Friday, June 29, 2012

an evening exhibit

Linking time  ---  If you cut through the Carlton Gardens between Rathdowne and Nicholson Streets, and head between the Royal Exhibition Building and Melbourne Museum, you’ll find yourself a small figure in a vast grey plaza, dwarfed by space and scale on both sides. This open space is a physical span that metaphorically links architectural achievement from very different points in history, creating a dialogue between contrasting tastes and modes of design. Walking this line between two grand constructs, you could be tracing the midpoint in a filmic split screen. The 1880 Exhibition Building stands like a regal aunt next to the youthful contemporary edges of the Melbourne Museum. Its dome is modelled ambitiously on Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, and the Italian Renaissance influence cries of the bold European aspirations of early Melbourne.

Facades  ---  I’ve often stared at the Royal Exhibition Building as I rode past on the tram or walked this way. For all its World Heritage–listed status and fame, I’ve found its appearance to be rather one-dimensional, like a stamped piece of plain white cardboard. Great dome aside, there’s something particularly artificial about this building’s facade, as though it were a theatre set propped up from behind. It’s easy to imagine pressing a palm flat to its side and watching it topple to the ground with a sudden clap. It reminds me of the magic garden a friend gave me once for a present, which had a Venetian-style architectural facade erected amid a coloured backdrop on a bed of sprout seeds. A little water each day saw the seeds flourish, and an ensuing alfalfa crop grew a spindly garden around the cardboard building.

A way of seeing  ---  On the night I walked the grey plaza that connects the two buildings, twilight was brightening. It’s a paradox perhaps, but twilight sometimes feels this way as the sky hangs luminous, rather than the darkening that it is. It was solstice, the true start of winter. It was the start of a new season and things appeared to me differently. The Exhibition Building loomed solid and majestic, lit by electric light from within and the falling sun from behind. The light was an embellishment. More than that, it was a fleshing out. As I walked I noticed too that the building was at my feet. Its dome reflected neatly in a puddle in the forecourt. It had been raining solidly for days. Areas of the state had flooded. We’d had an earthquake substantial enough to have me bracing beneath a doorway. In the puddle I saw an alternative dimension revealed at my feet. History had become alive. My breath dispersed into the cold night before the cut-out building that was now transformed, full and substantial.