The 1994 and 1996 SMH Good Food Guides

The 1994 and 1996 SMH Good Food Guides

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. 

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The GFG crest goes undercover in 1994 and disappears completely by 1996

   

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A cartoon from the 1994 guide
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Photographs were the new standard for graphic accompaniment from1996

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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”.

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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. 

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Immature Pizza

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.

Changing fortunes

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.

Basically Beige

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’.
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Food photography in 1996 seemingly had plenty in common with 17th century Dutch still life painting.
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The 1985-86 SMH Good Food Guide

The 1985-86 SMH Good Food Guide

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.

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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.

Francophilia 

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.

Antique Categories

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”.

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Moreton Bay Figs in Prince Alfred Park

Moreton Bay Figs in Prince Alfred Park

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.

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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.

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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).

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“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.

john_constable_008 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.

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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.

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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.

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“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 indigenous 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.

If the vocabulary and syntax of Bill Neidjie is any indication, the relationship between indigenous peoples and their arboreal companions was informed by an understanding that humans and trees are cohabitants of a unified sensorium anchored by feeling, rather than clear and distinct visual perception. 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 humans are realising an inner vegetativeness that is more obscure in waking life. It would be tendencious for this author to speculate about the extent to which Neidjie’s language and philosophy was widely shared across indigenous 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 more benevolent and sustainable relationship with these vertically enhanced members of the plant kingdom.

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. My trips to the place underneath the fig canopy in Prince Alfred Park are becoming more frequent and the range of activities I undertake there become more varied and bold. Is its latent insideness 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? How many different practices and ways of being are yet to be unfolded and stabilitised in the endlessly growing archive of pursuits we give the indicative but perhaps overlooked name ‘recreation’?

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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.

The change is getting old: Botany Rd

The change is getting old: Botany Rd

 

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.

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Painting by Rachael Wakefield-Rann

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.

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Painting by Rachael Wakefield-Rann

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.

Footbridges in the Eastern Suburbs and Inner West of Sydney

Footbridges in the Eastern Suburbs and Inner West of Sydney

Bridge thinking

The bridge is a popular architectural phenomenon in the discourse of twentieth century philosophy, with Martin Heidegger and Michel Serres among the key proponents. In Heidegger’s seminal chapter on architecture and space, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, he describes the bridge as an exemplary technological structure due to its capacity to produce an environment through gathering different elements together in harmony: “It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighborhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream” (“Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, 1971).

While the rendering of Heidegger’s German prose in English is often enough to muddy the issue, he identifies something that is surely agreeable for anyone who has attended closely to the experience of bridge crossing: the sense of bringing together, of connectedness being focal.

Serres upstages Heidegger by publishing an entire book on bridges. Published in 2006, L’Art des ponts is an extended mediation on the bridge as structure and as a metaphorical concept that encapsulates all activity to do with moving between: “Method or hyphen, those are soft bridges;/ viaduct or bridge, those are hard unions or methods./ Watch: I am constructing a new footbridge;/ moving from matter to the sign and from the abstract/ to the concrete, I am bridging the hard and the soft. Whether of one/ or the other kind, I find bridges everywhere.” (77). Serres sees bridges at work in his vocation as a writer and thinker between disciplines, and in his origin narrative, as someone born in the bridge town of Agan, which is home to a famous canal bridge.

 

Sydney and bridges

Sydney is a city famous for its road bridges, in particular the inescapable iconicity of the harbour bridge. Though the poet Les Murray makes a compelling case for the less looked at but similarly impressive concrete competitor, the Gladesville Bridge, which at the time of its completion in 1964 was the largest, single span concrete arch ever constructed. In the first of his series of poems “The Sydney Highrise Variations”, Murray offers an unimprovable description of the bridge: “Gigantic pure form, all exterior, superbly uninhabited/ or peopled only by transients at speed, the bridge/ is massive outline” (1994, 171-172). The quaint notion of gathering expressed in Heidegger’s bridge-thinking is entirely absent here. Murray’s Gladeville bridge is the antithesis of dwelling, “an abstract hill”, “without country”, though no less impressive for this fact: “It feels good. It feels right./ The joy of sitting high is in our judgement./ The marvellous brute-force effects of our century work./ They answer something in us. Anything in us.” (172)

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Gladesville Bridge “

 

Footbridges tour

Footbridges are less conspicuous. Yet they offer an experience of crossing for which automotive movement is no substitute. Keen runners with a taste for distance will seek them out to ensure uninterrupted momentum across car dominated space, I will favour a footbridge route over traffic lights even if it means twice the distance.

The footbridges I describe below are of a particular kind: over busy roads, in the eastern suburbs or inner west and publicly accessible. There are other tours to be taken: footbridges over water (Parsley Bay, Cooper Park…), the large, highway spanning footbridges further away from inner Sydney, and private or institutionally restricted footbridges (the UTS footbridge over Harris Street or between the GCA towers in Redfern).

Starting from Waterloo and heading east, I can bag seven footbridges if I’m prepared to run for more than an hour and half: over South Dowling Street, Tibby Cotter Walkway over ANZAC Parade, Nelson Street Bridge over Syd Einfeld Drive, the pedestrian bridge over New South Head Road on the Eastern side of Kings Cross, the bridge over Wattle Street between Ultimo and Wentworth Park and the two footbridges of Sydney Uni,  over Parramatta and City Roads.

 

South Dowling Street

The bridge over South Dowling Street links the eastern part of Redfern with the parklands of Moore Park; it’s stadiums, golf courses, athletics fields and the large expanse of Centennial Park. It’s a portal from one kind of environment to another. The, heavily built-up, car dominated streets of Redfern transition into open grassy fields, pedestrian pathways, landscaped native plantings and an abundance of sporting amenity.

The approach to the bridge at the western end is a footpath that deviates from Bourke St through the internal reserves of the Moore Park Gardens apartment complex. In a sense you could argue that the footbridge experience begins with the pedestrian crossing over Bourke St. Closer to the heart of the bridge there are a couple of barriers made from patterned laser cut cladding to prevent cyclists from going too fast. The pathway is well used and I’ve often had to negotiate a smooth trajectory with people coming the other way. Often people with dogs and sometimes fitness groups cluster in the internal reserves.

In what seems a particularly auspicious encounter as far as my morning runs go, I once saw Clover Moore and Ita Buttrose having an exchange on the bridge with their two little dogs.

The bridge itself is an impressive, suspension structure with the support for the walkway coming from a spray of white cables and an obliquely sloping steel pillar at the eastern end. If you run across it eastwards in the early morning the form mirrors the spreading rays of the rising sun which pops out behind it. The  lower railings have been extended with wire caging for the sake of safety, so it feels a little bit like a tube and less like the pure exterior to which Murray refers in his Gladesville Bridge poem.

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Image from : Neil’s Wollongong & Sydney

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Cars between the city and the south race underfoot, disappearing and reappearing from tunnels networking beneath the ground. In this sense the layer of soil or cement we call the ground is an accidental bridge of sorts, with an entire world of unseen flows (worms, water, roots, cars, electricity, gas) hollowed out beneath the crust. Perhaps the substance of the earth will become increasingly riddled by these flows till we begin to think of ourselves as in the middle ground, always able to see another world moving beneath when we look down.

At the eastern exit the foot traveller is confronted with a tee intersection. An asphalt path traces the perimetre of the golf course and the fields to the northern end. For off road types, a bush track deviates from the asphalt paths and runs up the hill, directly along the golf course fence. In the morning, heading east, this track makes for a wonderful  detour through sun filtering eucalyptus to the top of Mt Steel, one of the four sandy hills that once gave the area the name The Sand Hills. It’s one of the best views of the CBD, which seems to float like an island on the horizon, at once another world away and seemingly close enough to reach out and touch.

Tibby Cotter Walkway

Next up, the infamous Tibby Cotter Walkway is as grand as footbridges come. It’s both long and wide, an elaborate snaking form giving walkers the most gentle of slopes as they move over Anzac parade between the different playing fields of Moore Park.

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It’s a far cry from the cramped, steepness of many of the other footbridges. There’s no sense of penny pinching here, if anything it seems there might have been excess money and material to use up. This bridge is a red carpet, the perpetually unfolding garment of royalty. Unlike the other footbridges over busy roads, Tibby Cotter is substantial enough to make it feel as though the roads have vanished and you are walking through a landscape of an altogether different kind.

The only problem is its location. It’s seemingly orphaned from key cross roads and the direct route it provides is exclusive to the sports fans who frequent the stadiums. It’s as much a piece of public art as it is a functional walkway: a concrete sculpture, flanked by gold gleaming lazer cut cladding, gathering up the abundant sporting amenity of the area into its bridgeness. The ample width allows cyclists to cruise across without dismounting and prevents the bottlenecking of large crowds.

The eastern entrance is graced by a new outdoor gym, complete with dips and chin-up bars and a forgiving rubber surface. With the tranquil waters of Kippax Lake and the large Port Jackson figs nearby, this is among the most scenic places to exercise in the city.

Although I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, the occasional lumps of horse manure that litter the bridge suggest our equestrian friends occasionally make the journey across this raised expanse. I can imagine few sights more uplifting to behold than the mounted police riding westward, over Anzac Parade, into the sun over that generous, slightly uneven concrete surface.

Those sleeping rough might be less impressed by the waffled concrete lumps that protrude from the surface underneath the bridge. An example of hostile architecture designed to ‘ungather’ the affordances brought into relation by the structure and discourage people from staying the night beneath its shelter. Although, with soft, generous, sheltered beds of wood chips nearby, it seems these disagreeable lumps might be more of a signal than a practical deterrent for the homeless population.

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Nelson Street Bridge

The Nelson Street Bridge is a marked contrast to the generous cement ribbon of Tibby Cotter. Tucked away in a backstreet of Bondi Junction, it is cramped, steep, and endearingly unsafe.

The Nelson Street Bridge is perhaps unique among highway footbridges due to its relatively meagre railings. If the bridge isn’t soon pulled down, these will almost certainly be augmented with cage extensions in the near future. MHN Design Union’s recent architectural report on the West Oxford Street Vision make note of this feature along with its narrowness and steep steps.

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Despite its inconspicuous positioning the Nelson Street Bridge is a crucial conduit for pedestrians wanting to move between Woollahra and the Bondi Junction shopping precinct. Rarely have I crossed it and not seen another foot traveller. The alternative routes are the mess of traffic lights and median strips at the top of Ocean, Birrell and Oxfords Streets. Or through the bowels of the overpass further to the east.

Like the South Dowling street bridge, the Nelson Street Bridge is also prominently positioned for traffic moving to and from the east and is often brandished with an advertising banner. The bridge facilitates a pronounced transition from the grimy backstreets of Bondi Junction (“lacking a sense of identity”, according to MHNDU report) to the more salubrious, tree shaded, embassy lined, streets of Woollahra.

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New South Head Road

The pedestrian bridge over New South Head Road seems to be of a similar era to the Nelson Street Bridge. Its low railings and narrow walkways speak of what is now perhaps a forgotten era of pedestrian bridge building in Sydney. This relative meagreness of structure exposes the foot traveller to the full-bridge-effect. Cars rush underfoot and there’s a nice view to back to the east towards Darling Point.

This bridge links the back streets of Darlinghurst to the picturesque green amenity of Rushcutters Bay. In a sense the bridge begins with the steep, pedestrian friendly walkway at McLachlan Avenue that cuts across Womerah and Barcom Avenues. A group of water fountains and lawn are a nice touch at the southern end.

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The angled ramps at either end have long provided shelter for people sleeping rough, in particular the Rushcutters bay side. It once housed a decent contingent of homeless people who also made use of the services of the Wayside Chapel, though it now appears unoccupied.

The space under a bridge, eulogised by Kurt Cobain in Nirvana’s ‘Something In The Way’, has traditionally been a place of refuge for people without access to more secure dwellings. It’s doubtful  Heidegger had this hidden affordance in mind when he spoke of the different spaces a bridge brought into relation. He wrote of the stream, the bank and the landscape and the coming and going bridges afforded ‘mortals’ (that’s Heidegger for humans). But in addition to being a pathway over and between, a bridge is always an under to rest. As Murray astutely observes in his poem, a bridge is both an “abstract hill” for those going over, and “a ponderous grotto, all entrance and vast shade” for those staying under.

It’s a relatively long stretch from Kings Cross to the footbridge over Wattle Street from Ultimo to Wentworth Park. The entry to the bridge from the Ultimo side is a steep decent down Quarry St. The bridge is the only wooden surfaced bridge in this series and is more modern than Nelson St or New South Head, although it still retains a rustic, industrial feel. It’s also the only bridge with a lift.

The wall of safety mesh from ground to roof makes the bridge into a wire tube. The strong sense of enclosure means the vertiginous rush of the more exposed bridges is absent.

The steps at the western side are often used as part of fitness routines for the exercise groups that use the outdoor gyms and open grass areas of Wentworth Park. There’s also a bubbler nearby.

Like many of the other examples, this bridge facilitates a kind of portal effect: from pedestrian hostile, urban street, to a distinctively new environment. The sense of being magically transported from one place to the next, as though being placed in a new context, would be reduced if it were simply a matter of traffic lights and road crossing. In this sense bridges are smoothness and levity in crossing, eliminating the humiliating affects of waiting.

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The bridge from Forest Lodge into Sydney University is a much needed safety route for students across one of Sydney’s most hectic roads. It’s the only footbridge I know to have a theatre named after it.

The Sydney University footbridge was built in 1972, after a number of student protests. Apparently it was more or less a continuous game of Frogger across Parramatta Road and accidents were not uncommon. This isn’t surprising, based on my knowledge of the large numbers of students bolting across the mid-section of Harris Street between the different buildings at UTS (even though there is a footbridge above them!).

The bridge is in the low railing style of the older footbridges I’ve described. Appropriately, this means it’s accessible to banner wielding students and is often adorned by a political status update.  The steps and railings at either end are more up-to-date than the pockmarked asphalt surface. The unique twin stairways on the university side could almost be described as expressionistic. If you’re thirsty there’s a bubbler and water refill station as soon as you enter the university and there’s the opportunity to enjoy the unique knitted brickwork of the John Roberts’ Footbridge Theatre, a great example of the late-twentieth century international style.

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The last bridge on the circuit is perhaps my least favourite of the seven. The Keith Murray Footbridge connects Camperdown and Darlington sections of the Sydney University campus either side of City Road. The original footbridge was built in 1966 with the new iteration completed in 2008.

The difference between the old and new Keith Murray bridges encapsulates the changing focuses of footbridge building in Sydney. Safety measures are the order of the day and on balance that is probably a good thing. The technological means by which humans gain immunity from death have become increasingly elaborate, robust and numerous. This leads to things like patterned safety screens, through which the dark green leaves of Moreton Bay Figs are visible. This perhaps the source of my antagonism towards this bridge–why not just leave it blank so you can see the tree, or is it something to do with the safety of birds?

The entry to the bridge from the Camperdown end is almost as gradual as Tibby Cotter, with a long, straight ramp. At the Darlington end, it’s a contrasting collision of steps leading underneath the SciTech Library or down to the other side of City Road.

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This concludes my series of real footbridges. Many vaguely conceived, unbuilt imaginary footbridges might be added to this list: across Cleveland Street at the corner of George and Cleveland where the cycleway meets Prince Alfred Park; where Cleveland Street meets Anzac Parade in Moore Park; from Central Park across Broadway to UTS. These are specific to the regular routes I take in the city. There are no doubt many other imagined footbridges nesting in the minds of people out there. I’d be very happy to hear about any of them.

And terrazzo did flow: a select tour around Ultimo, Haymarket and Central

And terrazzo did flow: a select tour around Ultimo, Haymarket and Central

Terrazzo is a distinctive, composite building material that comes in various colours, often used in flooring. Terrazzo in pink hue seems to have been particularly popular in postmodern architecture of the 1980s and 90s. It dominates the upper reaches of Harris Street in Ultimo, comprising most of the street front on the eastern side of the block between Ultimo Road and George Street.

The buildings responsible for this onslaught are Ancher Mortlock and Woolley’s ABC building (1989) and Philips Cox’s Peter Johnson Building (PJB). Both these structures have a monolithic, yet playful, jumping castle-like appearance, similar to Terry Farrell’s much maligned SIS building on the Thames (1989-92).

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The ABC building in particular features massing that might be compared to the UTS tower building nearby, only instead of grey, roughcast cement, the smooth, pink terrazzo evokes the floor of an art deco hotel in Miami. The combination of deep window recesses on the upper levels and the lack of textural detail in the surface of the terrazzo make it seem as though the building is swollen, like the evenly stung skin of a giant pink hippo.

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Both ABC and PJB have thick barrier-like facades that thrust out into the street, creating a shadowy arcade frequented by university students and journalists hurrying to stimulant and restoration centres nearby also know as cafes.

The abundance of thick building materials is largely due to the heavy traffic on Harris Street, which is known as one of Sydney’s most polluted areas. The combination of the assertive facades, lack of sunlight and constant traffic make the area a particularly hostile for foot travellers.

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Anyone wandering the area hungry for more terrazzo will be revived by the sight of The Prince Centre in Haymarket, which emerges after a short walk along Ultimo Road, eastwards towards the CBD. The glazed internal stairwells, made from marble (a nice touch), and wraparound balconies on one side are perhaps the most notable features of the building, in addition to the Chinese Noodle House that has attracted a cult following over the last couple of decades.

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The Prince Centre is more glossy and translucent than the comparably matte terrazzo, bulky walls and dark glazing of the ABC building and the vaguely vernacular PJB, with its shed-like, corrugated awnings. It looks very slippery and is not a building I’d like to try and abseil down when raining. If, however, I was hot with a fever or hungover on a summer day, I would like to press my face against its cool, slick surface and wait for relief. Reference points that make sense of its aesthetic are airports, bathrooms and chemists, rather than the grander, monumental buildings suggested by ABC and PJB.

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While these buildings are worthy spectacles for lovers of terrazzo, the crowning glory of the area can be found on the other side of Central Station. The Centennial Plaza office complex at 260 Elizabeth Street is a configuration of three office towers and a series of peculiar stairways and gardens that are little bit like a half-arsed architectural realisation of an M. C. Escher or Giovanni Piranesi. This elevated pedestrian zone is likely to disappoint anyone expecting something like network of raised walkways around the Barbican Centre in London. However, if all you’re after is a handy shortcut between Albion Street and Elizabeth, the complex will meet your needs.

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The overwhelming impression is of gigantic, mirrored eyewear and a Los Angeles sunset, or an obscure, gigantic bathroom device, not unlike the new towers at Barangaroo. Thankfully there’s no trace of the Tooths Standard Brewery that occupied the site from 1875 to 1980, unlike the twee efforts made at nearby Central Park to retain some of the Carlton and United Brewery. The complete absence of the previous structure allows an uninhibited view of the places where businesses can go to “uncover their potential.”

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An unfortunate concession to history: the old brewery depicted on a banner

The Terrazzo Project (2011) is an initiative set up by Lausanne based industrial designers Stéphane Halmaï-Voisard and Philippe-Albert Lefebvre, which hints at the possibilities the material offers beyond the generic salmon pinks. The high level of flair evident in projects such as this might be the seeds of a future where this often maligned material is more widely revered. If cement and besser blocks are currently migrating from the fringe to the mainstream as markers of cool, then perhaps terrazzo and glass bricks are where it’s at in the years to come?

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