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!

Friday, January 30, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Friday House Day (1)

For the next little while, Friday is going to be House Day. That is, I'm closing in on the various bluestone sites around my own house. Some were there when Paul bought the house over twenty years ago; some we have brought in ourselves. I've lived here for twenty years myself...

First up, from the far corner of the back yard, a row of bluestone pitchers that protect the roots of the Boston Ivy from the chickens. Paul laid this row about three years ago, using stones that had formerly lined the front driveway, where they had been cemented with limestone. He has used a rough concrete mix, here. 

Before he built the chook yard, the back gate (on to the bluestone laneway, of course) cut into the yard on an angle, and after we painted the burnt umber wall, a bit of graffiti landed on that side wall before the new back fence was put in. 

I'm photographing the wall and the purple door to mark this particular colour combination as a moment in domestic fashion. I should photograph the leaves again in autumn.

We have four big chickens. They are very messy eaters, and have sprinkled their shell grit all over the bluestone. You can see Paul's cement filling up the even shape of the stone here: 

From the left, Farrah, Audrey, Talullah and Audrey: 

We also have two new young 'uns, kept separate for the moment, Billie (Holiday) and Bessie (Smith).


The main part of the chook house (not pictured here) has been converted from Joel's old tree house, itself made of a mixture of recycled timber, window frames. In the chookyard, bluestone frames our inner-city gestures towards self-sufficiency. And in thousands of gardens, bluestone pitches and clumps will be doing similar work: retaining walls and embankments and edging gardens in thousands of phases of use and re-use. One thing I am learning about bluestone in suburban and urban use: as often as it is monumental and stable, it is also often re-used and reassembled. It seems an infinite resource.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Telling the Time

One of the best bluestone sites at Williamstown is the Lighthouse and Timeball Tower. Like many bluestone buildings it's been remodelled a number of times. A lighthouse was first erected in 1840, made of timber on a bluestonebase, and then rebuilt as a bluestone tower in 1948. This picture is from 1853.

But in 1853 a timeball was added: a large copper sphere that would drop at 1.00 pm. I think the time was calculated locally, but it would be interesting to know at what point it was linked to Greenwich mean time, as part of a global navigational network.

As this place was the first permanent settlement is Victoria all survey are measure from the tide gauge at Gellibrand's Point. In 1853, a Mr R. L. J. Ellery, the first Government Astronomer, commenced determining accurate local mean time, and established a time ball so that shipmasters to correct their chronometers "at the fall of the ball" at exactly one o'clock each day.

The timeball operated until 1926, and by 1934, when a 30 foot brick extension, painted with alumium paint, was added. What a monstrosity!  What a strange attempt to double the height, keep the rectangular windows, change the right angles to curves, to modernise from bluestone to brick, and presumably to mimic the lighthouse function without a light, with the alumnium paint. Also looks as if they have built crenellations at the top to mimic the original crenellated balcony.

The brick addition was removed between 1987 and 1989, and a replica timeball was added, which apparently now drops at 1.00, run by a computer mechanism. I will have to time my next visit more carefully.

The tower is really quite imposing. When we were asking directions, we were told, "you can't miss it" and indeed it is very striking. Its slightly tapered shape is unusual, I think. I was very struck by the 1855 stone inset at the base, which demonstrates why bluestone isn't often used for figurative or detailed scupting: it's already chipping away. 

The temporal ironies abound here. The timeball that drops at scientifically produced time each day, while the building rises and falls around it, so subject to fashions and styles in building, time-keeping and heritage construction. 

Can I just say, by the way, how much I am loving this project!!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Framed by Bluestone

Two weeks ago, we met with one of the curators at the Melbourne Museum about another project, on fire. At the end of our discussion I told Liza about the bluestone project. She had a few great ideas on the spot and a few days later she emailed: 

And BTW, here is a thought for Stephanie’s project on bluestone:  I was thinking on the way to work this morning, looking at the bluestone gutters and garden edging – how Melbourne seems to be framed by bluestone.  It is in all the edges – window ledges, streets edges, garden edges, fencing, foundations for buildings, back street lanes. Very functional, but on the edge of centre.

This expresses very well the way we experience bluestone in the city. It isn't always in the main gaze, though there certainly are some spectacular buildings here, and elsewhere in the state. But as I walked to the tram in Fitzroy, and then from the tram in Carlton, here are just a few photos of the thousands similar ones it would be possible to take all over the city.

A small stretch of the miles and miles of bluestone laneways behind Victorian and Federation, where the nightsoil used to be picked up. This configuration of bluestone, brick and rolling doors is seen all through the city. People walk down laneways, harvesting lemons and grapes that overhang the fences or pick armfuls of fragrant jasmine in spring. Cycling down them is a great way to avoid the traffic, though it can be a bumpy ride.

This configuration below is also very familiar: the foundations are less smooth than the stones above, and kept unpainted, like the margin or frame of the house.

 This side entrance is less common: note smoother bluestones for the steps:

Our streets are lined with bluestone gutters: 

Little traffic islands surround posts and notices: 

Bluestone is also the foundation for many an iron fence: 

The same configuration is used for grand public structures too: here is the corner of the gateway to the Exhibition Gardens on Rathdowne St (my photo of the gateway from the front came out badly: 
I'll leave that for another post): 

Often the railings have been removed or been destroyed: this is a very common site around Melbourne. Note the reddish colouring where the iron has rusted: 

And my last, most decorative shot from this morning's walk down Grattan St: a pretty tiled verandah framed by bluestone foundations and iron fence.

As the city's 
framework, bluestone is functional, solid, unobtrusive: the support for elegance and grandeur but also beloved in its own right. 

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.