Book Review: Shit Gardens

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In the introduction to James Hull and Bede Brennan’s Shit Gardens, the authors spell out an ambivalence concerning aesthetic evaluation that is core to the concept and production of the book. For the authors, ‘shit’ describes gardens which might initially appear “inexplicably bad”, then, with time, come to be appreciated and inspire wonder. For Hull and Brennan, this sense of wonderment is provoked by the juxtaposition of “grand ambitions of intent with the inelegance of unfinished reality”, or what Peter Sloterdijk has described as the “aesthetics of disappointment”, which he argues characterises modernity more broadly (2013, 771).

However, it would be wrong to see these suburb delights as failures in any straightforward sense. As the authors stress, shit gardens are not “shit as a result of neglect”, but due to enduring departures from perfect from, whether through “a misunderstanding of scale, an appreciation for the weird, or bold disregard for convention.” 

The book is the product of walks through suburbia and, to some extent, the fact that now most people, whether they intend to take photos or not, find that they happen to have a camera in their pockets if they want to fulfil the seemingly impossible to resist demand of being contactable all the time. The authors have a hugely popular Instagram account @shitgardens, which has over 50,000 followers, a bunch of whom are credited with the photographs used in the book.

As tech commentator Ben Evans has noted in 2015, internet enabled image sharing exists on a historically unforeseen scale. As Evan writes, according to Kodak, in 1999 consumers took around 80 billion images. In 2015 the inevitably inexact number is somewhere between 2 and 5 trillion, which doesn’t include the images taken and not shared. That seems to suggest a difference in kind, rather than degree.

Shit Gardens is in part a product of this socio-technical ecology, which is composed of the camera enabled smartphone, image sharing services such as Instagram, internet infrastructure and the communities that participate in this unprecedented flow of images. The mundane is under surveillance, not by the hierarchically organised, Orwellian systems of power, but by people taking their evening walks and getting a little buzz out of sharing minor wonders with a remotely present crew.

Like the authors’ conception of ‘shit’, publishing a book is an exercise significantly informed by duration. Lots of people have hypothetical, imaginary books which they are going to write or might have written. But the distance between thought bubble and the horizon to completion can be a long and barren stretch, with few cairns along the way to reassure those who take the path that they are on the right track.

That is, until the internet. Blogs and social media have given people access to audiences who can immediately signal their interest in an idea. The immediacy with which information can be published significantly reduces the burden of having to invest time and emotional effort into something that might not deliver a reward. It changes the hedonic nature of the performance of writing or curating. Now the pleasure of making oneself known and yet obscure to world at the same time—traditionally a relatively exclusive pleasure for published writers—is an ambient availability for anyone who can afford or steal a smartphone. Instagram can provide that often sorely needed little hit of public affirmation on the long trail to the traditionally more auspicious occasions of a gallery opening or book launch–oddly enough, in this digital age, these kinds of events retain a lustre for which virtual voting systems do not adequately substitute. It is also an invaluable source of data for book publishers and other talent scouts in search of content, which is how @shitgardens the Instagram account became Shit Gardens the book.

But it would be wrong to therefore presume books like Shit Gardens are without generic precedent before the digital age. Clearly there are forceful echoes of the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, in this work. The book is a collection of irregular gems. There is no proof here of god’s work in the universal oneness of things. Rather, what Shit Gardens proves, or rather celebrates, is the sometimes near pathological activity of humans operating autonomously from intelligent design. There are suggestive principles of order, but these are overlaid thematically by the authors according to diverse criteria. The chapters include: Topiaries (100% Plant-Based Surrealism), Gardens of Antiquity (Sentimental Statuary), Astroturf (The Future of Lawn), Hard Surfaces (High-Performance Concrete), Water Features (From Atlantis to the Present), Zen Gardens (The Suburban Minimalist), and WTF (Rethinking the Absurd). The best of which in my opinion is the chapter on Water Features. There is something about the detail and aspirations of these sculptural works that seems to paradigmatically express the sentiments of the book. And they photograph particularly well.

Paul Barker’s brilliant The Freedoms of Suburbia is a more recent precedent. Parker’s work is, like Shit Gardens, a defence of the diverse, vernacular adaptations which suburbia seems to afford. In contrast to the commonly held notion that postwar urban developments are lifeless places, both these books suggest that character is a quality that trumps beauty.

Shit Gardens is a affirmation of Daniel Harris’ argument that the aesthetic is “entirely indiscriminate in its choice of venue” (2001, xi). This has always to some extent been the case. However, the recent explosion of contexts for ‘hanging’ or posting works and the proliferation of communities devoted to aesthetic judgement means that it has become explicit and what we mean by aesthetic judgement is changing as a result. Hence Shit Gardens: which joins the countless books on gardens informed by the aesthetic of the beautiful, the sublime or the picturesque.

While the paradoxical vagueness and forcefulness of ‘shit’ as an aesthetic evaluation makes it perfect for an Instagram handle, it is actually the aesthetic category of ‘the interesting’ which in some senses more accurately captures the principles of discrimination, order and feeling at work in the book. As Sianne Ngai notes in her work on minor aesthetic categories, the interesting is an aesthetic which gives place to the role time plays in aesthetic judgement:

In contrast to the once-and-for-allness of our experience of, say, the sublime, the object we find interesting is one we tend to come back to, as if to verify that it is still interesting. To judge something interesting is thus always, potentially, to find it interesting again. In contrast to the “suddenness” Karl Heinz Bohrer celebrates as the essence of the aesthetic relation, here aesthetic experience seems narrativized or to unfold in a succession of episodes. (786)

The interesting is in abundance in a media ecology where cumulative catalogues of always accessible, different yet similar, aesthetic experiences are available in your pocket. As Ngai emphasises, the interesting is episodic. Its meaning is not in singularity but in the series. In this sense shit gardens become interesting not so much in themselves alone, as forceful, inescapable events of great magnitude and unforeseen meaning, but as a catalogue of impressionistically or analogically related types.

When Hull and Brennan note in their introduction that the shit-ness of shit gardens transforms from mild repulsion or puzzlement to perhaps equally mild wonder, they are describing a process that is very different to the idea of an sudden, emphatic, immediately transformative aesthetic experience associated with the sublime, and the more purely and straightforwardly pleasurable feelings that typically accompany the beautiful.  The caveats the authors make concerning the question of aesthetic judgement at the beginning of the book indicate that the gardens they have chosen in some sense thwart or resist immediate judgement. On first glance they might strike us a shit, but then a different, more complicated sentiment emerges, as we attempt to integrate expectations of perfection with an imperfect reality, after which we might experience feelings of sympathy, or even reverence, at ingenuity, diversity, perversity, audacity, sentimentality, indifference to standards and the peculiar interpretation of standards.

List of works cited

Barker, Paul. The Freedoms of Suburbia. London: Frances Lincoln Limited (2009).

Evans, Benedict, “How many pictures?” August 27, 2015. Available from, https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2015/8/19/how-many-pictures

Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. Da Capo Press (2000).

Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2012).

Sloterdijk, P. Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology Globes, translated by Wieland Hoban. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press (2014).

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Nairn’s London, 2018, Part I.

On my recent trip to London I mapped out a walk across the inner north of the city, from Shoredich in the inner East, to Kensal Green in the inner west. Nairn’s London (1966) and the London A-Z (street directory) were my primary navigation aids.

One expects occasional disappointments when travelling with a guidebook written in 1966. There have been big changes across that part of the city over the last half century. Key among these is a massive influx of money and commercial enterprise, particularly in the inner east.

Nairn’s entry for the old Spitalfields market describes it as doomed, unloved and sombre, a far cry from the peculiarly contemporary combination of wholesome, Scandinavian-inspired design (plywood, plants, pastels and bold stripes) and gastronomic cornucopia that now attracts crowds of tourists and corporate lunchers. He would have no doubt had a wry word to say about the cafe adored with fake pot plants in little colourful buckets that now occupies the churchyard at Nicholas Hawksmoor’s much admired Christchurch just across the road. And no doubt the sign on the outside of the Turkish Baths in Bishopsgate Churchyard, which reads ‘A Little Palace of Luxury: Exclusive Event Hire for Up to 150 Standing or 90 seated’, and is now accessible by appointment only,  would have provoked negative expressions of a more vehement variety. In 1966 Nairn was already bemoaning the increasingly common habit of locking up churches, which prevented him having a poke around.

On that score, Christchurch was still open, with a chatty lady at the desk selling brochures about the church and keen to engage my travelling partner and I in a conversation about the relationship between the building and the creed that inspired its construction. I didn’t tell her that my pilgrimage was of a literary and architectural nature.

In addition to attracting the effusive praise of Nairn, Hawksmoor’s churches were the key inspiration for Ian Sinclair’s seminal Lud Heat, the first work in Sinclair’s oeuvre which begins a tradition of tracing out routes in the city based on hidden histories, urban wastelands and chance. The book inspired Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and its influence can be registered in the television documentaries of Jonathan Meades, particularly Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody-mindedness. Meades positions Hawksmoor’s buildings alongside his one time colleague John Vanbrugh as the central proponents of the English Baroque, a style which he regards analogous to the brutalism in its peculiarly austere and yet impactful sense of drama.

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The works of storytellers like Sinclair, Meades, Ackroyd and others including Patrick Keiller, Patrick Wright and Will Self were on my mind as I walked this part of the city. I thought about how the new challenge writers for this stripe since the late nineties—and to be sure the melancholic no doubt warms to this kind of thing—must have been to shift into a mode where they write despairingly about the cornucopia of pleasures that now exist in their old haunts, rather than about the neglect and desolation that provided the romance and source of insight in the past. While the force of urban renewal arguably highlights abandonment in the intense contrasts it produces between those with and without money, walking my route through London, there was an unmistakable and perhaps naive sense that life was here in abundance.

I also thought about the vast differences between what I felt walking–sometimes running–the city, the mood evoked by these melancholic writers of London, and the different traditions in which I might have been participating due to my cultural inheritance. In particular, I thought of Barry McKenzie, a character made famous by the Australian comedian Barry Humphries, and whose influence can still be detected, albeit in a significantly watered-down version, in the current iteration of the cringeworthy Qantas air safety videos. It would have been very uncharacteristic for McKenzie to be trekking through the East End, admiring the architecture and a certain literary tradition for whom it is a preoccupation. Nonetheless, the force of the Aussie yokel still glowed within me when conducting my relations with any pompous Londoners and I thought it might be an interesting contribution both to the legacy of the brash Aussie and the literary archive about this area of city if I expressed my relatively esoteric pursuits in  tone that was in contrast to the whingeing natives on whose turf I trespassed.

Back in the 1960s, when McKenzie was created and Nairn’s book on London was first published, the Barbican Centre was still being built. The prohibitively expensive cost of its residential real estate aside, this building surely one of the better architectural achievements in this part of the city. For the weary foot traveller, who’s been roughed up by the unrelenting commotion of traffic and construction on the streets around Liverpool Street Station, the Barbican is an oasis of calm. While the massive, multi-towered complex, which includes a library, theatre, school, restaurants, gallery and exclusive residential living, might not be a shining example of affordable public amenity, nonetheless, it remains an achievement to calve out a distinctive, relatively accessible, multipurpose space on this scale in the centre of a city like London. And if my Instagram is anything to go by, it seems the aesthetic elements of the architecture are belatedly finding favour with an increasingly large audience.

Just up the road from the Barbican is The Golden Lane Estate (began 1953). The design shares some similarities with the Barbican: an elevated, multi-winged housing complex, which, as Nairn notes, can be traversed in many different directions: “along corridors, under buildings, down steps and up ramps”. It also makes great use of shared green space, in the form of large, sunken gardens and fenceless little yards, the better maintained of which blend into each other to form one, continuous band of plant-life.

True to form, Nairn commends the Golden Lane development due to itself inclusion of a pub (the Shakespeare, “modern, but without the decorative affectations that plague pub designers”). To my delight, it remains in place, exactly how Nairn described it: a subdued, but not drab environment, that feels as though it could just as easily be in country town. A few customers chat with the bar staff in the main bar (probably about the World Cup) and a young man gives the piano a tickle in one of the other rooms. Entering it is a great chance to experience one of the many atmospheric transformations that London seems to do better than any other city.

One of the things that makes Nairn’s London so great is the attention he pays to the drama, not just of isolated buildings, but the subtle distortions in the flow of the city to which both buildings and topography contribute. A classic example is the passage by St George in Bloomsbury.

After being hugely disappointed by Sun Street passage earlier in the day, the “exhilarating” quality of which is entirely absent, my travelling partner and I weathered the car and bus clogged roads and walked to St George, our second Hawksmoor church for the day.

In Nairn’s London the Sun Street passage was a transition point from the “frilly” importance of Liverpool Street Station and the “sad emptiness of south Shoreditch”. With Shoreditch now far from sad and empty, and one entire wall of the passage obscured by the temporary fence of the construction works, the intensity of the contrast Nairn describes has weakened to such a degree that it is imperceptible.

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Thankfully, the experience he describes at St George passage is preserved in full and is further augmented as one marvels at Nairn for having focused on such an inconspicuous urban feature, rather than the “prodigious”church, which, while mentioned, is shunned due its “disparate elements” not seeming to cohere.

It’s unlikely anyone unfamiliar with the church would discover the passage. There are limited visual cues from the street or even from within the churchyard. The surprise that it’s there is certainly part of its value. Nairn describes his route as follows:

Start in Bloomsbury way and follow signs around the left hand side of the portico to St George’s Hall. The gap between the church and the neighbouring buildings narrows to a few feet, so that you are thrust against the prodigious keystones, actually touch the wonderful time-worn scales on the Portland stone. Then the way dives down: a Hawksmoorean turn even though it is provided by accident. It turns a corner by going down and then up again. Seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up. It sounds simple but in fact has the drama of a full symphonic movement. (112-113).

In reading this one imagines Nairn moving through his city as though it were a labyrinthine system of theatre sets, each waiting to be made explicit, firstly, by the movement of a body which is attuned to its performative potentials, then, secondly, in the writing, that once again performs the experience, and continues to do so, across time and space, every time it is read. As is typical of his observations, an eye for the mechanical aspects of a design “seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up” is combined with an appreciation for what it offers as a whole, the “full symphonic movement”.

The entry finishes with Nairn popping out on the other side of the church, on Little Russel Street, taking in a building that is renewed by this different vantage, the quieter ambience of the street. He suggests that the explorer might go “Back again, if you wish, and whole whole thing unwinds in a completely different sequence”.

This isn’t the kind of place that immediately makes sense as something one would travel halfway across North London on foot to visit. And without Nairn as a guide, the minor details of the surroundings and the different aspects that are woven together aren’t likely to be as affecting. But resting on the steps amid the pot plants along the side of the church, and refilling my water bottle from the tap there, I felt very thankful for this man who had such a generous apprehension of his city and who had bothered to take the time to put down in words so we could share in his experience.

To be continued…

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Service station service

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Church service or car service? Painting by Rachael Wakefield-Rann

For a modern institution that is explicitly about service, todays service stations offer very little in the way of meaningful service experience. Gone are the days when the station staff would come out, welcome customers before filling their car and perhaps offer a windscreen clean and an oil check. Unless you’re one of those well-adapted individuals that uses the pay-at-the-pump option, heading inside often involves a decent wait in a queue while attempting to ignore the temptations and visual noise of the more or less exclusively nasty range of snacks and reading material.

There are a few exceptions. The crew at Rosebery Service Station in Sydney still offer the full-service experience.  Unsurprisingly it’s a long standing (since 1974), family run businesses. There’s a small handful of traditional service stations like these that exist around the country.

At the other, more contemporary, end of the spectrum, the Caltex on Parramatta Road in Concord is the first of its kind to ditch the old Star Mart brand and adopt “The Foodary”, which offers a range of healthy, gourmet food (by service station standards), including Brasserie Bread and Sumo Salad.

This is certainly innovation by increments. Any suggestion of “transformation” in the language of those associated with the development needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The fit-out is a classic example of what Kyle Chayka calls “airspace”, a kind of watered down hipster aesthetic; minimalism combined with organic authenticity. There are mobile knowledge workers on their laptops and plenty of indoor plants in the advertising imagery.

Bruce Rosengarten’s (Caltex Australia’s Executive General Manager Commercial) suggestion that The Foodary doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station is true up to a point: it doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station, but there won’t be any enduring sense of vertigo regarding where you’ve ended up once you go inside. It’s pretty much Star Mart plus Sumo Salad, some nutritious snacks, decent bread and “neutered Scandinavianism”. And perhaps Caltex will be all the better for it. If you haven’t got an eye for detail, then have a couple of drinks, go inside, spin around on the same spot for a minute, open your eyes, and you might feel for a second as though you’re in Manly Greenhouse. 

Service station restaurants

On a few occasions in the past I’ve been revived fleetingly after a couple of hours in the surf by a sausage roll, a Dare Iced Coffee and a packet of Kettle chilli chips from the Caltex on Pittwater Road in Manly, or by a Nandos burger above the BP on Parramatta Road before a big drive west. However, for the most part, the food at service stations is like the food at the cinema, a masochistic pleasure that I’d willingly see replaced by something more nutritious, distinctive and tasty.

In an urban context, taxi and now to a lesser extent Uber drivers are the “extreme users” of service stations (in the country its truckies). There are a couple of service stations close to the inner city that offer, or once offered, services that cater specifically to their needs.

The Taxi Driver Food Court on Regent Street in Redfern, previously part of the GoGas Service Station (now Budget), once offered a range of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian tucker. You could get a seasonal vegetables, daal and a drink with plain rice there for under ten bucks. 

The Taxi Driver Food Court, soon to be Manny’s Pizza Diner

It’s currently empty shell is surely ripe for a popup foodie concept: it’s right across from the swarming hipster nest that is the Lord Gladston, has 24hr licence and is the perfect combination of grungy novelty and proximity to trend aware consumers, who tend to spend their money on food and drink.

(And sure enough, hot off the press, Evan Hansimikali, previous owner of the recently sold Pink Salt in Double Bay, has purchased the servo and will open Manny’s Pizza Diner in the space later this year.)

On Bourke Street Waterloo, right in the thick of the rapidly emerging jungle of apartment blocks, is a small cafe/ restaurant attached to the United Petrol Station, which is  much frequented by cab drivers due to its gas bowser, discount offers on fuel, generous parking spaces and garage. The cafe doesn’t operate during the evenings, but has outdoor tables and chairs and sells a range of dishes, including banh mi rolls.  

Although there’s no petrol on offer, the Weighbridge Cafe on Bourke Rd in Alexandria is another unique, culinary-automotive-service mashup. Here you can get your vehicle weighed while downing a latte and scoffing a caesar salad.

The future of service stations

According AECOM, there were around 25,000 service stations in Australia in the 1970s, with a national population of 13 million, that’s roughly one for every 520 people. Today there are about 6,500 service stations in total for a population that has almost doubled. 

Car ownership is increasingly unpopular among urban millennials in Australia. AECOM’s Transport On Demand report “predicted that every car share vehicle in Sydney could take up to 10 private vehicles off the road by 2036”. 

What does this mean for the future of service stations? Maybe they’ll become places that are increasingly frequented by a more exclusive set of users? Maybe they’ll develop offerings that are more meaningfully targeted to the values and habits of particular user groups, like Saturday Uber drivers, or people hiring a GoGet for a road trip—I remember a time when browsing the CD or cassette selection in a servo on a road trip was decent way to take a break from the rigours of the highway, though I’m not sure if I ever bought one. Maybe the human body, crippled by the  posture driving requires us to adopt, is the real thing stations should be servicing? 

The people at AECOM argue that the value in service stations “is not the fuel they provide” but “their strategically significant locations” (something clearly recognised by Hansimikali in his recent purchase). As electric and other low emissions options become more common, there’s less of the undesirable fume-filled atmospherics required by petrol vehicles. Service stations feature large, level sections of sheltered outdoor space. In a future after petrol, with the right kind of design, they might become the ideal location for outdoor eating?

In the 1970s, warehouses in New York’s old industrial suburbs became the foundations for a new, globally sought after postindustrial aesthetic of loft living. Maybe the old automotive infrastructure of cities will become mixed into new modes of leisure and movement? I suppose if Merviale can do it in a drive through bottlo, why not a service station? 

The other just as likely alternative is evidenced in the stone horse troughs that pop up in surprising locations in the city. In rural NSW, where station numbers have dwindled significantly due to a marked decrease in the labour required on farms, the old bowsers already pop up with a reasonable degree of regularity in locations where they are orphaned from their original purpose.

If, as Roland Barthes suggested, “cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals”, then no doubt some of automotive infrastructure of our cities will be preserved, some of it converted and some demolished. Perhaps the traditional service models, like the one still operative in Rosebery, will be the ones that endure.   

The Caltex Sign at the Wattle Flat General Store
More signage like this please! Petersen’s Garage in Bundanoon

Fish and chips: A Retro Future

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From the menu board at the long running Vaucluse Ocean Foods

Getting takeaway fish and chips, or more truthfully, chips and potato scallops, from the shop at Crescent Head is one of the enduring memories from my family holidays in the late eighties and early nineties. The nice old lady would always throw in an extra scallop or two, a gesture which at the time expressed a level of generosity so grand it was beyond the powers of my young mind to compute.

It closed sometime in the 90s, and such a shame. The beach holiday never seemed complete without that paper parcel gradually becoming transparent due to the oil soaked goodness it held together.

As noted by John K. Walton in his stand alone socio-historical study, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1930, fish and chips is “in many ways the pioneer fast food industry”. Like many other craft-based industries, fish and chips evolved from a “petty” hawker trade to something that existed on an industrial scale (246). The peak of their popularity was during the interwar years, where in industrial cities like Preston, “there must have been, quite literally, a fish and chop shop on every street” (247). For many working class families, they functioned as an affordable escape from the monotony of “bread, dripping, jam and tea”.

Fish and chips became part of the way British people described who they are. A kind of national symbol that to some degree transcended social class. Walton cites a wistful remark from a patriotic, right wing magazine published in 1927, lamenting that England used to stand for “statesmanship and stability, bowler hats and brollies, afternoon tea, cricket, old school ties, fish and chips, jellied eels and a week at Bognor”.

To some extent fish and chips in Australia also shares a connectedness to values associated with working class patriotism. Perhaps the most significant example of this in recent years is evident in the story of Pauline Hanson, who has often traded on her experience owning and working in a fish and chip in Ipswich.

A mood in a meal

While neither uniform nor complete, fish and chips have undergone a decline in Britain and Australia since the second World War. There are no doubt many reasons for this, key among them the increased presence and popularity of other, aggressively marketed, fast-food options from America.

To this extent, fish and chips have value as retro icon, which can be activated for both negative and positive purposes. In W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for example, fish and chips are part of the broader, melancholic atmospherics of British seaside towns, such as Lowestoft and Southwald, which no longer cater to the same number of holiday goers they once saw in their heyday, before Ryanair allowed people to fly to Northern Spain for a pittance—although, other perspectives on the towns show them in a less lugubrious dimension than Sebald.

Sitting down to dinner in an otherwise deserted hotel restaurant in Lowestoft, the narrator is served “a fish that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years”. The amusing description which follows is without doubt the most elaborate piece of culinary criticism in Sebald’s oeuvre:

The breadcrumb amour plating of the fish had been partially singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over. The tartare sauce that I had had to squeeze out of the plastic sachet was turned grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish, lay a sorry wreck among the grass-green peas and the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat.

There are few better ways to dramatise a sense of disappointment than through a bad meal. If, as Steven Connor suggests, eating is ‘the most conspicuous form of our bodily transactions with the world’ (2010: 332), then the descriptions of food can carry with them the sensory force of an insult or embrace.  Sebald transfers some of the sensitivity he shows to buildings, atmospheres, people and objects to the delights and disappointments of the table. The battered fish is understood as the consequence of different, enduring events that occur over time (from its tomb in the deep freeze, to the grill, to the narrator’s plate) and a spatially interesting phenomena, composed of a distinct interior and exterior.

The presence of oil, such a crucial aspect of the fish and chip experience in general, gives further expressivity to the meal. Oil is unique as a substance in its paradoxical capacity to mediate and carry light between the interior and the surface. This no doubt partially explains its centrality to religious rites of unction, a power is which is backgrounded in favour of the restorative creaminess of contemporary cosmetics (Connor, 2004). When things gleam with oil, like the narrator’s chips, they suggest an oiliness that is more than just a surface phenomena. Things that gleam with oil are oily through and through. Oil soaked.

Battered nationalities

Leo Schofield is more sanguine in his account of the iconic Australian fish and chippie, Doyles, in the Avis Guide Eating Out in Sydney 1975. Writing of the now closed iteration of the restaurant at Rose Bay, Schofield describes the atmospherics as “rampant Aussie kitsch”, and, like the fish and chips in Britain, which represents something essentially British, is essentially Australian:

The menu with its news items about Granny Doyle’s secret recipe for Chilli Plum Sauce, the waitresses in their button-through dirndls, the nickel cubes of paper serviettes, the waxed paper buckets of tartare sauce, the massive helpings…could they happen anywhere else but Oz?

The meal is the battleground where Australia fights to transcend its Anglo heritage: “The British may have invented Fish and Chips but the Doyle’s perfected them. Made batter that’s crispier and crunchier than any Pommie fish chop could manage and wrapped it round fish that leaves plaice at the starting post in the flavour stakes”. Much hinges on the batter, which is the vehicle for delivering the allusive but all important crispness.

The late twentieth century cultural theorist Roland Barthes has perhaps had the best word on the culinary phenomenon of crispness, which he suggests “designates an almost magical quality, a certain briskness or sharpness, as opposed to the soft, soothing character of sweet foods.’’ In oily foods like fish and chips the task of generating crispness is all the more tenuous, but when it comes off, satisfying richness is covertly delivered as a kind of freshness. Richness as freshness, which the Krispy Cream franchise so unabashedly advertises, is the ultimate culinary trick.

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Doyle’s at Watson’s Bay

The sensory impact of the dish and the experience at Doyles becomes the material for what, with contemporary eyes, seems to be one of the most unfortunate food related metaphors I’ve come across: “The fish, of course, is wonderful and the French would poach it exquisitely, veil it in some cloud-like sauce and gently seduce one’s taste buds. At Doyles they’re not French and Australians prefer rape to seduction any day”. And if that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Then, on the next page, the review for Doyles on the Beach, at Watson’s Bay, begins, “Rape as before, but this time on the beach.”

I’ve discussed the political and ethical implications of this language is some detail elsewhere. Sadly we haven’t moved on that far: the US president happily flouts the word when manufacturing a sense of indignation about the extent to which foreign countries feel an entitlement to America’s benevolence.

Passing over the chilling nature of Schofield’s metaphor, it’s evident that once again fish and chips provide the context for an Australian identity to be distinguished. This time the meal functions as a point of distinction between Aussies and the French, who are stereotyped as more delicate and seductive, in comparison with the brash, direct Australian experience on offer at Doyles. Schofield is no doubt letting his own writing drift into a kind of deliberate poor taste that matches the kitsch quality of Doyles. Whether or not it serves him well in this regard I’m unsure.

For Schofield, and perhaps for Sydney, Doyle’s has become a paradigm for Australian dining. When referring to the Paragon Seafood Restaurant in Malabar, he describes it as “the Southern Suburbs answer to Doyles” and muses that in the right weather when “the sun is high and the wind not too much so” that there is “no more perfect place to lunch” than at the concrete promenade at Watsons Bay (where the oldest iteration of Doyles Fish and Chip Restaurant still operates).

Contemporary Kitschury

Detecting kitsch has become difficult now that irony is so pervasive and its manifestations so varied. Merivale’s growing portfolio of themed eating outlets toy with the limits of the stylish and the kitsch in this regard. The Fish Shop in Potts Point is a perfect example. A classic Sydney manifestation of the culinary postmodern, it’s a retro throwback to a pastiche of different histories and cultures, and to my knowledge the first, new, self consciously retro fish and chippie of its kind in the city. Terry Durack captures it well in his 2012 review: “Part English fish-and-chippy, part New York oyster bar and part Maryland crab shack, it’s also hysterically, crazily, absurdly, over-themed”. The least authentic thing about it is the $28 price tag for the fish and chips, a far cry from its working class origins. It’s an approach that makes use of history and culture as reference points, but the goal is atmosphere rather than accuracy—so, if he wants to remain free from hypocrisy, this writer can’t afford to be too cynical about the enterprise.

Once again, much is made of the consistency of the batter in Durack’s review:

“The four fingers [of flathead] are lightly battered and lightly cooked, which means the fish is cooked perfectly but the batter softens quickly. They’re going to have to toughen up and cook longer and harder, especially for takeaway orders. The accompanying chips, some of which are skin-on, are also quick to soften; as opposed to the golden triple-cooked chips you get when you order chips as a side order ($6.50).”

Softness is the death of crispness. Such is the importance of this mysterious “food spirit”, to use Barthes’ words, that it is worth risking over-cooked fish in order to achieve it.

The new Saint Peter fish butchery on Oxford Street is a further evolution in the fish and chip culture of Sydney. An absence of omnipresent fish shop ice, or the ice-water hybrid, slurry, will be among it’s key features. Transition to slurry, or more broadly, temperature control, is the reason why traditional fish and chippies often feature those distinctive plastic flaps at the entrance.

Fish in the Saint Peter butchery will “be displayed in static refrigeration rather than on ice”. A small scale approach will allow proprietors Josh and Julie Niland to focus on the product with a degree fastidiousness hitherto unheard of in fish retail. Part of this approach is informed by Niland’s knowledge that once caught, fish and water do not mix. It gets into sponge-like flesh and, you guessed it, prevents the flesh from  staying crisp: “If there is excess moisture present, the skin will struggle to stay crisp or the flesh will be wet and potentially mushy if cooked through.” 

The butchery will sell the takeaway fish and chips previously available at the nearby restaurant, which, in my opinion, is the best fish and chips in the city.

Gleaming with reviews

According to Google Maps there are a handful of fish and chip shops near where I live in Waterloo. The oldest is Alexandria Seafood, established in 1986. Thirty plus years is great going in a city like Sydney, particularly when persisting at the same thing without expanding or reimagining the enterprise.

Unlike many of the new eateries in the area, Alexandria Seafoods is not in a food precinct in a converted industrial warehouse. It’s not on a high street either. I must have come close to seeing it dozens of times, in the blur of a run or a car trip, before it became explicit: an isolated marine outpost in an unlikely suburban street. On the various drop down banners and the awning a distinctive fish icon swims amid bubbles. There’s another, different fish on a backlit sign above the awning, with a curious, bright green face and tail.

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Worryingly, the only fish on display on my recent visit is already in batter and looking a long way from fresh. There’s a laminated page from the 2006 SMH Good Living (what Good Food used to be called), stuck to the wall, exact date November 28. It’s from section written up by Kate Duthie, titled ‘Feedback’. The reader-centred premise is made for a dish like fish and chips, which induces parochialisms usually reserved for mum’s cooking or regional preferences. Annie, Craig, Deez, Rach, Sunny, Polly, Crustacean lover, Weezy, Scott, Gill, Liz, J.S., Diane, Peter, CD, Tim, papertiger and Jason have all written in with their favoured fish and chippies. Jason’s comment is last, highlighted in pink:

Alexandria Seafoods on Mitchell Road is always busy, regardless of when you go there. And for good reasons. The fish and chips are lovely and crisp, and never too oily. Grab half a dozen oysters while you wait and your fish and chips down the road at Sydney Park.

Crispness, again! And maintaining that delicate balance of oily goodness without greasy saturation.

I can confirm with certainty that today the place is no longer “always busy”: it is sometimes not busy. On Sunday evening last week, for example, there wasn’t another customer in sight at 6pm. I wonder how they justified having four blokes behind the counter watching the league. Maybe turning a profit is only part of the story and it’s also an opportunity for the family to hangout. Maybe they do their trade a bit later, or earlier, when the footy is on at Erskinville Oval. Maybe Fishbone & Co, recently awarded “The Best Chips in NSW” (by who I’m not sure), just up the road on McEvoy Street is sucking away some of the trade.

The reader review from 2006 stuck to the wall is a quaint artefact from a time when such perspectives were harder to access. Search ‘Alexandria Seafoods’ in Google and you’re immediately supplied with 83 Google Reviews, plus 37 on Zomato, 11 on Trip Advisor and 10 on Facebook, each accompanied by the omnipresent scale of five stars.

My levels of doubt about quality increase as I read more reviews, despite the overall rating of 4.5 stars. All it takes is a couple of naysayers to introduce uncertainty (the same technique used by climate change deniers). This is the world of online rating systems, where the standard very quickly becomes ratcheted up to perfect, close to perfect or a no go zone. Soon it will make more sense to assume everything is between 4 and 5 stars and give the score as a fraction between 4 and 5. Then as a smaller fraction between 4.9 and 5 when that system is broken. And so on ad infinitum. The Zeno’s Paradox of online rating systems.

While there’s not a fish and chip shop on every corner these days, viewed through the prism of a smartphone, there seems like there’s enough to keep even a capricious foodie occupied. Catching the train from Penrith to Redfern with ‘fish and chips’ typed into Google Maps is an experience that is at once distressing and full of promise, as tens of unvisited, frequently reviewed, fish and chippies appear and disappear on the smartphone.

Maybe there’s something in Ben Evan’s idea of future shops trying to make themselves ungoogleable, catering to a loyal crowd of word-of-mouth customers, with the paradoxical collateral, no doubt, of appealing to hipsters and being discussed  more than ever online. It’s easy to see how trying to opt out of the internet would  become a full time occupation, there’d certainly be no time left to watch the rugby league on Sunday.

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The iconic wavy roof in The One That Got Away, on Bondi Road

Works cited

Barthes, Roland. ‘‘Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,’’ in Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997), 31.

Connor, Steven. The Matter of Air (London: Reaktion, 2010).

Connor, Steven. The Book of Skin, (London: Reaktion, 2004).

Lee, Tom. “Contemporary Perspectives in Aesthetic Theory: Steven Connor, Sianne Ngai and the Edible World.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture (2016): 8 (1).

Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: Harvill Press, 1998.

Walton, J.K., Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. (A&C Black, 1994).

Pizza Hut in the home of the hats?

Pizza Hut in the home of the hats?

Gemima Cody’s review of Pizza Hut in the Icon Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Good Food’ this week is a significant moment in the history of the publication. The review is a clear exemplification of the impacts of networked culture on food criticism and notions taste more broadly.

Traditionally ‘Good Food’ has been a publication focused on fine dining and evaluations of quality according to a spectrum orientied by extremes of praise and criticism. A review of Pizza Hut is a clear anomaly in this tradition.

The review is part of recent digital trend of Pizza Hut nostalgia, arguably spawned by Mike Neilson’s blog Used to be Pizza Hut, which he started in 2008 and attracted a story from Business Insider in 2014.

This was followed by Ho Hai Tran and Chloe Cahill’s more widely reported efforts working on the same premise, which attracted enough of an internet following to be covered in a range of niche and popular publications, and led to a Kickstarter funded book.

Tran and Cahill were able build their archive of over 100 locations by using Google Maps and communities of Pizza Hut fans, who “have provided invaluable help since they started the project in 2013.”

The amusing incongruity effect created by seeing the mansard roof common to all Pizza Huts giving birth to another business (from to Savlos to pool shops) make them an ideal product for the flow of photographic images exchanged on the internet. The timing is also right. Kids of the 80s and 90s, when the restaurants were most widespread, are now among the determining forces in media.

***

The internet and digital photography are part of a media ecology where it is possible for “amateur” food commentators, or ‘prosumers’, to create significance by making it easier to document and publicise what might otherwise be insignificant. This has created diverse contexts with internally evolved criteria for what counts as relevant. Lowbrow enthusiasms and highbrow culture are thereby increasingly intermixed.

A single Pizza Hut converted into a childcare centre is the kind of trivial detail that will pass into irrelevance without a network. Image sharing services and digital connectivity create the possibility of making anything into a collection that is created and sustained by diverse interest based communities.

Sianne Ngai’s work on the aesthetic category of ‘the interesting’ gives a compelling interpretation of visual culture in this context. While the roots of the interesting might be traced back to “the dramatic expansion of print circulation in the 1790s”, they are most forcefully explicated in online social networks where massive amounts of photographic content is evaluated every second according low grade affective responses, of which the Facebook ‘like’ or the Instagram ‘heart’ icon are the most notable archetypes.

***

Pizza Hut and other fast food chains aim to create a standardised restaurant experience. Permitting minor cultural variations, the architecture, interior design, staff training, graphic design, service model and food on the plate all conform to the same restaurant concept, whether you’re in Ballarat, Orange, or, indeed, Wichita.

This foundation of standardisation provides an important contrasting tension for the efforts of those like Neilson, Cahill and Tran, whose photographic collections show an opposing force of individuation, as old Pizza Huts become new, different businesses. As Ngai points out, the dynamic between standardisation and individuation, or the different and the typical, is a crucial part of the aesthetic of the interesting.

The element of standardisation in the franchise concept is also what enables the other key element of Cody’s review: nostalgia. The driving premise of the article is that readers will remember a comparable experience in the Pizza Huts of their youth. The quality of the food is less important than the lens of memory by which the experience is relived.

As Heston Blumenthal has demonstrated for some time, nostalgia and high-end food experiences are not antagonists. However, Blumenthal aims to inject nostalgia into exceptional, unique dining experiences, the antithesis of Pizza Hut.

There is nothing renewed or transformed in the Ballarat Pizza Hut Cody reviews. It’s expected to be the same, mediocre food which she remembers as an excited kid going to Pizza Hut in the 90s, and that’s the point.

Like the successful Netflix series Stranger Things, which revives the style and atmosphere of 1980s fantasy and horror narratives of Steven Spielberg and Steven King, her review trades on feelings of comfort and familiarity that food critics tend to value less than originality and exemplarity.

***

The nuancing activities of “amateur” food writers are bringing the bad, the mediocre and the sentimental into focus. Notions of taste are being reshaped as a result. It would be misleading to suggest digital culture is the determining force, but it is a key catalysing ingredient in a broader ecology.

Influential publications like the Sydney Morning Herald are looking to these diverse taste making communities for concepts that speak more directly to their audience. If they don’t continue to search broadly and experiment, maybe a future not dissimilar to Pizza Hut awaits? Maybe, in light of the new Pizza Hut concept store in Waterloo which opened this year, that future is already here?

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New Pizza Hut concept store in Waterloo apartmentia

Public toilets: changing fortunes and forms

Public toilets: changing fortunes and forms

(This is a companion piece to something I wrote for the Issue 37 of The Lifted Brow, which is focused more exclusively on aesthetics and the psycho-physiological elements of toileting. I encourage readers to order a copy or subscribe to this fantastic magazine.)

The toilet block at Alexandria Park is less than one kilometre from my house. Like many people in the area, I use the park regularly. It is a beacon of green space with mature Moreton Bay Figs, poplars and plane trees; a large picketed oval, basketball and tennis courts; generous informal recreational lawns; shelters, benches, bubblers, barbecues and some well made memorial gateways.

The memorial entrance to Alexandria Park (aka Richard Powers Park)

The bunker-like, redbrick toilet block already made a reasonably mean impression. This has been magnified hugely since seeing the chilling TV documentary “Deep Water: The Real Story”, directed by Rick Feneley. The toilet was the location of one of the many gay bashings that took place in the 80s and 90s. A group of thugs called a phone number scrawled on the toilet wall and lured Richard Johnson to the site, where he was bashed to death. Watching the documentary, I was shocked by the nearness in space and time of this prejudice inspired violence, and then grateful at how lucky I am to find this is shocking.

For a long time there was no toilet accessible to the general public in the park. The gender specific entrances are blocked by the tennis court fences. The courts require a booking to use and the gates are locked by magnets. On many occasions I had to run up to the nearby McDonald’s on Botany Rd to relieve myself. Providing no personal amenity, the toilet seemed more a tomb or sarcophagus, a grim memorial to Johnson’s tragic murder and many others like it.

Now the council has provided a unisex toilet in the back part of the block, with helpful guide to the nearest other toilets in the region, at Waterloo (12min) and Erskineville (7min) ovals. However, the Ladies and Gents entrances on the other side remain blocked by the fences.

The exact reasons for this inaccessibility remain obscure to me: is it because of the idea that public toilets will become the sites for deviant behaviour? Was it a snap response associated with Johnson’s death which is yet to be rethought? Is it to reduce the maintenance load of council staff? Or to give the users of the sporting facilities as more reliably pleasant space for changing and refreshing themselves?

Either way, this particular toilet block opens onto a still resonant hidden history, which both contrasts and informs the cultural and atmospheric experience of public toilets in Sydney and other cities like it.

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Spending a bit of time in the worlds of Alan Hollinghurst’s novels has allowed me to experience some of the excitement and apprehension associated with cruising and public toilets by proxy. The sense of mystique that comes from secrecy is one of the small charities afforded to communities whose basic fulfillments are interpreted as deviant in the eyes of the law. This is the very different side of the same coin that tells of Johnson’s senseless murder.

Hollinghurst is among the most architecturally sensitive and informed novelists writing today. While character and plot are remain the key drivers in his fiction, the mood and detail of specific spaces are an essential part of what gives his writing its sense of distinctiveness. The key events and deeper meaning of his work often involve buildings as foundational, atmospheric elements.

Public toilets and the practice of cruising or “cottaging”, as it is known in the UK, play an particularly important if peripheral role in The Spell and The Swimming Pool Library. Encounters in these dark, visceral, hedonic or spiritual spaces set the paradigm for other spaces (nightclubs, mausolea and gymnasia) and the complicated relationships between the public and private that are an enduring concern in his works and a meta-theme of the novel in general.

In The Spell Hollinghurst places the reader in a public toilet in Clapham Common, where Robin, one of the book’s four central characters follows a stranger, Justin, who then becomes his lover:

He saw the angled wicker fences that screened the entry to the public toilets, the Ladies’ was closed up with barbed wire, but from the Men’s, by some benign perseverance or dreamlike oversight, the hiss of the flush was heard, and the metal door swung open to the bright protesting arpeggios of an old spring. (32)

Robin revels in the “the thrilling squalor of it” (33) and “the building’s reminiscence of his own teens and their successes—the smells of linseed and creosote and changing-room staleness” (33).

Internet searches reveal a number of toilets on and around Clapham Common, one is a cottage-like structure at the northern end, To Let in 2014, and, like a number of other public toilets in London, tipped to be transformed into a cafe, bar or residence. This is indeed what appears to have happened to the toilets at the far north eastern fringe. The underground part of structure is Wine and Charcuterie and the above ground part is Joe Public, a pizza focused cafe.

However, the more likely candidate seems to be a now potentially demolished pavilion which caught fire in 2014. In The Spell Hollinghurst describes the structure as a “low wooden building, like a broken-down cricket-pavilion, with a boarded-up stall that still advertised Teas and Ice Cream” (32), which seems to match photographs of the partially burnt building.

It is a delicious irony that Londoners can now enjoy their Stilton, parma ham and imported sherry  in a space which shares some of the aesthetic attributes (tiled walls, exposed piping, indicative signage, partitioned stalls, dim lighting), yet free from the “thrilling squalor” Hollinghurst attributes to Robin’s cottaging enterprises on the common.

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http://www.wcclapham.co.uk/

It is also a sign of the times that previously neglected, rudimentary spaces are viewed as a valuable resource for the delivery of leisure-oriented services or as real estate. Access to pleasure in cities like London is increasingly contingent on the power of the pound. Sydney is not there yet, we are still knocking down our old loos. We can hardly be too far behind, with industrial spaces becoming apartments, restaurants, bars and cafes at a pace that sees new concepts for luxury and leisure developed and discarded as though the city were a newsfeed.

Even Ilya Kabakov’s art installation, The Toilet, at documenta festival in Kassel in 1992, which features a living room in a public toilet block, fails to give an interpretation of the contemporary that speaks as forcefully as the London lavatory metamorphoses.

The Swimming Pool Library begins with the narrator trying to tempt an “Arab boy” into the public toilets in Kensington gardens. Hollinghurst sets up the scene by describing the dynamic sense of openness and enclosure afforded by the deciduous trees in the park “that odd inside-outside logic was evolving whereby the Park, just at the time it becomes hot and popular, shuts itself off from the outside world of buildings and traffic with the shady density of its foliage”. Inside, the toilet is a notably hygienic space, albeit filled with human figures that the narrator is both attracted to and repulsed by:

I went down the tiled steps between the tiled walls, and a hygienic, surprisingly sweet smell surrounded me. It was all very clear, and at several of the stalls and the burnished copper pipes (to which someone must attach all their pride), men were standing, raincoats shrouding from the innocent visitor or the suspicious policemen their hour-long footlings.

Instead of a chance encounter with his Arab boy the narrator ends up saving the life of Charles Nantwich, an elderly aristocrat who has a heart attack in the park outside after first wandering into the loos.

Related image
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11723959/Half-naked-stockbroker-performed-vigorous-solo-sex-act-in-Kensington-Gardens-toilet.html

In both books Hollinghurst evokes the peculiar contrast between the green expanse of the common or park and the dimmer interior spaces where sexual fantasies lead. In both there is also a sense of the chance encounter and the perhaps now seemingly improvised connections—in comparison with dating apps—which particular spaces afford.

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Red brick toilet blocks like the one at Alexandria Park will increasingly be a thing of the past in Sydney. In places like Prince Alfred Park, the old gents redbrick toilet block at the northern end was demolished due to public safety concerns. The replacement is part of the architecturally designed pool, a subtle deterrent for those more content in less salubrious dwellings.

At Marks Park in Bondi (near the site of another infamous gay bashing) the old block has been “recycled” by Sam Crawford Architects and transformed into a far more appealing structure which makes use of the glorious natural amenity, with expansive ocean views to the south all the way to Maroubra Beach while you wash your hands. Similar architecturally designed blocks exist throughout the eastern suburbs: at Tamarama (Lahz Nimmo Architects), North Bondi (Sam Crawford), throughout Centennial Park (Lahz Nimmo Architects) and at Cook Park in San Souci (Fox Johnson). A new block has just gone in on the coastal walk between South Steyne and Shelly Beach in Manly.

The same fate awaits the derelict but stunningly located block on the north Maroubra headland, thankfully captured by Jesse Adams Stein before the builders get their hands on it.

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Image credit Jesse Adams Stein

The large, open roofed toilets attached to the Bronte Surf Club, the far less pleasant block at the southern end of the beach and the block at South Bondi are among the last of a quickly disappearing  style on this much frequented stretch of coast.

One example in Glebe suggests redbrick block might not be a thing of the past. Designed by Stanic Harding architects and located in Foley Park, the loo won the Robert Woodward Award in 2014 for Small Projects. It features a subdued combination of dark redbrick and wood (ironbark) screen, like the examples at North Bondi, Marks Park and Tamarama,

On the whole there seems little to lament about the upgrade of these buildings. It’s great to have sensitively designed, publicly accessible amenities that make the most of the iconic natural landscape of the city. At least they’re not all becoming popup Bondi Icebergs Dining Room and Bars. Compared to the stories you hear about London our various local councils in Sydney seem to be doing a pretty good job.

Free from the baggage of tradition that dictates the design of much residential housing, there’s even a sense that these structures that could increasingly inform future living spaces: a profound sense of openness, with central living areas that encourage circulation, combined with modest spaces for private activities in opposing wings of the building. 

While there are continuing calls for better design and a greater abundance of public toilets in Australian cities, the developments signalled in Sydney’s more glamorous suburbs seem headed in  headed in the right direction. Lets hope the sentiment of generosity informs the design and accessibility of other urgently spaces of public amenity throughout the city.

Through the timber screen of a new toilet block on the walk between South Steyne and Shelly Beach at Manly