Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Peter Corrigan
from the Curtain issue
Pataphysics: Could you comment on the theoretical and political implications your work establishes by the relationship between an inventive expressionist vocabulary and suburban vernacular elements?
Peter Corrigan: In response, I hope the work is ideas driven, it aspires to be, albeit some of the ideas are rather personal. This is in contrast to a situation where, as often as not, ideas are derived after the fact. I’ll itemize a series of issues that have interested me for some time – I think they bear on the question.
The first idea might be described as patriotism. It is not necessarily the advertising rhetoric of nationalism – it’s not a commodity. It’s probably more self-consciously ‘cultural’ in its concerns for Australia, and the local basis of realism, a potential national life. It’s about preserving our own tribal identity, warts and all. It’s a little more than pubs, cream bricks and football, but they bear on it. Let’s celebrate ourselves.
The next issue is something described as suburbia. It is a form of freedom which in some respects attempts to mediate between what we sense as universal culture and what is described as a form of Australian popularism. Suburbia has to do with place, form and rituals – those real values sneered at by middle-class Australian intellectuals. So-called suburbia is also under siege now because the present Government can’t control our economy, though they claim they can, and the necessary capital for development housing infrastructure is no longer available. The outer suburbs are now described as a resource wasteful sprawl with an unrealistic lifestyle. Of course local councils and planners are to blame. The idea of patriotism, the idea of suburbia is about domain, about corners, about edges, owning some dirt that has a boundary. Suburbia is about drawing the line, and operating within an understood personal domain. Which reminds me of a boundary story I heard about Frank Lloyd Wright. Apparently he said: ‘Just attend to the corners and the rest of the building will look after itself.’ That impressed me.
Another idea that has haunted me for years involves the Polish theatrical practitioner, Jerzy Grotowski. It is the idea he first described as ‘poor theater.’ It involves more than simply design – it requires an attitude which then results in a production viewpoint. It proposes the potential for dignity and theatricality within humble objects. It is a much richer idea than the type of reductivist modern minimalism that we see around us; a post-Mondrian technical aesthetic. Poor theatre is about the dignity of work.
A fourth notion is the idea of abstract thought, abstract art and/or abstract geometry. It seems to me essentially different to expressionism – this term is often, however, acquainted with the office work. Nevertheless, I think the idea of abstraction is still the most interesting challenge of the twentieth century, and I’m personally quite interested in a design geometry which is not actually based on Jung, faith or symbols or a psychiatric viewpoint. A geometry that is certainly not based on mathematical certainty – not a system aspiring to classical resonance. I tried to find a description for it, the best I could come up with was ‘found geometry’ for those chance occurrences and accidents that refuse to fade into oblivion, but stay in the mind. They have a potential for significance and metaphor. Those graphic instances where coincidence becomes in a way artistic – small poems are dictated.
Point number five – throughout the work there is a confrontation. City vs. country. This still raises my hackles. It is not really privilege. It is a particular mindset which regards mankind and the universe as figurative albeit these are sweeping generalizations. The idea of a rural aristocracy vs. the disheveled, mindless urban masses huddled in the smog-bound city, or the dull, dreary suburbs – for some time now I’ve been annoyed by that architectural reading of Australian history.
Another idea – and this is related to suburbia and patriotism – is indebted to a left-wing viewpoint and is largely the result of working with the Australian Performing Group. It did, and I suppose to an extent still does appear to me that art is really only useful to a society if that society can feel an involvement within the art. This appears to be in opposition to the romantic architect-as-hero syndrome, the timeless nature of art stuff and art for an elite audience. The results are often raw in character. I’m interested but not really informed in Freud and Lacan. It seems to me, however, that there might be something there: obviously memory and recall are topical. However, that was an aside.
And there’s another point here that may be of some use: the simple idea of architecture as the most incisive, the most difficult, of the public arts. The most responsible. That may or may not answer question 1.
P: How does your work of the mid-’70s relate to the modernist project?
PC: The work exhibits a number of modernist concerns as I understand them; one is an interest in structure as an expression of optimism, possibly even mild satire… I would prefer to avoid the word ‘ironic.’ Next, the plans of the buildings have a diagrammatic quality, often an image of disjuncture. Thirdly, I think there is a social sensibility through the work – a search for the working-class hero, for a better and juster world, that sort of thing: a typically modernist concern, a touch romantic but I make no apologies for that. Modernism was a liberating movement. Now… well, we have a situation where the media threshold is so high, any Utopian promise is finished. I can speak from personal experience of the last ten years between 1978 and 1988. The media overkill is now enormous. We are seeing the rewriting of history and the establishment of a new and rather banal aesthetic here in Australia. Also, in the work there is some distrust of nature – I think that was a modernist characteristic. I still feel uneasy in the bush. In the work there is a concern for the individual’s dignity within society, the isolated 20th century angst rather than mass angst etc. A state machinery is not reassuring.
Finally there is a modernist dislike of the certainties of classicism or neo-classicism: a modern adversary position to a society where those particular certainties’ ideas are now mirrored. But a deeply ordered chaos was not actually part of the modernist scheme of things.
P: Post-industrial culture has often been described as one that has liquidated the sacred – it is only interested in what can be packaged, sold and consumed. Do your churches uphold a more anthropocentric rather than theocentric cultural position?
PC: Again, I think I would say yes. The transitory values of a secular media-enthralled society are well and truly upon us. It’s pointless to don the sackcloth and ashes over that one. Yes, the arts are gravitating towards commodity entertainment – with more interest in the medium than the message. That is one aspect of the churches. On the other hand, the theological basis of the churches was grounded in a house of God – not the God of the spiritual experience, but the Christ of the poor man, he who struggles to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. These buildings are humble, frugal, immediate, social and warm – these are Brechtian qualities. This is, in a way, a crossover from theatrical practice. The buildings are not, as I’ve said, essentially about the God of Revelation, they’re really more about the God of Resurrection on the Day of Judgment. They are contextual buildings to wait and be hopeful in.
P: How does your notion of appropriation and originality relate to your more recent work?
PC: Well I think appropriation under a variety of guises is old and honorable behavior, it’s simply received more attention over the last few decades. The accumulation or reassessment of motifs for compositional reasons has never been a major concern in the office, it has been assumed. It’s a by-product of choices. The real point is that care needs to be taken in the choice of the motifs. Forms are not value-free. Often value reversals and a cold eye cast over the architectural debate are required.
‘Originality’ is a term that has gone off the boil somewhat, probably understandably, in this revisionist era. Originality was really a hell of an out. It probably implies something personal. It was said about Goethe that his prodigious works were simply shards struck off some larger boulder or vision. Originality might have the old romantic connotation that man just struck shards off the very largest of issues. I think the idea of ‘the new’ is more interesting and I still look at that one assiduously. But I don’t think the new necessarily implies the original. The new is something to do with change. It might have something to do with a story I heard about Gordon Craig, the wonderful old theater designer/director who at some grand old age was visited by a friend in Northern Italy in the 1950s, and he’d been alive since the 19th century. Craig wrote in the flyleaf of the book that my friend brought for him to autograph: Never Compromise. I think the idea of ‘the new’ is durable and pliable, and can be; originality appears to be somewhat mechanical or immutable, like a good double-handed backhand or pale blue eyes. ‘The new’ is the ongoing problem of art, as it constantly attempts to redescribe itself through the present. It’s probably less self-conscious than originality. The new is to a certain extent about testing ideas, it is not necessarily concerned with ideals.
P: In what way has your work developed since the mid-’70s?
PC: I think probably the values are disturbingly consistent. I’m not sure there has been much development. There’s probably continuing anger over the latest version of the ‘charm school’ and the ongoing primitive tin-shed hoax, though Glenn Murcutt shines through this stuff; there’s some optimism about the cities; there’s the despondent knowledge that this is all still just a job; interest rates are a worry; the spiritual malaise continues – the devil walks among us and is a horned Philistine, and a deepening concern about the remorseless nature of secondhand universal culture, full stop. We now have a situation in this country where there isn’t even a bank you can Australian. And having said all that, it didn’t seem to be anything other than a laundry list of personal obsessions. I might just leave it at that.
P: In response to question 2, where you speak of the heroic notions of structure – do you currently feel it is possible to express ideas, concepts via structure?
PC: I don’t think by structure alone, but I am quite confident that all form exhibits values, if one cares to think about them; the social and political values are there for all to see.
P: So structure for you still holds its position in a modernist/Mies van der Rohe manner?
PC: I was never interested in structure as the essential determinant, even less so as Italian apologists now identify it as the mainstream of classical modernism. I am more interested in formal values and also in our ability to analyze those values. Sadly, architects aren’t inclined to do this – the analysis is preponderantly aesthetic, from within the architectural canon. When I was a student I used to take my Mies 33½ long-playing record to theatrical parties to listen to gems like ‘St Thomas Aquinas says: Reason is the first principal of all human action, if you understand this you act accordingly.’ Everyone rolling around in awe at his steely erudition and Tutonic will to power. But nobody believed a word of it. More easy absolutes.
P: In response to your reply to question 3, you mentioned all the typical cultural attributes of recent times – for instance the idea of art as entertainment – how does this reflect in your more recent work, such as the Hair and Beauty building?
PC: Yes, the one at Dandenong… Hair, Beauty and Hospitality. Well I think there are a few modest attempts at technical levity. It is rather more whimsical than the earnest mood that exists in a great deal of contemporary design. What I like about the building is a certain appealing durable clumsiness, which I’m quite happy with, this sets it somewhat out of step with present-day tendencies toward a polished end product. It is not an elegant building, it is lighthearted in a raw way. Nourishing.
P: Raw in the sense of the buildings of the ’70s…?
PC: Well, I am not 100% sure whether it is exactly a building of any specific time. It’s different to the earlier work… though some threads are still there. I am a little hesitant to say it, but I think there is a whiff of Aldo Rossi about the building (he and Danny Libeskind dazzled me at Harvard) but it’s fortunately bent out of shape. It’s probably a little more ‘knowing’ than the buildings of the ’70s.
P: When you speak of whimsy and clumsiness, there appears to be also a relationship with the Theater of the Absurd.
PC: Certainly, I am still enamored of that idea, and black comedy, and whether it’s Arrabal or Beckett, who went from Godot to finally despairing in language, and wrote plays around silence – that’s the bitterest pill of postmodernism for you: choosing not to speak. Absurdist Theater in retrospect impresses by its lucidity, economy and sanity.
P: So in this sense, you are displaying a very modernist notion of tragedy…
PC: That would be appealing if it was the case.
P: Rather than a kind of ironic detachment…
PC: Spare me from world-weary ironic detachment. Fifty years ago Brecht wrote: ‘He who smiles has not yet heard the bad news. When I was at the university that’s struck an ironic chill through me.
P: In your reply to question 4 you spoke of modernist appropriation and the appropriation of the ’80s…
PC: I think that the appropriation of modernity was rather more coy and covert. It certainly occurred but originality was the banner. If we look at the work of Mendelsohn for example, it must have been a heady period. But it was poor form to admit that one looked back at the Arts and Crafts movement or Amsterdam brickwork for example – there was a belief that originality fueled the future. All solutions had to be reinvented etc…. Really, it just depends on how your mother dressed you.
I think the present situation is probably franker, more realistic. It’s certainly easier for students to have a wider field to plunder. Creative genius – the model of modernism – is a bit hard to live up to.
P: Or technical genius.
PC: Or technical genius, yes doubly difficult.
P: Just to divert slightly – I’m thinking in a non-architectural sense about the tram you did with the circles…
PC: …and the Japanese flags… yes, I was very fond of them. I had to paint out all of the flags and so I wrote ‘Pasolini Lives’ on one side of the tram – he had just died a rather gruesome and unsavory death. Nobody seemed unduly upset by that idea. A slight stain of anarchy influences a lot of the office activity, it effects an attitude toward the way theater should be done. It’s a natural enough response I think to a society with larrikin and shiaking traditions. It was the only tram to be driven back to the Preston sheds and have the whole design painted out. That was true recognition for what it was worth.
P: You also mentioned ‘the new,’ and the notion that art must change reminds me specifically of Donald Judd – who also brings up the subject of art and commerce – how do you position yourself in relation to a practitioner such as him?
PC: Well, yes, Judd has an extremely well-developed postmodern view of the marketplace, that’s fine – he was at Yale when I was there and he made a very big impression on me. He said the immortal words, though he claimed Cézanne said them first: ‘What is new is good’ – and that absolutely pinned me to the wall, I’ve been thinking about that ever since. An architect like Michael Graves may not stand the test of time but there but there was a moment when he was of supreme significance to the debate – and that’s something. It’s a very unusual person, possibly a total egomaniac, who can turn around and reject their past work… Graves is now simply working through a personal body of ideas now. The architecture is high quality, time will tell what the ideas are worth. Judd rightly sees the marketplace as the art forum of the ’80s.
P: You speak a sort of praise of abstraction, and the search for abstraction. What would your response be to the argument that abstraction is a myth in itself and is a formula which has a certain aesthetic, and it doesn’t really confront any social or political issues, it’s just a way of producing a product…?
PC: Yes, it is a another myth, it can be a formula and it does have an aesthetic, and it has failed to secure widespread social support. But what I find quite exciting about it is that I don’t think the potential of the aesthetic has even been scratched. There has been a few tentative gestures… a few decades of time. You can’t measure that against the amount of time the other predominant aesthetic, the figurative, has been around, which is around twenty-five thousand years. So I’d be happy to give abstraction a little longer… just run it round the track a few more times. As I’ve said, I think it is the challenge.
P: So really your abstraction only works because of its relationship to more figurative elements.
PC: It has that reference point. And yet I think that there is within the potentials of say physics or biology – and I think the painters will get back to that soon – enormous potential. And it’s more than simply the idea of a new beauty. The figurative won’t go away, but there ought to be quite telling abstraction with potential to move us. I’m reluctant to believe that the only way we will understand ourselves is by looking at our images in a mirror. The movies gave that up years ago. I think that the world of dreams offers enormous potential. A boundless kingdom of chance associations and poetry as opposed to the narrow imperatives of reason. Unfortunately, that got lost with the avant-garde. People say, well that’s old imagery, the surreal. In 1931 Dali painted his melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory. That was fifty years ago. In due course, these ideas will rise again. In landscape design it is now happening. It is, to an extent, now also being reexamined in the novel. Architecture at present is in a spiritual hiatus. People have lost their nerve – that’s understandable. But even in a hiatus, if you don’t catch the virus you can do good work.