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Book Club

Among Buildings
In Conversation with Michael Roper, Tom Ross & Stuart Geddes
18.06.23

Book Club is an opportunity for design discourse – news, views and reviews from the world of publishing in conversation with our favourite design authors, commentators and provocateurs.

Tom Ross is an architectural and editorial photographer, published internationally. Michael Roper is a poet, architect, and co-director of Melbourne practice Architecture architecture. Stuart Geddes is a graphic designer, PhD candidate and Industry Fellow at RMIT University. Together, these Melbourne-based creatives have created Among Buildings – a book that reflects on 26 examples of significant Melbourne architecture through photography and poetry.

Exploiting the productive tension between the written word and the photographic image, the book—now in its second print edition—draws upon aspects of place, myth, history, and personal experience in an open-ended exploration of some of Australia’s most iconic works of architecture. Among these are Robin Boyd’s Featherston House, the GriffinsCapitol Theatre, and Yuncken Freeman’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl. The publication makes no attempt to present a complete picture of the subject buildings, rather it presents a series of open-ended, personal reflections – fragments in a kaleidoscope of possible imaginings.

NHO Founder and Director, Neil Hugh Kenna, recently sat down with Tom, Michael, and Stuart to discuss Among Buildings. This is their conversation.

Portrait courtesy of Michael Roper.

Among Buildings by Tom Ross, Michael Roper & Stuart Geddes is available to purchase via Bookshop by Uro and other select bookshops.

NHK: Welcome to NHO Book Club and thank you for joining us to discuss Among Buildings. What first inspired your collaboration and how did the interdisciplinary nature of the project influence the creative process?

MR: It was quite unplanned. At some point in the late 90s, Stuart and I were fellow dish-pigs in a Smith Street restaurant called Col’s Café. Some 15 years later, Tom and I shared a studio space above Tattoo Magic on Gertrude Street. Around the same time, Stuart and Tom were both regulars at Everyday Coffee. The three of us first joined forces for Among Buildings.

From the outset, Tom and I started talking a lot about images and words. Eventually, I started writing about Tom’s images and Tom started making images for my words. This evolved into making regular visits to buildings together.

A couple of years into the process, Stuart joined the team and gave the publication its shape. Up until that point we really weren’t sure what format the work would take. He tested a lot of our assumptions about the work and its presentation, fundamentally transforming how it’s read.

As much as we love the finished publication, the collaborative process was the greatest pleasure – the simple act of discovering, sharing and developing ideas. Collaboration is all about changing and being changed – it’s a thrill. Every aspect of this publication is the result of a true collaboration between the three of us.

Seaford Lifesaving Club by Robert Simeoni.
Photograph by Tom Ross.

“From the outset, Tom and I started talking a lot about images and words. Eventually, I started writing about Tom’s images and Tom started making images for my words. This evolved into making regular visits to buildings together.” – Michael Roper

NHK: How did you select the 26 examples of Melbourne architecture featured in the book and what criteria, if any, guided your choices?

MR: We were mostly interested in buildings that people might be familiar with, in order to make the act of de-familiarising them more potent. We were hoping to offer new perspectives on known buildings, validating the notion that a personal, fleeting experience is as relevant to our understanding of the built environment as any encyclopedia entry. While there were no strict rules guiding their selection, there’s a fairly even spread of buildings from the 1870s to the 2010s, with no two buildings designed by the same architect.

Federation Square by Lab Architecture Studio in Among Buildings.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Roper.

“We were mostly interested in buildings that people might be familiar with, in order to make the act of de-familiarising them more potent.” – Michael Roper.

NHK: In architect, artist, and poet Alex Selenitsch’s introduction, he suggests the raw material for the book’s photographs and poems are your visits to these buildings – “and indeed, that is what the viewer/reader is encouraged to reimagine.” How do the photographs and poems capture your personal encounters, and what are the possibilities and limitations of these mediums as storytelling devices?

MR: Every month Tom and I would visit a new building. We took our time, having long drawn-out conversations about what we saw and thought as we moved around, covering aspects of place, myth, history, and our personal experiences of the buildings. Tom would be taking photos and I’d be writing down our thoughts. On a couple of rare occasions I’d almost have the poem finished by the end of the visit. More often I would go home and sit down with my notes and Tom’s photographs with remnants of our conversation turning in my head. Over the course of the month Tom and I would refine our ideas, resolving the words and images into something which we felt spoke to the building and our experience of the place.

Throughout the process we often reflected on the mode of ‘storytelling’ if that’s even what it is. If traditional stories are understood as an arc, we often talked about a field of scattered notions which, when seen together, might begin to stir a sense of the thing we’re looking at. This may not lend itself to immediate comprehension, but we hope that the work offers the reward of discovery.

Architect, artist, and poet Alex Selenitsch with Stuart Geddes, Tom Ross and Michael Roper at the launch of Among Buildings.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Roper.

“If traditional stories are understood as an arc, we often talked about a field of scattered notions which, when seen together, might begin to stir a sense of the thing we’re looking at. This may not lend itself to immediate comprehension, but we hope that the work offers the reward of discovery.” – Michael Roper

NHK: What weight, if any, did the historical narratives of each building have on your lived experience of them. Did this influence your representation of the building?

TR: The Shrine of Remembrance certainly. I find the ANZAC story uncomfortable and even unsettling as a national identity myth. Without being explicit I think that feeling imbues the photos, perhaps foreboding in the shadows. RMIT Design Hub I have mixed feelings about. Ultimately I love it, and fall for the seductive qualities but it was too hard to resist poking at the perfect box.

MR: The prospect of representing these landmarks of Melbourne architecture was sometimes a little daunting. It was important to remind ourselves that while they may be celebrated, they were still just ‘bricks and mortar’ like any other building – hence Among Buildings, rather than Among Architecture. There are threads of historical narrative written through a number of the poems, but it isn’t really the focus of the work. A couple of examples:

Queen Victoria Market reflects on the history of this site as a colonial burial ground for aboriginal people. It’s impossible to think of this place, without considering who is underfoot.
– The Heide poems thread together aspects of John and Sunday Reed’s life among their coterie of artists.
Manchester Unity was the first commercial building to challenge church and state for dominance on the Melbourne skyline. We draw this together with a story of the night when two crocodiles escaped from the South Seas restaurant in the building’s basement, sending patrons fleeing.
Storey Hall draws upon the building’s history as a place of cultural resistance, originally constructed by Irish Catholics, later a gathering place for the Suffragettes, and ARM’s challenge to the neat, sanitising order of the city’s buildings.

Sunday Reed at the Front Door of Heide I, 1965.
Photograph by Albert Tucker, courtesy of Heide.

NHK: The photographic styles vary across the book – from the almost surrealist depiction of the Capitol Theatre to the blurred, atmospheric capture of Heide I’s gardens. Tom, what photographic techniques did you draw on to bring your experience of each place to life?

TR: I started with some self-imposed rules like always 50mm lens, black and white, hand-held, and vertical composition. It’s easier to start when there’s limitations for me. Then we just gradually broke all those rules, which is fine too. The high key flash was only used for Capitol Theatre, it looks so unfamiliar and abstract, sharpening those acoustic wall and ceiling sculptures. Generally I wanted a quickness, informality, and real humanistic look to the photos. Rather than ‘professional photography’, more snap shots, to open it up and be more accessible. Like someone wandering around. For the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, for example, I wanted to tip my hat to Australian photographer Wolfgang Seivers having loved his contribution, so there’s a dramatic low angle and dark sky I think he would’ve appreciated. Looking at ICI House we chatted about the film Playtime, the super long lens reduces the building to a flat backdrop bringing the fun idiosyncratic ways people use the building into the foreground.

Capitol Theatre by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in Among Buildings.
Photograph courtesy of Bookshop by Uro.

Bryant & May match factory, Richmond 1939, by Wolfgang Sievers.
Photograph courtesy of RMIT.

Stanhill, 1951, by Wolfgang Sievers.
Photograph courtesy of RMIT.

“I started with some self-imposed rules like always 50mm lens, black and white, hand-held, and vertical composition. It’s easier to start when there’s limitations for me. Then we just gradually broke all those rules, which is fine too.” – Tom Ross

NHK: Among Buildings’ photography is black-and-white, bar one project: Edmond and Corrigan’s Athan House. What guided this choice and how does it add to the book’s expression?

TR: The Athan house basically demanded it be shot in colour – it felt strange not to, so we left the door open. Then when Corrigan passed away the year we printed the book it was decided. A tribute.

Athan House by Edmond and Corrigan in Among Buildings.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Roper.

NHK: Stuart, the book’s understated typography, page design and flat-lay binding complements the photographs and poems beautifully. How do you feel these decisions enrich the book’s presentation?

SG: Hey thanks. The approach was to be understated, as you say. In lots of ways the design of this book is about getting out of the way, and just reinforcing and supporting what is there. Subtle decisions about printing and paper and binding and pacing are there to support the words and pictures. A big part of this is about making a rich and comfortable reading experience in the context of words and pictures that aren’t necessarily comfortable or straightforward.

Among Buildings.
Photography courtesy of Michael Roper.

“Subtle decisions about printing and paper and binding and pacing are there to support the words and pictures. A big part of this is about making a rich and comfortable reading experience in the context of words and pictures that aren’t necessarily comfortable or straightforward.” – Stuart Geddes

NHK: As a tight curation of photography and text, Among Buildings offers an inherently open-ended exploration of architecture that fosters multiple interpretations. How do you hope readers will engage with the book, or the buildings within its pages?

MR: The buildings in this publication are presented through a very subjective lens – images and words are personal and fleeting. There’s no attempt here to be objective or comprehensive in any way. We hope that our words and images might inspire readers to look to their city with fresh eyes, approaching familiar old buildings with newfound curiosity. We really hope that readers might take the book to some of these buildings and read them in-situ – particularly in the case of Queen Victoria Market, the Shrine of Remembrance and the Heide buildings.

NHK: Michael, can you tell us about the closing piece of poetry, contained in the book’s jacket? What sentiment did you hope to leave with readers, and why?

MR: It’s a simple little ditty, suggesting anyone can dream their own reality into existence with as much authority as the next person.

The Fitzroy Baths by Sir John Monash in Among Buildings.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Roper.

NHK: Lastly, how do you perceive the role of Among Buildings in elevating the value of design, and its cultural significance within Melbourne and beyond?

MR: I don’t think this was ever really the objective, but if the book has anything to say on the cultural significance of design, hopefully the message is that there is no authority on such matters.

NHK: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

MR: Thank you!

TR: Yeah, thanks for having us.

SG: Anytime.

Among Buildings by Tom Ross, Michael Roper & Stuart Geddes is available to purchase via Bookshop by Uro and other select bookshops.

“If the book has anything to say on the cultural significance of design, hopefully the message is that there is no authority on such matters.” – Michael Roper

Among Buildings.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Roper.