I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I am also using it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria. Suggestions welcome!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Stairs to Nowhere

Along the Merri Creek just a little upstream from the Heidelberg Rd bridge, the concrete bike path diverges into a little set of stairs. A bluestone retaining wall frames the embankment on one side, and longer stones frame the stairs on the right. The staircase seems to lead to a path along the river but it didn't look very inviting. Perhaps I'll explore when it is no longer the height of snake season.

Long couch grass is growing between some of the stones. That's pretty unusual, as bluestone walls usually fit pretty tightly. (I can foresee a time when I might be able to make judgements about the quality and even the date of bluestone walls from their mortar: there seem to be quite thick layers here.) The pole on a slant bears, if I remember correctly, a warning about flood levels. Just to the right of these steps is a low timber crossing, which is regularly flooded after heavy rains, as the Creek fills up. 

To me, it's hard not to see something a bit whimsical here. The stairs certainly help shape the embankment as the path twists and curves to the right, yet they also lead the eye and the step upward, away from the determined running, walking and cycling that goes on daily here. The steps seem to offer your own secret little space of wilderness, in dramatic juxtaposition to the civic geometry that invites you there. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: "What's all this nonsense?"

Driving through Richmond last week on the way back from the Epworth, I was trying to take short cuts and quick routes to avoid the busy main roads. I found myself heading towards Victoria Park, the home of the Collingwood football club, and realised I had taken a wrong turn and would end up driving through Clifton Hill. But as I turned a corner by the railway line I found myself exclaiming aloud, "What's all this nonsense?"

Dear reader, it was nothing but some bluestones laid in a diagonal pattern. Just a humble patch of bluestone on the road, perhaps to slow traffic very slightly.

I don't know when this patch was laid, but its diagonal structure is so clearly not a nineteenth-century pattern. If, like much modern bluestone use, it's made from older pitchers, then some of them have had to be cut into these irregular triangular shapes to form the diagonals. A new kind of bluestone labor (manual? or using what tools?)  but one that will make it harder to use these stones again for any other use. Bluestones are often re-used, and buildings re-assembled or moved. They are like nineteenth-century Lego blocks. Cutting them up like this seems somewhat short-sighted.

 I laughed, though, at my own reaction. So accustomed have I become, already, to seeing bluestone everywhere and remarking about it and thinking about it, that this unusual pattern made me exclaim, stop the car and get out and take a photograph. Because I am blogging daily, too, I am thinking about the project every day. How quickly the square form of bluestone and its right-angle layering have become normative.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Pentridge Piazza: "it's like being someone special"

Pentridge prison was decommissioned  in 1997, and in the rush to privatisation that characterised his government, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett sold nearly 30 hectares of crown land to private developers.

One of these, Peter Chiavaroli, whose family comes from Abruzzo, envisaged his housing development along the lines of Italian walled towns. The discourse is determinedly Italianate, with the "Centrale Chiara" rose garden and "Aurora" fountain, as well as the central concept of "Pentridge Piazza." 

It's a clever way to re-code a prison coded as grim and severe into a welcoming housing community. Architect and co-developer Luciano Crema cites the northern Italian town of Treviso as his inspiration.

There was also a local model too. One of the developer's early newsletters, from 2005, cited Carlton's Lygon St, another Italianate community of shops, bars and restaurants close to the University, as a model.

One article in the newsletter is headed, "Village is a must for strong family values," and features an interview with a woman, Cathy, who is now moving up to a larger house in the development (possible because the value of the first has gone up, naturally).
"You see," she says with the kind of passion reminiscent of her Lebanese heritage, "living in Pentridge means something very special. "We love it because it is our home, but we love it even more because it is like living with a great big family.
"And, you know, when you tell people you live in Pentridge Village, it's like being someone special."
She smiles at the thought and then, hugging herself as if to emphasise her point, she says, "It is difficult to explain, but we all feel so safe and happy here. We really are part of something special." 
Brilliant interviewing/copy-writing!  Demonstrates precisely the symbolic force of Pentridge as heritage site: nothing specific about ghastly haunted prisons, but simply something "special."

One of the first couples to buy were a policeman and his partner, who bought a two-bedroom warehouse shell in the old prison mill.

Interviewed in The Age, Mr Hinton was "not concerned about its violent history."

"If these walls could talk they would certainly have a bit to say, but I'm not bothered at all," Mr Hinton said.
Ms Shields thought the retention of the bluestone perimeter would provide a strong sense of community. 

The development has not been uncontroversial, stylistically, or in heritage terms. Here are a few pics I've found on the web, showing first, an attempt to build the apartments on top of the walls, over an archway that as Vaughn showed us yesterday, leads down to the old laundry, one of the oldest parts of the estate.

and here, a reminder that for all the "safety" and "community" of a walled village, that "safety" depended on making sure you didn't escape.

 I particularly like the way they have kept the interesting feature of the tower, but made steps up/down to it on the wall, to reduce the oppressive "prison affect" of the walls.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Pentridge

Where to begin??

It's a bright and sunny Melbourne day with the promise of a dry south-westerly wind change later in the afternoon. Deirdre picks me up and we meet Helen and Anne at the café for our tour of Pentridge's D Division.

We are lucky with our guide, Vaughn. We four are the only ones on the tour, so we can choose whether to focus on architecture and the bluestone, or gruesome stories about the prisoners. Some of the state's most notorious criminals lived here: Ned Kelly, Chopper Read, Carl Williams, Jean Lee, Ronald Ryan (the last two hanged here). Vaughn was a warden here in 1978, but is also a lover of history, and a brilliant story-teller. And in spite of our declared interest in stone, we did certainly veer back to the stories about the inmates. It's a human place, after all.

One thing that became abundantly clear is how huge the whole complex is. Much of the land has been sold for private development, and there are numerous of wings of rather ugly-looking apartments, making awkward attempts to integrate the existing bluestone walls. The newly discovered panopticon exercise yards are in another area altogether and we will have to make a separate time to visit them, if we can.

I also had a proper camera with me, though I haven't yet worked out how to zoom, and haven't yet connected it to the computer, but here are two shots I took with the phone after we had driven around the whole area: these are the main gates...

With notes, photos, and four people asking questions and taking notes, I have enough material for a week's blog posts, to say nothing of a chapter for the book. Helen has already done a lot of work on Pentridge, and of course, there are many publications to read.

The main thing I learned today was how to start reading bluestone construction a little better. How the outer walls of Pentridge are formed by two layers of thinner bluestone, filled in with rubble and bricks. How a wooden frame was used to shape the really long slabs used in the cell walls. How the blocks were cemented together with lime and sand, with great precision. But that precision made it easy (relatively) to ease out a large stone; and one was big enough to allow a body to squeeze through. Vaughn had found a prisoner in exactly that act, with the stone half out of his cell wall. Prisoners used to escape all the time, but the cops would tell the guards, 'don't shoot them': i.e., don't ruin your own lives; as we'll catch them and bring them back. There was a distinctive chiselled effect on lots of the stones: something to look out for. I'm learning to tell the difference between (relatively) earlier and later work on a particular site, between high status and less important walls. The floors of D division were large squares: also bluestone, though smooth as slate. And you could also see dips and wear in the heavily used areas near doorways. We noticed that the windows on many of the cells were painted over. The prisoners would do it, to give themselves more darkness, to be able to sleep better during the day. This was one of the saddest things.

Helen or Deirdre asked about the prisoners breaking the bluestones, "It was a torture," Vaughn said. I had always thought there was a very precise connection between Pentridge and the bluestone dug out of what became the Coburg lake but that connection wasn't in the foreground of the discourse today.

And finally -- there'll be more, once  I write up my notes, and unload my photos -- the great irony was that bluestone made it very hard to see escaping prisoners. So many of the corners of the buildings were whitewashed, to make it easier to see the silhouettes of escapees as they broke out.

I thought our visit might tell us a lot about the prison's origins and construction; and so it did. But what I feel most is the weight of all these stories, from one guard's experience, at the time of my own adolescence.

UPDATE:  I was telling my friend over drinks this evening about this project and the day's excursion, and she told me that her ex-husband had once arrested Ronald Ryan and had admired him for his agility as he raced over the rootftops: it sounded like something out of Oliver Twist. Anyway they developed a bit of a relationship, and Ryan even invited Bryan to his hanging. Bryan declined the invitation...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: "a bleak and scary building"

I was going to devote this week's blogs in preparation for my trip to Pentridge tomorrow, delving a little into its history, but instead it is turning into a series on other regional gaols: Parramatta, Bendigo, and today Geelong. Kerryn Goldsworthy reminded me about the Geelong gaol, which is indeed a true bluestone beauty. I love the way the photographer here has tried to get under the imposing bluestone gateway. This is becoming a common theme: the way dark bluestone walls tend to loom forbiddingly....

Like Pentridge, this gaol was built by prisoners, between 1849 and 1864. In the meantime, they slept on "high security barges" on Corio Bay. The gaol seems to be a mixture of basalt (bluestone) and brickwork. In this photograph, it doesn't seem so dark and grey...

I will certainly go and visit this gaol but in the meantime, here is the article Kerryn sent me. It is full of the evocative language that is one of the subjects of my study. The gaol is a "bleak and scary building", and I particularly love this sentence: "In today's terms the prisoners lived in appalling conditions with freezing blue stone walls and iron bars." There's a real awkwardness here in trying to translate emotional affects from present to past and back again. 

You can do a normal tourism tour, but there is also, of course, the haunted ghost tour, with very scary picture:

I've never been a zombie or horror buff of any kind, and have never been on a scary ghost tour (though there were moments under Edinburgh Hill that felt distinctly creepy), but maybe in the interests of research I'm going to have to change my ways. Yikes!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: The Penitentiary Affect

Like all engrossing research projects, this bluestone malarkey is everywhere. Just checking the news online, and of course my attention is caught by this article on the ABC site about the Sandhurst Gaol in Bendigo being converted to a new theatre, the Ulumbarra Theatre. Hot on the heels of the concert in Parramatta Gaol, I scanned quickly to see, first, if the gaol was a  bluestone one. Alas, no: it's made of granite and brick, though bluestone is never far away, as I'll explain in a minute.

The Gaol is an odd mix of architectural styles. As one website explains, "The essential architectural character of the building is generally classical, with walls and towers resembling the embattlements of a medieval castle." So, too, as we will see on Thursday, Melbourne's Pentridge is also medievalist in style. 

But Sandhurst was also built, 1861-64, on the modern panoptical design. Bentham's Pentonville prison was built in 1842. Only two of Sandhurst's projected five wings were ever built.

The new theatre looks as if it will be fantastic. They are going to preserve some of the original features and fittings, and some of the original narrow cells.

But here's the bluestone moment:
The corridor will be carpeted at the edges, but the main walkway will be paved with bluestone; as theatre patrons enter, their footsteps will echo, creating what Mr Lloyd calls an "aural echo" of what prisoners would have heard.

I'm not sure if it's possible to get any more of the original "Harcourt granite", but the choice of bluestone is a stunning indicator of its importance as a heritage stone. Needing something to evoke the prisoner experience as your high heels click, or your rubber soles scoot along from the foyer into the performance space, carrying your glass of champagne or  icecream, you'll be able to "hear" an echo of the past. It will literally be an echo of your own feet but the bluestone will help you imagine the past. The choice of bluestone perhaps also echoes the most common experience most Melbourners have with bluestone, of actually walking on it, on our kilometres of laneways and the edges of our footpaths. Wonder if bluestone laneways are also a feature of Bendigo: is it a local reference?  And isn't there something a little odd about that phrase "aural echo"? Doesn't quite do the work Mr Lloyd wants it to do, I fear.

But even where a heritage building is not made of bluestone, bluestone is charged with affective work. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Prison Blues -- or Golds. Tex Perkins at Parramatta

On Saturday night, we went to hear Tex Perkins doing his Johnny Cash show -- Far from Folsum -- at the old Parramatta Gaol.  I'm sure I know more about Cash from Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line than any deep musical understanding, though I knew some of the songs, and remembered my childhood horror at A Boy Named Sue, and its anarchic rhythms ("My Name is Sue!  How Do You Do??). But the show was great. Perkins was fabulous and his deep growly voice hardly faltered. Rachael Tidd as June Carter was underwhelming, I felt, but the band was tight and the atmosphere pretty good.

We were seated towards the back. Little white plastic chairs in rows in the enormous old exercise yard of the gaol. As if at a festival, rather than a concert, people went up and back to the bar at the back all through the 70 minutes set, and a man next to me kept up an irritating mansplaining commentary to his almost silent partner for the first half hour, till he went back to the bar for a good twenty minutes.

The amplified acoustics were good; and the big screen helped with visibility. But something about the human acoustics was absolutely chilling. A flat plane, surrounded by four high square walls, has the effect of killing sound around you. We could hear people clapping maybe twenty rows ahead, but from our back corner, there was no acoustic connection with people over the other side or down the front.

It was prison architecture, after all, and the last thing you would want would be a group of exercising prisoners banding together. (I am going to visit the solitary panoptical exercise yards at Pentridge on Thursday, designed for the opposite effect.)

The other thing I couldn't help notice was the difference made by sandstone as the building's stone. Of course it was lit up by floodlights for the festival, but even so, walking around the elegant main block to the huge yard behind, all open to the warm summer skies, just ... felt ... very different from the bluestone effect, particularly in a prison context.

Cash's songs, at least those from the Folsom event, that Perkins sang, were gruesome enough: songs of desperation, suicide, murder, gambling, prison blues, woman-killing. And Perkins made a few jokes and told a few stories about the Parramatta gaol. But in the golden light of those stones, you had to work pretty hard to feel much of a chill.

Friday, January 16, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Brief Lyrical Interlude about Time

I took this photo at the cemetery last week: lichen on bluestone. I love the contiguity of patterns here: a lovely symmetry of little bubbles in the stone under the layer of little flowers in the lichen. The lichen looks as if it has been dropped — splat! splat! — onto the rock from a giant ladle but of course it has grown by spreading out, incrementally, over the surface in thin, widening and conjoining circles. At first glance it looks like a contrast between informal, spontaneous, organic growth — the colour of pale new spring; and an unyielding, formal, institutional surface — the dark grey of heritage time. And in once sense that's true. But the stone, now cut into in a rectangular block, was once part of a molten red volcanic flow, moving and bubbling much faster than lichen could ever grow. And in a cemetery? Time capsules everywhere.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: When Bluestone Isn't

The Melbourne general cemetery is a good place to think about the specific cultural associations of bluestone. I need to know more about when and why granite and marble became the default stone for tombstones, for example. Its re-modelled gatehouse told me bluestone remained an appropriate stone for building, after the first mid-nineteenth-century flush of enthusiasm.

And this building (I haven't yet dated it but I'm almost sure it was put up in the last ten-fifteen years) is another lesson: 

It's a service building of some kind, over on the far west side, backing on to Princes Park Drive that curves between the cemetery and the green fields of Princes Park. I rode past it every day in the good old days before my cycling accident in October. I used to love riding home as dusk turned to dark, as the sporting fields were lit up all velvety green on one side, and the low rise tombstones on my right would catch the light; and as soft lights dotted the dark spaces of the crematorium.

At first glance, its shape, colour and texture suggest it is made of bluestone like the old chapel, not far away. But the little portico, like a suburban driveway, the rollerdoor, and the proliferation of "hazchem" signs signalled that here was something else.

In fact it is made of two different kinds of composite concrete, made to look like two different kinds of bluestone (smooth and rough). 

This was a lovely simulacrum of both "bluestone" and also "bluestone building". It's easy to understand how this form of association works: it's designed to look as much like the adjacent chapel as possible, but because it's not really a heritage building, it can be plastered with all the signage; and that was the first thing that made me think, as we walked towards it, that it was not ... I was going to say "real".  Of course it is real, and as a new building, made me think about what was inside. Is it just gardening and maintenance equipment? Or does it contain traces of the mysterious undertaker's business? What work on behalf of the dead goes on behind its doors? And was it really built out of fake stone, in that shape, all at the same time? It's not an obvious heritage site, so may need some more detailed archival research to probe its mysteries?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: What It's Like Doing Emotions Research

Yesterday we spent an amazing couple of hours at the Melbourne Museum, talking with one of the curators about the Museum's bushfire collections. I'm writing an essay about the life of material objects after fire. Liza had some terrific stories to tell and images to show me and Helen of items in their collection. I'm thinking, for an essay I'm writing, about the kinds of objects people want to protect from the fire, but also the things that survive from fires when houses burn down around them (some are miraculously preserved unchanged; others are utterly transfigured by fire) and most particularly, the things that people want to give to museums: the things they keep for themselves, and the things they give to museums so someone else will do the keeping for them.

This is one of the most beautiful objects in the collection. The catalogue entry reads:

This mass of fused glass, ceramic and metal was found in the ruins of a home in Skyline Road, Yarra Glen, which was destroyed by fire on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. It contains the remnants of household objects, including clear and pink glassware and shards of blue-and-white ceramics, and a metal fitting believed to have been a ring which suspended a water pipe from the house's underfloor bearers. 

It was part of an exhibition at Healesville, held between March and May of the same year: this urgent desire to tell and show what happened.

I asked Liza if she had observed any gendered differences in the way people curated these objects, and she told me one story of a couple who did not stay to fight the fires and lost everything when their house burned down. Because of police road blocks, they couldn't get back into the area for ages, and eventually decided to buy an apartment in the city, even temporarily. But they struggled, and never made it back (either physically or emotionally) into the community they had left. The man was devastated, having lost all the paperwork (mortgages, bank statements, passport, certificates) that proved who he was. The woman was devastated by the loss of friends and community. He had lost individual identity; she had lost social identity.

One of the things that became very clear was the emotional work a museum curator does with fire survivors. Some people were contacting the museum within a week of Black Saturday, in 2009, offering to give objects to the museum, even after their own houses had been destroyed. So Liza was working right at the front line.

There was much to think about and process, and after two hours the three of us were wrung out, I think. As we were leaving, though, I mentioned my bluestone project, and picked up some great leads about the resources the Museum can offer. And then Liza recalled that when she moved from her house in Yarraville (in the Western suburbs, built on the basalt lava flow) to Elsternwick (in the Eastern suburbs, in the sandbelt region of the city), she took with her a bluestone cob as a reminder of home.

It wasn't just that my two projects came together in the same room, though it was one of those amazing meetings where ideas and suggestions came so thick and fast it was hard to keep track of them all. It was that my interest in the personal and emotional aspect of the fires project had found an extremely sympathetic interlocutor; and then that somehow her own connection with her own home and its bluestone foundations — the thing that she would retrieve from leaving her home — bubbled its way up to the surface.

No surprise, of course, that emotions research will be emotional; or that a curator will have to manage emotions of fire survivors; but a kind of wonder, that of all the possibilities, this little bluestone cob had the final word of the afternoon.