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Epiphanies
Marcus Baumgart (M, 49)
Melbourne, AU
Immortal since Jan 19, 2009
Uplinks: 0, Generation 3

My blog: A Flawed Mind
A linguistic experiment
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    Within the Library
    Here I sit at 11.31 AEST 27 September 2009, on a cold spring Sunday morning beneath the great dome of the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne Australia.

    I am here to soak up the atmosphere.

    Yes, I know that sounds flippant, but to a large extent it is true. My underlying motivation in being here is to find a situation within which to write, a situation that is both stable, predictable, amenable to concentration and unlikely to change any time soon. For this purpose the La Trobe Reading Room is ideal, in that apart from the recent restoration and clean-up, it has remain unchanged since 1913. The current state, with full public access, will undoubtedly suffice for the remainder of my lifetime, and as such it represents a space within which I can look forward to a lifetime of writing.

    The aspect of the space other than its constancy is the quality of light. The La Trobe Room is covered by the aforementioned dome, and the dome is punctured by a series of windows that radiate out from the central oriel. The glass in these windows is obscure rather than transparent, and as such it transmits a faithful, mediated reproduction of the quality of light outside. I am bathed in this light, and I am excited by the fact that its minute shifts and alterations are immediately perceptible here on the Reading Room floor.

    This quality of the Room is a quality of the fundamental makeup of the architecture. I am not referring to an abstraction when I say that. The quality of light is a function of the physical properties of the dome and the glazing set within it. To say that this is refreshing is an understatement. In a way it is a remembrance of a personal revelation, experienced first over fifteen years ago in the High Court of Australia. That building, too, is a vessel of light, and the mood of the day is transmitted to inhabitants both directly and indirectly through light and reflected light.

    Light is something architects in Melbourne pay lip-service to, but few bother trying to embrace this. I learnt the craft of light-handling, if I can call it that, at the architectural studio of Mitchell Giurgola Thorp Architects, the designers of Australia's New Parliament House in Canberra. While I am not especially moved by the Parliament building, I was astonished at the emotional potential generated by the manipulation of light in many of their buildings.

    This comes, of course, from Romualdo Giurgola's personal history with Louis I. Kahn, and I can only assume that the phenomenological and contextual approach to creating architecture has its roots also in Kahn and the Phildadelphia soil. Its chief expression within the office was the reliance on physical models, and I was involved in the creation of models of all sizes and scales. The purpose of these models was generally to test the play of light in interiors.

    The fact that Mitchell and Giurgola joined Thorp and came from Philadelphia to Canberra of all the cities in Australia, is a happy coincidence. Of course they came after winning the design competition for the New Parliament house, but the senior members of the firm put down roots in Canberra. The light in Canberra is almost unnaturally crisp, purest in winter. The high altitude (high for Australia, that is) results in dramatic and pure cloud formations, and the sky is unusually blue. In the height of summer the light is no less dramatic, but has a burnt, raw quality offset by the browning-off of the surrounding hills as the water evaporates out of the landscape. MGT's most remarkable buildings are those that take full advantage of this quality of the place.

    Melbourne has a very strong design culture, and some remarkable architecture, but at this historical moment most of her architects pay little attention to light as a subtle physical quality. They are enamoured of form, and preoccupied with image-making. I make no firm statements here about the universality of this phenomenon, as I don't have any hard research to back it up, but a cursory awareness of the 'best' global architecture at this time suggests that this preoccupation is widespread.

    At MGT I came to appreciate the fact that they utilise a clean modernist language bordering on the generic, and in doing so focus attention and intention on trapping, channeling and simply playing with natural light in their buildings. In my opinion, the experiential implications of this transcend the English language. The art work of Mark Rothko often has emotional potential attributed to it, and while I admire his work I have never experienced this in its presence.

    In relation to light, however, I do feel an emotional charge. This is not the romantic tear-in-the-corner of the eye, drawn out of the contemplation of the beauty of life: nothing so saccharine. Instead, I see it as a practical and immediate quality of the experience of the light itself, perhaps something akin to 'mood'. For example, as I am writing this sentence, the light is flaring in intensity around me, presumably as the sun breaks cloud in the sky outside. A moment ago, this intensity was much lower, and now - again - the light dims slightly and flares once more.

    Each calibration of the light's intensity carries a different mood, and the experience of the room shifts and alters as the light does, albeit in subtle gradations. This is very personal, and I find that the writing activity is an excellent barometer of the mood or tone of a place. Generally, if I can easily write, it means that my own mental state and the atmosphere of the place I occupy are conspiring to put me firmly in the moment. Senses sharpen, I am more aware of the surroundings and everything seems ever-so-slightly more intense.

    Architecture can get in the way or exploit this process. It can substitute noisy visual 'stuff' for the more subtle qualities of human experience, or it can intensify the mundane through subtle intervention and manipulation. I know what interests me more.

    Sat, Sep 26, 2009  Permanent link

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