John Scott, Nietzsche, and the Baroque

These are probably three things you wouldn’t think go together, no matter what the combination.  But the clue to the common thread was revealed at a symposium on the Aotearoa Baroque was held in Wellington in March 2011.  Informed by the text Baroque New Worlds, the symposium explored baroque tendencies in the contemporary New Zealand culture.

Lets take Nietzsche’s thinking on the Baroque first.  Strongly critical of the Enlightenment rationalism and Hegelian historicism, Nietzsche viewed the Baroque as the antithesis to the classical with its emphasis on clarity, order and logic.  Much like the dualism of the Apollonian and the Dionysian he explored in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s ‘On the Baroque’ in Human, All Too Human, Classicism (read modernism) is juxtaposed against the Baroque.  For him, important aspects of the Baroque were that it comprises ‘the choice of materials and subjects of the greatest dramatic tension’, capturing the hearts of viewers by surprise and theatricality.

More than fifty years after Nietzsche wrote down his thoughts on the Baroque, John Scott built the Maori Battalion Building in Palmerston North.  Bill McKay and Vanya Steiner’s readings of John Scott’s Maori Battalion Building are not too different to Nietzsche’s views on the Baroque.

The Māori Battalion Building in Palmerston North refused to be read in terms of synthesis and blending – ‘too strong and too resistant’ according to Vanya Steiner.  The juxtaposition of New Brutalist styling alongside fourteen traditionally carved panels standing eight foot high was not the type of harmonious blending that was supposed to lead to a truly New Zealand architecture.  Here the raw concrete block refuses to fold into whare form, and the carvings belligerently decline to be subservient to their modernist context.  McKay sees such a complex juxtaposition of stylistic elements as representative of cultural interaction of the time.

Modernism here is also mocked.  Its facelessness is given expression through the ornate carvings, its international pedigree interrupted by a local style.  As Steiner notes, the carvings ‘violate and are violated by the modernist ideals of purity and the ordered whole’, with the ‘impropriety of carved panels on the clean modernist surface mark[ing] a site of resistance.’  The energy of the panels threatens to disrupt the clarity and order of its surrounds, establishing a dramatic tension which heightens the difficulties of reading the building in the preferred mode of cultural engagement.  Viewers seeking modernism’s rejection of tradition were instead confronted by a potential rejection of modernism itself.

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