My favourite Australian building turns 75 today. On 24 November 1934, the Anzac Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park was officially opened. Not many people know the story of how the building’s design was altered by prudishness and homophobia.
It’s a stunning, simple and understated building that is often, and rightly, referred to as Australia’s only pure expression of Art Deco. I fell in love with the building as soon as I saw it, and when I learned more about the building while studying architecture at UNSW in the early 1980s, this deepened my appreciation.
The building was designed by architect C. Bruce Dellit (his granddaughter, Wendy Dellit, was in my year at uni) with sculptures by Rayner Hoff, who also has the distinction of being the designer of the Holden logo. Dellit’s design was the winning entry in an architectural competition, and is widely accepted as his finest work.
There is so much to love about this building. The design is classical, understated, simple and reflective. The sculptures and friezes, inside and out, are stunningly executed. The most striking is Sacrifice, the bronze, at the centre of the building.
I have been taking visitors to see this sculpture for nearly 30 years and every one of them has been struck by the beauty and the raw emotion of the piece. A youth, deceased, lies on a shield and sword supported by a three-figured caryatid representing his mother, his sister and his wife. It’s a stark and confronting image of the tragedy of war.
And, of course, he’s naked.
The untold story is that Hoff was a gay man, and his sculptures created a scandal in unenlightened 1930s Sydney. Dellit and Hoff had to fight to see their joint vision realised, against the politically powerful (then and now) Catholic Church, who objected to the nudity. We are fortunate that the architect and sculptor got their way with Sacrifice, but unfortunately the outside of the building was never finished.
Hoff and Dellit had planned a pair of additional bronzes, one of a man and one a woman, to go on the outside of the building, on the two big plinths on the East and West sides of the building. They were also intended as nude figures.
Unfortunately the wowsers got their way and the external bronzes were never completed. Even more tragically, Hoff had actually completed the moulds for the two monumental bronzes, and these were kept in storage for some years after the building was opened, but they were eventually destroyed. All we have left are some of Hoff’s drawings.
Sydney’s Anzac memorial is one of the greatest examples of the Art Deco movement, anywhere in the world. But it is an unfinished masterpiece, and all thanks to the prudishness and homophobia of a few 1930s-era wowsers.
CC-licensed images on this post from Wikipedia