The light on the Hill
It is in moments like this, when we are compelled to reflect upon our own history and look deeper into the things that have both enabled and disarmed us through it. By this I mean the parts of our formal and, more importantly, our informal education that have given us the light – the things that have given us what Chifley had once called ‘the light on the hill’.
I remember Neville making the statement “I think of myself as deeply superficial” and in that moment I recall that I felt the same way; I still do. Neville, of course, was prompting controversy but I had a deeper sense of what he was saying.
We have such a fragile existence where everything in our lives is able to turn with the subtlest of inference; the smallest moment of influence. The slightest move of the rudder sends us off on a different path. It is only years later, when we reflect on what happened in our lives, we are able to see, from that clear vantage point that comes with time, why our lives are the way they are and what influenced that state.
I could say Neville Quarry and I probably never finally agreed on topics architectural. He was interested in pluralism and I was interested in ‘focus’. But he remained my mentor through important periods of my post-graduate learning; the most committed of which was the period of endless hours he gave towards critiquing my office’s competition for the National Museum of Australia; when, at the age of 28, I found myself at the ‘mouth of the dragon’. We agreed and disagreed about many things, and we could only do so and remain close friends because we always agreed with that which was important; that architecture is about connecting people to their primary requirement on earth; to enjoy all that abounds. With this comes the responsibility to see things in their rawness and primacy; to know our place and to care for our environment. And to see things in context;
Years later, I can reflect the relevance of this approach to the subjects he so caringly termed ‘Contextual Studies’.
Neville was hell-bent on having me travel overseas; something, regretfully, I could not do just after I graduated. Neville, however, was respectful of my background and understood the importance of nurturing all talent; even if it was from a poor family whose parents had fled the horrible outcomes of a civil war in Greece. I can say in that context, I was closer to Neville after I graduated than I ever was before.
I was not awarded the Byera Hadley Traveling Scholarship twice (I might add thanks to Louis Cox who is here today) and when I sought it a third time, years later, Neville was writing the reference from his bed in palliative care. I saw him at St Vincent’s where he paradoxically exasperated that if I did not get it this time, it would be the ‘death of him’. I wished he was not so prophetic.
I went on to win my traveling scholarship, at the third attempt with a simple model of travel to see the work of my favourite architects, I might add, this time thanks to Louise Cox. It was a travel based upon my interests and not what I felt might be of interest to a jury. And this was the advice Neville gave me; to pursue the things I cared for.
The travel and this advice was something that changed my life forever; I saw the work of Kahn, of Scarpa and of Aalto and with mentors in Neville Quarry and Richard Johnson, I could even navigate the ‘dry-biscuit’ style of the then bureaucracy for that scholarship. And I was reminded, in my travels and due to that trip, of Neville’s adage as he had borrowed it from Eliot that “honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry”. Those authors whose work I experienced on that trip were long gone, but the works remained; speaking and pellucid about the intentions; needing no interpretation; just an informed comprehension.
This moment of generous offering, this scholarship administered by the University under the stewardship of yet another great and transformative Dean in Desley Luscombe, should have with it, the eternal lessons taught in this institution under Neville’s stewardship. These lessons speak about life before they speak about something else. And the lessons stem from the deeds of a great man rather than his so eloquent rhetoric.
My education was but a moment at the end of his illustrious career; that twinkling of the eye that I remember can only have marked a keenness in me to retain an approach to my work that is beyond merely one of visual aesthetics; one which runs to the core of our humanity; we are, after all, people before we are anything else.
Befitting as it is that the scholarship is a ‘traveling’ one, Neville can only have entrusted in us, his students, his entire legacy.
The student of today, in some respects, is another person when compared to the student of our learning-days. Even since Neville’s passing, some 11 years ago, we have seen the advent of a new basis for learning that I think Neville would have embraced if he were here. I am so incredibly proud to be associated with, arguably, the only University in NSW that tangibly embraces the pursuit of technology. So it should; given its name.
I would add that in a peculiar way, I believe we will be judged by the standards of the past and this applies for the work we do as practitioners of architecture as it does the work of an institution such as this. In a sense, this scholarship represents for me, a positioning about architecture and human habitation that would enable the truest form of education in our profession; the enabling of experience of different cultures and environments.
In the end, humans can become an institution and this scholarship should be there to remind us all of who we are.
When a teacher becomes a friend and his entire existence permeates your life, the essential parts of his history and yours tend to merge. The sense of where he finished and where we start becomes a blur. And in this context, I would say that we all; those that, in the end, loved Neville Quarry become one with him as we merge into one great legacy of a people of one mind; in architecture and in life.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk today.