The Reassurance of Rock and Stone: An Australian’s Response to the Architecture of Europe

I have been asked to present a talk on the theme, My Culture. My Story, at the Gympie Regional Art Gallery very soon (Thursday 14 February). Below is a condensed version, as on the night the presentation will be augmented with 36 images on PowerPoint slides.

I’ve lived my life in rather flimsy shelters. As a girl in the evenings, the weatherboards of my side verandah bedroom allowed both sun or moonlight to peep in through the gaps. During holidays we slept on the front verandah of our grandfather’s fishing shack protected only by a cotton mosquito net. The windows rattled in the breeze and the rain reverberated on the roof, above wooden walls vulnerable to insects and fire. In similar wooden shelters, I gave birth to my three children. At the birth of the last, the walls were not even complete and my partner was nailing sheets to the wall studs as I laboured in the bath!

I didn’t fully realise the ephemeral nature of this until I encountered the architecture of Europe. Of course, I had an inkling when I visited southern cities. Sketching terrace houses on my first visit to Sydney at 18 is still a vivid memory. On my return from my first trip to Europe in 2014 my first works reflected the massive columns of the many churches and temples we visited in Italy.

On January 3 this year I returned from ten weeks in Ireland, Spain and England, with brief forays into France, Belgium and Holland. This more recent and longer trip brought home to me even more powerfully how much we are the product of our formative place. In so many ways, our culture is our story! It puts me in mind of Howard Jacobson’s documentary, Brilliant Creatures: Rebels of Oz, which some of you may have seen, as I did, on ABC television last year. It was that program about four Aussie cultural icons who went to London – Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Hughes. It contended that even Robert Hughes, who seemed so erudite and might have been expected to fit in so well in the cultural ferment of London in the 60s, realised once he got there just how Australian he was.

Well I won’t compare myself to these luminaries, and I didn’t take London by storm. But I did have a series of what you might call “culture shocks”!  On our first morning in 2014 I found a walk by the Ness River. How different from an Australian river! A wide body of fresh water about 10 cm below the land. My first thought: What about erosion with no rocky banks, no fibrous weeds or big trees?

Realisation: •  River banks can be gentle not deep or steep and covered in tender green plants

Culture Shock 1: Some places have abundant fresh water! Abundance of fresh water, damp groves and between each rock crack and crevice little flowering plants grow. Not having to feel anxious about fresh water is something I could only imagine. Water anxiety is so deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche.

If the riverbanks seemed rather vulnerable, the architecture did not. Inverness church seemed substantial enough to endure whatever the waters might offer. My response to these stone buildings was to seek to be embraced or enclosed by standing in the doorways or under the lintels if I couldn’t actually enter. I sidled up to many stone fences and touched many rock walls.

The special sensation of walking into Europe’s many magnificent buildings, through obvious and embellished framed entrances, along walkways and long staircases, under columns and colonnades, showed me that his architecture was designed to have an impact on the human psyche.

(Compare this with our modern buildings where you enter in a state of confusion and diminishment because you couldn’t be sure where the door was among all the other glass panels.)

Amsterdam & Belgium

In the low countries, Belgium and Holland, we see everywhere this juxtaposition of the very substantial buildings with the ever-present water in close proximity. Venice is the well-known place of buildings in proximity with water par excellence, but now I realise that many European cities have waterways. Even from my son’s flat in Bow, East London, I could see Limehouse Cut, with ducks and seagulls. London is intersected with “cut’ waterways, historically used for transport.

In many places buildings also have to be strong enough not to handle just water, but snow!

Interestingly the Scots have used stone in their monument to the tragic Battle of Culloden, while every churchyard across the UK has many stone gravestones and celtic crosses.

The stone walls were inconceivably many! Along the roads, on each side, endless miles of them. Each field of Ireland is bordered with them! Sometimes these walls were not reassuring, but quite confining and scary to drivers who have much reduced visibility because of them!

Bridges are those special places where water meets stone: some of the stone bridges we saw dated back to Roman engineering. At Shewsbury we walked along the Severn in the footsteps of Ellis Peters’ medieval detective, Brother Cadfael.

A note on the beauty of everyday things:

Not just the ornate buildings struck me, but the amount of care and detail in everyday attention to detail in mailboxes, lamp posts, street lights, drinking fountains and even doorknobs. They make you feel like a Medici princess just walking down the street.

20171021_195650 ornate details (1)

Just a few weeks after my own return, a friend, musician Neil Murray, was also ready to come home from an overseas trip. He wrote:

Last day in Naples, Italy. In the shadow of Vesuvius I contemplate departure. (Forget Pompei at your peril) Though I have inherited a body from Northern Europe (Scotland to be precise) I remain just a visitor for I am not European… Still I can appreciate the artistry and industry of these builders of concrete and stone, these erectors of monuments, temples, citadels, castles and elaborate ornate churches – it is their culture.

This is closely linked with Realisation 3:

  • Around almost every corner and village are physical substantial remains of large buildings which people needed to construct so they could survive the weather and also make enduring religious statements. Sadly, the religious statements relate not only the construction, but also the destruction, of these massive edifices.

In the North of England, we explored Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds: one of many victims of Henry the Eighth’s rejection of Catholicism. So many ruins! We all (husband, son, daughter-in-law) experienced that longing to get out and explore the ruins of rock and stone buildings of the past.

Realisation: This is a fertile country without water shortage that supported a dense population over extended time periods. We know that already don’t we? But to know it deeply, go and see those Roman ruins on the Isle of Wight or by Lake Windemere where countless generations of armies of fought (and occupied and lost) layers upon layers of rock and stone.

Like Neil, I have a strong dose of Scottish ancestry, and, like Neil, who I consider one of Australia’s defining voices, my story is inextricably connected with PLACE. He concludes:

Tomorrow I travel, by train and plane at impossible speed and distance to return to the land that knows me, that forged me, that keeps me still. That broad, yawning continent basking in the South Pacific in a dream of aeons. Hemingway once wrote that if a man feels at home outside of where he was born that’s where he is meant to be. I don’t think that will happen to me. To use the Luritja term “ watjilpa ngayulu” – I am homesick.

Hemingway’s fate didn’t happen to me either. On mornings in Bow, as the ancient bells chimed morning, I would whimper to Glen that I missed the birdsong of home. Oh, I tried to make the most of my wonderful opportunity. I did the Dickens and Shakespeare tour of the Golden Mile, I went to a play at the Globe, I climbed the Tower Bridge, saw the Egyptian antiquities at University College, spent Christmas in the Cotswald Hills. These things were wonderful, but not as wonderful as coming home to hear the windows rattling, the magpies in the morning and the rain on the tin roof. I came home joyously to the subtropics and the cacophony of kookaburras on the clothesline, the screeching of the flying foxes among the mangoes. In the cold winds and snow you need the reassurance of rock and stone. Here, we can survive with timber and tin.

back view BBc 1982 w Jenny




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Susan Zela Bissett (Zela) is an educator, writer and artist with a lifetime involvement in environmental education and advocacy. Zela was born on Butchulla Country in Maryborough and has worked as an artist, educator, permaculture gardener, studio potter and consultant. She is passionate about sustainable lifestyles, maintaining habitat for wildlife and about unleashing the creativity in all of us.

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