Images provided by Alistair Watters
by Alistair Watters
“The universe is an ocean upon which we are the waves. While some decide to surf, others venture to dive.” – Charbel Tadros.
When walking around the UWA campus, you might have noticed some strange symbols etched into the stones of buildings. These symbols, known as hexafoils or sun symbols, can be found everywhere, including on park benches, staircases, and even carved into the sandstone. Like me, you might have chalked this up to be just a pretty decoration with no meaning. Yet it’s the opposite, most hexafoils come from interesting origins which vary across the globe.
The hexafoil has roots in both witchcraft spells and as a symbol of rebellion used in Italy. Let’s start with the witchcraft aspect. The hexafoil was used for decades as a protection spell in Australia. This symbol was believed to ward off evil spirits; this resulted in many people carving hexafoils into walls to protect themselves and their families. Despite this being a widely done practice, carvings would often be well hidden (due to them being taboo) and are rarely mentioned in old texts.
When researching this, I had the opportunity to speak to Ms Ingrid Harse, the UWA Architecture Specialist. From this, I learned that the hexafoil was brought into and inserted into the UWA architecture by renowned architect Mr John ‘Gus’ Ferguson.
In “100 Treasures of UWA”, Ferguson explained that he first saw the symbol while on a trip to Cyprus. It was engraved into a marble block, originally salvaged from a building in Venice, and was used as a door sill on the Greek island Mykonos. The symbol in Venice is known as the “Sun of the Alps.” Since the 1990s, it has been used as a political symbol by Italian separatists for Padania, a northern part of Italy. Of course, that was after Ferguson’s visit there. At the time, it was used both for decoration and as a measuring tool.
Like the hexafoil, most of the old UWA architecture takes inspiration from Venice. Even the iconic sandstone and Winthrop Hall take inspiration from Venetian architecture. Ferguson learnt about the symbol and was inspired to incorporate it into his designs at UWA.
In fact, while googling this topic, I stumbled on a tweet that blew my mind! Have you ever carefully examined the E-Zone building’s outer walls? Because if you have, you will realise that all those circles on the outside are actually just hundreds of tessellating hexafoils! Although this wasn’t designed by Ferguson, the architects who did, chose to incorporate them to pay homage to his legacy.
To do an article like this justice, I need to dive into this topic further. See, although John Ferguson may have discovered the hexafoil while being in Italy – little did he know that the symbol was already being used in Australia 100 years prior. For example, in the 1825 courthouse in Tasmania. In fact, some hexafoil carvings that were designed to ward off evil spirits have even dated back to the first fleet.
Now, before you assume that these superstitions were unpopular, it is important to consider the nature of the era and the circumstances at the time. Hundreds of years ago, the first fleet arrived in Australia, a land they had never stood on before. Hence, it was only natural for them to practice carving hexafoils to protect themselves from the unknowns of this new land. Nowadays, of course, hexafoils may be purely decorative around UWA. However, if it is for traditional purposes, maybe it does work? Have you ever seen a demon, ghost or grandfather clock around UWA?
If you are interested in reading more about this topic, particularly about Gus Ferguson and his many other architectural marvels, I urge you to google “Australian hexafoils”. Alternatively, I would recommend that you read Andrew Marshall Murray’s “A Search for Understanding: The Architecture of R.J. Ferguson” (which is a 159-page PhD on Ferguson with information from an interview conducted with the man himself). The craziest thing to me is that Andrew is from The University of Melbourne, which goes to show how far spread Gus Ferguson’s work has reached.