A tribute to John Wardle, the Australian architect, and the AIA’s 2020 Gold Medalist, as was published amongst other tributes, at the Architecture Australia Magazine – the AA – May/June 2020 issue.
Apropos the Venice Architecture Biennale that was opened today – 21st May 2021 – with no public yet due to the pandemic, I was reminded of my experience at the 16th Biennale, in Venice, in 2018, of Somewhere Other, John Wardle’s installation that captured a new experience of beauty, which stood out loud, and wonderfully so, introducing Wardle’s architectural idiosyncrasy to non-Australians. It rewarded visitors with an experience they were unfamiliar with until that moment. As Gaston Bachelard wrote in his book The Poetic of Space, “the poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me.” In the work’s surprising vignettes – enigmatic and profound – clarity and precision raised the volume of that sensuous dynamic encounter.
It was as if a magician had created an immediate relationship between those visitors at proximity to each other, leaving them bemused but with a smile of joy on their faces. This intriguing, non-linear space was humorous, too.
In his 1999 book Inner Vision, British neurobiologist Semir Zeki, a world expert in the neural correlate of the experience of beauty, wrote that painters work and rework until an effect is achieved that pleases them – their own brains; and if, in the process, it pleases others, “they have understood something general about the neural organization of the visual pathways that evoke pleasure, without knowing anything about the details of that neural organization or indeed knowing that such pathways exist at all.” That observation led to one of Zeki’s most quoted phrases: “Most painters are also neurologists.”
Poetic? Yes! Beautiful? Yes! When architecture is extremely beautiful, most people agree that it is beautiful, and thus the subjective experience of beauty – which no one can define in simple terms – turns objective. In Somewhere Other, the statistical power was at work and the conclusion was crystal clear.
With the same logic, one can conclude that brilliant architects know how to probe the human mind with design techniques that are unique and known to them, as they intuitively understand the visual pathways that evoke pleasure. John Wardle is one of them.