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)

1432_gladesville_js_15272
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.

dec23014
Image from : Neil’s Wollongong & Sydney

img_3256

img_3265

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.

moorepark-bridge_760x428

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.

img_3268

img_3273

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.

img_3316

img_3319

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

img_3249

img_3243

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.

img_3280

img_3282

img_3284

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.

img_3295

img_3296

img_3300

img_3305

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.

img_3309img_3310

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).

img_2963

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.

abc-pillar

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.

img_2959

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.

img_3823
Enter a caption

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.

img_3615

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.

img_4421

img_4431

img_4425

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.”

intrec_hoarding_25-high-e1461213584768
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?

tp-milan-2014-05-760x600

 

A guide to some of Sydney’s best internal reserves

Internal reserves are among the most enduringly rewarding urban phenomena. There are few things as uplifting as green space ringed by houses, free from the pervasive disturbances of cars.

The suburb of Killara is blessed with two classic examples that conform to the house-locked variety which aficionados tend to crave. Both are easy to miss unless you’re armed with a smartphone or have done prior research.

Ticket of Leave Park is marked out on the street between two houses by an anonymous metal gateway and a path in the grass worn through to dirt. The large back fences of some of the houses are the only quibble you could have with an otherwise perfect internal reserve.

IMG_2351

As you enter the park prepare to be confronted with a majestic stand of Sydney Blue Gums and ready yourself for a transition from the mundane to the sacred, as the pleasant enough monotony of the street front vanishes to reveal a set aside gathering of vegetal elders overlooking the yards of the houses that give form to the space.

IMG_2352

The circle of dwellings built around a unifying locus speaks to some profound anthropological instinct that is worthy of further reflection. Stand for a while in the lumpy rain or feeble sun and wait for a clarity of mood to be delivered to you by the space.

IMG_2356

Energised by the first reserve, continue on to Jinkers Green, which is as easy to miss as Ticket of Leave. It’s identifiable by an inconspicuous warning sign and a small diversion in the cement footpath. Perhaps even larger than Ticket of Leave, Jinkers Green features a less heavily treed, lush green lawn and a more varied elevation profile.

IMG_2359

IMG_2361

Adolescent eucalypts stretch their contorted forms near playground equipment and its woodchip cushioning. The lime white branch of one dips down to chest height, affording the perfect surface for those who habitually inscribe the pale flatness with dark ciphers from left to right: Hayley.

IMG_2365

A seemingly well-preserved patch of wet sclerophyll forest spills out into the open lawn, a remnant of the once dominant vegetation that has been allowed to flourish seemingly as a secret within this already secret space. It’s so thick that it will give you the sense that if you began to explore it further you might vanish into the depths forever.

IMG_2366

Another more humble example exists in Daceyville. Enter the reserve via a paved path that leads in between two weatherboard fences, pleasingly free from paint, aside from one or two washed out green or pink slats. Visible above the fenceline is a teasingly low-pitched roof, almost horizontal, with bricks painted pink and powder blue.

IMG_2493

The reserve is nested amid the surrounding houses, ringed by a paved road. It is typically empty, with small amounts of rubbish often piled up at its fringes. A slight wind might stir the congregation of casuarinas at one edge. Stride out into the centre, spinning slowly as you walk to achieve some approximation of a 360 degree view.

IMG_2495

IMG_2494

Versions of internal reserves also exist in many new apartment complexes, such as Raleigh Park in Kensington, which is unique due to its security guard dwelling at the entrance that gives it the feel of a gated community. This example follows a radial design and a curious set of sandstone columns, complete with entablature and a stepped retaining wall, all set on a slightly raised lawn platform encircled by a sandstone border. You can walk through the threshold formed by the columns and follow a set of stairs all the way up to Balfour Rd.

IMG_2297

A less flattering example can be found at a nearby, resort style apartment complex, off Dalmany Ave in Rosebery. This compact reserve resembles a sunken garden or pit, bordered by a few trees. Incongruously grand sandstone steps lead down into the reserve, which, due to its peculiar form, might make you  wonder whether it was once a dam of some kind. Warning signs depicting bodies flailing above water and text alerting residents to the dangers of the park in heavy rain seem to lend further credence to this idea.

IMG_2293Edmund Resch Park is right on the Eastern border of Waterloo near Southern Cross Drive. It’s an oasis of calm sheltered from the busy road by the Moore Park Gardens apartment complex that now exists in the site of the old Resches Brewery. Like the classic internal reserves of Kilara, it is locked off from roads by surrounding buildings and footpaths. The park is often populated by dog owners making use of this rare patch of greenery.  The Park has pedestrian access to a footbridge that takes you over Southern Cross Drive, into the parklands and playing fields on the other side of the road.

IMG_4046

IMG_4052

Entire books might be devoted to the internal reserves of Castlecrag, which was planned by the architectural team that designed the nation’s capital, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. Unlike the above examples, here the entire suburb is structured around a series of interlocking internal reserves, allowing you to traverse it as though on the backstage of a theatre set.

IMG_2416

A walkway wends its way along the steepish slope, between backyards and sizable chunks of regenerated and remnant native bushland, occasionally opening out into landscaped areas where the wet sandstone shows through the trees and rustic steps are cut into the ground or formed of deliberately placed chunks of rock.

At the highest point in the suburb you will find another reserve that features two tennis courts in its centre. Here you might use the tap that forms part of the steel piping in the tennis court fence to refill your water bottles.

IMG_2474
Visitors to Castlecrag will likely sympathise with the this very pleased sandstone gargoyle that inhabits one of its many internal reserves

 

 

Federation architecture: a stylistic motley

Federation architecture: a stylistic motley

Many suburban streets in Sydney contain examples of what is commonly known as ‘Federation Style’ houses. Federation style is an architectural style with numerous sub-species, including ‘Federation Free Style,’ ‘Federation Arts and Crafts,’ ‘Federation Queen Anne,’ ‘Federation Romanesque’ and so on.

Federation Style indexes a period, roughly 1890-1915. During this time the previously self governing colonies of Queensland, N.S.W, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia came together to form a commonwealth.

image
Relatively paired back eclecticism characteristic of the Federation style

Although the term Federation is commonly used to identify a style of architecture, this becomes tenuous once you burrow down a bit to uncover anything in the way of cohesive principles that set it apart from other styles. As suggested by Donald Johnson in his thesis Australian Architecture 1901-51, the writers who first applied the name ‘Federation’ to a style of architecture (Bernard Smith and David Saunders in the 1960s) don’t “fully argue the issue of stylistic autonomy.”

Erika Esau concurs with this view in her seminal study Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia & California 1850–1935:

“In reality, no clear set of architectural principles defined this so-called Federation Style. Instead, houses of the time increasingly combined several eclectic ideas, reliant on foreign sources with a few superficial Australian elements in ornamentation. A typical house of the late 1890s and into the early 1900s, built in the suburbs rapidly developing in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and even in Perth out in Western Australia, often included elements associated with a British derived ‘Queen Anne’ Style, adding touches of Arts & Crafts or Art Nouveau inspiration; some local interpretation of Henry Hobson Richardson’s (1834–1886) American domestic architecture; and a bit of vernacular verandah and- tin-roof bush station often thrown in.” (160-161)

The term Federation might make sense retrospectively to mark out a period where architects along with the wider populous were attempting in some vague way to define who they were. However, in terms of the modalities in which practitioners were operating, the evidence we have today seems more persuasively explained with the theory that they were borrowing loosely held sets of principles shared in multiple contexts across the globe–California to name one important example. As Robin Boyd suggests, writing at a time before the term Federation was widespread, the Queen Anne Style, which I’m suggesting is among the strongest influences in what we now call the Federation style, was, as the name indicates, associated with mother England rather than an effort by Australia to strike out on its own (1960, 62).

image
Classic Queen Anne in Enmore

At an impressionistic level, the mood and core features of the Queen Anne Revival in Britain and Federation style in Australia are similar: asymmetric massing, red brick with white trim and a general adherence to unpretentious ornamentation. In the Australian context there is the key addition of the verandah, but it seems a bit much to suggest, as Bernard Smith does, that this demands the declaration of a new style.

image

The loose and perhaps arbitrary connectedness to history, Anglo-Dutch in the case of Queen Anne and reappropriated Medievalism in the case of Arts and Crafts, is part of what makes Federation houses an anathema to the modernist imperatives to seek out new forms of building true to contemporary materials, technological affordances and social needs. The asymmetrical, redbrick houses, with lead light panels and decorative wooden trimmings, often painted white, are remnants of Victoriana in its death-throws. Federation and the Queen Anne Revival styles arguably represent the last vestiges of an increasingly irrelevant past that would soon become usurped in the excitement of modernism. This turn of the century  architecture seems in hindsight to have been of mild ambition. As Mark Girouard has noted, Queen Anne revival at its worst “combined rather too neatly escapism with smugness” and at its best managed to traverse the moods of the “quaint,” “dainty,” “sensible” and “flashy” (1977, 227). These adjectives perhaps unsurprisingly mesh well with postmodern aesthetic criteria that sough to reevaluate the status of pop culture in the wake of the relative seriousness and austerity of modernism.

image

image

Unlike the aesthetically confident, stark, cement or glass buildings we associate with modernism and the formal ornamentation of the Gothic, the Arts and Crafts or Queen Anne influenced Federation style seems to permit further ornamentation, a fact Boyd laments when he describes Queen Anne houses as “brimming with a bowl of features without leavening” (62). People seem happy to use the already busy facades and front yards to display their own fancies and cultural connections.

image

It’s difficult to look at the stock Federation house with fresh eyes. It’s also difficult to appreciate their connectedness to the long, dialectical history of styles that in part explains the way they appear. To see the honest eclecticism of the Queen Anne revival style evident in the Federation house as a reaction to the Gothic penchant for archeological accuracy and religious reference would make little sense to most people today. We just see such houses as rather quaint references to a particular moment in history, a kind of preset or background for Australian suburbia against which minor, though perhaps not insignificant, differences emerge.

WLV’s Muscular quaintness

WLV’s Muscular quaintness

In the final chapter of exemplary book on the Arts and Crafts movement in Australia, Pioneers of Modernism, Harriet Edquist discusses a number of architects who helped define the urban landscape of the country in the first decades of the twentieth century. Included in the list are Robert Haddon, Walter Butler, Robin Dods, George Sydney Jones and Walter Liberty Vernon.

It is the last of the names on this list that concerns me here, in particular, a collection of Vernon’s buildings that employ the “chunky Romanesque forms” (233) that Edquist attributes to the influence Henry Hobson Richardson, an American architect who pioneered an idiomatic version of the Romanesque style. The chunky, rustic characteristics of the Richardson Romanesque means that in the wrong hands it often teeters on being misshapen and ugly in the striking way that dumpy and irregular things can be.

 

87158569_a8d5d9926f
Richardson Romanesque gone wrong: The Starkweather Memorial Chapel in Ypsilanti, 1888, George D. Mason.

 

1024px-union_depot-muskegon
A more compelling but no less stout iteration of the Richardson Romanesque: Muskegon Union Depot, 1895.

Of Vernon’s many impressive buildings, the Darlinghurst Police and Fire Station, the Surry Hills Police Station and the Marrickville Police Station are my present focus. Each brings together contrasting styles and irregular forms to evoke a mood that is most accurately described in contradictory terms. As Edquist suggests, in these buildings, the lighter, humanistic sentiments of the Arts and Crafts movement meet with a bolder, “muscular” (233) style that makes them appear at once quaint and menacing.

darlinghurst police station photo
Darlinghurst Police Station, Walter Liberty Vernon, 1899, Image: John Poulton

Both the Fire Station and Police stations are on triangular sites, one at the Kings Cross end of Victoria Street and Darlinghurst Road, the other near Taylor Square, on the corner of Forbes Street. Both buildings have a distinctive conical roof that evokes a medieval mood and feature a combination of oxblood brick and sandstone dressing. As Edquist notes, despite being smallish buildings, positioned in dynamic, built up parts of the city, both hold their own (234).

Darlinghurst fire station
Front elevation of the Darlinghurst Fire Station
floorplan dalinghurst fire station
Darlinghurst Fire Station, Walter Liberty Vernon, Floorplan, 1911

The Surry Hills and Marrickville Police Stations are perhaps better described as peculiar rather than impressive. In the case of both, the best I can do is speculate as to whether Vernon’s “residual fascination” with Richardson Romaesque (Edquist, 233) overrid his better judgements regarding scale or whether they are deliberate effort to challenge our expectations. Considering the quality and confidence of his buildings in general and that a police station ought to be an imposing sight, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and read these weirdly scaled facades as provocations.

Rustications are the rough textured, often chunky pieces of rock that mark the lower floors of larger buildings. You don’t often see an entire facade of rustications, but at the Marrickville Police Station this is on show to startling effect. It’s a statement in Sydney sandstone that as one blogger has ventured, “is the most unusual police station in the city.”

image
The former Marrickville Police Station, Walter Liberty Vernon, 1895

The (former) Surry Hills Police Station features a combination of sandstone and redbrick characteristic of many other Romanesque revival buildings. Like the Marrickville station, it scales down the romanesque style to fit a street front of domestic facades and the effect is a strange gravity in smallness, as though a large building had been condensed but still retained the same degree of force.

surry_hills_court_house
The former Surry Hills Police Station, Water Liberty Vernon, 1895

Lovie House: “Flamboyant minimalism”

image
Lovie House, Geoff Lovie, 1996

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

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

image
‘Flamboyant’ or ‘compromised’ minimalism?

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

rocko_title_card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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