Archive for December 31st, 2013

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Visit a public square

This exercise requires a visit to a public square and review of the sculpture there. I chose Martin Place which cuts across the centre of Sydney, from George Street and the GPO in the west up to Macquarie Street – a total of over 450 m, although broken up into five sections by cross streets. I originally intended to focus on the first section outside the GPO (General Post Office – now a hotel, restaurants, shops etc), but widened my search when I discovered that this major city space has very little sculpture.

Martin Place looking from the west end (George St)

Martin Place looking from the west end (George St)

Martin Place from the east end (Macquarie St)

Martin Place from the east end (Macquarie St)

I used to think of this extended space as the centre of Sydney – literally as distances are measured from the GPO at one end, but also used as a gathering place and connecting business, shopping and government areas. The city is more complicated now, and when I visited this week it seemed rather lost and forlorn – many offices are closed or scaled down for the holiday season, the big end of year sales are a block or two to the south, and most temporary structures have been removed ready for the New Years Eve crush.

As you may be able to see in the overview photos there is a lot of street furniture in Martin Place – seating, kiosks with flowers, newspapers or drinks, various banners and signs, trees, also an amphitheatre area. However I was surprised at how little sculpture I could find.

martin_place_01The Cenotaph, built as a memorial to soliders in the First World War and now a memorial to so many more, stands prominently in the space outside the GPO, arguably at the heart of Sydney. The bravery, mateship, determination, skill and intelligence of the Australian troops in action in WWI, and particularly at Gallipoli (ultimately a costly failure), has come to have iconic significance in Australian cultural identity – the “ANZAC legend” (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). A Dawn Service is held each year in Martin Place on April 25th (ANZAC day), the anniversary of the landing of the first wave of Australians at Gallipoli in 1915.

martin_place_02The Cenotaph’s base is Moruya granite. The two bronze sentinel figures, a soldier and a sailor, are by Sir Bertram MacKennal. This sculpture is a clear statement of national identity and civic pride. War by its nature is an expression of power, but this memorial’s focus remains personal. The figures are based on individuals, the Dawn Service is not about dignitaries, and I have seen many personal bunches of flowers among the wreaths.

Behind the Cenotaph can be seen part of the GPO, including some of the extensive carving and many statues. Constructed between 1864 and 1891 the building was intended to symbolise Sydney, rather like the Houses of Parliament in London. The marble sculptures, designed by Tomaso Sani and carved in Italy by Giovanni Fontana, caused an outcry when unveiled, with both naturalistic style and representations of real people seen as unsuitable. Questions were asked in Parliament and removal of the figures considered. The uproar over the sculptures seen as crass and low-brow shows the aspirations of the establishment of the time. The intended political and economic message may have been temporarily lost, but after only a short time few passing this large and imposing building would be aware of the lack.

martin_place_03At the other end of this first section of Martin Place there is currently a Christmas tree, which could be seen as a sculpture and an indication of influence of a sub-section of the community. This area is often used for temporary displays and sculptures – not so long ago gigantic snails in neon coloured recycled plastic. My impression is that the works are often ones that appeal to the young or young at heart – a little lightness and fun in the centre of the city.

martin_place_06Crossing Pitt Street to the next section of Martin Place one comes to a curved wall of water, the Lloyd Rees fountain (1972, rebuilt and moved slightly in the mid 1990s). Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) was a prominent landscape painter and is quoted on the fountain’s plaque “what else is a city – if it’s not a gallery of beautiful buildings”. The fountain also had a difficult initial history. Planned as part of a series of works pedestrianizing the block the City Council dropped the proposed fountain due to budgetary concerns. Rees responding by leading a public subscription to raise the necessary funds.

martin_place_07The fountain now serves a number of needs. Structurally the wall of the fountain serves as the back of the amphitheatre behind, taking advantage of the slope of the land. It brings sparkling light and the sound of running water to the area, and it is clearly a popular spot to sit. I didn’t actually know the name of the fountain until preparing for this Exercise, and I suspect the fountain is not particularly effective as a memorial to Rees.

martin_place_04There is not much else of note in this section of Martin Place. There are a couple of building sites – one with the hoarding used by a local art school to advertise their end of year show.

martin_place_09This photograph is taken from the third section, looking back (you can see the clock tower of the GPO at the very right of the photo). In the foreground is another aspect of the site’s functional purpose – one of the entrances to Martin Place railway station. Also of note is the break formed by the MLC centre and the mushroom of the Commercial Travellers’ Association premises in the wall of buildings stretching along Martin Place. At this point of my exploration I found the mix of textures and shapes in the cityscape of more interest than any sculpture visible. The narrow fourth section of the Place is even more featureless.

martin_place_10The final section of Martin Place has a number of items of interest. The thumbnail shows the Commando Memorial dedicated in 1982 in memory of members of Australian independent companies commando squadrons and special forces in WWII. I like the brisk and practical presentation of the memorial as seating, as well as the splash of colour and texture in the area.

martin_place_11Passage by Anne Graham was created in 2001 as part of the Sydney Sculpture Walk. With its deep bronze bowls the sculpture references to the location’s past, including the domestic use of water (the lower part of Martin Place was built over the Tank Stream, a significant water source in the early colony). There is also a mist function which creates ghostly outlines of demolished houses, but I can’t recall ever seeing that in action. This work in a gentle and understated way celebrates the social and domestic history of inner Sydney. The separate elements are sensitive to the needs of pedestrians, while allowing the sculpture as a whole a larger footprint and presence. I’ve read that the mist of water can cause difficulties to passersby and this may be behind its relatively infrequent use. On a sunny day it seemed a missed opportunity.

martin_place_14The final sculpture I identified here is actually on the forecourt of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Building – Free standing sculpture by Margel Hinder (1964). Its abstract but rather gothic form contrasts and responds to the clean International Style architecture of the building.

martin_place_15Although named “Free standing” the sculpture closely wraps the external pilaster, almost like ivy up a wall.
martin_place_16The sculpture reaches virtually the full height of the portico and for what is actually quite a large item (2 tons of copper with a solid steel core) it seems almost self-effacing. I think this is due to the relative shadow under the building and the height difference from the level of a pedestrian in Martin Place up to the sculpture itself. In an RBA publication there is a rather nice reproduction of a cartoon by Paul Rigby, where Hindel’s sculpture has become an overbearing bank manager leaning intimidatingly over the desk towards the overdrawn (ho ho) Rigby – see, page 17. The sculpture is an effective expression of the importance and economic might of the RBA, and of its confident, modern and progressive stance at the time built.

martin_place_13I think this upper section of Martin Place is the most successful in the combination and placement of sculpture – the Commando memorial, Passage and Free standing sculpture. Each work has its own place and identity. The space overall has plenty of interest and variety, while the needs of people moving through are treated considerately. Even the shadows contributed to the overall effect, providing extra layers of visual texture.

The lower part of Martin Place also meets ceremonial, practical and to an extent aesthetic needs. However the middle three sections from above the Lloyd Rees fountain are a wasteland with utility apparently the major goal. It’s true that often the amphitheatre is in use and the area just above filled with temporary stands and activities, however this is the area I would focus on if commissioning a new sculpture.

Most of the current furnishings of Martin Place are low, with only banners and trees breaking above human height. Certainly nothing challenges or even directly relates to the tall buildings around. I would like to introduce something with height, which would also allow the footprint of the work to be relatively small, useful in a busy area with high pedestrian traffic. Many of the surrounding buildings are fairly old and built in sandstone, so a contrast in materials could be effective. Martin Place can also be quite dark and overshadowed by the buildings around, so a sculpture that reflects light around could brighten the area.

While this overall brief is quite general and could be interpreted by an artist in many ways, there is a work already available which would meet requirements. In fact it was designed for this exact location.

martin_place_19Pyramid Tower (1979) by Bert Flugelman won a 1978 design competition organised by the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation and the city council. I’m not sure of the precise location where it was installed in 1979 as things have been moved about a little, but close to the Lloyd Rees fountain. Even before installation it was controversial, seen as too large for the space (see Glascott, 1979). It was quickly nicknamed “the shish kebab”. One woman I knew, the art teacher mother of a friend, believed it was too derivative (I think she may have been referring to the work of David Smith – eg The sculpture was removed in 1996 – the area was being remodelled and the mayor of the time seemed particularly negative to the work. After a few years of uncertainty the sculpture was re-established a few blocks further down Pitt Street.

martin_place_20martin_place_18Pyramid Tower now sits on a small traffic island surrounded by buildings and rarely catching the sun. I think it sits well in the area, sharing reflections with the buildings around and giving a different perspective to passersby. It seems strange that a work that was considered to need more space than Martin Place should now be in such cramped quarters, but it seems flexible enough to give pleasure and interest in its new surroundings. There have been suggestions of reinstatement (see links below), but I can’t see it getting any traction.

That still leaves a large section of Martin Place in the wilderness in sculptural terms. The City of Sydney Council has an active arts and cultural program, but it seems to have bypassed the heart of Sydney.

More information

The Cenotaph –
GPO sculptures – and
Works by Lloyd Rees –
Lloyd Rees fountain –
Redevelopment including Lloyd Rees fountain –
Passage water sculpture –
Pyramid Tower – Glascott, J. (1979) “Controversy over site for sculpture” in The Sydney Morning Herald 11-April-1979 [online] Available from,3540518 (Accessed 30-Dec-2013).
Pyramid Tower relocation – and
City of Sydney Council arts and culture program –

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Visit a public square
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Visit a public square


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