Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Redirect the Rage

Supporters of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran gather for a vigil at Federation Square in Melbourne in February.
There's something incredibly moving about the sight of disparate individuals coming together for a cause, especially one that is literally life and death.

The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have focused the minds and energies of the Australian public in a manner usually reserved for sporting contests. Crowds gathered in public places, notable Australians have given speeches and performances against the state-sanctioned murder of two Australian citizens. This is something to be rightly proud of.

But what of everyone else on death row?

Unfortunately, it seems to take the impending execution of an Australian citizen to bring attention to the use of capital punishment around the world. In between Australians on death row, China executes as many as 4,000 people per year (exact figures are a closely-guarded 'state secret'). In our own backyard, the Asia-Pacific region, some 679 death sentences were imposed in 2012. But nary a whimper from our governments and diplomats.

This silence is deafening and does not do the Australians on death row any favour. The Indonesian authorities know that Australian outrage will probably be short lived, except by the victims' friends and families. It's only when there's an Aussie facing the firing squad that 'we' fire up.

Some have termed this attitude 'Australian Exceptionalism', where we are outraged by the impending executions of Australians, but don't care too much when local citizens are subject to the same fate. Take the example of Labor MP Robert McClelland. In 2006, the then-shadow minister for foreign affairs said Labor would campaign against the death pentalty for the Bali bombers. The result: Kevin Rudd demoted McClelland to shadow attorney-general.

This idea is much larger than the lives of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. It is the moral imperative that the state does not have the power to end the lives of individuals. The state-sanctioned murder by a Potemkin democracy deserves our anger. This is not an act of justice, it is an act vengeance. Cruel and pointless vengeance.

Hopefully Australians can direct this anger towards the fight against the death penalty all over the world. Joining an organisation such as Amnesty International would be a great start.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Walk in the (Leitz) Park

Late last year, I was lucky enough to undertake a pilgrimage to one of the holy sites of photography: Leitz Park in Wetzlar. The recently-opened complex is home to state-of-the-art production facilities for Leica Camera, in addition to three other related companies: Leica's cine-focused sister company CW Sonderoptic, parts manufacturers (and Leica suppliers) Weller Feinwerktechnik and Viaoptic. 

Wetzlar is a city imbued with history, but its last 150 years is of most interest to photographers. Along with Oberkochen and Jena, Wetzlar is one Germany's centres of optical engineering. Over the past century, the city was home to names such as Minox, Leidolf, Hensoldt and, of course, Leitz, manufacturer of Leica (a contraction of Leitz Camera).

It was in Wetzlar's Eisenmarkt that Oskar Barnack captured the very first image with his prototype camera, now known as the Ur-Leica. This nondescript single frame captured with the experimental device signalled a new era for photography. The very first Leica brought both portability and quality to photography that had been hitherto lacking.

Leitz was a dominant force in photographics for the first half of the twentieth century, synonymous with ruggedness, quality and the intrepid photojournalist. But in the face of declining sales and financial difficulties, Leitz left Wetzlar in 1988, relocating to the nearby town of Solms.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Leica survived several restructures and near-death experiences to produce a slew of successful products, starting with the Leica M9. The Solms factory was bursting at the seams. A reinvigorated Leica Camera AG returned to its home town with a purpose-built state-of-the-art factory precinct.

I visited Leica's factory in Solms in 2009. That facility looked like a temporary music festival toilet block compared to the cutting-edge facility at Leitz Park. A striking piece of architecture, it is part-showroom, part-gallery, part-factory, all class.

Upon entry, visitors are greeted by a sleek, open space with exhibitions and displays, the mother of all Leica Shops and, naturally, a café. International sales manager Falk Friedrich was kind enough to show me around the facility, providing context to Leica's impressive history.

2014 was an important year for Leica, celebrating 100 years of Leica photography and 60 years of Leica M. Two exhibitions in the wonderful new space highlighted Leica's incomparable contribution as unofficial photographic record-keeper of the twentieth century.

Magic Moments - 60 Years Leica M dominated the largest wall. Hung in a lively salon fashion, the exhibition celebrated top-tier Leica M photographs and photographers from the past six decades.

The other, 36 aus 100, shows 36 iconic photographs captured with Leica cameras over the last century. From some of the earliest frames of the Ur-Leica to Eisenstaedt's famous V-J Day, it is a collection of images both iconic and lesser known, all of which convey the Leica gestalt.

One of the key attractions for Leicaphiles is the collection of rare and unusual cameras. Some are owned by Leica themselves, others are on loan from collectors. Although I'd consider myself pretty well-informed in the Leica world, Falk surprised me with some interesting tidbits, such as how sport optics (spotting scopes and binoculars) helped keep the company financially viable during the dark years of the mid-1990s to 2000s.

Amid the rarities, a showcase highlights Leica's milestone products, from the Ur-Leica (a replica is on display, the original reportedly remains locked away in a vault) to the S2. While some milestone products, like the Leica S1, were not big sellers, they helped the company overcome technical hurdles and lay the groundwork for today's successes.

The factory area is where the magic happens. Visitors get a window (literally) into each stage of production, from glass polishing to lens and camera assembly, with an interactive digital interface informing visitors of the various processes. At the time of my visit, the Leica M Edition "Leica 60" camera was on the production line. Very nice!

In this area sits the Leica family tree. Greatly expanded from its Solms rendition, the new family tree features one of almost every camera and lens Leica has ever made. Beginning with the Ur-Leica, the Null-Serie, all the way through to the latest M, X, T & S series cameras, there is a formidable logic and thought to the progression of each Leica model.

While little has changed cosmetically with the M series, new product lines like the sleek Leica T take the best of technology and rethink what is possible. Leica is sometimes criticised for being outmoded, but the T and S series cameras in particular show this is not the case. In fact, these cameras demonstrate a modern design sense completely lacking in many other camera manufacturers.

There is a care and precision evident at Leica that simply doesn't exist in other companies. While it's easy to mock Leica for being "too expensive" or "irrelevant", their products are sublimely designed and built. Their optics are second to none and their cameras and user interfaces actually put the photographer at the centre of the experience. Where mainstream camera manufacturers layer their cameras with a zillion buttons, touch-screens and sub-sub-sub menus, Leica eschews this idiocy with simple and practical design.

I also noticed a distinct pride on the part of Leica's employees, many of whom have been at the company for decades. Some, like product manager Stefan Daniel, have reached the pinnacle of the company after beginning their careers there as teenage apprentices. Leica is a shining example of German Mittelstand enterprises, small-to-medium businesses that account for 70% of employment in the entire country. These small, innovative companies are the heart of the German economy, something other countries could well learn from.

As with all tours, I finished up exiting through the gift shop; however this shop was unlike any other I had visited. The Leica Store Wetzlar offers lenses, Vespas, T-Shirts, books and, naturally, the entire Leica camera range. There is simply nothing else like it anywhere in the world. 

And with that, I bade farewell to Falk, who gifted me a Leica T body shell, the same type that is polished by hand for 45 minutes in the world's most boring ad. I left the warm, glowing warming glow of Leitz Park and stepped out into a grey Hessian day - a little more inspired than when I arrived.

A big thank you to Falk Friedrich for taking the time out to show me around and to Leica Australia for helping organise the tour.  

Saturday, 4 April 2015

[Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay] Tower Heist

The distant Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay Tower (r) and the four transmission towers atop Mount Dandenong (l). Potent symbols of Marvellous Melbourne's technological strides in the mid-twentieth century. 

These are strange days.

Usually NIMBYs would tie themselves in knots to saddle useless structures with a "heritage overlay". They would burden an empty, decaying turn-of-the-century koi pond with one if it meant preserving the "amenity" of the surrounding suburbia.

Thinking of building apartments close to transport infrastructure? THINK AGAIN! How dare you destroy our suburbs by placing higher density dwellings in sensible locations that can handle the increase in residents. I have lived here all my life in 23 Oak Tree Grove Crescent for the past 407 years and I raised my fifteen children, twenty-seven grandchildren and 2,031 great-grandchildren right here and in the park and we had fun and ice creams and a night at the pictures cost only 1p and there weren't Asians, now you want to bring more of them here??! Outrage!! 

Thus it is with some amusement on my part that the good burghers of Surrey Hills have fallen prey to their favourite planning ploy. They "can't believe" it's not butter the "ugly", "unsightly" "obscene" "eyesore" that is the Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay Tower could soon be subject to a heritage overlay.

The tower is part of a group of "controversial" heritage overlays - including the Burvale Hotel and former ATV-0 Studios - proposed by the City of Whitehorse.

Why the angst? Well, the tower is "ugly", of course. It's "obscene", an "eyesore", a "horror" and it "stinks". Words one might expect to hear from a 7-year-old describing a smaller sibling who just defecated in their pants, but not from the doctors and doctor's spouses of Surrey Hills who have presumably undergone some sort of education, most likely at the taxpayer's expense. What is about modernity these people hate so much? Well, in fairness, at least they're consistent - they hated the tower from the beginning.

Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay Tower (detail)
When the Postmaster-General's Department first proposed the tower in 1961, it was badly needed. The rapid growth of high-rise buildings in the CBD (after the abolition of height limits) meant the existing transmission mast at the City West Telephone Exchange was no longer effective. Sensibly slated for one of metropolitan Melbourne's highest points, the tower would relay signals for broadcast and telecommunications to and from the CBD and all around the state.

Predictably, residents were against it. Like all good NIMBYs, they weren't against development per se, just the one that was (completely coincidentally) planned adjacent to them. The Residents' Protest Committee, formed to fume at the PMG's Department, was even kind enough to suggest an alternative site in Blackburn. All love and care, these guys. The NIMBY journal of record, The Age fumed about the tower as well, reporting it to be an "eyesore". This is a role they continue to perform with aplomb to this day.

When residents couldn't persuade the PMG to redesign or relocate the tower, the next decades were spent finding new ways to demonise it. When it was under construction, residents claimed tools had fallen from the tower into their backyard. This was found to be baseless.

Residents also claimed the tower interfered with TV reception. Yes, that's right, a tower built to improve television and radio was alleged to have made television reception worse. This, again, was found to be baseless.

Radiation later became the catch-all boogey man, with the children apparently at greater risk of cancer, superhuman abilities and other live-threatening placebos illnesses. Again, a wonderful story lacking any evidence.

By now, I'm surprised "concerned" residents haven't developed symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome, gigantism and hysterical pregnancy...but I digress.

The tower's design suited its purpose and the telecommunications need for it was great, so the PMG pushed ahead. There it has stood for more than five decades; an eastern suburban icon symbolising Melbourne's new technological age.

All too often, people have a reflex response to things they don't like: "it's ugly", "it's an eyesore", but this does not make the tower any less worth of protection. Heritage isn't just about aesthetics or even age. Heritage takes into account many different values: cultural, historical, social etc.,  and applies protection accordingly.

The tower is part of a group of post-war buildings and structures under heritage consideration, not because of aesthetics, but because of the role they have played in the community. The tower symbolises Melbourne's leap into the twentieth century where modern technology began to make the world a much smaller place.

Without this tower, Melbourne's telecommunications services would have suffered greatly (a symptom of the removal of CBD height limits) and the entire state's communication infrastructure severely constrained. This tower is Marvellous Melbourne, an era when the city broke out of its naval-gazing parochialism and started getting. shit. done. This is why this "eyesore" finds itself on the list of potential heritage overlays.

Today we (and everyone at Lost Melbourne) bemoan the loss of many of the world's finest examples of Victorian architecture in Melbourne throughout the 1950s and 60s. Lovers of architecture can all list favourite buildings which were lost during an era of modernisation (Federal Coffee Palace anyone?).

But now we are at risk of committing the same crime if we consider post-war architecture and structures expendable. Unfortunately, it's started already, with approval given for the demolition of the former National Mutual Plaza and in the past couple of days, the Dallas Brooks Hall. Don't be hating on these buildings just because they're "ugly".

Dear residents in the vicinity of the Communications Relay Tower: Don't be like the residents of Heathrow complaining about aircraft noise. If you dislike it, you probably shouldn't have moved into an area where the tower announced its presence long, long, long before you arrived.

If you have lived in the area for less than 50 years, then its your own fault. Bugger off somewhere else. I'll gladly buy your house at what I assume is a reduced value due to tower amenity and gaze lovingly at it every day knowing it helped transform Melbourne into the great city it is today.

Further Reading

Heritage Study of Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay TowerBuilt Heritage, 2014

"Face-Lift for P.M.G. Tower Site" 1962, January 22, p.9

"P.M.G. at Site" 1961, The Age, August 23, p.7

"P.M.G. Tower 'Most Prominent Eyesore'" 1961, The Age, August 11, p.6