ELIZABETH FARRELLY August 09, 2012
Illustration: Edd Aragon
I'm not really given to reverence. Bit picky, I guess. But Robert Hughes, of all his brilliant expat generation, I revered. Others were as brightly feathered - Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Rolf Harris. But Hughes, avoiding both politics and entertainment (yet doing both) seemed to me grander, loftier, than the rest. As a young graduate, I loved him; when he got old and curmudgeonly, I loved him more.
Let me be clear. I never met him. Indeed, the one time we shared so much as a room (and it was a large one, a 2000-seater) he was disappointing. Yet that's the wonderful thing about writing. You can love from afar. Considering him, now, I'm reminded of Hilary Mantel's take on Thomas Wyatt. Mantel writes through Thomas Cromwell's narrowed eyes but it reads like her own statement of love, her own billet doux to the writerly life:
''He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it … He is perfectly equipped as a courtier but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open …''
Perhaps little of that applied to Hughes personally. It wasn't his person that interested me, but his voice. Rude, honest, funny, eloquent and ruthlessly compassionate, his was a voice from a grander and more tragic age.
It was The Shock of the New that first blew me away. The year: 1980. There had been a spate of documentaries that, for the first time, revealed television as an intelligence-capable medium: Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. And there'd been the books - Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Charles Jencks's The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) - that put architecture at the centre of a stage in which modernism played out as King Lear.
Hughes seemed to get it. Few people, before or since, have written about architecture as anything more than a cult interest, a technical sidewater, a footnote. Hughes was having none of that. To him, architecture mattered.
''Building,'' he wrote, ''is the art we live in: it is the social art par excellence, the carapace of political fantasy, the exoskeleton of one's economic dreams.''
A good editor would likely remove the two penultimate words from that sentence (and no, I'm quite sure I wouldn't have had the guts to say that to his face). But you see what he was doing. Something big. He was giving architecture meaning.
People rightly admire Hughes's knowledge. But it wasn't Hughes's scholarship that thrilled me. It was his insight. Never earnest or laboured, Hughes seemed to lounge on the grass at the bottom of modernism's great waterfall, describing its tragic arc in rhyming couplets, foreshortening neither its great height nor its pathos.
And be assured, it was a great height. Before modernism, architecture, like society, was largely prescribed. Suddenly, with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's crazy turn-of-the-century futurists, it was free.
Hughes put this explosive release down to modernism's Marxist roots, its determination not to be a rich man's luxury but to rewrite the rules of the world. In short, to save it. That was a very Sydney Push way of seeing. For a born patrician, Hughes was eloquent in defence of the proles. ''Not since the birth of Christ,'' he wrote, ''had the well-being of so small a class been so underwritten by the inarticulate, regimented misery of so many …''
It was true. The utopian stream, bubbling from Etienne-Louis Boullee and Charles Garnier, drove Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, and even transcendentalists like Paul Scheerbart.
But there was something else as well, emerging from the same source but in a different direction: the urge to expression. Architecture, escaping its traditional style-book straitjacket, was no longer a gentlemanly craft but an art.
This tension drove, split, energised and undermined modern architecture for the next 80-odd years; its greatest strength becoming, in the way of tragedy, its greatest weakness.
Both these new urges, the utopian and the expressive, manifest in that enduring modern icon, Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation (1952).
Housing 1600 people in Marseilles, the Unite, as it is known, was immediately and immensely influential. Its influence is still apparent, from the ingenious ''scissor section'' of Peter Stronach's Moore Park Gardens in Surry Hills to the fire stairs on Michael Dysart's UTS tower. (One reason why the Powerhouse should be shamed for cancelling its Corbusier blockbuster planned for later this year).
But the Unite also became widely loathed, seeming to generate the very social ills it was meant to erase. Hughes wrote: ''Today, the [rooftop] pool is cracked, the gymnasium closed … and the track littered with broken concrete.'' It became a critical trope to cite bits of Corbusier and how traduced they'd become. Yet, Hughes continued, ''it is one of the great roofs of the world''.
A few years later, that same roof made me angrier than I'd been for years; furious at the sheer paternalism of the thing, expecting people to run loops on this shadeless concrete field when they could be traversing the ground, on grass, under trees. It was this well-documented hubris that undid modernism, although not before it had undone modern cities, to produce, Hughes noted, ''the new landscape of urban despair''.
To aim so high, and be brought so low. It's impossible not to be struck by the parallel of Hughes's own Lear-esque arc, from silver-spoon scion, through the grand sweep of his histories to the ''extreme pain, fear and despair'' that let him write so movingly of Goya's terrifying black.
Everyone has a favourite Hughes line. Mine, which seems to encompass this entire trajectory, is (accompanied by grand sweep of hand): "Television isn't something you watch, it's something you make."
The sad truth is, though - if Hughes wanted to make The Shock of the New now, he'd find it impossible not just here, but probably also at the BBC. It's reality TV or nothing.