I've written 200 columns of criticism and commentary in the last three years, 175 longer pieces on Tuesdays and 25 collections of shorter snippets on Fridays. I’m combining the two now on Tuesdays: longer pieces of current commentary as well as absurdities that take my fancy. Enjoy.

Powering the House

This week, the newly minted Minn's government scrapped the proposal for a $500m replacement building at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum in favor of spending half that amount on a refurbishment instead, and the other half is slated for ‘schools and hospitals’ (echoing cri de coeur from Bob Carr days).

The proposal will see upgrades to the existing 1988 Wran Wing, designed by the Government Architect (when we had one that designed) and winner of a Sulman award, as well as modest extension at the other, Eastern end, of the original powerhouse complex, that gave the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, or MAAS, it’s colloquial name.

The project had a chequered history: the thought bubble from then Premier Mike Baird in 2015 to demolish and sell the site, was continued by Gladys Berejiklian, who doggedly followed his footsteps into many a disaster, not least the totally unnecessary Sydney Football Stadium. The $200m raised from the site sale would fund a new Powerhouse Museum (sic) at Parramatta.

Widespread community agitation convinced the government that two museums are better than one. Whilst the museum at Parramatta would go ahead, (now more than half-built), a new building would rise in Ultimo following a competition (won by a consortium of Architectus, Durbach Block Jaggers Architects, Tyrrell Studio, Youssofzay and Hart, Akira Isogawa, Yerrabingin, Finding Infinity and Arup).

The winning scheme satisfied few. To those who argued for retention of the 1988 scheme it was an affront. To those who wanted a new building it seemed a bit lame: a camel rather than a racehorse, as the saying goes, a slightly melted brick block with a toupee of trees. If this design is the winning answer, then someone is asking the wrong questions. The existing building seemed to say more about technology, albeit in a barrel-vaulted Bicentennial way.

The NSW opposition went full Abbott-Dutton and opposed the project’s cancellation. Amongst their more absurd claims was that the modest renovations and additions would prevent international exhibitions. This obsession with internationality is the refuge of those with a cultural cringe chip on their shoulder. It’s wrong - the building has large spaces for exhibitions and just plain stupid - it’s a national museum tasked with promoting local applied arts and sciences.

In this it has a fine track record. Take Eucalyptusdom, a brilliant exhibition from last year, both educational in the history of timber and delightful in timber’s possibilities, highlighted by the beautiful show cases designed by Rick Le Plastrier. Just one of the many original exhibitions in the museum, which is its raison d’etre. Forget the hero shot, it’s the inside that counts.

Conundrum of the elders

There’s always been friction between the elders of the architecture profession, and the up-and comers. It’s a well-worn rubric that the youngsters are formulating challenging ideas, whereas the elders’ laurels are a track record of buildings built. It seems a friction that could be exploited in developing exhibitions of architect's work at the Powerhouse. Think 30 under 30 versus 8 over 80 shows.

Moreover, the conundrum of the elders seems to be at the heart of the imminent failure of the Voice referendum. The indigenous authors and advocates for the Uluru statement, and voting YES, are recognisably the elders: Tom Calma 69, Marcia Langton 71, Megan Davis 48, Noel Pearson 58, Linda Burney 66, Malarndirri McCarthy 53, Rachel Perkins 53. And it is far from just age that makes this list ‘elders’. On the other hand, the younger generation are urging the NO vote. Ben Abbatangelo 30, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price 42, Lidia Thorpe 50.

This is the inverse of the Anglo community. The elders, John Howard 84, Pauline Hanson 69, Peter Dutton 52, advocate, nay urge, NO in strident terms. Warren Mundine 67, a Labor Party renegade like Mark Latham 62, is the indigenous exception to prove the rule. “Maintain the rage”; what rage? the rage of racism and stop the boats? Whereas the young are advocating YES, in this intergenerational war.

Which makes the ‘handbook’ The Voice to Parliament by Thomas Mayo 46, and Kerry O’Brien 78, an interesting inversion. An old white man, a revered journalist, and a younger indigenous, a quiet firebrand (and it is that oxymoron that has led to viscous vitriol from trolls).

The likely NO vote has an urban design aspect: the long distance, regional based states of Western Australia and Queensland (our national retirement village) will vote NO. The urbane, urban areas of NSW and Victoria, with younger generations in the cities, will vote YES. It comes down to a fight between elders and youngsters in the least populous states of Tasmania and South Australia.

Sadly, it seems Australia will be no different on the 15th of October: racist, hurtful, nasty, and narrow.

The view from the King’s Way

Speaking of the Voice in the west, here’s three big names, writ big, on the biggest buildings, captured in a single view from Kings Park in Perth. All are advocating YES, but some say that their support is counterproductive: if it’s OK for big miners to advocate YES, whilst well known for riding roughshod over indigenous rights, (including blowing up a sacred site), then maybe it’s of little real value. Vote NO if they know.

Peter Kingston

Australian Galleries is holding an exhibition of works by Peter Kingston, Sydney artist par excellence. The exhibition, planned towards the end of Kingston's life when he knew he may not live to see it, is a brilliant collection of his art in its myriad forms. It highlights the generous design eye that Kingston, a former student of architecture at UNSW in the 1960s, had.

Like Brett Whiteley and Martin Sharp, who both overshadowed him, Kingston painted and proselytised for Sydney Harbour; particularly the Lady Class Ferries, and he was instrumental in the revitalisation of Luna Park.

I have fond memories of the Yellow House in King's Cross, organised by artists Brett Whiteley, George Gittoes, Bruce Goold, Peter Weir, Philip Noyce, Albie Thoms and Aggie Read. As second year architecture students, we were encouraged by the Art Workshop to help out. As servants, our painting provided the undercoats, later painted over by real artists. Martin Sharp was the face to the media, but Peter Kingston kept us students amused and engaged in the grunt work. Vale you lovely gentle soul.

Spelling bad

I'm told that one of the first lessons in sign writing is learning a list of words often misspelled. But lo and behold, you can see accommodation with a single M everywhere. In Manly on a backpacker’s hostel, where the sign's been there for 10 years. A well-known beer brand’s ignorance is on display at an Ultimo pub for five years (opposite the Powerhouse). Surely spellcheck on the net could catch it out, but no, it lives long.

Graphics writers are hoping for a change in spelling. Which brings to mind spelling reformer Bernard Shaw, who argued GHOTI could be pronounced FISH, GH from rough, O from women, TI from motion. I’m yet to see ghoti and chips advertised.


Two books available from the Powerhouse Museum Bookshop. The aforementioned exhibition of Eucalyptusdom, and the catalogue of an exhibition of graphics by leading Australian designers: Gordon Andrews, Douglas Annand, Frances Burke, Dahl Collings, Pieter Huveneers, Arthur Leydin, Alistair Morrison and Shirley de Vocht.  There are 20 more.

Signs off

Superfluous naming a suburban street, Suburb Street. This tautology is in Queenstown, South Island, NZ.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here

Past A&D Another Thing columns can be found here

You can contact TW at [email protected]