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.

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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.

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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.

The better warehouses of Alexandria

The most recent heritage listing in the  62 places of industry selected by City of Sydney is a 1970s warehouse known as the Q Store, built by Harry Seidler and refurbished by Lacoste and Stevenson prior to the listing. The refurbishment has been very nicely done. It retains the contrast of softness and force evident in Seidler’s design and looks like a close enough approximation to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. It’s light industry materially manifest and wouldn’t look out of place among the exhibition architecture of Philip Cox in the 1980s, with the exposed structural features in white painted metal and sculptural cement columns.

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The architects described their brief as compelling them to treat the site like a heritage item that hadn’t been listed yet. This is an example that’s likenable to what Rem Koolhaas has described as prospective preservation, whereby we “decide in advance what we are going to build for posterity.” Koolhaas notes that in 1818 the interval between the present and what was preserved was two thousand years, in 1900, two hundred years and now it is twenty years or less, which is about the limit for the amount of time required to elapse in the nostalgia cycles that supposedly operate in pop culture.

Koolhaas seems largely cynical about this compulsion to preserve. But it needn’t be interpreted this way, as long as it isn’t stifling the practical considerations of architects and builders.

The bulk of heritage listed industrial items in the City of Sydney are pre 1970s. Nearly all of them are some combination of brick and cement, with the red brick, functionalist or deco facade arguably the stereotypical example. Pebbledash and cement buildings are less well represented  on the inventory.

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Unlike the duel warehouse-shop functionality of the contemporary Bunnings model, most of the listed buildings were warehouses or factories that for better or worse were insensitive to the interior design demands of contemporary showrooms–apart from the former Joseph Lucas building, which is now the Larke Hoskins car dealership. They have a distinctively different look to the post 1970s buildings in the area that often incorporate a significant glazing, either with elongated strips of wrap around, heavily tinted windows in the facade or in a boxy section jutting out from the site of the building supported by columns.

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Hopefully they don’t demolish 118 Bourke and its heritage worthy guard’s compartment (see below)

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On Botany Rd, Harry Seidler would be keen on this one
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A small iteration of the above on McEvoy Street
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Preserving such buildings will be essential to maintaining the airport terminal aesthetic  unique to the area.

I wonder what decisions will be made in the future about these more recent examples of warehouse design? Will the current character of the area be recognised as valuable and worth preserving? Or will the crop of 62 or so earlier listings be deemed enough of the past to permit the forgetting of a more contemporary version of nostalgia?

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The pebbledash facade: Faring worse than brick in terms of heritage listings

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The Sunshades Warehouse on McEvoy: a unique combination of fine pebbledash are large, vertical, heavily tinted windows

Many contingencies hidden from view are at work in the decisions about what parts of the past we choose to keep. Perhaps digitised records might substitute for physical heritage in the near future? Perhaps yet to be created works of literature or film might provoke reverence for certain sites? Either way, it is enjoyable to wander around the area and earmark things as significant before they are identified as heritage items or demolished. It’s like playing the role of heritage consultant for your own personalised vision of a future past preserved.

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The Weightbridge Cafe: unique among Sydney’s many genres of cafe
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Although not in Alexandria, the Ming on Trading warehouse on Addison Rd in Marrickville surely warrants a heritage listing.

 

Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

Like car parks, car dealerships are spaces that need to juggle the twin demands of accommodating two types of body: that of the human and the automobile. These sometimes contrasting requirements result in architectural peculiarities.

Although humans must circulate among and move to and from cars, the space they move through is designed to accommodate the dimensions of an automobile, which are characteristically larger, harder and more heavy than humans. Doorways, walls and small rooms are less prominent features of these car ecologies.

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More than simply accommodating the body of a car, the car dealership must also inform and seduce shoppers through the display of their product. It is this aspect of car showrooms that leads D. Kooijman and R. Sierksma to describe them as a “confused experience of theatre, shop and church all in one”. In showrooms, cars are displayed as “scaral objects” utterly removed from the mundane experience of sitting in traffic.

Unlike car parks, which must obey the utilitarian demands of spatial efficiency, showrooms will ideally display cars with enough room for dealers and customers to promenade in-between in a leisurely fashion. Shoppers and dealers glide along shiny floors inspecting vehicles on spatially demarcated podiums and ramps, often in arrangements that are deliberately just a little bit off kilter.

As tellingly noted in this blog, it is often important that cars appear to be placed lightly on the ground (which is probably more accurately called, a surface), rather than growing out of it. Unlike a sturdy church, with splaying buttresses that give a sense of earthy permanence, or a stone house built into the side of hill, car showrooms retain a sense of being placed or inflated on their site, rather than emerging from the material conditions of their given surrounds, as in the case of vernacular buildings. Car dealership seem the antithesis of vernacular architecture in this sense.mercedes-benz-sydney-alexandria-car-dealers-mercedes-benz-sydney-sydneys-benchmark-mercedes-benz-dealership-4aee-938x704

Within these bright, transparent spaces, banal activities like paperwork and car maintenance are relatively inconspicuous. Neutral, usually silverly colours are favoured. Opaque, matt and heavily textured surfaces are absent or in the background. Instead, light reflects around the space, catching the glistening, smooth, curvaceous forms of car bodies. In short, the mood of the space takes its cues from the design of the automobiles it exhibits.

In addition to enticing customers once they are in the building, car showrooms must display their wares to car drivers outside, who are typically moving at a faster pace and further away than someone on foot inspecting a shop window. These twin ambitions lead to a further contrasting demand for the architecture to accommodate. Showrooms must not accomodate the bodies of cars and humans, they are required to communicate appeal to the completely different spatiotemporal perspective of the car driver in motion.

In order to maximise the display opportunities afforded by road frontage, car showrooms must be transparent, elongated and either built right to the edge of the block or include an outdoor carpark style showroom bordering the road.

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The contrast of an older style of industrial architecture with newer, brand-focused design is illustrated in the Larke Hoskins Showrooms, one half of which is built in the postwar international style, while the other features the kind of architecture common to most contemporary car showrooms. The branding imperatives have crept across to the older half of the building but it still retains it’s multi-pane steel window frames and the distinctive vertical louvres. The textured redbrick provides a harmonious contrast with the glass, unlike the newer addition, which is a more or less texturally homogenous smooth silver and glass.

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Seeing this kind of thing makes me glad of the work of the council heritage restrictions and ought to provide a reminder to architects that they needn’t make showrooms look like inflated cars.

The demands for the car showroom typically contrast the demands required of human living space, which ought to better fit the dimensions of the human body and be adaptable to a range of comparatively private, informal activities presumably inappropriate in the space of the showroom: sleeping, eating, having sex and a vast range of other peculiar rituals and leisurely pursuits.

Despite this, many homes appear to be build according to imperatives that are comparable to the theatre-shop-church triad characteristic of the showroom. The suburb of Dover Heights in Sydney offers some brilliant examples in this regard. The building below is a standout. Known as Butterfly House and famed for its lack of any straight lines and Feng Shui, it’s like one big pair of sunglasses perched on the side of the hill. Utterly free from texture, it’s shiny, neutral colours are unmistakably reminiscent of the contemporary automobile and car dealership showrooms.

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Although I’m doubtful the building would have been constructed after Steve McQueen’s 2011 film ‘Shame,’ it’s entirely possible whoever conceived the thing had something like the memorable sex scene from that movie in mind when they were imagining the performative possibilities of the structure. It’s a pornographic building, like an airport control tower, everything about it is to do with looking and being looked at. You can just imagine people gliding around the shiny floors inside administering pleasure.

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While the above building is a standout, a good number of corporate fantasies have been realised on that favourably situated hill, with views back across slithers of the harbour to the bridge and CBD skyline beyond, or in the other direction, out to the east, where a wide blue 270 degree ocean churns with sublime force.

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Maximising the view out to the west comes with the difficulties of reducing heat from the afternoon sun. This is achieved with air conditioning, various kinds of heavy shutters, or zinc cladding.

Jutting from the side of the hill, secluded from each other by walls but sharing the same sun worshipping desires, these rows of houses bear some reference to the La Tourette monastery built by Le Corbusier and its inspiration, Le Thoronet in the South of France. Here the residents are not bound by a shared sense of obligation to the religious divine but to the visual amenity itself and perhaps the sense of security that they may perform profane acts before it undisturbed by intrusions from the public.

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For those seeking older charms, Dover Heights still has a number of buildings in the functionalist style, fashionable in the interwar years. The stark, cubic minimalism of these structures is a welcome contrast to the busy, bulging, glossy lot that otherwise typifies the area.

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Of course, these buildings can no more lay claim to the vernacular than the recent examples of car showroom architecture or their domestic equivalents. Just like the newer examples, this architecture is generic, relatively insubstantial and perhaps sterile. The key difference is that this building now bears a reference to history, despite the intent of the proponents of functionalist and internationalist styles in their time, who sought to create an architecture that wasn’t mired in the mess of archeological references to classical or medieval orders characteristic of the 19th century. However, now we recognise this once modern style as belonging to a particular time and this quality of temporal situatedness informs the way we respond to the building. Post modern architecture sought to adapt to this inevitable becoming-history by inviting the past back into buildings in a way that contradicted the ambitions of the earlier modernist architects.

For the sake of objectivity, historians work hard to elude the influence of nostalgia for particular styles, but the notion of a style is itself almost impossibly mixed up with the identification and classification of things for the sake of posterity.

It seems almost inevitable that the showrooms and ostentatious gloss of todays pornographic residential architecture will at some point, for better or worse, become available to the delusive tendencies of the melancholics for whom the past is the best and perhaps only resource for reassurance and fanciful speculation–that’s if they’re not demolished.

It seems the absence of rusticity was too much for one resident, where whoever is in charge saw fit to obscure the otherwise white, texturally uniform surface with a tangle of sticks ornamenting a curious rust clad protrusion. An utterly bizarre sight that makes me hesitant regarding any demands made of contemporary buildings to jazz up their anaemic facades with a bit of texture. The politically naive, insensitive, but in this case irresistibly apt expression, ‘full retard’ comes to mind. image

References

D. Kooijman and R. Sierksma, “Showcase and showroom: automobiles and experience architecture”, Journal of Design Research, 42, No.1 (2007): 509-522.

Green Square Urban Renewal Area and The Ideal City

Green Square Urban Renewal Area and The Ideal City

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Graham Hammill’s Sexuality and Form: Caravaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon features an analysis of ‘The Baltimore Panel,’ a painting also known as ‘The Ideal City’ and usually attributed to Fra Carnevale. Hammill describes the urban space represented in the painting as “extremely pacified, regulated,” a “monumental assertion of emptiness” where “motion […] is burdened by vacancy” (24). Hammill notes the way the figures in the painting are “literally cut through by the lines that give the painting its pronounced perspectival feel” (24). The largely empty piazza is surrounded buildings in different historical styles. However, the dominant feeling isn’t one of vibrant diversity. Instead, it is the emptiness of the square, with its clean horizontal lines in the foreground and middle ground. The surrounding buildings of uniform volume prevent a sense of openness that a distant horizon would afford. This combination of emptiness and confinement create a particularly disquieting affect.

It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to recognise the similarities between the mood of the urban landscape in this picture and Sydney’s most rapidly developing suburb, The Green Square Urban Renewal Area (GSURA). By 2030, the GSURA, which encompasses Zetland, Waterloo, and parts of Alexandria and  Rosebury, is set to become the most dense area in Sydney. It is already full of new, three to ten story apartment blocks and areas of landscape gardening that are still yet to acquire the lived-in feel that gives the places a sense of warmth and comfort.

 

Green Square Urban Renewal

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From a car (the Eastern border will be familiar to anyone who uses South Dowling Street for their daily commute) it can seem an alienating space. The previous suburban format of a brick bungalow on a quarter acre block has been scaled up to an apartment format that is high enough to obscure any far horizons–just like Carnevale’s piazza.

Many of the characteristics for which suburbs have traditionally been criticised are still in place: superficial novelty against a background of sameness, buildings that facilitate a culture of co-isolated living where residents move between the home, work and the supermarket with minimal interaction. The mixed businesses of twentieth century suburbia have been exchanged for doggy day care centres and late-night gyms, backyards with grass lawns have been exchanged for landscaped parks.

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It’s easy emphasise the dystopian aspects of such an urban environment. From the outside the atmosphere can easily give off negative affects. Just like ‘The Ideal City’ many of the spaces have a strong perspectival feel that makes them look like materially realised architects impressions.  The streetscape lacks any of the traditional markers of the quaint common to the buildings in the Federation Style, which were standard in suburbs of the first half of the Twentieth Century. There’s no red brick or coloured glass panels. No decorative wood or cast iron fringing verandas. No chimneys, terracotta, pitched roofs, corrugated iron, stucco, exposed wood or tiled risers.

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While the content and scale are different, a similar stylistic adherence to pastiche remains. Functionalist and minimalist principles that often typify modernist architecture are present to a certain degree, though not in any strict sense. Instead, buildings advertise themselves through all manner of features. These might be colourful panels, unusual fin-like protrusions, patterned screens, lashings of wood, pointless additions that are meant to look essential to the structure, shiny red or blue brick simulacra, and different shaped loggias.

The area is not likely to please anyone with a preference for the vernacular, modernism or combinations of the two. However, there’s a strong argument to be made for the role genericism plays in making something readily adaptable to the lives of people who don’t register meaning in stylistic references to an Anglo or Eurocentric past. This is a post modern International Style that is more bulky, garish and fun.

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The Viking Building, by Brian Meyson Architects

To experience this urban landscape is to undergo “the affectively low key response to minor differences perceived against a background of sameness” that Sianne Ngai names as characteristic of the minor aesthetic category of ‘the interesting.’ The Sydney Architecture Blog encapsulates this sentiment when first speculating that in twenty years time the area will be a “museum of kitsch” (perhaps architectural critics where saying the same thing about Haberfield in the early twentieth century?) followed by the qualification that: “Like it or not it has some interesting forms going on.” That seems about right. There’s nothing is definitively impressive or disgusting about the GSURA. It takes a while to work out what to make of the place. Strong reactions of cynicism or defensive reverence wouldn’t seem to get to the truth of the matter. Some things are kind of good. While others seem a bit ill advised.

Here’s a list of pros and cons:

Pros

  1. The avenue of lemon scented gums along Wolseley Grove, for smell and sight;
  2. The open green spaces (The Rope Walk, Walaba Park, Dyuralya Park, Joynton Park, Tote Park) increasingly well-used by owners of small dogs;
  3. The dynamic and colourful Viking Building is one of the more confident examples among many buildings that exhibit a kind of half arsed playfulness (although calling it an ‘architectural masterpiece’, as they do in the promotional video, is coming on a bit strong);
  4. Koichi Takada‘s work on interior of East Village Shopping Centre (he also designed the Crown Groups, Infinity at Green Square Station)

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Cons

  1. Laser-cut cladding on the exterior of buildings, a laudable intent but it makes the building look like one big piece of veneer, like the new McDonalds which hide their old mansard roofs behind screens so they appear rectilinear and therefore, ‘very Un-McDonalds.’
  2. The peculiar bits of ‘public art.’ I suppose I could grow to like these. I imagine the intent as being something similar to the Facebook poke, “We thought it would be fun to make a feature that had no real purpose and to see what happens from there. So mess around with it, because you’re not getting an explanation from us.”
  3. The largely empty, permanently shaded and windy areas that look as though they’ve been set aside for public usage. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying themselves in these spaces unless they’ve treated themselves to one of these packages.

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There are still occasional glimpses of the area’s industrial past, a crumbling brick wall and some rusted corrugated iron squeezed in between a warehouse and an apartment, or a an old industrial brick facade soon to be dwarfed by a new residential development. At the South Dowling edge there’s the exemplary, heritage listed AGM Glass Factory (now Kennards hire and a great example of the International Style) that, along with the old Reschs Waverly Brewery, is a worthy border for the area.

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Development proposals are displayed along the boundary fences of the two hectares of land that feature a heritage listed water pumping station and valve house. Dahua Group acquired the site in 2015 and have enlisted ASPECT Studios to build approximately 450 units. Along with the audaciously named Infinity by Crowne, which is underway right on top of Green Square station, this and other developments mean more of the same for the GSURA.

It’s sensible to be anything but ambivalent about the future. Perhaps the influx of new residents will bring an increased buzz to the area, with more of the new shops, restaurants and cafes that make it a decent place to live. But the blindingly bright, soul nourishing horizon, which shines through the gap in advertising signage for Crown’s Infinity apartment complex is going to be become something most residents, and certainly most pedestrians, will have to develop routines to seek out or substitute should they want to avoid living in the confines of ‘The Ideal City.’ With Centennial Park just over the other side of South Dowling and the beach not too far beyond, I suppose that’s not too much of a tall order.

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Waterloo pumping station
The old water pumping station and valve house at Waterloo
Dahua Group
The new development planned for Central Workshops Site that will retain the old pumping station and valve house, Image courtesy of Dahua Group
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Infinity by Crown: Making the horizon an increasingly exclusive commodity

References

Hammill Graham L. Sexuality and Form: Caravaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

 

McEvoy St, between Botany Road and Fountain Street

The area along McEvoy Street between Botany Road and Fountain Street is an unremarkable patch of a partially gentrified industrial urban landscape. Cars are an inescapable part of the atmosphere, something you notice when trying to take an unobstructed shot of a facade or when you see them packed into the redundant space alongside large warehouses.

Unlike the areas of central Sydney, along this stretch there are rare glimpses of carpark rusticity: un-cemented lots, riddled with puddle holes, bare dirt and piles of old bricks partially uncovered by the traffic.

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Here we see one of the inner city’s few remaining bare earth carparks. A piece of highly collectable Anthony Lister graffiti splashed across the pebbledash facade and leads the eye on to the appropriately mirrored outer windows of a sunglass outlet, one of the streets many warehouses.

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If you were showing a visitor around this area you’d probably prepare them by saying it wasn’t likely to offer a beautiful or sublime aesthetic experience, perhaps not even charming or agreeable. More likely, you’d say, it’s interesting, which is suitably ambiguous with regard to evaluation.

Nonetheless, as you walk the stretch enough times things start to stand out and just seeing them there in their often inexplicable peculiarity is reassuring.

Take the anomalous brick structures below. I can’t for the life of me work out why they are there, with their own little cement deviations from the main footpath. Perhaps the folly of someone with leftover bricks? Perhaps they’re coving up some kind of piping similar to bit jutting out of the grass against the grey wall in the background.

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The street features a contrasting combination of a few remaining, run down weatherboard workers cottages, what you might call old-style ‘authentic’ industrial eateries, and gourmet cafes.

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A humorously perfunctory effort at a outdoor eating made here by Subway. Luckily a few thankfully spared eucalypts offer some respite.

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A view down some of the lanes leading off the street can offer a classic, Jeffery Smart like view of an industrial streetscape. The candy stripes in the foreground perhaps herald the increasing softening or funification of the area that will come with the continued transition to the services and retail industry.

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By contrast, other alleyways are impressive green tunnels of trees, usually Port Jackson Figs, the roots of which twist in loose leaves like tentacles or splay out in cross section form at the gutters edge.

The combination of domestic and industrial architecture in the area takes many different forms. The Able Metromix is an older variety and features what must be among the most pleasing bits of street advertising in the area, with the green and gold, painted sign a soothing comparison to the nearby signage advertising muffins and coffee on the outside of Caltex.

The Able cement works is bounded by a cement wall that incorporates a small, corrugated iron roofed cottage featuring the asymmetrical facade common to the variety of buildings identified as being in the Federation Style which are common in the backstreets of Alexandria and Erskineville. It’s complete with a shingle awning over the window, cast iron lace work on the veranda and decorative bargeboard on the eves.

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Such a combination is perhaps reminiscent of the service station incorporated into the Spanish Mission style apartment block on the corner of O’Sullivan and Old South Head Road in Rose Bay, also known as Broadway Garage.

Another more recent example of the industrial, retail and the domestic can be seen below, where a the facade of a brick warehouse has been retained and converted into a retail space, here a Nandos fried chicken ‘restaurant’, with an anaemic set of residential apartments rising above it.

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This is a less extreme version of the phenomenon discussed in an article by Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian, only in this instance it is industrial rather than classical architectural heritage that is being preserved. It’s a phenomenon I have described elsewhere as obligatory postmodernism in the sense that heritage demands or desires produce an aesthetically contradictory relation between past and present functions, which is characteristic of postmodernism.

The architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas has made some fruitful observations on the modern obsession with heritage. Including the following: “there are a number of phenomenon these days that are intersections of intensity and decreasing intensity, and that maybe preservation  is one of those. you can look at this as an incredible increase in nostalgia and decrease in memory, and that is for me the field in which preservation currently takes place.”

The curious pastiche of old and new is in large part the result of the 60-plus new listings that were part of an initiative by City of Sydney to preserve the industrial history of the area.

Some of the remaining warehouses provide foundations for appealing buildings, such as the example below on the corner of McEvoy and Loveridge, which features street level retail space above which a facade of large, multi-paned windows form the outer wall to apartments.

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Some of the old infrastructure has been converted into the kinds of services Twenty First Century humans demand, such as the mood enhancement venues commonly known as cafes: we’ve worked out mood lighting, now to mood lifting. Below an old electrical substation has been converted into a substation cafe. Vanessa Berry of the Mirror Sydney blog has written a piece on the efforts of Matte Rochford to catalogue this building type.

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The large Dan Murphy’s liquor outlet is another prominent feature of this stretch of road. It too now features a restaurant known as Sushi Jones, more or less incorporated into the side of the building.  This seems an upmarket version of the tuck shops that pop up in industrial areas, a famous example of which is the Weigh Bridge Cafe not far away on Bowden Street.

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On the McEvoy Street side of Dan Murphy’s in front of the large asphalt carpark between the shop and the street is a curious memorial to Shea’s Creek, which was transformed into the Alexandria Canal in 1887 and polluted with toxins used in the mills, tanneries, brickworks and foundries once common to the area.

Heritage maps of the area reveal that an underground sewer pipeline begins at the memorial and along with a series of other stormwater channels meets with the open air canal that runs alongside Burrow Street near Sydney Park.

The memorial is made of what seems to be recycled rubber composite that forms part of a wall obscuring the carpark. Unless you see it close enough and in the right light the text Sheas Creek Under is barely visible. A brick pathway with smaller than normal brick stock leads to dead end bordered by more of the rubber composite. Who commissioned this curious work? For whom is it meant? Who was the designer? When was it built?

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Across the road from Dan Murphy’s is another converted industrial building housing an impressive series of gourmet food outlets, including: Bread and Circus, Campos Coffee, Salts Meats Cheese, a Pana Chocolate outlet and a Vietnamese eatery known as Nguyen Brothers. As you’d expect, the building has been subject to an attentive and what I imagine to be expensive make over, featuring the staples of polished concrete floors, high ceilings with stray steel girders and exposed piping. The brick foundations of the facade are interspersed with the regularly partitioned windows that are among the most pleasing features of such buildings. All the venues inside offer a spacious environment in which to work at a laptop, eat, hold meetings and catch up with friends.

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Back towards McEvoy Street, behind the foodie outlets, is an apartment complex known as The Foundary, “one of the premier residential properties on McEvoy Street.” The rustic industrial materials of heavy steel, old brick, rusted metal and “inviting” wooden sleepers are contrasted with brown, red and yellow panels that jut out from the building, creating a kind of zany aesthetic that is at once fun and unfun. It’s vaguely reminiscent in recent McDonald’s architecture, which is a kind of cheapening of Gerrit Rietveld’s 1924 Schroder House, a seminal example of De Stijl architecture known for its adaptable interior spaces and the permeable relation it exhibits between inside and outside.

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The melaleuca offering a picturesque element.

The building features an internal “greenery common courtyard.” This is a laudable part of many similar complexes in the area. However, I’m eager to know how often it is used by the residents. I’d say: only occasionally, if it’s anything like the fake grass courtyard in my own apartment complex that I don’t imagine soaks up the dog urine as well as real turf.

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Speaking of McDonalds, here is a parting sight that I imagine is unique among the branding ploys of the giant restaurant chain and nicely sums up the character of this strip. The golden arches are mounted on what seems to be the remnants of an Art Deco industrial facade. An interesting structural ploy. I’m guessing heritage wasn’t involved considering the facade is all but unrecognisable. But who knows. It acts as a grand entrance to the restuarant carpark.

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