Colour, Light, Humanity – The Legacy of Alastair Swayn

By Tamsin Kemp

Photo courtesy of CMAG

The recently opened gallery facing London Circuit affords us a teaser view of the Swayn exhibition – a white, light space with a ghostly box artfully filled with familiar objects. It’s a coo-wee; a come on in.

Colour, Light, Humanity tells the story and legacy of Scottish born Canberran Alastair Swayn’s vision for architecture as a “genuine way of approaching humanity”, his love of light and of creating welcoming spaces. Embracing the Ian Wong Collection of iconic and influential objects by Australian designers, it is a compact but impactful narrative on the potency of excellence in design.

Inside the gallery sits the remainder of the family of intriguing cubes. Like oversized lollies they entice you, with streaks of colour and hints of stories. Viewing portholes considerately arranged at various human heights gifts us intimacy in these fascinating spaces. Each cube with a signature colour, a bonus James Turrell moment as you poke your nose inside, each jam-packed with familiar shapes and connections. 

There’s the appreciation of clever and enduring design coupled with pure nostalgia here. There’s camping trips and wedding gifts, and whole childhoods expressed in these clusters. There’s the kettle from your family kitchen, your first skateboard, the stackable plastic mugs from school camps, the Eski in your parents’ garage. 

And, there’s the little prick of Australian pride that arrives unexpectedly when we realise how many of these we did not know were Australian designs. Like the power-board. “Makes sense,” my son tells me as we appreciate the humble object that’s transformed so many of our spaces. “Australians love plugging stuff in.” 

I guess we do.

Don’t neglect to spend some time with the rendering of the spicy green Torana on the wall. Car person or not, one can’t help but love this gutsy little two door, and this era of Australian automobile design. It’s a perfect manifestation of ‘form follows function’ really, because the shape, the colour, the lump in the bonnet all tell us that she does, as they say, go.

But what, you ask, do all these lovely snapshots of product design such as the Keepcup and the Caroma Utility Bathroom Stool (which, by the way, also has a home in the Powerhouse collection) have in common with Professor Alastair Swayn?

Photo courtesy of CMAG

In short – intersections with person-centred design, and the beauty of our relationship with colour.

Swayn was noted for the counterpoints of colour in his buildings, making use of bold walls, panels, and geometrics to punctuate lines and light in the architecture. 

Swayn was influenced by Mexican architect, Luis Barragan, and Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, both of whom are known for balancing oblongs this way and that, and uncompromising perpendicular lines that give a sense of cathedral like strength and wonder. What else do Mexico and Spain have in common with us though? Both bright and hot places, where light and shade are in constant dance with and within buildings. 

The exhibition notes describe light as Swayn’s way of “making buildings feel human”, and Swayn himself is quoted as saying: “I just enjoy the way you can use colour.” 

Light and colour madeth this man.

Being one of the architects behind a swathe of Canberra buildings, you will likely have walked through, or worked in, one of his spaces. I worked in one, and always appreciated that there is no room on any of the floors that does not have a view and natural light. From the front of the building you can view to the rear, and across the atrium, above the wide stairs that are also a meeting place. You can see multiple snippets of trees, garden, and sky. The CSIRO Discovery Centre is another example of the reflective segues he put at the heart of his work.

The photos of Swayn’s work that panel the cubes in the exhibit provide vignettes of his buildings, giving us the essence of his palette and how he leveraged simplicity of line and shape to create harmonic passages between the natural and built environment.

Photo courtesy of CMAG

Swayn’s meticulously curated forms fit agreeably with Canberra as a curated city. His appointment as the inaugural ACT Government Architect in 2010 secured his position as a guiding light in local planning and design, and he was involved in developing major projects including the ACT Law Courts and the City Plan. 

His commitment to community is seen in his thoughtful responses to Place. His work does not seek to dominate; it seeks to live in partnership. “He regarded architecture as a servant of people and their communities rather than as an end in itself,” remark Design Canberra.

Whether or not you regard yourself as a person interested in architecture and design, this small but powerful exhibition will have something for you. There are so many elements, conjunctions of experience and place, memory and object; reminders about the importance of careful and sustainable design. 

Plus the portholes – the portholes are a nod to Swayn’s interest in ships, and are a feature present in many of his interior designs. Here, at the CMaG, in this cosy space, they are plain fun. So get along, and get some fun.

Colour, Light, Humanity – The Legacy of Alastair Swayn is on now at the Canberra Museum And Gallery on the corner of London Circuit and Civic Square in the city.

Photo courtesy of CMAG
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