Midcentury modern aficionados are becoming a notable presence across a range of media channels, including the popular Mid-Century Domestic Architecture Facebook group administered by Steven Coverdale, Tim Ross’ ever diversifying and blending of content formats (TV series, in-situ standup comedy, books, journalism, guided tours, radio) and a number of style-specific Instagram accounts. On my own Instagram account, posts of midcentury modern domestic architecture reliably get the most likes. Low pitched roofs, big windows, stone features embedded in the facade and/or interior, and a general sense of spatial economy are typically the most conspicuous characteristics when conveyed through photographs of the exterior.
It seems likely that it is only a matter of time before nuancing professionals and amateurs band together and begin to use the variety platforms available in the contemporary media landscape to advocate for what is the next in the linage of twentieth century architectural styles.
In this post I look at a possible candidate for the next in line: Late Twentieth Century Postmodern. In suggesting this style I defer entirely to the stereotype put forward by A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architecture (Apperly et al 1989). In comparing and evaluating a series of different buildings in this style it is my hope that I can express a point of view on aesthetic peculiarities for buildings of this type. I focus on a particular species of this style in a particular location: domestic apartment blocks, semis and townhouses in the inner suburbs of Sydney.
These buildings aren’t heroes of the postmodern movement. Far from it. They are watered down, relatively ordinary exemplifications of postmodernism in contexts where the initial radicalism that gave the movement its meaning is largely absent. This, in part, is what makes them interesting. The inaugurators of movements can rarely predict the trajectory to which their dogmas will lead. On this score I cannot do better than Heinrich Klotz in his The History of Postmodern Architecture: “Experience shows that theoretical maxims, even when buttressed by moral arguments, cannot stem the inherent striving of form to achieve complete autonomy” (Koltz 1988, 21).
Walker Street Housing, Redfern by Peter Meyers
The general consensus is that the redbrick walkups which emerge like incongruous tombs amid single storey suburban houses are an architectural crime: no balconies, typically surrounded by cement driveways and carparks, with jutting air-conditioning vents and TV aerials the only features breaking up the monotone blocks of red clay.
Imagine the colour of a redbrick walkup changing to blonde. Imagine the addition of a balcony featuring gelato coloured latticework (green, yellow, blue and pink) and occasional deco forms represented in the patterns of cast iron railings; imagine corrugated iron roofs painted green; imagine windows with curved arches and awnings looking a little like baseballs caps before it became customary to leave the brims flat; imagine cosy little gardens with some glossy leafed trees and bushes partially obscuring the facade. Now you have imagined the outside of late twentieth century postmodern architecture in inner Sydney.
Listed off in such a way, the differences might seem minor, however the effect it is not superficial. In particular, the sense of inside outside space afforded by the balconies and small frontyards, the comparative softness and vibrancy of the foliage, the playful detailing and colour, and variety of forms and shapes all make for a perceptual experience that is far richer than what is afforded by the comparatively barren, redbrick clumps.
The architect of one of the exemplars of this style, Peter Meyers (thanks to @kmarchitect for this reference), specialised in public housing and had a nuanced appreciation for the relationship between the specifics of the Sydney landscape and housing (https://architectureau.com/articles/the-third-city/). His houses on Walker Street in Redfern eschew the more obvious stylistic references to deco evident in the cast-iron fences in a similarly styled block next door. Instead Meyers’ housing features plain but appealing lightweight, sheet metal screens for balconies balustrades and fences, with the latter at a height sympathetic to the bodily dimensions of pedestrians, unlike the common colourbond of late twentieth century suburbia, and the epic bush screens and imposing brick or stone walls of larger houses in the east. The small but fitting front yards make a huge difference to the visual amenity of the street, particularly when compared with a cement carpark and roller door garage.
The three storey blocks are narrowly overshadowed by the fortuitous presence of a relatively long avenue of Port Jackson figs. When combined with the smaller shrubbery in the front yards, the mutli-dimensional diversity of non-dominant scales work together to create an overall landscape effect that is at once open and intimate, a good enough exemplification of the “highest urban ideal” Meyers observed in the “close-nurtured forest” to the North and West while walking along Flushcombe Road from Blacktown station in his article on future housing, “The Third City.”
A couple of other minor details set the Walker Street housing apart. The balconies extend back into the facade, rather than merely jutting out like scaffolding as they do in the comparably styled block on nearby George Street in Waterloo. Again, the effect is a further richness through contrast.
Other examples of the style can be found in different formats along Walker Street, and on nearby Kellick, Phillip and the aforementioned George, which while perhaps not as architecturally distinctive as Walker Street does feature lush, well cared for gardens that envelope the building.
Jones Street, Ultimo, architect unknown
The street atmospherics are vastly different along Jones Street, which lacks the avenue of large trees on Walker Street and, like a lot of Ultimo, feels very much a place of the car. Like Walker Street, it is a three storey, largely blonde brick, domestic apartment block. The fencing on the balconies and walkways is light blue, pink and yellow, and as is typical of the style, a bundle of superficial references are made to classical (segmental pediment), Victorian (gables and dichromatic brickwork) and Art Deco (stepped motifs). It lacks the reference to the rural vernacular made through corrugated iron, which is used in the awnings at Walker Street and the Glebe examples below.
Discretely perceived these references do seem superficial and the referential aspect is largely trivial. However, the overall impression lifts the building from just another brick walkup to something that is at least interesting to look at, for a while.
But the Jones Street block is remarkable exemplar of its type due the pediment type feature that sits above the entrance, where someone has clearly had a bit of fun. The design features a stepped, pink pyramid, in painted steel that slots into a background of tiny, pixel-like, bright blue tiles. The motif is repeated in white outline on the well-made glass door, which is bordered above and to each side by glass bricks.
In an otherwise monotonous part of the city this little flourish irrigates the atmosphere with colour and style like a rare metaphor in Kafka.
Various locations, Glebe, architects unknown
In terms of architectural history, Glebe is among the most interesting suburbs in Sydney to walk through. The abundance of churches and ancillary religious structures testify to its central place in the early days of the colony as a place for spiritual education. There is a both modest and grand expressions of Regency, Victorian (both Italianate and picturesque gothic) and Federation domestic architecture. This is the motley from which the architectural character of Australia emerged.
The architectural heritage of the suburb seems to have been acknowledged in some of the more recent apartment blocks. One variety references the churches and the picturesque gothic style evident throughout the suburb. As with the apartments above, blonde brick is the background against which the more expressive flourishes are executed. At No.4 Mt. Vernon Street these are witnessed in the steeply pitched gables, which feature in a curiously asymmetrical conglomerate, capped by corrugated iron roofing, nesting in behind some palm trees, no doubt riddled with nasty spiders. The redbrick trimming and arched windows lend further interestingness.
Another similar example can be found on Glebe Point Road. Again its a combination of yellow (this time orange tinged) brick, steeply pitched gables and corrugated iron. The awning beneath the gable, above the second storey window, is a showstopper: featuring three and two half gables of its own (I suppose that’s what you call them, in an awning?) painted in bright blue, displaying a triangular star via a series of circular perforations, emanating from the centre of each. Against the cherry red of the painted corrugations above the resulting impression is definitely more jumping castle than castle.
Down the slope towards Wentworth Park, on Mitchell Lane, there is another variety. This time none of the gothic references, but the patterned dichromatic brickwork running along the parapet and trimmimg suggest an attempt to reference the Victorian Italianate terraces common in the suburb. Once again corrugated iron is a feature, this time in curved light-green roofing and awnings (maybe a touch of Murcutt?) and in one example at least, a strikingly peculiar asymmetry prevails. Small rectangles of glass bricks (twelve in each) embedded in the side walls of the lower storey are a further quality to compute.
On the opposite corner block, there’s yet another example, the most distinctive feature of which are the lower storey awnings which skirt the entire block and the ornamental lattice work in the protruding balconies. Perhaps here we have the missing type to make the catalogue complete: the Queenslander?
Laudable ideals to do with liveable, affordable, functional housing gives midcentury modern domestic architecture extra purchase beyond the aesthetic and symbolic. It remains to be seen whether the similarly laudable ideals of the postmodern movement—advocacy for play and diversity seem the most profound—will be resilient enough to transcend the context from which they derived their initial meaning. Though, with my postmodernist cap on for a moment, it would be wrong to assume that anything more than sheer frivolity is needed to guarantee enduring influence.
Leo Schofield’s Avis Guide Eating Out in Sydney 1975 puts the reader in touch with restaurants that not only conform to different culinary trends but to significantly different ways of organising society. Allen’s Cafe at 802 George Street, which is reviewed in the guide, was operational in the 1920s. Here the tea that comes with every meal is “thick and red brown” like “the Darling in flood” and diners could get Vincents and Bex powders from dispensers by the till. These cure-all analgesic medications were commonly sold over the counter until the 1970s and contained a combination of aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine, which was later recognised to be addictive and the cause of kidney disease.
In 1975 laws still existed that dictated bread couldn’t be baked on Sundays, which led Mrs Klein of the Junction Cake Centre (111 Oxford Street Bondi Junction) to up the sultana quantity in her bagels so they qualified as cakes.
Schofield’s prose also indicates a markedly different set of rules regarding what is permissible language in a publication like the Good Food Guide. There is a toe curling use of rape as an metaphor to distinguish the Australian approach to cooking fish from the French. It extends over the two seperate reviews for the Doyles Fish n’ Chip restaurants at Rose and Watsons Bay, which Schofield lauds both for their brash atmosphere and food: “The fish, of course, is wonderful and the French would poach it exquisitely, veil it in some cloud-like sauce and gently seduce one’s taste buds. At Doyles they’re not French and Australians prefer rape to seduction any day”. And if that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Then, on the next page, the review for Doyles on the Beach begins, “Rape as before, but this time on the beach.”
There are a couple of different tensions that will inform the way readers can interpret the use of such language. One perspective is to see such language as a product of the times, and no less regrettable due to this fact. According to such a view, it is possible to see this jarring use of a word that is now broadly considered to be anything but casual in tone as an opportunity to reflect on the subtle way the metaphorical connotations shift according to patterns of use. Rape is a word that by my judgement has become increasingly specific in its connotations, and something that could never be used ambiguously to denote the broader field of reference captured by a term such ‘violate’, for example, which is the French translation. If Schofield had chosen the less evocative ‘assault’ the affect would have been less disquieting. When the word rape is used today, it typically takes on a meaning that is distasteful and threatening in the extreme—and yet, perhaps we have not moved on so far: until recently it was not uncommon on my Facebook feed to see accusations of ‘frape’, an equally jarring use of the word to describe the practice of taking possession of another persons Facebook account (without consent) and writing hoax status updates.
Alternatively, readers might interpret use of this term as an expression, however fleeting in comparison with the bulk of his prose, of an insensitive attitude towards women, which ought not to be so easily forgiven. Of course men can be raped too, and statistics show this is a more common occurrence than one might think. However, when a heterosexual male uses the word it’s hard to believe they are imagining a man as the victim. Typically I wouldn’t be so brave as to speculate what exactly the author might have been imagining. However, in this case, it’s right there on the page. Schofield squeezed every last drop of descriptive force from the metaphor and clearly got quite caught up in the idea.
The mind boggles to think of the social media storm that would ensue if a current reviewer for the equivalent publication tried anything of this kind. Perhaps even the strong evaluative sentiment which I am expressing is only a relatively recent phenomenon, and the question of judgement about such uses of language is unlikely to have been as much of a bugbear during the period.
Nostalgia for nostalgia
If it’s possible to bracket the presence of such a howler, there is much to enjoy by escaping into the fantasy that there is a lack of contrivance, or naivety in contrivance, in the broader foodie landscape in 1975.
It begins with the book cover, which is right in the retro aesthetic zone of the immensely seductive title sequence to the successful Nexflix TV series Stranger Things. Other than the back and front cover, the publication lacks any of the photographic images which gradually began to creep into the publication after the mid-90s.
In the contemporary restaurant scene, trend and contrivance operate to such an intensified degree that there seems little room for the relatively casual eccentricity of the kind Schofield enjoyed at Allegro in 1975 (1 Porters Road Kenshurst). Allegro specialises in Dutch Home-style cooking with a set menu based around chicken dishes, the birds sourced from local farms, or “hare and rabbit trapped locally”. He remarks on the distinctive “bowls of boughs and branches and flowers tastefully scattered around” and the unusual and distinctive “big decorative platter” on which the bird is served, along with “buttered vegetables and a seperate dish of fruits to eat with it”.
The chance of experiencing the distinctiveness of this atmosphere seems unlikely in the contemporary dining scene evoked by the recent guides. It’s so difficult to escape trends now due to online image sharing services like Pinterest, Instagram and influential bloggers. This is the case both for proprietors and designers–who despite the increasingly large pool of ideas from which to draw, all seem rapidly to converge on aesthetic standards within a given trend cycle–or for the reviewer/diner, who is likely to have dined at enough imitation varieties of such eccentricity prior to experiencing the real version that their experience is inevitably tarnished.
Of course framing the difference between the past and the contemporary in such a way is misleading to the extent that it suggests a radical departure rather than an evolution—no doubt one might have made the same claim about the rapid spread of trends in the 70s compared to the 20s.
Schofield mentions a couple of trends often enough for them to stand out: the ubiquity of a certain style of French provincial cooking and coloniana, which is referred to in the review of Argyle Tavern: “Colonial coevalescent homes, Colonial delicatessens, Colonial motels—Australia is on a Coloniana kick and we eagerly await the opening of the country’s first Colonial laundrette.” In the case of the Argyle this includes: “rafters, hurricane lamps and menus printed like colonial newspapers. And Steak-and-Kidney-Pie-type food in the Australian manner.” There was a lot more steak and kidney pie being served back in the 70s.
French restaurants outnumber the next most common cuisines by some way. There are 45 French listings, 16 Italian, and, perhaps the biggest surprise, the now defunct category of Anglo Saxon comes in a close third with 15. German, Balkan, Dutch and Swiss are more of a presence than they are in later guides, and there is no mention of the soon to be common Thai, no Vietnamese, and only one Japanese listing, which according to Schofield, is a cuisine still exotic enough to leave little room for ambiguity of preference. He baldly remarks: “You either like Japanese food or you don’t.”
The arrival of Latin America
The 1975 guide includes reference to the first South American restaurant in Australia, cryptically named, Latin America, at 225 Oxford Street Darlinghurst. As mentioned in my previous reviews, the evolution of food culture in Sydney shows an unmistakable trend towards regional specificity. Today foodies expect cuisine that is associated with specific regions within countries, as evidenced in Terry Durack’s recent review for the recently opened Mexican restaurant Chula, in which he remarks on the “strong regional spin to the menu” and a focus on “Oaxacan street food”. Not in 1975!
If it hasn’t already happened, I’m tipping a few new restaurants in the coming years that deliberately play to the now seemingly counter cultural International, Pan-European, Pan-Asian or Airport culinary aesthetic—kind of like the sentiment that informs the fashion trend normcore. This cuisine would need to lack the markers of regional and historical specificity that inform contemporary foodie trends. The clincher will be whether there’s enough to distinguish such a style from Contemporary Australian. So maybe Asian, Colonial, South American, European or Soviet is the right scale at which to aim.
Contrary to what is often said about the power of consumers in contemporary culture, the crowd sourcing in the older guide is far more explicit. Schofield commonly invokes the “letters and telephone calls” of readers, whose appraisals he sometimes quotes verbatim in his reviews. For example, he begins the review of Moro Restaurant on Parramatta Road with the description given by a Mosman reader: “A small Italian cafe in the heart of Italian delicatessen territory with the cooking done by the owner and his family.” He then includes her judgements of “very good” and “reasonable” agreeing with the latter. The review for Laddies at The Spit begins in the same fashion, only in this example Schofield pits his own review against the reader’s enthusiastic evaluations. While the reader describes the food as “excellent”, the helpings plentiful, and “presented well”, Schofield regards it as “reasonable”, the helpings “dauntingly large” and the presentation “average”.
There’s something lacking in the absence of a sense of a genuine dialogue with readers in the reviews of more recent guides, despite the penchant for an amicable, chatty tone. No doubt the editors have their reasons, but it’d be great to see a bit less polish and a bit more openness, hesitation or boldness, when witnessing the formation of taste based judgements in the guide. All the cozying up these days in the weekly SMH publication and the guide more generally is with chefs rather than punters–apart from Richard Cornish’s wonderful Brain Food section. I suppose there’s plenty of space for the punters to chat on Instagram or reviewing websites.
The changing fortunes of Kings Cross
It seems change has been the norm for Kings Cross. In his review for the Buona Sera Restaurant, Schofield notes how in the fifteen years from 1960-1975, The Cross changed markedly from a “chic if faintly recherché place where you could stroll leisurely through leafy arcades and past elegant buildings to a poor copy of 42nd street where you have to tip toe through the hookers”. Again, the use of language grates. But it’s interesting to know the old cross that has recently been mourned has been around for little more than a generation. I suppose that’s all it takes.
(This post is dedicated to Alison Byrne who kindly sent me the copy of the guide after my last blog post)
In the mid-90s, ten years on from the 1985-86 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, food in Sydney had become decidedly more Mediterranean and less French. French influence remained in desserts, which were often of the soufflé or “creme brûlée-type”, but more broadly restaurants were swept by a craze for extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oven roasted or sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant puree, bocconcini, focaccia, “superfluous” pesto, goats cheese and bruschetta. There are more mentions of fruit frappes than cappuccinos in the guides from this period, and it is increasingly possible to get fancy food in a pub, with the Robin Hood, Riverview, The Palace Hotel, The Paddington Inn, Four in Hand, Woollahra Hotel, The Nelson in Bondi Junction and Bellevue Hotel all rating mention for their tucker.
Leichhardt was the place to go for both traditional Italian and “Leichhardt Nuovo”. As Terry Durak and Jill Dupleix write in the 1996 edition, “ spag Bol and garlic bread” were seceding ground to dishes like “grilled scampi, rigatoni with radicchio”.
Italian fare from further west than Leichhardt is poorly represented, with the exception of a couple of restaurants in Five Dock and Il Manello in Ashfield. This is a significant change from 1985-86 which featured Italian in Top Ryde, Merrylands, Enfield, Campbelltown, North Strathfield, Parramatta and Bankstown. More recent guides show a pleasing reversal of this trend.
The influence of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine transformed the Sydney dining scene in subtle and conspicuous ways. Not only had Sydney-siders become habituated to the presence of Thai restaurants, a “mass of traditional Thai eateries” provoked the editors of the 1996 edition to bemoan the ubiquity of the cuisine, especially in the context of King Street Newtown.
The Thai influence is also abundantly present in the use of flavours and ingredients in specific dishes in contemporary Australian cuisine, with coriander, ginger and chilli often accompanying fish, beef and chicken dishes, and even manifesting in the form of a Thai chicken pie at the endearingly retro sounding Fair Go Gourmet.
The overall tenor of the guide underwent significant change between the 1994 and 1996 editions, with a change in editors from William Fraser and Helen Greenwood to Terry Durak and Jill Dupleix. The design of the 1994 edition was still to some extent informed by the jocular theatrics of the 1985-86 guide. The double lion and lobster crest from the 1980s remains a presence, though it is less proudly displayed in the black and white of the book’s title page, rather than in colour on the front cover, and the temptation to pepper the publication with silly little cartoons persists. The 1996 guide give a very different impression. The cover is a more subdued sans serif title on blue-toned photographic background and the black and white photographs used throughout the book don’t get any more risqué than a close up of an oyster.
Durak and Dupleix introduced two new innovations to the guide in 1996: the now conventional /20 scoring system and a curious, now discarded, subsection for each restaurant titled ‘Buzz’, which makes explicit the nuanced and diverse range of atmospherics on offer as part of the dining experience. This is particularly evident in the suburb of Balmain, which for some reason is associated with its own subset of moods: L’avventura is “No-risk Balmain”, Babylon Sisters Brasserie is “Balmain bustle” and The Bug is “Balmain event”.
Contemporary Australian and the Asian influence
In the 1985-86 Guide French and Italian were the dominant categories. Restaurants that weren’t serving food attached to these older culinary traditions were distributed among the categories of Individual, Eclectic, International and Australian. By 1994 things had changed dramatically. ‘Modern Australian’ arrived as a category which included more than seventy restaurants, and ‘Cafe’ or ‘Cafe-style’ featured nine. Stalwarts such as Berowra Waters Inn, Clareville Kiosk, Kables, and La Passion Du Fruit moved from the previous French, Individual and Eclectic, to these new categories. Though ‘Cafe-style’ disappeared in the interim between 1994 and 1996.
Contemporary Australian is well exemplified by Stefano Manfredi’s changing approach to cooking at The Restaurant Manfredi. The reviewers of the 1996 edition refer to Manfredi admitting “many of his dishes would not be found in Italy”. It is the “Asian influence” and the different kinds of produce now available in Sydney that mean his “spicy seafood soup […] owes more to Thailand than to Venice” and ingredients like “fresh soy beans” and “Chinese cabbage” are combined with Manfredi’s “mother’s handmade pasta” and “roast veal”. Likewise, the “very 90s” food served in Morans, the eponymous restaurant of Sydney fine dining heavyweight Matt Moran, is described as an international blend of east and west, with “Moroccan spice here, Asian tang there, and a rash of down-home comfort food”.
This sometimes-explicit-sometimes-subtle nod to the orient is representative of a broader trend, “[s]pices and touches of Asia […]” are ubiquitous enough to form part of the buzz of the era: Raphael’s Renaissance Hotel, still clinging somewhat to 1980s trends, served “venison on sautéed bok choy with macadamia nuts and […] grilled king prawns with avocado and ginger mousse”; No.7 At the Park in The Rocks produced a “poultry essence with coconut liaison” — a tantalisingly named dish that deserved to star Michael Douglas– and “barramundi fillet with shiitake mushrooms wrapped in rice left on green curry sauce”; there were “notes of sesame oil” in the “seared kangaroo fillet with marinated beetroot” at Oasis Seros on Oxford St, Paddington; at Kable’s on George St, Serge Dansereau served “Tasmanian salmon with crab pancake and Thai-style dressing”; EJs on Macquarie Street and the Cafe for Obscure Avalon Painters both riffed on the barbecued octopus, a staple of the era, the former combining it with “soy and ginger” and the latter with a “with spicy sesame salad”; Shores at The Spit featured a “ravioli of scallop and ginger” with a “lime bisque sauce”; the Bellevue Hotel served its Kingfish cutlet “with pumpkin cannelloni and a ginger and coriander sauce”; and Courtney’s Brasserie in Parramatta combined “bok choy and Cumberland sauce” in its version of roast duckling.
The culinary experiments of earlier eras can appear clunky fusions as our trickery grows more nuanced.
At present pizza in Sydney has reached new levels of technical and regional specificity. Food writers in the guide demonstrate a growing awareness not only of the way pizza is made in different countries, but of the regional specificity within Italy itself.
This new wave pizza knowledge was certainly not part of food culture in the 1990s. Witness the reviews for The Red Centre in Crows Nest, described in the 1996 edition as a “prototype pizza parlour for the 90s”. The Red Centre is lauded for its “thin crust pizza” with a “good crisp base”. However, beyond these attributes the characteristics of the pizza would be unlikely to please the tastes of contemporary reviewers, in particular the “crazy but delicious combos” of “tandoori chicken; shredded duck with Chinese mushrooms and orange teriyaki sauce; or Cajun scallops dusted with hot spices”. Or crocodile. Looking ten years ahead, to the 2004 and 2005 editions, the preference for Naples inspired, chewy, puffy, wood fired pizza, thoroughly displaced these earlier preferences for thinness, crispness and diverse, exotic toppings.
A number of the star restaurants from 1994 take a tumble in the 1996 guide. It was a stated part of the Durak and Dupleix mission to shake things up a bit and shake things up they did. The Paragon Cafe was one of the worst hit, plummeting from a giddy chefs hat to a lowly 11/20 in two years. Also Raphael’s cops a 12/20, going from “high quality” fare to “busy”, incoherent flavours:
“The delicate flavour of a rolled loin of lamb was forever lost after it had been stuffed with red capsicum and served on a sweet corn and vegetable relish, surrounded by tomato coulis. Also very busy was the calamari, marinated in sherry and saffron and served on a celery and macadamia nut salad”.
CBD stalwart Machiavelli is given a dressing down for its “tourist dishes that were out of date in Leichhardt years ago”. And with Bill Granger departing in the interim between 1994 and 1996, long time inclusion La Passion Du Fruit continued its slide from “Sydney’s trendoid temple” in 1985-86, to a place with “lacklustre atmosphere” by the time Durak and Dupleix took over as editors of the guide.
The prose of the 1994 and 1996 editions is detectably different to Leo Schofields witty, acerbic, theatrical style. Perhaps so called political correctness and memories of the infamous Blue Angel case were on the reviewers’ minds? The writers for the 1994 edition hint at this with a now seemingly superfluous aside about the correct nomenclature for service staff in their review of the long-running, newspaper themed restaurant, City Extra: “Waitpersons (lets be politically correct here) in uniforms splashed with newsprint design”.
But, as Stewart Lee compellingly demonstrates in the above link, the typically laudable imperatives of political correctness are rarely a sufficient explanation for the absence of humour. Writers with Schofield’s ability provide amusement and insight through caricature are simply difficult to find.
Durak and Dupleix certainly have their moments. I particularly appreciated the phrase “tongue-jangling” to describe the “over-zealous use of vinegar” at The Palace Hotel, Flinders St Darlinghurst, and enjoyed imagining the “pond of ginger coriander beurre blanc” surrounding the “fluffy seafood terrine” at The Nelson Bistro. However, on balance it is far harder to detect an animating personality or sense of character informing the evaluations, particularly in the 1994 edition. The description of the buzz at La Belle Helene as “basically beige” would at times seem appropriate for the sense of voice that emerges in the writing.
Other notable mentions
- In Sydney’s now sophisticated burger scene it seems unlikely the Hard Rock Cafe’s combination of “turkey […] guacamole, bacon and cheddar” would be described in the glowing terms used in the 1994 GFG. It is also surprising that the Hard Rock Cafe was once in the GFG.
- Now a common sight in Coles, pink eye potatoes were novel enough to warrant specific mention in the menus of high end restaurants.
- Avocado was still finding its way onto the restaurant table in what we’d now consider odd places: on an antipasto platter at Machiavelli, combined with lime in “avocado butter” at Paisley on Glebe Pt, and in the “avocado and ginger mousse” at Raphael’s Renaissance Hotel on Pitt St.
- Culinary conventions concerning blueberries were yet to settle. Now more or less exclusively fodder for breakfast, muffins and smoothies, in the mid-90s they were on the plate with kangaroo and roasted pine nuts at Papillion on York Street, and with venison and “pecan nut medallions” at No.7 At the Park in The Rocks.
- Snapper was sometimes spelt ‘schnapper’.
What can the 1985-86 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide tell us about the way culinary culture has changed in Sydney over the last thirty two years?
The book cover
The first thing is the cover. The early Good Food Guides were seemingly very keen on the crest as a graphic device: two lions in a metallic silver finish toasting wine glasses over a plate of lobster, set on an anchor. It has the look of an Australia preoccupied with parodying its increasingly distant anglo inheritance and hamming up the gaudy provincialism of the antipodes, a tradition that is surprisingly resilient in the illusion systems of popular culture today.
The bright orange, green and pink cover is a stark contrast to the stylish aesthetic of more recent editions of the guide. It’s a challenge to understand the mindset that informed the design choices without asking the designer and editors. I’m going to assume they were trying to appear jocular and provocative, knowingly poking fun at the performative element of fine dining, the even more gratuitous convention of having to eat at restaurants for a living and the arch persona of the then editor in chief, Leo Schofield. The centrality of the lobster, which readily toggles between luxury and kitsch, certainly suggests this.
Ironically (in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word), a lobster dish would be at the centre of an enduring media storm surrounding Schofield and the guide, when, after a scathing review in 1984, the proprietor of the Blue Angel sued and won a case against Fairfax for defamation in 1989. (Though, perhaps this story is the reason for the presence of the lobster on the cover, the first edition of which came out the same year as the scandalous review, and therefore not coincidental/Morissette-ironic at all?)
More recent covers have favoured increasingly high quality photographic images, or bold, minimalist graphics, highlighting the icon of the chefs hat, which, as the recent tagline, “Australia’s home of the hats” indicates, has apparently become core to the mission and values of the publication.
The closest contemporary equivalent to the earlier covers is the 2014 Good Food Guide, which returns to the cartoonish aesthetics of the earlier iterations, albeit in a significantly safer, toned down palette of red, white and black.
Looking at the 2013 cover, it doesn’t take long for a design to have the appearance of its times. The bold, shiny, rendered chefs hat, is too much an exercise in displaying the technological capabilities of the software used by the designers, rather than something that understands the technology as a tool in the service of something of greater substance or humour.
The next thing is the relative abundance of restaurants with either ‘La’ or ‘Le’ in their title. Of the roughly 250 restaurants reviewed in Sydney, thirteen have names that include French or Italian translations of ‘the’: Le Beach Hut, Le Dodo, La Rustica and La Passion Du Fruit (clearly hamming it up) are my favourites. More recent guides still feature many ‘La’ restaurant names, but ‘Le’ has more or less completely vanished. I can only guess that ‘Le’ has become overly associated with naive appeals to Europe.
Current writer for the Good Food, Scott Bolles, points out the prominence of ‘Le’ and ‘La’ titles in his 2014 retrospective, noting that today’s restaurant scene seems more influenced by the US, particularly Los Angeles, than France.
About seventy of the total 250ish Sydney restaurants reviewed in the 1985-86 were categorised as French, compared with roughly twenty from a total of 350 in the 2015 guide.
The French influence in the 1985-86 guide sees quality expressed through making things into and covering things (usually cuts of meat) in rich sauces, a greater tolerance for and even celebration of stuffing food inside other food (“baked apple filed with prawns and smoked salmon” at Allouche’s in Sylvania is a stand out), and the presence of savoury mousses: perhaps a “charlotte of smoked salmon filled with scallop mousse” at Eliza’s Garden Restaurant in Double Bay, or would you prefer “venison cutlets in an orange, lime and lemon mousse with a sweet and sour sauce” at La Potiniere in McMahons Point?
Today the French influence still exists, however, it is more likely to manifest in more rustic, subdued, brasserie style exemplified in dishes like steak-frites.
Being nice and being mean
Today’s Good Food Guide plays it safe in comparison to the 1985-86 edition. Perhaps incidents such as the Blue Angel case changed the attitude of food reviewers? Perhaps social expectations have shifted in favour of evaluations that are more generous and less likely to offend?
Double Bay locals certainly cop it in the review of Donini’s: “a perfect platform from which to view the passing parade of dowagers, anorexics and fashion victims who constitute a large part of the Bay’s shoppers”. Ouch!
Acid opinion still seemingly has its place in other, online media, and recently the new GFG editor Myffy Rigby dished out some refreshingly insightful shaming of insensitive gentrification and juvenile service in this review of Misfits in Redfern.
However, it’s unlikely that cruelly stereotyping an entire suburb would make it through the editorial screening process, particularly when a mental illness is mentioned.
Schofield provides some very amusing quips throughout the guide. The Lamrock Cafe on Campbell Parade in Bondi, categorised in the now defunct genre of ‘Healthy Food’, receives this rebuke, at which it is difficult not to chuckle: “The menu consists almost entirely of salads, and there’s a vague air of ‘if there’s an avocado in the fridge, there’ll be a meal on the table'”.
The death of Leichhardt and the disappearance of suburban Italian
In the 2016 Good Food Guide there were roughly 350 restaurants reviewed in Sydney, of these only one was situated in Leichhardt (Apertivo) compared with four from a total of 250 in the 1985-86 edition. The decline of the suburb and Norton Street as the focal point for Italian food in Sydney has been covered elsewhere, paid parking and cultural stagnation have been cited as reasons.
Suburban Italian restaurants seem to crop up with relative regularity in the 1985 guide. This includes Bar Roma in Parramatta, Enrico’s in Merrylands, Il Buco in Enfield, Campbell’s Coach in Campbelltown, Il Geranio in Nth Strathfield, Il Vico in Top Ryde, La Pentola in Bankstown and Mariu in Petersham (now all permanently closed). While there are Italian restaurants in Linfield, Cronulla, Five Dock and Lane Cove in the 2015 edition, there’s a relative dearth further west. Hard for me to say whether these kinds of restaurants don’t exist anymore or whether they’re just not making the GFG cut.
The arrival of Thai
In his review for Manohra Thai in the 1985-86 edition Schofield revealingly remarks, “It’s all very bewildering. Just as we were beginning to order a Chinese meal with confidence, along comes Thailand”. Thai restaurants are now so much part of foodie culture they have become as taken for granted as cafes, pizza restaurants, burger joints and Chinese takeaway. Even the rustics among us can navigate their way to a pad thai, pad see ew or a Thai green curry with urbane effortlessness. Still a bit suss on those desserts though, better to go get a Gaytime from the servo on the way home.
There are a number of categories for cuisine used in the index for the 1985-86 guide that are amusingly anachronistic. These include: Jewish, International, Eclectic, Healthy Food, Anglo-Saxon and Individual.
‘Jewish’ cuisine is now more accurately distributed according to the range of nations which have been home to the Jewish diaspora throughout history. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been replaced by the less antiquated ‘British’. ‘Healthy Food’ now lacks the novelty and the identity to form a category of its own in the guide. With an increasing preference for regional specificity within nationalities, ‘International’ is right off trend. ‘Eclectic’ and ‘Individual’ have been absorbed in the presently bulging category of ‘Contemporary’.
The changing fortunes of avocado
The avocado is currently a symbol for missspent youth, typically taking the more rustic, smashed form, eaten at breakfast or brunch. In 1985-86 it was more common to see the fruit served for dinner in high-end restaurants. At La Grillade in Crows Nest there was “St Pierre avec avocado” and at Edna’s table the derided “avocado and cheese tart”, which is described as “a kind of guacomole with a halo of mung bean and red capsicum salad”.
Other notable mentions
– Cappuccino was the coffee by which restaurants were judged (“Desserts and cappuccino [at Clareville Kiosk] are first class”) and there was even a cafe with the quaintly retro sounding name Cappuccino City on Oxford Street in Paddington.
– There used to be two Laurie’s Vegetarians (now on Bondi Road): one in Darlinghurst on the corner of Burton and Victoria streets and one near Central Station–who knew!
– There used to be a Lentil as Anything in Manly?! In 1985?!
– Peter’s of Kensington is in there for “salads, quiches, fabulous chocolates”?!
– Still kickin’ (some in different iterations, some more or less unchanged): Badde Manors, Beppi’s, Berowra Waters Inn, Bill and Toni’s The Dolphin Hotel, Laurie’s Vegetarian, Lucios, Jonahs, Clareville Kiosk, Unas…(there are probably others I have missed).
And to sum things up, the scallops mango, from Le Beach Hut in Dolls Point: “scallops served in half a mango with ginger and sour cream sauce”.
Moreton Bay Figs in Prince Alfred Park
At the south western end of Prince Alfred Park the canopies of two large Moreton Bay Figs entangle to enclose a flat, grassy area, with the sandstone remains of some prior vision for the place, including steps and two sandstone retaining walls. The area in-between the two walls, under the shade of the figs, is a flat, roughly square patch of grass, levelled into the slope, bordered by taller, thicker tufts of kangaroo grass and Dianella .
I have admired this space from the vantage of the nearby outdoor exercise gym for some time. It is a quasi-inside space, with the trees providing a roof and walls of sorts, and the flat, landscaped ground and sandstone elements further adding to the sense of a welcoming enclosure.
In the summer of this year I surrendered to the urge to breakfast under the trees on my way to work. It is now almost an everyday occurrence. Between 8-9am a man shovelling his oats, yoghurt and fruit from a plastic container is now part of the park mise en scène, along with increasingly diverse acrobatics performed by those hooked on the morning endorphins or calm that comes from deploying the body in states of controlled motion and resistance on the fitness gym nearby.
Recently, I have noticed other people inhabiting the space. Sometimes someone will be sunning themselves, leaning back against one of the large buttress roots of the figs. For a while a tent was pitched in the space. I could see the integrated feet of a couple through the gauze of the open flap.
The desire to document the diverse uses to which the space is put led me to approaching another couple who I have seen on a number of occasions canoodling between the buttress roots on what I presume is their lunch break. I felt conflicted by ruining their sense of privacy and my own desire to observe and share thoughts about the space. My request for a photo was turned down.
More so than other, common Sydney trees, such as plane trees, brush box and various eucalypts, the Moreton Bay fig makes a show of its roots. Combined with the large, spreading branches, which often come close to touching the ground, all parts of the tree seem involved in the sinewy display of unity and differentiation that the German philosopher Sloterdijk identifies as one of the key metaphorical attributes of trees.
The bulky, deep cavities of it’s buttress roots are one of the tree’s distinctive features. The these give the tree an architectural dimension reminiscent of grand, cavernous cathedrals. The Australian poet Robert Gary recognises this in his poem “Smoke” when he describes the tree as possessing a “Gaudi-like, visceral architecture” (cited in Hart, 166).
The spatial imagination of trees and vegetative life is a constant presence both in contemporary popular culture and ancient systems of human knowledge. Trees give tangible form to the integration of the contrasting forces of unity and differentiation which are central to earthly systems of life support and communication. Examples abound: the Winterfell heart tree in Game of Thrones, the sprawling, towering, viral vegetative network of the second series of Stranger Things, the role the tree played as a meme in the field of organic chemistry in 19th and early 20th centuries trees, and many variations on trees of life and trees of knowledge in ancient religious texts.
The Riddle of the Trumpalar
Climbing trees and building tree houses are common, fondly remembered childhood activities. Without houses of their own, children make use of their imagination and turn trees into places of play and dwelling. Finding good climbing tree or tree for a tree house still figures in the perceptual experience of adults who carry the residual memories of their arboreal childhood adventures and rudimentary homebuilding in the branches.
The magic and grandeur of a particular Moreton Bay Fig seems to have been one of the key pieces of inspiration for Judy Bernard-Waite’s children’s book, The Riddle of the Trumpalar (1981). The fig in question can be found in the bushland that rises up behind Trumpar Park Oval in Paddington. It is easy to see why this giant specimen would have provoked a fantasy of mystical beings and imaginary lands accessible only to those with active imaginations.
The Riddle of the Trumpalar is based around the efforts of two children to protect the particular Moreton Bay from the council, who plan to cut it down. The hidden value of trees, to adults and children, becomes manifest when the threat of disappearance becomes a reality. Unlike houses, which convey their amenity in a more obvious fashion, the ambiguous status of trees as spaces of dwelling for humans and animals often leads to conflict and public outcry.
This was the case in the summer of 2015-16 when the Port Jackson Figs along the south western fringe of Centennial Park were removed to make way for the new light rail. Residents and campaigners dressed in mourning attire protested on Alison Road with placards speaking on behalf of the trees. Poems that were originally written to commemorate the dead soldiers for whom some of the trees were originally planted were re-appropriated and used in banners of protest.
Trees and psychological comfort
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdjik devotes a significant section to trees in Bubbles: Spheres Volume I, his sweeping, anthropological analysis of intimate psychological spaces.
In an interview about the book, Sloterdijk points to the intimacy people feel towards trees: “People do not only identify with animals they also have brotherly and sisterly feelings toward plants. Trees are, as it were, the first plants to which you can really relate to. There’s an affinity that probably has something to do with this spherical form of the tree”. Sloterdijk speculates about the metaphorical correlations which underpin the widely known desires people have to hug, plant, picnic and live in the proximity of trees.
Among Sloterdijk’s great cast of diverse, often bizarre examples, is the role played by an old elm tree in the history of the unconscious. The tree in question was situated in the town square of the small village of Buzancy in the North of France. It was used by the Marquis de Puysegur in his experiments with the therapeutic techniques of mesmerism, which were a spreading trend in that part of the world during the late 18th Century. Henri F. Ellenberger describes the process in full in his book, The Discovery of the Unconscious:
The public square of the small village of Buzancy, surrounded by thatched cottages and trees, was not far from the majestic castle of the Puysegurs. In the center of that square stood a large, beautiful old elm tree, at the foot of which a spring poured forth its limpid waters. The peasants would sit on the surrounding stone benches. Ropes were hung in the tree’s main branches and around its trunk, and the patients wound ends of the rope around the ailing parts of their bodies. The operation started with the patients’ forming a chain, holding one another by the thumbs. They began to feel the fluid circulate among them to varying degrees. After a while, the master ordered the chain to be broken and the patients to rub their hands. He then chose a few of them and, touching them with his iron rod, put them into “perfect crisis.” These subjects, now called physicians, diagnosed diseases and prescribed treatment. To “disenchant” them (that is, to wake them from their magnetic sleep), Puysegur ordered them to kiss the tree, whereupon they awoke, remembering nothing of what had happened. These treatments were carried out in the presence of curious and enthusiastic onlookers. It was reported that within little more than one month, 62 of the 300 patients had been cured of various ailments. (1970, 71)
Sloterdijk sees this example as lending credence to his argument that there is a deep psychological connectedness between humans and trees. He describes the Buzancy tree as a “herbaceous magnetisation machine” that plays the role of a “metaphorical umbilical cord” connecting the individuals in a psychophysical companionship, reminiscent of the relationship infants have with their mothers (Sloterdijk 2011, 409).
“Puységur and the magnetised elm of Buzancy”, from the third edition of Puységur’s Memoirs…du magnitisme animal.
Expanding ecosystem services
The concept of ecosystems services helps to make explicit the value of trees by using the language and metrics that are palatable in positivist cultures. Scientists can speak persuasively on behalf of trees when they provide data that proves trees play a role in the reduction of pollution, temperature control and carbon sequestration.
However, as demonstrated by researchers at the University of Melbourne and The ANU, trees also provide important psychological and emotional companionship to humans, which escapes the typical measures used to assess benefit. Part of the research involves an email service that allows people to communicate with specific trees. Many of the emails show strong emotional connections, with responses such as: “I very fond of you [sic]”, “I miss you”, “It makes me happy knowing you are there”, and “It saddens me that your passing will be sooner than my own”. Interestingly, it was a certain golden elm tree on Punt Road in Melbourne which received the most emails. The legend Buzany elm lives on in the digital age!
Comparable research conducted by researchers at the Fenner School at ANU used a photo elicitation exercise to collect feedback from farmers in rural NSW about why they valued trees. The research participants were asked to photograph “significant features of their farm landscape, especially those that influenced their farm management decisions, and record what they captured and why” (Sherren, Fischer and Price 2010, 1058). The design of the research allowed for explication of aesthetic and emotional dimensions between farmers and trees, which might otherwise remain inexplicit. The written responses of the farmers indicate a nuanced relationship between the specific forms of trees and the feelings they provoke, with descriptions such as “gnarly”, and “scraggly” accompanying aesthetic evaluations including “beautiful”, ”funny”, and “interesting” (1060).
Trees inside humans and humans inside trees
The picturesque tradition in painting and gardening has long recognised the importance of well placed trees as framing devices for landscape or landscape features. Trees can add a vertical dimension that works in contrast and harmony with the horizon. Not unlike the spire of a church, they act as mediators between the heavens and the earth, screening light into tangible form. The lone trees that often frame the foreground of picturesque paintings seem to dwell in the middle ground between the undifferentiated mass of a forest and the more ordered, civilising forces of human activity and structure.
The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826, The National Gallery London.
However, the perspectival conventions of this tradition are only one, initial step in understanding of the dynamic spatio-psychological relationship that exists between humans and trees. In looking at a picturesque painting of Claude Lorrain or John Constable, for example, the viewer gains little sense of the dynamism and complexity that exists when we come to be inside something and of the role trees have played in the biological, emotional and intellectual evolution of humanity.
The Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte was a lover of trees. Magritte saw the trees as an “image of certain happiness”, which bear witness to the “more or less agitated spectacle of our life.” Magritte’s love of trees is perhaps most directly displayed in his series of paintings, The Voice of Blood, which add a further layer of understanding to the companionship shared between humans and trees. Sloterdijk interprets this series as an exemplification of the vegetative nature which supports “intellectual inhabitants” (373), describing Magritte’s trees as a ”detailed, spongy spheric structure” reminiscent of a womb. If the viewer puts themselves in the position of an foetus, experiencing their first audible sensations, this is something the title of the painting would also seem to suggest.
La voix du sang (Voice of Blood), René Magritte, 1959.
The most obviously distinctive element of the tree in this series of paintings is the sphere and the house which are contained in its trunk. The house and sphere are revealed behind two, vertically arranged doors that swing open in opposite directions. Sloterdijk notes “the humanly significant contrast […] between the organic form represented by the branches and leaves and the intellectually idealised and constructed figures of the house and ball” (370-373). According to Sloterdijk’s interpretation, Magritte’s tree is “pregnant […] with human subjectivity” (373) due to the presence of these anthropologically significant forms. The presence of the “geometric foetuses” in the trunk of the tree and its “nourishing foliar sphere” suggest a metaphorical connectedness to the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, which as Sloterdijk notes in his earlier analysis, are symbolically significant thought forms throughout human history.
Magritte saw the essence of a tree as something that is best captured when we are static, remarking that when humans move it is the tree who sees us, as it becomes witness to our activity rather than us to its. There are hints of an appreciation for one of the broader insights of relativity theory in this understanding: perception and temporality are the consequence of different, continuously changing event structures. Yet Magritte’s works to a certain extent remain limited by his surrealist emphasis on symbolic association and don’t seem to fully express the consequences of this understanding of time and perception .
William Robinson’s landscapes paintings of the forests of Beechmont in the Gold Coast hinterland suggest a more fully realised application of a relativistic understanding of perception in the medium of painting. Robinson’s distinctive contribution to the genre of landscape painting is arguably in the way his works—such as “Afternoon Light at Springbrook” (2001), the “Tone Poem” series (2007-2008), and “Springbrook with lifting fog” (1999)—eschew the typical perspectival devices of representative landscape painting and offer an alternative spatial model of a landscape that manages to incorporate both inside and outside perspectives on a single surface. His works hint at what’s possible with regard to making explicit the hidden architectural relations humans have with trees.
Afternoon Light at Springbrook, William Robinson, 2001.
In her dissertation on mathematics and art (2009) Janelle Robyn Humphreys uses the paradigmatic topological figure of the Möbius strip to interpret the twisting coherence at work in Robinson’s paintings (23-47). As she notes, “There is no single viewpoint from which to observe his landscapes as is often the case in landscape paintings based on linear perspective. The multiple or shifting viewpoints give a sense of topography that is twisting and turning, like the rotating earth” (29). In this sense, Robinson’s paintings are a kind of “geometry given body by motion”—an irresistible phrase of Steven Connor’s to describe the topological thought at work in the philosophy of Michel Serres (2004). His works express the encounter between humans and trees as a dynamically unfolding perceptual event over time. The sense his works give of multiple, differentiated perspectives, combining together in a united whole is reminiscent of combination of unity and differentiation which Sloterdijk identifies as a key metaphorical affordance of the tree thought form.
Returning to Cleveland Paddocks
The two Moreton Bay figs which enclose the terraced grass patch on the south western fringe of Prince Alfred Park were most likely planted in 1870. They are part of a border planting which conforms to the original designs of Benjamin Backhouse, whose plan saw the transformation of a paddock-like landscape into a Victorian era park, fit for the new Exhibition Building, the foundation stone of which was laid in the same year.
While old by human standards, these trees have been witness to a relative small but changeful period of history associated with white settlement. Like many landscapes in Sydney, the landscape design interventions of Backhouse came after a denuding of the original landscape. John Rae’s 1850s painting of the Cleveland Paddocks (as Prince Alfred Park was known to white settlers prior to 1868) shows a bare landscape, crowded with settlers and their horses, dogs and cattle.
“Turning the First Turf of the First Railway in the Australasian Colonies at Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales. 3rd July 1850”, John Rae, (Source: Mitchell Library)
A small group of what appear to be aboriginal Australians in European clothing sit on the ground in a circle off to the right of the picture. They are seemingly marked out from other people in the painting due to their seated position, backs turned away from the view north, towards the city and harbour, which is admired by the rest of the crowd. Unlike the other people in the picture, who seem at home in the outdoor activities of recreation and spectacle, this small gathering seem like inhabitants who are profoundly at odds with the new logic of dwelling, labour and play that has seen their country changed beyond recognition.
As Don Watson has so compellingly shown in his cultural history of the Australian environment, The Bush (2014), white settlement in this country is in significant part a history of acute intervention into the landscape—’landscape’ is itself a word which denotes a certain, thin, two dimensionality, associated with traditions of aesthetic representation and design for visual improvement. It is impossible for white settlers to adequately imagine and experience the architectural affordances and symbolic systems of life support the treed environments would have offered to the peoples who inhabited this country for so long prior to the colonial project.
It is impossible for white settlers to adequately imagine and experience the architectural affordances and symbolic systems of life support the treed environments would have offered to the peoples who inhabited this country for so long prior to the colonial project. However, if the vocabulary and syntax of Bill Neidjie is any indication, the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and their arboreal companions was informed by an understanding that humans and trees are connected intimately through feeling.
Neidjie was a Gaagudju man, and the last surviving speaker of the Gaagudju language. His book, Story About Feeling, is the transcription of talks between Neidjie and Keith Taylor in 1982, which to western eyes reads as a combination of narrative, poetry and metaphysics. One chapter is devoted to trees. Neidgie writes, “That tree e listen to you, what you!/ E got no finger, e can’t speak/ but that leaf e pumping his./ Way e grow in the night while you sleeping…/ you dream something,/ that tree and grass same thing…/ e grow with your body, your feeling” (23). This fragment of Neidgie’s work seems to suggest that in the dormitory condition in particular it becomes explicit that humans and trees participate in a shared activity, as though in sleep our nutritive souls are expressed.
It would be tendencious for this author to speculate about the extent to which Neidjie’s language and philosophy was widely shared across Aboriginal nations. However, set alongside what we know about how the landscape in Australia prior to white settlement, it is clear that the first peoples of this country had a mythically rich, benevolent and sustainable relationship with trees.
What are the different ways in which humans come to possess a place? I wonder about the constraints that the form of knowledge associated with real estate and all its attendant concepts enforce upon thinking about places. As my trips to the place underneath the fig canopy in Prince Alfred Park become more frequent, the range of activities I undertake there become more varied and bold. Is the latent inside-ness of the place becoming explicit as I stretch shirtless under its branches, as I make it the place where an increasingly large number of my thoughts emerge and become articulated? Will the couples embracing, smoking, walking their dogs and sun baking under its branches become attached to the place as their life takes form here? Will a certain mood, a restlessness, compel them to come back, many years on from now, and place their hands on Moreton for the consultation offered by the tree?
List of works cited
Bernard-Waite, Judy, The riddle of the Trumpalar, Gosford, N.S.W.: Ashton Scholastic, 1981.
Connor, S. “Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought,” Anglistik, 15 (2004), 105-117. Available from: http://www.stevenconnor.com/topologies/
Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970), The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books, 1970.
Hart, Kevin., Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry, London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Kendal, D. Wilson, A. and Pearce, L. “Loving emails show there’s more to trees than ecosystem services”, The Conversation, July 24, 2015.
Humphreys, J. R. “Shadows of another dimension: A bridge between mathematician and artist”, PhD Dissertation, University of Wollongong, Faculty of Creative Arts, School of Art and Design, 2009.
Neidjie, Bill. Story About Feeling. Keith Taylor (ed),Broome: Magabala Books, 1989.
Sherren, K., Fischera, J., Price, R. “Using photography to elicit grazier values and management practices relating to tree survival and recruitment”, Land Use Policy 27 (2010) 1056–1067.
Sloterdijk, Peter., Spheres, Volume 1: Bubbles: Microspherology. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.
Sloterdijk, Peter. “Satan at the Center and Double Rhizomes: Discussing ‘Spheres’ and beyond with Peter Sloterdijk”, interviewed by Tom Boellstorff, LA Review of Books, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/satan-center-double- rhizomes-discussing-spheres-beyond-peter-sloterdijk/ – !
Watson, Don. The Bush. Sydney: Penguin Group, 2014.
If the pub purchases of the Hemmes empire are anything to go by, the stretch of land that lies roughly in-between Redfern and Mascot will continue to change significantly over the next twenty or so years. It’s already changing rapidly, has been for a while. But perhaps the exponential is difficult to intuit.
Hemmes has recently snapped up the currently disused Alexandria Hotel on 35 Henderson Rd and the Tennyson Hotel at 952 Botany Rd, Mascot. These two purchases roughly demarcate a terrain of massive urban redevelopment, driven primarily by new apartment housing. Amidst the continual shadow play of scaffold, crane and developer banner, is the increasingly tenuous condition of the Botany Rd street front.
Botany Rd proper begins where Boundary St cuts into Regent, but the name used to identify the whole stretch of road up to Cleveland St, and looking at a base map, it makes more sense to think of it this way. Like Parramatta Road, the old east-west trajectory into the city, Botany Rd is an eclectic mix of commercial and light industrial enterprise, the resilience of which is currently being tested.
For those with the luxury of vigilance, the character of the place is something explicit and refreshingly different to the enclosed malls that typify the contemporary shopping experience of the twentieth century. For those who depend upon it—for income, services and a sense of meaning—this character no doubt exists too, though the relationship is likely less defined by aesthetic judgement.
Sydney high streets are a valuable part of urban amenity, particularly examples which aren’t subject to the atmospheric dominance of the car. Botany Rd hasn’t escaped this. But it retains a rare quality, a sense of character, in good part down to its eclecticism, that survives the steady mess of motion and noise we take for granted as street front ambience in inner city Sydney.
This is the first in a series of posts recording the changing and enduring condition of this place. Block by block. Sometimes impressionistic, sometimes forensic.
Redfern St to Boundary St
The place to start is the crossroads. The pedestrian traffic from Redfern Station collects at the traffic lights where Redfern St crosses Regent. There’s a paved, pedestrian friendly area that marks the beginning of Cope St. It gives the spot the sense of a rudimentary plaza or square.
Some of the space is taken up by sculpture known as Bower, an aggressive, spiky aluminium representation of a bower bird nest, well over human height, with blue tiles in the pavement in the shape of different objects: bowling pins, a key, a chess piece, a boomerang, a work boot. As is the fate of most public art in Sydney, the aesthetic ambiguity of this sculpture provoked brief protest about a lack of consultation and poor taste.
From the middle of the nest you can look up at the pleasantly irregular reds of the now soft edged brickwork above the awnings. The sound of the word ‘lozenge’ comes to mind. The date in the facade reads 1892 and a ‘For Lease’ sign obscures one of the windows of what used to be an architectural practice.
Below, on the street front, there’s an old bakery selling the reliable combination of ‘Donuts, Hot Food & Coffee’, a classic takeaway (once Grills ’n Chills now Sek Fun Noodle House) and a variety shop. This mix of older Redfern bookends the newer, less noisily advertised, Arcadia small bar.
The paved area extends into a reserve, identified by some City of Sydney signage as Jack Floyd’s Reserve. It’s a sad little wedge of green surrounded by more reassuringly put together stepped brick retaining wall. The aesthete in me wants to say: there’s potential in in this unlikely nook of pedestrian space on a street front otherwise claimed by the car. The brickwork, at least, shows up the public art and makes an argument for place sensitive forms of making that don’t just adopt the most basic forms of symbolic play.
The only thing that competes with the automotive traffic heading south is the activity upwards, on the other side of the road, as the remnants of the western street front are dwarfed by the new Iglu student housing development. The Appetite Cafe, which may have once clung to its free Wifi and Toby’s Estate coffee for safety in an ever shifting sea of gentrification, is now listed as permanently closed.
The striking blue painted Fosters sign on the first floor facade of Redfern Cellars has perhaps seen its last coat of paint, and will now rely on the ghost sign archivists of Instagram to ensure its enduring significance.
Further down the hill, following the road away from the city, two different eras are brought into juxtaposition with striking effect: a BP service station next to an old church. If, as Roland Barthes suggested, “cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals” then here is an opportunity to assess some of atmospheric contrasts of the two cultures to which these constructions bear witness.
The church wouldn’t provoke anything more than a sneer from someone acclimatised to the architectural delights of the Northern Hemisphere. But here it’s a welcome foothold in times when shopping and driving weren’t the dominant activities undertaken in the city. It could do with some love, though is still in use as the Uniting Church Tonga Parish. Its services might yet outlast those of the station, if, through genius or necessity, the convenience of the car is usurped by other means.
The church has recently been listed as up for auction on the 6th of September. Hopefully the new owners don’t just built a massive stack of apartments out of its back.
The numerous designer outlets along the next part of the street front testify to older waves of gentrification. Many of these shops have been here for a decade or more. As Kitty from Redfern Fruit Market quips, “the change is getting old”. Her business has been doing trade here for nearly thirty years. A shambolic grotto of abundant variety, it retains all the character that a supermarket lacks and does a mean fresh juice. The flower shop next door, and the butcher just down the road, contributes to the feel of this being a mini market place, with the smells and visual stimulation that are completely absent from the refrigerator atmosphere of the nearby IGA.
The footpath widens to accommodate a vague avenue of peppercorn and plane trees that are home to a sizeable flock of pigeons that more or less constantly shit on the herringbone brickwork and garden beds below. Again, this is another area which exhibits some small shred of thoughtfulness for the pedestrian, but its all the more glum for being so close yet so far.
The shops leading up to and after the peppercorn grove continue the combination of recent enterprise aimed at newer money and older stalwarts. The former includes The Bearded Tit, the exterior tiles of which fit in pleasingly with the colourful palimpsest of the surrounding street front. There’s an artisan Gelateria and Happy D’s Dumpling House, which is a thrown together kind of new that seems to fit in. The nearby chicken shop exhibits a half hearted awareness of the recent currency the humble fried chook has come to attain in the so called hipper parts of the city.
As for the older stalwarts: there’s a series of variety stores, a bakery—from a time when ‘hot bread’ was more important than ‘sourdough’—a couple of butchers, a laundry and the South Sydney DVD Store, it’s vernacular signage indicating support for the much loved local league team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
One of the distinctive and pleasing things about this high street is even the variety stores come in a wide variety. There’s little sense of a dominant brand, no familiar franchise players, just confections of the esoteric, operating at different scales, within the one shop or between different shops.
The block is rounded out by Abbott’s Hotel, on the corner of Raglan and Botany. The pub was trading 1857 and still has the look and feel of pub prior to the foodie oriented fit-outs, which started at the beginning of the decade with places like The Norfolk on Cleveland St.
Any pub trading for that that long must be doing something right. The rate of attrition has been high, with close to forty hotels trading in the greater Green Square area in 1886, twenty two in the period between 1949-1969, and nine of these having closed since. The list of the departed includes: Rose of Denmark, Australia Hotel, Balaclava Hotel (now Fratelli Fresh), Boundary Hotel , Bow Bells Hotel (now apartments), Clifton Hotel, Duke of Wellington (soon to be apartments), Mount Lachlan Hotel (Catholic Community services) and The Star Hotel (apartments).
It simplifies the landscape to describe it as new and old. There’s a richer, more complex mix of old becoming new again and new becoming rapidly old. The Abbotts Hotel might look authentic and have menu that includes a ‘Classic Pub Parmy’ and a ‘Schinitty’ at $12 a pop, but the new chef is ex-Merivale.
Those engaged in nuancing activities can muse on whether what’s plated up here is any more or less authentic than The Unicorn Hotel on Oxford St, which recently relaunched with a classic Aussie pub theme and does a schinitty and a parmy for $25 and $27 respectively.
The movement and nature of gentrification of Sydney can be understood according to the same logic as the English language in a global context: its expansion and growing influence also guarantees its own warping and corruption, as new pidgin or vernacular Englishes emerge as appropriations of common meanings. One day every pub in Sydney might have an ex-Merivale chef dishing up Chinese Bistro classics.