Conference paper given at the Adelaide Festival,


The Role of Art and Architecture.

The Perth skyline has changed dramatically over the past fifteen years and until recently the tallest building in the city was the Bond Tower (now Bankwest), at the top of which was stored the world's most expensive painting.The newest and now the tallest architectural icon on that skyline is the magnificent Central Park complex which houses on it's ground floor, one could be persuaded to believe, the world's cheapest painting. Since the area it it covers would otherwise have been faced with granite at the same cost, one could argue it cost almost nothing.

Returning to Australia in 1974 after a ten year absence in Europe my first impressions were that not much had changed in the Perth art scene. Painters were still putting elaborate frames around their pictures and a few post-modern sculptures were dotted around forecourts and footpaths. But it wasn't until about the mid eighties when deregulation and big money hit town that the city skyline did change rapidly and one of those changes was the demise of the rather wonderful old department store of Foy and Gibson built in 1902.

Walking frequently past the resulting large hole in the ground surrounded by the customary plywood fence and Cyclone gate I had no inkling that before long I would be invited to contribute in a small way to the Phoenix that rose from the ashes of Foy and Gibson.

In September of 1989 I was approached by the architects Forbes and Fitzhardinge and shown the plans of the proposed complex with the offer to make a series of artworks for the ground floor.

In a superb model of the proposed building the sites and dimensions were outlined and it became apparent that there was an opportunity here to dispense with the time-honoured convention (in Western Australia at least) of inserting into a designated space artworks of two and three dimensions used in most cases to adorn rather than integrate with the architecture.

Discussions then followed with the architects, the builder and the electrical engineer for the provision of suitable supports for the artworks - their suggestions included primed gyproc, fibreglass, mounted hessian or sections of marine ply.

As I had no wish to spend twelve months on scaffolding doing a Michelangelo, I looked for a more manageable concept.

Having experimented over many years with a variety of surface treatments and grounds such as reinforced flax, sheet steel, laminated paper and aluminium, I decided rather propitiously, as it turned out to use the aluminium laminate Alpolic which, in conjunction with banded tinted glass, is used on the external surfaces of the building.

After studying the model and noting the purity and simplicity of its forms I prepared a maquette using an offcut of the Alpolic laminate. It was my intention not to use decorative panels in isolation but to animate the entire surface of the West foyer wallspace, linking the work with the modular design of the interior and by using the same material through from the exterior to the interior.

The works are in two sections on the ground floor: the first in the main entry of the foyer covers the entire West wall to a height of 8.6 metres and faces the central lift housing; the second in the entrance from the park is comprised of four separate pieces of 4 x 5 metres, each of which has its own deep recess in the granite wall leading to the main foyer.

The natural demands of the space took my mind back to a series of abstract works I did in the mid seventies, based on the exploration and deconstruction of the square. Working in London at that time I was very much influenced by the work of the American abstractionists, particularly Frank Stella and Joseph Albers. The geometric formality and symmetry of Stella's large works intrigued me, while Albers' published work "The Interaction of Colour" was a constant reference point.

The thematic principle of my early paintings fitted easily into the metre-square format of the polished stone sections of the interior and it became clear that in opting for this solution my work would become almost seamlessly integrated with the architecture.

In January 1991 a contract was drawn up and a suitable studio space sought to reconcile if possible the physical needs and the budgetary strictures embodied in the project.

A detailed budget had been presented to the architects and client, which was accepted and approved. Curiously, the budget was also required to be submitted to the construction company.

I met with seven men in dark suits around a polished jarrah table and the chief executive of the financial division said that, before we start our presentation, there was something we all had to take into consideration. This was, he said, that the spaces allocated for the proposed artworks were in the original architects' plans, designated for polished granite, and as polished granite came in at a hundred and eighty dollars a square metre, fixed, my works should not exceed this figure. I looked at them in astonishment but the hard men just smiled back. We were not here to debate the difference between art and granite. So much for aesthetics!

It proved impossible to find a studio large enough to accommodate the size of the work within the budget, so a compromise was made and I rented a warehouse with a space at one end on which only a fifth of the major piece could be seen at any one time.

This meant that it would not be seen in its entirety until installation - working in the dark so to speak.

The Alpolic laminate is manufactured with an impervious surface so each panel had to be distressed and abraded for a tooth to bond the resin and marble dust primer. Muted colours were then brushed and troweled on, leaving parts of the aluminium bare to dramatise the geometric forms and create an optical diversion under lighting. More colour was then applied over the network of etched lines and the surfaces buffed with beeswax to counter the severity and coldness of the black and green granite.

The installation of the works was a major engineering feat. Each panel required a two millimetre expansion gap and great precision was necessary to fit the one hundred and thirty two panels into the 19 x 9 and 5 x 4 metre spaces. The individual panels were numbered with an arrow and fixed to a metal framework with strips of the extraordinary 3M double sided adhesive tape.

Doubting the tenacity or durability of the tape to hold this massive piece in place, I mentioned my concerns to one of the installers who told me that the Alpolic panels on the entire outer surfaces of the fifty one floors of the building were fixed in this way.

During the supervision of the installation we were visited each day by a small nuggety BLF member - hard hat, black shorts and big boots - who watched our progress with great interest. He asked me had I anything to do with all this and I admitted that I was involved - why? He looked puzzled then and said he'd been told that there was going to be art in here.

In November '93 there was an official launch and presentation of the artworks with food , wine and Palm Court orchestra. Reactions to the works were mixed - some likened the atmosphere of the foyer to a cathedral. A twenty-first century corporate cathedral perhaps?

Others felt the artworks humanised the spaces - countering the hardness of the granite while others, including the Arts editor of Radio National claimed that for them the works were spiritually uplifting.

A casual remark at the launch made by Art theorist Donald Brook , that the works were very beautiful but must not be mistaken for art, surprised many people, but delighted me because I had already reclassified it in my mind as a natural extension of the architecture.

In a paper published in 1967 in the July issue of the Current Affairs Bulletin Brook argues that: "Architecture and art could exist without each other; function and decoration on the contrary are inseparable. One must therefore resist the temptation to think of the architect's problems as functional and the artist's as decorative; architects and artists must wrestle as best they can with those slippery partners, function and decoration" end of quote.

Is the work in Central Park mere decoration or does it contribute functionally in some remote way in this busy centre of corporate enterprise?

Addressing the question put to the panel "Why should architects be restricted to producing a canvas for others to perform on or in?" I would reply that they should not be so restricted. And in response to the question "What need is there for intervention and embellishment ?" I suggest that the contemporary artist today is trained in the development of new ideas, in the manipulation of new materials and new technologies which the architect as a matter of convenience, and not as a matter of principle, is unlikely to have had the time and the energy to master for him- or herself.

The Central Park project was an important experience for me, for a number of reasons.

First, the opportunity of working on such an enormous scale with all the engineering and technical problems to solve. Next, the chance to collaborate with and complement the team of designers, engineers and architects which I found immensely rewarding.

Finally, the recognition that geometry in architecture used on such a scale can become lyrical.

This means that it is actually possible at the end of the millennium to develop a co-operative form that will elicit from viewers the surprising judgment that the foyer of a large corporate building in the centre of the Perth C.B.D. can become a place of spiritual contemplation.

Brian Mckay 1996