ARCHITECTURE FOR SALE


Two fine and unusual buildings are for sale in Victoria. One ought not to be. For the other a sale will probably lead to long overdue repairs and restoration.

The building in need of restoration is a large nineteenth-century country house called Mintaro, on the edge of the hamlet of Monegeetta, 56 kilometres north of Melbourne. It is about as close to derelict as a building can be and still be partly habitable. Mintaro was built in 1882 in the Italianate style popular in Victoria's boom years and has arcaded logge and a high tower characteristic of that style. There is a fanciful theory that it was to some extent modelled on Government House in Melbourne, completed six years earlier, but although the tower bears a vague resemblance to that of the vice-regal palace, the rest of Mintaro is no more like Government House than a host of plutocratic mansions of the era.

The architect of Mintaro was James Gall, who designed three similar houses, in East Melbourne, at Canterbury and Murchison; the client a Captain Robert Gardiner, a Scot who had made fortune whaling at Portland, trading in gold and grazing sheep and cattle. He clearly intended Mintaro and its estate as a showpiece of his wealth. The house has a grand staircase hall along with ten principal rooms (plus smaller rooms for servants and a cellar). Some of the rooms are sumptuously decorated. There are elegant Corinthian columns in scagliola, that is, plasterwork painted to imitate marble. There are floors of beautiful and intricately patterned Minton tiles, grand Italian marble fireplaces and intricate cornice and ceiling mouldings. Some rooms have fine wall stencilling and wall paintings. A painted sequence in the drawing room illustrates the pursuits by which Gardiner made his fortune and there is some delicate painting of flowers and birds and scenes from his Scottish homeland. All this decor is of a more elaborate kind than is generally found in country mansions in Victoria. Yet Mintaro is little known and few these days can claim to have seen inside it.

Captain Gardiner enjoyed his house for only seven years before he died. There were several subsequent owners and then a period of institutional use by the Methodist Church as a girls' home. In 1934 the property was bought by Mr Percy Rea for fattening sheep. He died in 1940 and the next year the army gave notice to his widow and son to leave and took over the house as a barracks. Mrs Rea and her son Derek were allowed to return to their home in 1946.

In the decades that followed Mintaro became steadily more dilapidated. When Mrs Rea died in her nineties Derek inherited and lived their alone. He lived in one room and slept in another while the mansion went to pieces over his head. But he was not a hermit. One of the few death notices after he died in his sleep in October 2010, himself well into his eighties, recalled pleasant times with "music, tea and biscuits" in his kitchen. He was a good pianist and played the concert grand that was kept in the drawing room. He was a supporter of the local fire brigade and an old-car enthusiast. In fact, the grounds of Mintaro, which in the house's earlier days were laid out as formal gardens, were like a vast car yard in Mr Rea's later years, though most of the vehicles, sold en masse in an auction soon after his death, looked fit only for the wrecker. At his funeral in the nearby town of Romsey, a cortege of vintage cars followed the hearse from the church to the graveyard.

The original Mintaro "run" was 12,800 acres. The land for sale now extends to 24 acres. Trees screen the house from the main road, though not thickly enough to screen out the view - from the house - of a dreary industrial-looking Department of Defence site right next door, compulsorily acquired from the Reas in 1941 for the army and absolutely inappropriate to a country setting. Perhaps, given the Federal Government's financial attitude to the armed forces, it will not be there forever.

Mr Rea's executors are selling Mintaro at auction on 15 November. The reserve price is $3 million, but it will cost at least as much again to put it into good order. One must hope that whoever buys it respects its integrity and does not fill it with jacuzzi and other vulgar contemporary contrivances alien both to the spirit and the decor of a nineteenth-century country house.

The building that ought not to be for sale, if commonsense and responsibility prevailed and fitness of use were taken into account, is one of Melbourne's - and perhaps even Australia's - finest Anglican churches. It is St Alban's (or to the agents 583 Orrong Road) in the prosperous Melbourne suburb of Armadale. St Alban's is for sale after a long period out of ecclesiastical use. The site will no doubt bring a lot of money, even though planning and heritage laws and the nature of the building itself will impose substantial restrictions on what it can be used for.

St Alban's is what is known as a town church, in that it rises straight from the urban street instead of sitting in a churchyard. It is most imaginatively designed in a form of Gothic Revival known as Arts and Crafts Gothic that was in vogue for churches and secular buildings around the beginning of the twentieth century. It is tall and steep-roofed with five splendid lancet windows at its east (or altar) end, set back in the wall and enclosed within a huge arch and flanked by two octagonal turrets. This makes a striking facade to the street.

St Alban's was completed in 1898. The architects were Inskip & Butler, a firm with a strong aesthetic sense who in their design for St Alban's showed how construction in brick need not be an exercise in ordinariness but, with intelligent use of a variety of types of brick, in patterns such as the diaper design on the east facade, could result in a building of great visual interest and satisfaction. The way the different planes of walls, roofs and exterior buttresses intersect and combine adds to the interest. St Alban's is like a well-made clock. Every smallest detail is as it should be, everything fits together and the whole is functional and beautiful.

The architects' imaginative use of brick is especially apparent inside St Alban's, where walls, pilasters and arches, all in brick - there is no plaster rendering - are elaborately but not fussily patterned. There is a wonderful effect of colours and textures. The soaring nave is separated from its low passage aisles by shallow arches. The traditional Gothic ratio of lofty aisle arches to shallower clerestory above has been turned upside down and the clerestory, much taller than the arcade beneath it, is grand and dramatic and reinforces the sense of the nave's height. With its windows set in groups of three and framed by blind arches inside and out the clerestory is one of the church's best features.

The only thing that lets St Alban's down is the tower, built not to the original design (there used to be a picture of what the completed church should have looked like hanging in the vestry) but to a reduced 1960s version with tiny corner pinnacles which is too small for the church and makes no impact whatever. It has an awful statue of St Alban above the door in a dated "contemporary" style. 

But if the parish could afford even a cut-down tower in the 1960s that must have been about the last time the church was viable. Even then it didn't have much of a congregation. The Melbourne Diocesan Year Book of 1957-58 lists the "estimated number of communicants" in the parish at 450 (which, given the Anglican twelve-per-cent attendance rule, means there must have been about 3750 nominal Anglicans in Armadale). In the unlikely event that the 450 ever turned up to one service they would have fitted nicely into St Alban's, which, according to the same book, has seating for 475. By 1982, one generation later, there were only 25 communicants in the parish, a mere fifteen of whom turned up on Christmas Day, a time when even in these godless days churches are usually respectably attended. Armadale is a wealthy district, its population not so much upwardly mobile as already ascended. Why do so few of them go to church? Perhaps they are too secure in their privileged comfort to feel that they need to (Armadale's other Anglican church, Holy Advent, has been recently closed too. Happily it is nothing like as distinguished a building as St Alban's). Perhaps the few Armadale residents who feel a religious impulse of the Anglican variety go snootily up the hill to the more fashionable St John's in Toorak. They certainly didn't go to St Alban's, which remained the right church in the wrong place.

They stayed away from St Alban's in such numbers that the Anglican authorities gave up on the church. They amalgamated it with a neighbouring parish. For a time it was let to a Chinese congregation. Now it is for sale, with of course the usual estate agents' lame attempts at wit that attend the sale of churches: "Your prayers have been answered" proclaims the on-line ad, presumably addressing a hypothetical purchaser.

Could the Anglican Church not have found some way to keep St Alban's? Church authorities have often justified the sale of redundant churches on the grounds that the Church has more pressing tasks than to be a custodian of historic buildings. But the Church built them and the Church should look after rather than abandon them. Besides, a prominent church is more than a building. It has a missionary function: its existence makes a statement that the church is there, in the community, even for non-attenders.

One means, whether tried or not I do not know, of saving St Alban's from closure would have been to invite a successful Evangelical parish to open a "branch" there and revivify the parish. This has worked successfully with a number of big redundant churches in England. Evangelicals of the revivalistic sort are not everyone's cup of tea, but they maintain a Christian presence in the parish and keep the church building alive (often at some cost to the internal appointments, but you can't have everything).

But if, after serious efforts to find one, no purpose can be found for a redundant church of notable architectural merit, the Church authorities should not allow themselves to be tempted by the commercial value of its site. The building should be let - never sold. Who knows that as times change it will not one day be needed again?

It is not good PR when prominently sited, big churches cease to be used for worship. Few notice when an obscure church down a side street is closed but when a monumental edifice such as St Alban's shuts up shop everybody does, and people take it as one more sign that the Church as a whole is on the way out. Which it might well be, though it seems masochistic to shout the fact from the housetops. 

A couple of years ago, after St Alban's ceased to be used for services, I was passing by one cold night and noticed it lit up. I looked inside and what a bizarre scene I saw. Some kind of dance rehearsal was in progress and a single couple were whirling around in the middle of a vast empty floor. All the pews had gone. Portable stage lighting shone a glare of bluish white on the dancers, whose gyrations sent spectral shadows flitting over the polychromatic low brick arches. The higher walls of the nave and the roof above were lost in inky darkness, misty and mysterious. Near the door a piece of stone was set into the wall, a gift to St Alban's from St Alban's Abbey in England. Like the stained glass, no one had bothered to remove it when the church was deconsecrated so I suppose it goes with the building, a quaint talking point for new secular owners.

There are some excellent photographs of Mintaro and of St Alban's, Armadale, inside and out, at the estate agent's websites. For Mintaro: www.keatings.com.au/view-property/. For St Alban's: www.realestateview.com.au/...armadale/.

30 October 2012

A VOICE IN THE WORLD


While the Federal Government congratulates itself on winning a seat on the United Nations Security Council, a unit of government on a lower level in our abundantly governed country is seeking membership of the UN General Assembly. The candidate is the Greens-controlled inner-city municipality of Burchett Hill ("proudly twinned with Pyongyang"), which believes that as "a self-sustaining multi-ethnic entity" it has an entitlement to UN representation and, as Councillor Les Rhiannon, the Mayor, puts it, "to project its voice into the counsels of world government".

Councillor Rhiannon told Argus that it was "outrageous" that a "community with a specific identity and profile and clearly delineated local territory" such as Burchett Hill should be represented at the United Nations only by a "far-off government in Canberra". This arrangement, the Mayor believes, is "an inherited colonialist aberration utterly out of place in today's democratic world". "Further," he said, "speaking personally as a historian" (Councillor Rhiannon was a state secondary teacher before entering local government and has a BA in history from Manning Clark University), the present situation was "utterly opposed to the spirit of the United Nations, which from the time of its foundation at Bretton Woods in 1923 has systematically encouraged the dismantling of colonialist and imperialist empires".

Burchett Hill's application to join the UN, after lying around unopened in New York for some time, eventually brought an "assessment team" to the municipality from the UN's Committee for National Accessions. Three diplomats arrived in a chartered Airbus (a second Airbus brought their advisers, media staff and "security specialists") to undertake an "exploration of commonality of interests colloquium" in which, said a media release, the municipality's qualifications for membership would be "scrutinised" in "full and frank discussions".

Unfortunately no discussions took place. A spokesman for the UN delegation at first said the three officials would be "delayed" for their meeting with the city council because of "longstanding prior commitments", leaving the Mayor and his fellow Greens councillors sitting by themselves among sandwiches and teacups in the mayoral reception parlour consulting their watches. Then the "chair" of the assessment team, a Zimbabwean diplomat, having installed himself in the luxurious fastness of the Presidential Suite at the Burchett Hill Park Hyatt, declined to be "disturbed" for discussions or anything else. In vain did Councillor Rhiannon send pleading messages propped up against the silver-covered dishes on the food and beverage trolleys that plied their way hourly into the diplomat's sumptuous rooms. Nor did a handsome gift produce any effect, even though the Mayor had personally commissioned it - a solid silver statuette, encrusted with Australian opals, of former Senator Bob Brown in the act of inaugurating the Burchett Hill branch of the Greens Party. Councillor Rhiannon arranged to have it conveyed into the Presidential Suite by one of the many visiting "hostesses" despatched there by the management of SaucyGirl ("sizzling hot chicks the way U like them"), a prominent Burchett Hill "escort agency" engaged for the entertainment of the visiting assessor.

The second member of the UN delegation was closeted for his entire time in the municipality with Imam al-Choppa-hedoff Poofa at the Burchett Hill Mosque, emerging only on the last morning to issue a ringing denunciation of the council's "anti-Islamic aggression" for not excluding non-Moslem bathers from the city's swimming pools every day of the week instead of only on weekends. The third member, from Cuba, had a limousine waiting at the airport and, having supervised the loading into the boot of a number of boxes labelled "UN Printery", sped off in it to an unknown destination. This was later discovered to be the overcrowded detention centre at Bowen Park, where the UN envoy was engaged in what Federal Police, powerless to act because of diplomatic niceties, described as a "commercial transaction" with counterfeit Australian passports.

The departing delegation did leave a statement addressed to the Mayor in which they said the municipality's application had been rejected on the grounds that Burchett Hill did not constitute a nation. "This is rubbish," shouted Councillor Rhiannon, tearing up the offending missive and stamping on it. "They might be from the UN but" - his rage for the moment trumped his usual locutional smugness - "those guys know Jack Shit about international trends in governance. The nation-state is on the way out and the future lies, as our distinguished former leader has averred, with world government all over the earth. Not being a nation-state is an outmoded criteria and this quibble will not deter us from pressing ahead with our application and at the same time acting on the assumption that it has been successfully processed."

To this end, the Mayor has begun to establish a number of "UN instrumentalities" directly under the aegis of the city council. These will "bring Burchett Hill into line with current UN priorities while our application goes through," he said, "so that once we are in we'll waste no time in entering fully into the life of this unique world body, perhaps the greatest blessing to humankind next to the foundation of the Greens movement by Rudi Dutschke and Jane Fonda in Switzerland in the 1960s". The first instrumentality, the "UN/BH Joint Commission for the Advancement of Women" has been placed under the direction of the Mayor's "partner", Ms Drusilla Alitosis (recently in the news for her "stand-off" with the principal of Burchett Hill Ladies' College). Ms Alitosis believes that "as a basis of fairness for all", male ratepayers in the municipality should no longer be able to vote in council elections. She regards her stand as "a concession to pluralist views", given that if she had her way no males - apart of course from members of the Greens Party in good standing, and Greens councillors, with a number of whom she has enjoyed liaisons - would be eligible to vote in any election anywhere.

A "UN/BH Joint Commission for the Enforcement of Climate Change" is also, as a council leaflet puts it, "up and running". The commission has been entrusted to the Department of Climate Sciences at Manning Clark University and its director, Professor Kevin Crock, who in an interview with Argus in the university library condemned most current climate-change research as "hopelessly unrealistic". Fixing his stern gaze on the Argus reporter - one eye, that is, the other seeking to "upskirt" a female student on a ladder reaching down a book (Professor Crock, like the silent film comedian Ben Turpin, suffers from strabism) - the eminent climatologist said that a rise of three millimetres in the seas in the next decade was "out of the question". "It will be at least 300 metres," he said, "and it's starting now. Can't you feel the sloshing round your feet? Better take your shoes off."

The Mayor is now selecting "commissioners" for his third instrumentality, the "UN/BH Joint Commission for the Unborn Child". This will be "headquartered" at the Sir Truby King Memorial Infant Welfare Centre in Enver Hoxha (formerly Victoria & Albert) Drive. A contract has been let with Marie Stopes International (long a council "preferred supplier") for the removal of "outdated" infant welfare equipment such as scales and baby baths and its replacement with "state-of-the-art termination plant".

Burchett Hill's UN aspirations came under attack at last night's council meeting while Councillor Rhiannon was delivering his "update" to "municipal stakeholders". "The United Nations!" sputtered the council's one Coalition member, rising from his seat. "It's intolerable that you're wasting ratepayers' money trying to join that international gang of thugs and crooks. You might just as well make an application to join the Mafia." The Mayor looked thoughtful. "I had been coming to that," he said. "We actually intend to apply for associate status with the organisation you mention." There was silence as he continued: "Yes, I know what people say about the Mafia but don't be taken in by what is basically bourgeois criticism of an organisation that arose from the need to show solidarity against the forces of reaction. Reactionaries hate the Mafia because they can't control it.

"I'm here to tell you that Cosa Nostra, to give it its full name in Eyetalian - it means "our thing"- is really about sticking up for your mates, in the best Aussie tradition. It's a grass roots organisation, like we Greens. It's also about efficiency and getting things done. In particular they have an excellent record of dealing with people who make themselves" - here he directed his gaze at the Coalition councillor - "inconvenient. We could do with some of that round here."

14 October 2012
UPDATED
19 October 2012

THE WRONG WAY ROUND?


Does there not seem something a little odd in a woman who has never married but has had various lovers, of whom one, no longer with her, left his wife for her, shrieking at a man with a loyal wife and three daughters that he is a "misogynist" and has "a problem with women". Not a thousandth the problem that she has with men, surely.

10 October 2012

A SHAMEFUL SENTENCE


The jailing of the former ABC presenter Andy Muirhead for possessing child pornography is a savage act of barbarism. Anyone who cares remotely about justice and fair sentencing should register a protest. To send a young man to prison for an offence whose effects, measured in terms of harm done to others, must remain unquantifiable, is shameful. If he had bashed someone into a coma in a pub he might well have been more leniently treated.

That child pornography is an evil and vicious thing no one needs to be told - even though we constantly are, often by the same people who would defend adult pornography as art. But to watch child pornography on a screen or accumulate a collection of it does no harm to the children who are exploited to make it. The harm to them has already been done. If the full wrath of the law were directed at the manufacturers of child pornography that would be only just. But most child pornography comes via the Internet from abroad and its makers are, as lawyers put it, beyond the jurisdiction. Not being able to get at them, Australian law directs its wrath instead at pornography-watchers here, conveniently within the jurisdiction. It seems a strange principle. If you utter or publish a libel you can expect to be sued. But not if all you do is read the libel.

If it be argued that Muirhead is being punished because, by watching child pornography he has encouraged its manufacture - that to stamp out the market will be to stamp out the manufacturer - then Muirhead is being sent to jail on a hypothesis, hardly a firm basis for such a severe sentence. If it be argued that sending Muirhead to prison will deter others from watching child pornography, this again is conjecture. The deterrence value of prison is one of the most debated of all legal arguments.

That said, Muirhead did wrong, but more severe-warning-wrong than ten-months-worth-of-jail-wrong. His and his family's humiliation and the destruction of his career should also be taken into account as being part of his punishment.

Yet the matter does not end there.

For some reason, at any time in history societies need to have someone or something to dislike, to be afraid of, to condemn - an Other, as the late Edward Said defined it. In Anglo-Saxon culture this has been variously witches, gypsies, Catholics, Moors, Jews, blacks, Chinese, Irish and foreigners in general, alcohol purveyors and, latterly, cigarette manufacturers. But with political correctness reigning supreme, most traditional objects of social fear and hatred are no longer available to be cursed or scorned, openly at any rate. In our community paedophiles and child abusers fill the vacuum. So great a menace are they considered that the police are given rights an anti-terrorist squad might find hard to secure to march into private houses and probe into citizens' private habits.

The promotion of paedophilia to its current status as the greatest social evil of all time is fairly recent. Until well into the twentieth century "kiddie-fiddlers" were as much objects of comic relief as of hatred: figures such as vicars and choirboys or naughty scoutmasters were staples of popular newspapers, vaudeville jokes and - even into the 1970s - television comedy. Then, as Browning puts it in "My Last Duchess", "all smiles stopped together". Why?

I believe the change came as part and parcel of the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century which made all kinds of sexual activity that had previously been (at least outwardly) disapproved of socially acceptable. In the name of liberty and self-realisation sex anywhere with anyone and of whatever form was to your taste became the order of the day, disapproved of by a few fuddy-duddies but sedulously promoted by, amongst others, psychologists, hippies, political radicals, cinema, television, popular music and magazines. Guilt about sex, we were told, was something that no one under any circumstances should have to feel; that was the way people had been brought up in the dark ages before the 1960s, and, argued the forces of enlightenment, look how it had screwed up their lives.

But the human capacity for guilt runs deeper than that; and all the guilt about their sexual lives that the new libertines were telling each other they didn't feel was still lurking deep in their psyches. It had to manifest itself somewhere, and it came spewing to the surface vicariously in hatred of paedophilia, the one form of sexual preference that the new morality will not tolerate. That active paedophilia is the preserve of a small squalid and secretive minority with none of the political clout of the sexually emancipated majority or even of the larger minorities of male and female homosexuals ensured that it would never be seen, as theirs were, as just one of the legitimate forms of sexual expression on offer, even if those who furtively indulged in it had the courage to try and present it as such (yet surely, repulsive though it may sound to some, for paedophiles that is what paedophilia is). At any rate, no one was going to defend it, and hatred of paedophiles became the sacrificial offering through which practitioners of all other forms of sexual behaviour, no matter how bizarre, purged their own latent and unrecognised guilt.

As for the old jokes about child abuse, in 1998 the American film Happiness appeared with a sub-plot that satirised paedophilia. But of course there are some things too serious even for the enlightened to laugh about, and this excellent film was widely condemned.

It is hard to imagine what purpose Tasmanian Chief Justice Ewan Crawford supposed would be served by sending Muirhead to prison. It won't "cure" him, if, that is, he needs curing. Sexual quests are a symptom of the incomplete individual seeking to complete itself with another individual. For some people, perhaps on account of shyness or embarrassment or immaturity, pornography is the only way to meet this need, until through luck or providence the right person comes along. Sending Muirhead to jail could retard and perhaps obliterate this possibility in his life. And if he watched pornography only for diversion or prurience, it is unlikely at this point that he needs a prison term to convince him of the inadvisability of that.

The judge's treatment of Muirhead is thoroughly in accord with community attitudes to paedophilia in contemporary Australia (indeed, Chief Justice Crawford sounds a very contemporary kind of person, being the first chief justice in Australia not to wear what he apparently considers the "out of date and unnecessary" traditional judges' robes). Yet Crawford was in a position, at least in theory, to apply reason and objectivity if he so chose and not impose the severe punishment that majority opinion would doubtless have expected. That he didn't give Muirhead a suspended or other less harsh sentence suggests that, like judges throughout history, Crawford knows which side his bread is buttered on, and wasn't prepared to go against the community's obsession with paedophilia as the one sin crying to heaven for vengeance.

Of course Crawford and his fellow judges might well share this obsession, given that it seems to be only in cases of this kind that a generally soft-sentencing judiciary, one often as much if not more concerned to identify exculpatory formative influences on an offender as to see that justice is done to the victim of the offence, forgets its liberalism and reverts to the savagery of the old-fashioned hanging judge.

One feels very sorry for Muirhead. He was one of the nicest presenters on the ABC, pleasantly mannered, modest and affable, without any trace of the condescension of certain other "personalities" on the national broadcaster. At 36 he is at an age when the best years of his career were ahead (would his age have gained him sympathy if he had pointed out that he was "young and naive" at the time of his misdemeanours, as the Prime Minister did when explaining away certain events dating back to a similar age in her middle-aged youth?). His indulgence in pornography has been a tragedy for him, a tragedy compounded by his treatment by the court. People like him are a scapegoat, a scapegoat sent into the wilderness as scapegoats were, to absolve the sins of others, in this case of a generation of sexual permissives who, while claiming the right to be free of moral disapproval for their own behaviour, consider jail sentences fair punishment for people whose sexual preferences, no matter how antisocial and regrettable, differ from theirs in that they were excluded from the "anything goes" of the sexual revolution.

4 October 2012