Louis Kahn/NGV

At one time regarded as “America’s foremost living architect”, Louis Kahn developed a unique take on the Modernist idiom, evoking via his buildings a sense of monumentality and timelessness more often associated with ancient Roman temples and medieval cathedrals. Dissatisfied with the conventional Modernist trajectory of repetitive lightness and brightness of both material and design, Kahn pursued an architecture often unashamedly heavy in construction, with dramatic geometric angles and apertures.

His National Assembly Building (1962-74) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a massive fortress like collection of cylinders and cubes, is considered his magnum opus, being the final realised work of his career.

Although he never designed any in Australia, there is at least one building that, if not directly inspired by Kahn’s work, was certainly created with similar intentions. Any prime public art gallery space, whether at state or national level, should strive to both inspire and awe those who visit not only with its collection but also via its architecture. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), with its vast bluestone facade, enormous arched entrance and water features, dramatically asserts its presence on the main thoroughfare of St Kilda Rd, Melbourne.

Completed in 1968 to a design by Roy Grounds the building was inspired, as with Kahn’s projects, by the architecture of the past. In this case the heavy stone facade alludes to the medieval palazzo fortresses of Italy, whilst the roof, seemingly floating above a row of angled windows, resembles a wide eaved Asian temple feature.

Inside the central spaces soar to cathedral like heights, a spatial comparison emphasised by the kaleidoscope stained glass roof in the gallery’s Great Hall, designed by artist Leonard French.

Although the interior was extensively remodelled in 2003 the NGV building has lost none of it dramatic exterior presence and remains, like much of Louis Kahn’s work, a Modern take on classic monumental form.


Tapgol Park, Seoul.

As much as the city of Seoul has transformed over the last 100 years, there remain vestiges of the past that have managed to survive the modern onslaught of both conflict and urban development. An early 20th century photograph by Australian photographer George Rose captures three such examples within its frame.

Seoul 8

Located in central Seoul, Tapgol park is home to National Treasure No. 2, a 12 metre stone pagoda created in 1467 that is one of only two remaining objects originally created for Wongaksa temple. Built on an existing Goryeo Dynasty temple know as Heungboksa, Wongaksa was shut down in 1494 by tyrannical Joeson king Yeonsan-gun, who transformed the religious site into a pleasure palace. Subsequently occupied by government offices and, later, houses, the grounds were eventually developed into Seoul’s first European style park around 1900 by Irishman John McLeavy Brown. Brown was working in Canton when he was offered a managerial position in the Korean Customs Department. His diligent performance soon caught the eye of the royal household, resulting in a promotion in 1893 to Chief Commissioner and financial adviser to King Gojong. This influential position enabled Brown to create the park and properly display Wongaksa pagoda to the public after years of it languishing in obscurity in the courtyard of a small house.

The intricately carved structure, depicting dragons, lions, flowers and phoenixes, is considered one of the finest surviving examples of Josoen art and now stands protected within a large glass case.

When Rose took this photo in 1905 the pagoda was partially disassembled. Interestingly, one can see the recently completed park pavilion in the background, still standing to this day, in addition to Myeondong Cathedral, constructed in 1898 and now completely obscured from this vantage point by subsequent urban development.


Seoul: Scars of History

Although Seoul has a long, multi layered urban history, much of its built heritage has been lost due to repeated invasions, foreign occupation, war and, in more recent times, aggressive economic redevelopment. It is rare to find original traces of the city’s past outside of the major landmarks, although if one looks carefully, historical evidence can be found in surprising forms.

Located near the southeast corner of the Gyeongbokgung compound is a small structure that once served as a guard post in the original palace wall. Now isolated within a busy intersection, the stone base was constructed during the 14th century, at the beginning of the Joseon dynasty, whilst the timber and tile pavilion dates from 1867.

Guard Post 3

Closer scrutiny reveals an additional layer of Seoul’s more recent history in the stone blocks, with some bearing bullet and shrapnel pock marks inflicted during the urban fighting of the Korean War. Although not architectural artefacts, these scars nonetheless exist as tangible reminders of a brutal yet crucial period in the city’s history, a period that is practically indiscernible in today’s modern metropolis.