The Natural and the Artificial in Suburban Kiama

The Natural and the Artificial in Suburban Kiama

(Kiama is on the land of the Dharawal people, more specifically the Wodi Wodi, a sub-group of the Dharawal. I acknowledge here the Dharawal and the Wodi Wodi as the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.)

Creature comforts

In next to no time at all I was transported, along with all my little dreams for the coming month, from circling the outskirts of Bath—walking over the green, damp grass there, observing the urban growth from the surrounding hills, admiring the crescents, the circuses, the caramel-coloured limestone and the prim, uniform austerity of the Georgian architecture—to doing more or less exactly the same thing around the fringes of Kiama, a town on the south coast of NSW; moving my body through the space to obtain a perspective, at some distance, on the situation of human building in the landscape.

Faced with the combination of this sudden shift in geography and climate, on the one hand, and the curious congruence in my own activity, on the other, I felt compelled to try and understand the two different places more precisely by thinking through contrasts between them.

The first thing to say about suburban, rural and central Kiama, is equally relevant to most of the east coast of NSW: it seems positively tropical. Perhaps I wouldn’t have said the same thing in January before I left, when everything, even on the usually luxuriant south coast, seemed in need of a good drink. Not so now. If England’s hills are a pleasant green, then Kiama’s are a manic emerald. The grass is thick and charged with a force that is subdued in the northern cool. It’s the right conditions for spontaneous generation. Nothing dries very easily, particularly a salty beach towel. The thick licks of remnant forest in patches around the otherwise thoroughly transformed rural and suburban landscape drip constantly and house bold, impossible to locate, birds that sound as though they are chasing you out of the landscape. Were I not so at home in such environs, I’d sympathise with the expression of repulsion and disgust in response to the vegetation in the first part of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, particularly the palm trees:

The same small breezes make the rotted palms along the condominium complex’s stone walls rustle and click, and a couple of fronds detach and spiral down, hitting the deck with a slap. All the plants out here are malevolent, heavy and sharp. The parts of the palms above the fronds are tuffed in sick stuff like coconut-hair. Roaches and other things live in the trees. Rats, maybe. Loathsome high-altitude critters of all kinds. All the plants either spiny or meaty. Cacti in queer tortured shapes. The tops of the palms like Rod Stewart’s hair, from days gone by.

To some extent I sympathise with the levels of apprehension and yet I am compelled to think of myself as a resident of such malevolence, an advocate for its fecund mess and thereby immune to the apparent hostility.

The second thing, which I’ve mentioned already, are the birds: Magpie, Butcher Bird, Wattle Bird and Willy Wagtail are most prominent, to my ear at least. The first two of these four are disgracefully good singers, the butcher bird in particular, which perches itself on the conspicuous electrical wires along the street in front of our dwelling and chortles with an unmatched prowess. There is nothing pretty about the song, like the vegetation: it’s lurid, immersive and bold, not something you could use on loop in a game of virtual golf. It’s foreground not background noise. Grippingly talented singers, the butcherbird and the magpie. In their company, I’m less likely to feel proud of my garden than ashamed at my voice. They are menacingly elegant.

The third thing, and the last of this list, which has been revealingly nature-focused: the sound of the insects, particularly what I presume to be crickets in the grass. The noise is a constant sonic mist. It makes me unreasonably happy, excited and relaxed at the same time. The sound of the crickets in the lawn, an audible night light. There seems to be two different sounds, overlaying each other: one is intermittent and more pronounced, the other continuous and soft. I listen to them in bed at night, emptying my mind, feeling safe.

IMG_0365

Forms of borders

The border between the rural and the urban isn’t as ragged in Bath, it’s a little more settled. Building at the fringes still goes on, of course, it just seems as though the landscape has already been subdued; there’s something less raw and more cohesively worked about how the urban and the rural are going to integrate. The vegetation in England seems more willingly shaped, more polite, easier to keep at bay. The suburban fringes in Kiama remind me of acne outbreaks during adolescence. There’s kind of rude, barely containable force to the so called natural world, whether it’s the impenetrable tongues of scrub that tumble down in gullies at the edges of the town, or in the sheer walls of wet rock into which roads and fields have been cut. You could never use the word ‘rolling’ to describe the topography, it’s too shifting and syncopated. Too jagged and uneven, too bold.

The apparent contrasts are made all the more strange by unexpended congruences, such as the Kiama drystone walls and the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) hedges that partially engulf them. These two ancient border technologies are largely absent from the other parts of rural and peri-urban Australia with which I am familiar, but quite common in the UK. The walls map out a significant portion of farmland around the Saddleback Mountain Road and Old Saddleback Road. They measure the progress of the town, which spreads continually outwards, making it seem as though the old walls are edging their way in. People have built letterboxes into parts of the wall, while in other places, the walls bear witness to the gradual emergence of town-like features, such as street signage, roundabouts, geraniums and the more closely spaced, newly built houses of suburbia.

Nearly all of the walls were built in the mid-19th century by a emigrant from Kent by the name of Thomas Newing. He used a technique known as the ‘double dyke’ or ‘twin skin’ which, as the names suggest, involved using two tapering outer walls with rubble infill and stone capping. The resulting walls are more pyramidal than rectangular, making them friendly to leg over.

More than 350 drystone walls have been recorded in the area and they are the source of much local pride on account of the aesthetic and historical significance. Ian Downes, the man who, according to reports of the Kiama Independent, is considered the present day Thomas Newing, has called the walls “a natural feature of Kiama”, a revealing description, the perhaps unintended philosophical implications of which puts Mr Downes squarely outside the modern, Western tradition that favours a firm distinction between cultural activities, such as wall making, and natural processes, such as rain.

Kiama is very proud of its drystone walls: there have been twelve town entry markers built (by Mr Downes) from drystone walls in homage to Newing’s efforts. The walls are also commonly listed as one of the tourist attractions of the area. There’s a town Dry Stone Wall Committee, composed of members from Kiama Rotary, Kiama Lions, the Historical Society, Kiama council and other community members. There’s even a cafe named after the walls, called the Stone Wall Cafe—originally I thought, with some surprise, that there might have been a bit of a ‘scene’ in Kiama. 

Indeed, there seems to be something utterly inoffensive and quaint about a drystone wall. To some extent quaintness simply becomes more probable with time passing. While it might be argued that smaller, less offensive things are likely to be more quaint, there’s really nothing inherently small and inoffensive about steam trains, which in their time were the cause of a good many deaths and on first sighting in rural England were often described as particularly violent phenomena (see Thomas Hardy). Perhaps things simply become candidates for quaintness when they are regarded as relatively diminished in terms of their overall impact on the world. Typewriters: yes. Printed maps: yes. Postage stamps: yes. Gaslight fittings: yes. Anything made from cement: not quite/ almost. Televisions: still too popular. Gameboys: just recently. Nonetheless, the form of the drystone wall tempts me to argue that, while perhaps not inherently quaint, the scale and composition at least have a probable relationship with things we’ve been bio-socially trained to regard as visually pleasing. It’s the combination of harmony and irregularity, which is absent from large, uniform walls, which appear to be made from one thing, or small piles of rubble, which don’t appear to be made at all.

Sham trees

My forays around the Kiama peripheries resulted in a most curious and unexpected discovery: a massive radio tower of some kind designed to be disguised as a tree. I first noticed the tower on account of the tree-like cement trunk, which is laudably close to the texture of bark, then looking upwards revealed that the structure was covered in branch-like nodes jutting out from the central columns all the way to the top. But the crowning glory and the feature that confirmed, irrefutably, the intent behind this astounding effort of verisimilitude, were the plastic leaves and branches in a heap encircling the base. The idea, it seemed, was that the leaf-covered branches on the ground would at some point be affixed to the branch nodes on the tower in order to obscure what must have otherwise been deemed an unsightly radio tower. Left naked in its present state, however, the tower looked even more ugly than most examples of its kind, with the branch nodes having the appearance of spikes, which, combined with the branching form of the tower, made the whole thing look like a gigantic mace, or at best, one of the maimed plane trees familiar to me from Sydney that are continuously cut to accommodate overhead electrical wires.

As far as signal-sending civic infrastructure goes, the Kiama Lighthouse no doubt receives far more attention from tourists and locals—in part on account of its quaintness—however, in my opinion, this bizarre tower is undoubtedly more unique and, in a way, far more revealing of the broader cultural preoccupations of the species who arranged its construction. The tower seems to be an excellent architectural instance of the so called ‘Streisand effect’, a psychological phenomenon whereby efforts to conceal something end up drawing more attention to it—in Streisand’s case, the attempt to hide photographs of her large house from the public only increased media attention. W. G. Sebald described something similar in his novel Austerlitz, with reference to a certain perverse logic operative in the building of fortifications, whereby larger, supposedly more impenetrable structures attract increased attention from enemy forces, while at the same time limiting the movements of the occupants who they are meant to protect. 

The fake tree tower speaks of our present, often laudable desires to limit the way we impinge on the natural world through more thoughtful design. The problem, however, is that the tower, and other superficial, naive fabrications of nature, are often not aesthetic improvements in any clear way. Like related examples of disingenuous greenwashing, the tower can in this sense perhaps be compared to the superficial use of medieval and religious iconography in the industrial age—19th century gothic pumping stations, such as Abbey Mills in London and Ryhope in Sunderland being classic examples.

Photographed catalogues of fake tree towers like the one in Kiama exist online, apparently the first appeared in Cape Town in 1996. Though in all my searching, I am yet to find another example in Australia, nor I have I been able to find a photograph of a tower caught in a state of autumnal undress. And this might be the saving grace of the Kiama tower. I can only speculate as to why the branches were on the ground when I ran past, but my hope is they can be preserved in this position, capturing the moment of equivocation, where those responsible for ordering the sham decide, halfarsedly, that it actually might be better not go through with it all and instead leave things in a state of permanent incompleteness. Mosts artists I know would have no shame in claiming such a ruse, which works both at the conceptual level, as a demonstration of the all too human hesitations that inform even our most sublime visions, and in terms of aesthetics, as the deliberate, nest-like arrangement of the “fallen” branches is arguably a far more appealing than a rigid orientation along the “trunk”.

At all events, discovering the fake tree tower had a striking personal significance on account of the recent attractions I’d visited in Bath, namely, the Sham Castle, which I encountered on the Skyline walk around the periphery of the city not much over two weeks ago. Discovering the sham tree gave me an unmistakable feeling of perspectives being related not primarily by time or space but by type or theme. In this instance, the shared attributes were: peripheral perspective on urban landscape obtained on foot + encountering a structure disguised as something else in order to improve the view.

An unsettling consequence of looking through photo catalogues of the fake tree towers–such as those of South African photographer Dillon Marsh–is that now I find myself becoming suspicious that certain trees, which I’d once imagined were actual trees, are in fact radio towers. This is particularly so in the case of the firmly perpendicular Norfolk Island Pines, which are a conspicuous part of the Kiama landscape. I don’t think I’ll be able to look at these trees from a distance in the same way again. There’s a flash of apprehension, each time I distinguish the form of a pine against the skyline, that I’m looking at a bit of telecommunications infrastructure. I’m inclined to declare, that Norfolk Island Pines do look kind of fake, too crystalline and rigid to be an organic form. But I never had this thought before I started looking at fake tree towers, which goes to show how primed we are by different reference points when making claims as to the realness and fakeness of certain things.

Hospitable quarries

A more successful example of dressing up Kiama’s natural infrastructure is evident at the Kiama Leisure Centre and Sports Complex, both of which now occupy an old basalt quarry. A sheer stone cliff of some scale overlooks the grassy fields and carpark, which gives the site a sense of drama that in my experience is matched only by sporting grounds with large stadiums. There is little point trying to say, definitively, whether the ambience of the place is accounted for by natural or artificial aspects, as the exposed rock, while undoubtedly an elemental presence, is itself the work of large-scale human intervention over the centuries.

Quarries are not typically thought to be appealing landscapes. Indeed, the English poet Alexander Pope used ‘quarry’ as an epithet in criticising the architecture of John Vanburgh. Along with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Vanburgh was a key proponent of the English baroque, which, in some more provocative architectural genealogies, such as those of Jonathan Meades, is claimed as a forerunner of Brutalism, largely on account of baroque grandeur being tempered by a peculiarly British austerity. Pope, who is thought to have been alluding to Vanburgh’s pièce de résistance, Blenheim Palace, gave the following appraisal of the structure in his fourth epistle to Lord Burlington: “Lo! what huge heaps of littleness around/ the whole a laboured quarry above ground”. While the Kiama Sports Complex and its surrounding cliffs may lack some of Blenheim’s flourishes, a comparison between the two is not as fanciful as first might appear. Both are imposing vertical presences calved from stone of a uniform hue, the appeal of which is further accentuated by the play of sunlight and shadow. Unlike Blenheim, the sports complex invites informal recreation and is permanently open, at least in the case of the playing fields, which allows for flourishes of the body in space (burpees and shadow boxing, for example) to make up for the lack of detail in the stonework.

76B923A1-939D-4F03-9439-B8E025E756E5

Quarries, particularly the reclaimed variety, are a reminder that what is considered above and below ground is to some extent contingent on human design. While Pope might have emphasised the building he scorned was a quarry “above ground”, there is in fact little need (outside those of poetic metre) for the qualification, as quarries are a reminder that above and below are relatively abstract ways of conceiving surfaces which are in reality continually modulated. There is nothing ‘below’ ground about the sheer cliff faces of the old, reclaimed quarries scattered around Kiama. They are now simply spaces of in-ness and exposure. In this sense, the terrestrial impression of quarries is misleading, they are as much air and vacancy as they are earth, as much a matter of seclusion as explosion.

At very general level, the sculpting of space from tensions between absence and presence in the example of the quarry shares a something in common with the small, domestic spaces, famously described by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, including: houses and rooms; cellars and attics; drawers, chests, and wardrobes; nests and shells; nooks and corners. At the same time, a quarry seems the inverse of such spaces, particularly the nest, which at an impressionistic level is the most quaintly un-quarry-like thing I could possibly imagine.

The vast evacuation of space evident in quarries is not, however, simply a matter of inhospitable vacancy. As the various industrious reclaimings around Kiama attest, redundancy and abundance are not opposites, an absence can also be an availability, the hospitality of which is contingent of the scale of the visions we have for it.

While there has been a renewed call for the life-giving possibilities of industrial ruins, particularly via the work of Anna Tsing (2015), the examples around Kiama have nothing of either the love of the minor or the sublime about them, two extremes which characterise so much of the aspirational thinking done in the humanities about landscapes. In the ruins of Bombo Headland Quarry, there is a wastewater treatment plant (perhaps enjoyed more by mosquitos than local residents), while the aforementioned sports and leisure complex occupies the space left by Pikes Hill Quarry. Further north, in the old Minnamurra Quarry, plans for a BMX bike park are being discussed for the currently unused Sanctuary Place picnic area.

Reflecting on these examples and the services they offer to the community, I wonder whether Tsing isn’t a little too single-minded in her variously hesitant and forceful interpretations of the industrial (big) as bad, and anything small, peripheral and non-institutionalised as good, particularly on account of the large-scale, highly-coordinated efforts that are likely needed as we come to face the impacts of the climate crisis–and more particularly still, if it’s a retreat or withdrawal of humans from the landscapes they have previously managed that we wish to coordinate. The industrial is often reflexively associated with the big and unfriendly, and its opposites–such as the organic–with the small and the friendly. In actuality, however, spectrums of ‘big-to-small’ and ‘bad-to-good’, rarely capture the manifold of mutant, hybridised ways in which science and technology are used to design our landscapes and atmospheres. While Tsing’s work is in a sense an effort to tell a more complex story of how life–specifically mushrooms– returns to ruined industrial landscapes–specifically Chernobyl–the word industrial is nonetheless used systematically as a pejorative throughout her book, as though no historical or future good has come or might possibly come from large-scale manufacturing. 

In clearing the way for big visions, however, I feel a certain, perhaps not entirely useful, apprehension. On the outskirts of Kiama, the new, currently operative Bombo Quarry still grows and, with the state government increasingly singing to the tune of commercial imperatives, there seems a possibility that slightly less civically-minded dreams might be projected into that vacant space. Perhaps Kiama will have its very own equivalent of InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland, a 337 guest room hotel situated in 88-meter-deep, water-filled, disused quarry. Though I sincerely hope the future residents of Kiama get something more akin to Rosherville Pleasure Gardens (old chalk quarry), or Parc des Buttes Chaumont (gypsum and lime).

Old Kiama Quarry

List of works cited

Bachelard, Gaston (1994) The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press

Crabb, Brendan (2016) “Dry stonewalls considered a key part of Kiama’s history”. Kiama Independent (March 10).

Foster-Wallace, David (2011) Infinite Jest. London: Hachette.

Sebald, W. G. (2001) Austerlitz. Translated by Anthea Bell. New York: Penguin.

Tsing, Anna Lownhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

Lovie House: “Flamboyant minimalism”

image
Lovie House, Geoff Lovie, 1996

In their exemplary architectural history of the Canberra region, Tim Reeves and Alan Roberts use the term “flamboyant minimalism” to describe architect Geoff Lovie’s Lovie House, in Jerrabomberra.

On the one hand, the term is an oxymoron (if something is flamboyant, then it’s not minimalism), yet on the other hand, it makes sense of the contradictory forces at work in a good deal of postmodern architecture and in a lot of the generic apartment architecture in places like Green Square and Zetland. For example, many of the new apartment blocks in the Green Square Urban Renewal Area combine minimalist principles with the trivial flashiness necessary to distinguish one facade from the next. Perhaps compromised minimalism is a better term in this case?

image
‘Flamboyant’ or ‘compromised’ minimalism?

From the pages of Reeves and Robert’s book, I’d judged Lovie House to be an architect’s folly. In particular, the wiggly yellow addition to the balustrade. Although Matisse’s cut-outs are cited as an influence, 1990s Nickelodeon cartoons, such as Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh Real Monsters and Rug Rats, struck me as a more compelling precedent. The off kilter, zany line work makes it seem both fun and unfun in a way that recalls these cartoons and the moods with which I associate them. That the house supports analogies to both high and low culture makes it a successful example of postmodernism.

rocko_title_card

Alongside the other houses in the book, I judged the house as a gaudy, pretentious pet project, insensitive to its context and seemingly built to amuse the architect. It’s a different story after travelling through the backstreets of Jerrabomberra, past the countless brick bungalows with the twin and sometimes triple carports. It’s these houses that seem insensitive to the landscape, at least the natural landscape, which is fortunately still such a prominent part of the area. Some leave a decidedly mean impression, their neat forms and features remote echoes of an Anglo American history with little sympathy for the peculiar scraggliness of the Australian bush.

By contrast, if you look at a painting by Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, or more recently, William Robinson and even Chris O’Doherty of Mambo fame, the twisted, zombie forms of trees and shrubbery are captured compellingly: eccentric, brash, empty and yet somehow full, with none of the grand impact of an American canyon or waterfall and none of the bucolic neatness and formality of the English landscape.

270-19862323s
Chris O’Doherty, View from the Hume approaching Campbelltown, circa 1985

(My characterisation of the Australian bush in this way is a convenient caricature. There’s the pretence of homogeneity and threat that is typical of the colonists gaze. Yet for better or worse–worse, certainly for the first Australians–the colony exists, and the variously homely and unhomely renditions of the landscape in artworks and literature in the relatively recent history of the country represent a valuable insight into the way outsiders have attempted to express their relationship to place.)

Lovie House belongs somewhere in this laconic yet vaguely crazed aesthetic tradition I’ve cobbled together from these few reference points.  I was surprised by how much it suited its semi bushland context. Although it stands out, it stands out like something that belongs where it is, an example rather than an exception. The combination of humble materials and the straightforward boxy bulk of the building don’t compete with its relatively loud colours and peculiarly angled window frames. It’s sensitively sited, with a garden full of native plants that looks like an extension of the bush.

Reeves and Roberts note that the house caused a stir in the neighbourhood: “Some locals petitioned against it, others loved it.” Since then there’s been an unofficial request for heritage listing, which Lovie turned down.

To my eye it’s hard to make an argument against the house on its being too visually incongruent. There’s plenty more nearby that seems equally though more half assedly eccentric, certainly less sympathetic with the bush and no more sensitive to the built environment. What’s more, it’s refreshing to see an architect offering a reminder of the possibilities available to builders and homeowners in terms of line work and colour and the differing moods these aesthetic decisions might provoke.

image

To see Lovie House in the backstreets of Jerrabomberra reminds me of the way John Ashbery described the writing of fellow poet Gertrude Stein: “These austere ‘stanzas’ are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as ‘where,’ ‘which,’ ‘these,’ ‘of,’ ‘not,’ ‘have,’ ‘about,’ and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.”

Perhaps the otherwise monotonous suburban streetscape is the perfect viewing context for a piece of flamboyant minimalism after all? Perhaps Lovie House needs a context of relative austerity and colourlessness in order to offer such a abundant refreshment? Or is suburbia less austere than this view might have us pretend?

 

 

 

Queanbeyan City Centre: The Ugly Face of Canberra?

Queanbeyan City Centre: The Ugly Face of Canberra?

In an article titled “The Golden Age of Planning” (1985) urban planner Karl Fischer mentions that Queanbeyan is sometimes known as “the ugly face of Dorian Gray” in relation to the more beautiful and energetic Canberra. Inevitably, once people make criticisms, a counter perspective also emerges which claims the derided thing is in fact authentic in comparison. Then you can’t tell whether the claims to authenticity are real or ironic.

Such is the discourse concerning the relationship between these two regional cities, between Canberra and other capitals, and it characterises the uncertainty and dynamism concerning taste-based judgements in general in contemporary society. As the cliche goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what are consequences of such radical subjectivity when it comes to matters of taste, particularly when pretensions to universality seem almost unavoidable when we make claims about the aesthetic status of a place, thing or event. It’s beautiful for me, but I feel this compulsion ought to compel you too! These are big questions that will not be directly addressed in my account of Queanbeyan (largely focused on the city centre), which is one highly specific Queanbeyan among many, and something that participates in a regionally shared and in this sense universal idea of the city.

Queanbeyan is a small city pushing 40000, blessed with natural amenity: plenty of bushland for walking, dirt biking or riding horses, and a river close to the main part of the city.

The banks of the river could be far more sensitively incorporated into the shopping areas. There are snapshots of what could have or might yet be in this regard with the Riverbank and Mill House cafes making good use of the riverside, offering people a nice place to sit, socialise, relax and have a refreshment. By contrast, the massive Leagues Club and the main shopping centre are in significant debt to the streetscape if you believe that buildings ought to balance an economy between obligations to the people they house on the one hand, and landscape in which they sit, on the other.

image
The Mill House Cafe

Despite this, the Leagues Club is a bit of fun, at least if you’re not in the pokie room. They take their steaks seriously and there’s a nice view over the river from the restaurant. From the outside the building is a classic piece of expressionist post modernism, a clash of waves, boxes and cylinders in bluish reflective glass and light cement, seeming to float along with the street.  There’s a bit of bare earth on riverfront below that’s being transformed into a community hub, which is a promising move to make better use of one of the prize features of the city.

image

Queanbeyan riverfront
An artist impression of the proposed upgrade to riverfront. Image: SMH, 2015.

image

In and around central Canberra (if there is such a thing), the government and residential architecture of the interwar and post war years of the twentieth century dominates the overall impression. In Queanbeyan the balance is different due to smatterings of pre-Federation and Federation Era red brick cottages that are more common in NSW towns. These older buildings sit alongside new apartment blocks and hulking civic buildings, such as the brutalist courthouse, built in the 70s by government architect Ian Thompson and the newer Queanbeyan Government Service Centre, designed by Bates Smart Architects. The Courthouse is made from chunky concrete and the Service Centre clad in rusted metal. Both are large enough to radiate an influence far beyond the space they occupy and fit in well with industrial and rustic stereotypes proper to the area–although, this stereotype is in good part fantasy, more than 20% of people in Queanbeyan are employed as clerical and administrative workers, 19% as professionals, 13.9% as trades workers and technicians and  7.6% as labourers. This combination of smaller, older cottages, peppered by large, newish civic architecture creates a sometimes unique feel at street level.

imageimage

queanbeyan_court_house
Queanbeyan Courthouse, By John Whyte (Ian) Thompson, 1978, in continuity with the aesthetics of Canberra. Image: Bidgree [CC BY_SA 3.0 au (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/au/deed.en)%5Dvia Wikimedia Commons
image

image

These bulky, vaguely menacing visions are in stark contrast to the Arts and Crafts whimsey of the Queanbeyan Business Council, with its stucco and red brick. What looks to be a more recent public toilet achieves some aesthetic continuity through replicating the crescent form used in the Business Council entrance. The Legacy Garden of Remembrance, where the building’s garden meets the footpath, is an unpretentious war memorial featuring fake turf and small plastic crosses.

image

image

image

The gateway to the Show Ground is a passage from the streetscape to a background with a different set of spatial and cultural characteristics. The Member’s Entrance and ticket booth, the old scissor gates and even the old lamp all add to the effect. Shame about the Security Warning sign on the new fence to the right but luckily the gateway overshadows it. The Show Ground encompasses a heritage listed reserve that was used a camping ground by the first Australians.

Along with the Show Ground entrance, the Oliphant building, designed by Ken Oliphant in the mid 1930s, is another example of Art Deco heritage in the town. It’s recently been repainted and rebooted so the clock now tells the time. Unlike the kind of visual information that screams at you from the advertising splashed along awnings and jutting street signs, a street clock asks you to look but offers something back in return: the service of telling the time. There’s something in that.

image

image

Elements of the town are developed with a sensitivity to the same Garden City principles evident in Canberra. Morriset Street is a tree-lined boulevard that runs between the river and what perhaps the city’s best amenity, Queanbeyan Park, a multifunctional combination of formal and informal recreational and leisure space. The park features an outdoor velodrome that runs around the outside of the always immaculately kept oval. The informal park at the shoulders of the oval features well developed trees, a landscaped garden complete with a little footbridge, water feature, rock sculptures, a memorial podium and a fountain. There’s also a number of shelters with tables and benches and two stages for public events, one a curious quarter sphere form. Conforming to the picturesque tradition, the formal area within the park is flat, while the garden is situated within undulating terrain. It’s got all the right contrasts: shaded and open, formal, semi-formal, informal leisure and recreational spaces, rugged and landscaped. The park is well serviced by dog walkers, I’ve seen a few cyclists on the velodromes and a big group play casual cricket on the oval.  There’s a footpath you can take from the park to the main street through the courthouse which invites some of the greenery into the perspective of the main street and has a kind of pleasing secret passage feel.

image

image

image

image

image

image

More pleasures for the pedestrian are in store down on the riverfront, with the 78 year old suspension bridge that joins the east and west banks of the river. A previous bridge was built on the same site in 1901, coinciding with the construction of the weir. It  was washed away in floods in 1925. Prior to that, the mill workers of Severne Mill  and later the nuns of St Benedicts and pupils of the first local school made their way across the river using stepping stones laid down in 1861. For this reason it was known as ‘the nun’s bridge.’

The 1938 structure was built as part of a work for the dole scheme, led by James and William Pike and Henry Hungerford. It cost 400 pounds to build. Painted white, it is at once minimalist in its use of materials and tensile building principles, and reassuringly strong.

Bridges have been meditated upon by philosophers such as George Simmel (“Bridge and Door”, 1994), Martin Heidegger (“Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, 1951) and Michel Serres (“L’Art des ponts”, 2006). They are mediating structures that connect previously disconnected places while allowing the natural landscape to persist in an uncompromised condition. In this sense they are a model for all architecture and the Queanbeyan footbridge is no exception, long may its presence continue.

image

Elsewhere in Queanbeyan there are Howard Arkley esq mid to late century suburban homes, often immaculately kept though rarely with signs of activity out the front. An abundance of heavy duty window shutters suggests some hot summer days. One of the greatest aesthetic tragedies of the modern suburb is the Colourbond fence and there’s a few of those. I’m sure I’ll live but these fences seem to sum up all the bad aspects of suburban design: an often very understandable but zealous desire for privacy; emphasis on speed of construction, price and function; and a complete lack of sensitivity to visual amenity for the landscape outside your own patch. Having said that, the things are so pervasive whacking one up is in continuity with the landscape in general, so maybe it’s a gesture of neighbourly fidelity after all?

image

image

One thing that you could say for certain about Queanbeyan is that it fulfils the sometimes laudable, sometimes paranoid Australian predilection for not appearing pretentious. There’s a lot to like about the place, as the signs into the city say, it’s a place with ‘Country living, and city benefits.’ Hopefully the right mix between these two different lifestyles is retained in the future. There’s certainly scope for developing the urban services so that the natural amenity is multiplied at the same time. The ease with which the pedestrian can transition from a busy main street to a secluded park, show ground or river bank ought to be maintained as the city grows. And the large scale shopping precincts will hopefully behave themselves and limit their spread in the areas alongside the river. There’s no need for a giant windowless lump to be right on a river and it impinges on the scope for smaller businesses and recreational facilities to capitalise on the atmosphere.