dedicated to film, video and other moving media—apparently a world first. Each offers an excellent program. The other—and most anticipated—is the Ian Potter Centre: the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, now fully operational.

After seeing the works in the Potter (some for the first time), I’d challenge anyone to dispute that this excellent collection of Australian art deserves both its new home and constant display.
For the most part, the exhibition spaces are light and spacious and uncluttered. Subtle detailing in the wooden floors and predominantly white walls allow the work to take priority. Several features from the external structures are repeated in the interior: angularity, the use of steel and concrete, the windows which frame views of the city. These are not entirely successful.

The public entry point of a gallery can be used in two main ways. It can showcase significant artworks or it can highlight the building itself. The ground level view of the sweeping spiral form of New York’s Guggenheim in New York does the latter. The first interior view of the Ian Potter is a large space of polished concrete and jutting angles without anything very art-specific in it. More than anything, it resembles the foyer of a smart minimalist hotel.

Viewing artworks can be a physically and mentally tiring process, something many galleries acknowledge by providing places to sit and rest. The Ian Potter has such spaces between main galleries. Some offer windows or sculptural works to view. However, with a lack of natural light and an excess of concrete, they are more like forbidding waiting rooms than comfortable resting places. In this they are reminiscent of the work of the architectural theorist Daniel Libeskind, whose design was recently selected for the World Trade Centre site memorial in New York City. Libeskind is associated with the architects of Fed Square and was on the judging panel that selected their design. The acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Libeskind in 1998, uses the concepts of absence, emptiness, and the invisible to create ‘voids’: enclosed concrete spaces. In the context of that museum the effect is contemplative and emotional. In the Ian Potter it seems needlessly sombre. Again, with the river and trees so close, it seems curious that the view was not better exploited.

Without many external landmarks visible, the interior spaces in the Potter, and indeed throughout the square, can be disorienting. This is not an absolute criticism, however. In a time when much contemporary architecture is derided for banality there is something refreshing in this. What can at times seem confusing or disorganised also gives a sense of exploration and discovery that a more conventional design could never do.


It’s been a long time coming and was not cheap when it finally arrived, but Fed Square succeeds far more often than it falters. It is not easy; it is a series of buildings and interiors that presents a decided challenge to visitors—but a stimulating and diverting one. It is already established as a ‘people place’—in one week hosting a dawn screening of a soccer match and the largest protest the city has ever seen.

Even when there is no event taking place, the cafés, galleries and open spaces are full of people. If there can be an objective sign of success, then that, surely, is it.   

Pip Robertson

This month’s contributors: Michael McKernan is a broadcaster and author, most recently of This War Never Ends: The Pain of Separation and Return (University of Queensland Press, 2001); Frank O’Shea teaches at Marist College Canberra; Mark Deasey is regional manager/Asia for Oxfam Community Aid Abroad; John Carmody is in the School of Medical Science, University of NSW; Brigid Hains is an historian and author of The Ice and the Inland: Mawson, Flynn and the Myth of the Frontier (Melbourne University Press, 2002); Pip Robertson is an artist, writer and teacher originally from New Zealand.

 

 

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