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The Value of Landmarks – The Holy Family Catholic Church

‘Our response to a building like this, our deep affection for some places and loathing of others: what does that say about us and our community? How can we tell if our reaction is something to treasure and protect or to carefully unravel?’

There’s a very human experience, where you physically respond to a place or situation, but can’t identify why. That moment of déjà vu, or the experience of someone “walking over your grave”. The rush of adrenaline or excitement, of anticipation. The unexpected response that can discombobulate, refocus, and have us seek for reasons, to build the situation into our expectations and narratives.

For me, entering the Holy Family Catholic Church at Indooroopilly was one of those moments. It was exciting and energizing. Charged. It is, in all senses of the word, an astonishing building. Surprising, impressive, evocative. You can sink into the whitewash of the exterior and neutral coloured interior and lose yourself in the quietness. Or your busy eye can be drawn to the texture, the lines, the detail that shifts with every movement of your head, no two views being alike, light playing with concrete and glass. A grand pipe organ juts suspended from the wall, its lower reed salvaged from the Central Congregational Church in Ipswich, that had been destroyed by fire. The skylights and pleats in the vaulted roof line draw your thoughts up out of the building to the heavens. This building demands your attention.

Landmarks are intended to stand out, they give definition and anchor. Yet, for some, this difference can be an oddity, an eyesore, a quirk. The brief for W. L. Douglas & B. Barnes, the vision behind the Holy Family Church, was to design a modern landmark – a brief they met and surpassed. There is great skill in creating a landmark. Brisbanites of a certain age will remember the 1996 restoration of the State Law Courts, when Comalco’s aluminium cladding was removed and the vision of Conrad Gargett Architects emerged: a sleek black “Gotham City” standing out from the skyline. Gotham City dominated the Brisbane landscape for years until the buildings around grew and it slipped into the shadows. Similarly, Holy Family dominated the Indooroopilly landscape until the buildings around it tucked it away into the heart of the attached school and community. The initial shock and awe give way into familiarity, and perhaps affection. A memory of dominance past. The people I’ve met who know this building either embrace it or shake their heads. There seems to be no middle ground.

This space suggests to me so many of things that may influence our attachments for buildings – encounter, space, design, community, detail, ritual. The nature of the building, the way it is tended speaks to community. There is continuity, a building that represents and continues the Christian story that is 2000 years old, standing on land that has a human story that reaches back 80 000 years. The First Nations didn’t mark the land in the way it is marked now. What do the Turrbal and Yugara see when they look on these modern-day monoliths? Their land, carefully tended, once alive with fauna and flora, now supports the poured concrete structure. That deliberate pouring of concrete was so unusual at the time of building that nothing like it had been attempted before in Queensland. The techniques were developed specifically for the site. Indooroopilly, the suburb, borrowed the Yagura word for its name – nyindur – gully of leaches. That history, of gullies and leaches and concrete and vision is now a part of the story of this building, the story of this community.

This building is astonishing because of the investment made in its building and the care of its community since. Holy Family Catholic Church, including its artworks, cost £70 000 to build at the time, an equivalent of $19 Million today. Sculptures by Erwin Albert Guth adorn the external wall. Move into the separate baptistry, and you are surrounded by stained glass depictions of the sacraments by Andrew Sibley. But for me, the Stations of the Cross were the standout artwork. They stood out because the figures were, most unusually, not white. How often do we see Jesus with sandy hair and blue eyes, or a pudgy pink baby in the Nativity manger? But not these. As it turns out, I later discovered (with thanks to the expertise of specialist architect Lisa Daunt) that they were painted by Archibald prize winning Ray Austin Crooke directly on the walls, an artist known for his depictions of life in the Torres Strait; as a result, Moa Island has the other church that features his work. What did it mean to the priest and people to undertake a work of this scale? To choose such a bold and ambitious design? To carefully select three progressive artists, whose work has stood the test of time?

Not all things last in churches. I remember one Christmas, a small church (of 20 people) held a music night. They had sold their pews to buy chairs so that the space could be used for these events and rented during the week – the income was necessary to fund the beautiful heritage listed timber structure. A visitor entered, and asked about the pews. On hearing they had been removed and sold, she responded that this was wickedness. Wickedness. Did she know that a dedicated group of people were working against the odds to keep the church alive (whatever that might mean)? That the building’s homeless guest was asked to remove their swag from the verandah for the evening? That the building’s shower facilities were no longer able to be offered to the homeless because the parish could not meet legislative and insurance requirements? But I bit back that response, because our reactions to buildings, to spaces, to the artworks they contain, is intuitive and physical.

Our buildings and design layer generation by generation. Family stories grow and are repeated in a place. When we walk into the place where we grew up, our limbic system evokes the deep and language free memory of events past, the emotions we experienced, the inarticulable. Occasionally, we visit after our family has left, when the building is a shell that contains a new family building their own history. New paint, new furniture, and a change of soft furnishings can create a sense of disconnect. Perhaps we recognise the freshness of the building’s continuing story with new people, or grieve the loss of the story the space held for us. For the Christian community, churches are the equivalent of a family home. The loss of pews can flag a renewal or an end, depending on the person. There is grief when the community no longer needs a building that holds those memories. The restaurants, private homes, and childcare centres the church buildings then contain are fresh and new, and a dramatic deviation from the continuity of what was. Through it all, the old church buildings hold this new story in the same way the land of the First Nations holds both our church buildings, their histories, and their new inhabitants.

And with that in mind, I know I need to check my reaction to the Holy Family Catholic Church building, that instant attachment, that sense that this was a place that was inherently valuable, inspiring, and worthy of preservation. What am I asking of the community of The Holy Family Catholic? Maintaining a space like this is an expensive work, and heritage grants provide just a fraction of the cost. Their controversial structure, this holy and charged space is a part of our shared history. It is theirs, and it is ours. Who decides what should and should not happen to a building like this? Like all things that are historical, it holds the overlapping ideas of stories past, of lessons learned and things that survive.  It is the work of hope, of continuity, of entering humanity’s story with God and leaving a work that would outlast the instigator. It is a space I would love future generations to experience. It is also a brand, a claim, a declaration of entitlement to the space and community. And it is the family home that is held in trust for now, and will become someone else’s story in time – for what, we wait and see. Our response to a building like this, our deep affection for some places and loathing of others: what does that say about us and our community? How can we tell if our reaction is something to treasure and protect or to carefully unravel?

Written by Ann Edwards, a Lecturer of Speech Pathology at the Australian Catholic University and the Honorary Assistant Curate at St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Indooroopilly. Her clinical and research areas include swallowing and communication after stroke and in progressive neurological diseases, and working with self-advocates to create inclusive communities. 

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The Cooperative
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Written by The Cooperative