The Botany walk comprised five guests, four human and one dog. We began in Sir Joseph Banks Park, the sight of what was perhaps Australia’s first zoo and for a while the only place in the country to feature an elephant. What were previously flesh and blood animals are now cement or metal sculptures. The old cinder athletics track, marked out by a white internal fence, used to be home to the popular handicap race, the Botany Gift, and was once graced by the great indigenous runner Charlie Samuels, who would run in bare feet. Like the story of many indigenous folk from that time, Samuel’s is a sad one, involving booze and incarceration (for melancholy). We had a look at the impressive old Sir Joseph Banks Hotel, which is now a residential block, though it is well maintained and features an abundance of cast iron filigrees and an expansive tile balcony.
From here we returned to the park, following the sandy ground and swamps that were once the dominant characteristic of the area. It’s a peculiar place to walk, because the bush is a dominant visual feature for a lot of the time, however the sonic environment is pervaded by sounds from the nearby highway and the airport. Some of the thicker, palm and fern studded bush looked like the hiding spot for a dead body.
After crossing a precarious stretch part of the road (no pedestrians) that led back towards Botany Rd, we found ourselves thoroughly immersed in residential Botany. It began to rain. A fortuitously placed set of stairs led us over a cement sewer and into the shelter of the overhanging lip of a closed garage. After sheltering for about five minutes we emerged into what would fast become quite a pleasant afternoon. Almost by accident we discovered the infamous Sewage Pumping Station No 60, a piece of infrastructure in the Federation Free style that offers an interesting example of a domestic architectural style in a piece of civic infrastructure. It’s the reverse of todays trend were the industrial staples of cement floors, exposed pipes and subway tiles are now fashionable in houses and trendy cafes.
We followed Bay St back to Botany Rd, which on one side is lined with workers cottages remaining from the old fishing village, and on the other by a long open sewer and row of Canary Island Palms which index the lost history of Ascot Race Track that existed in the area before the airport. We followed Bay St across Botany Road and up to Booralee Park, where I had run on only a matter of days earlier. Unlike the relative desolate park I’d been greeted with on Tuesday, today it was filled with activity in the form of several cricket games and a decent crowd of parent spectators. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find the old horse trough that was uncovered in the park during an archeological dig, but we did find an old toilet block and a large group of ibis perched at various intervals on the fronds of the palms, agreeing that a large palm tree would be a good spot for a bird to perch and take stock for a while. I took this opportunity to mention that the park was gazetted in the 1920s and points to the long history of pubic recreational facilities being offered alongside industry in the Botany area.
The houses along Bay St offered a continual source of interest as proud displayers of the ‘featurism’ which Robin Boyd identified as a symptom of the Australian ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to aesthetics. My view on the matter is that Boyd’s laudable high standards for the built environment were perhaps a little too closely aligned to the aesthetic pretentions of the sublime and the beautiful, with too little slack given to the more modest expectations that things might be agreeable, charming or interesting without necessarily having to offer transformative, inspirational experiences through harmony or feats of daring and imagination. The flaw with my own view is that it would seem to lend legitimacy to architecture without ambition, architecture that merely repeats inherited styles as reference points, without the force and vivacity of the originals. And here we enter the much threshed over turf of a debate between modernist and post modernist ideals. Does an antipathy to discourse involving the sublime or the beautiful necessarily mean one is condemned to populism, the middlebrow and cheap tricks? I’d like to think not. Either way, the old Alto Corner Store (now preschool) is a well preserved buildings of this type.
We took a right off Bay and then met up with Banksia, which took us back to Botany Rd, via Botany Fire Station that I’d been so impressed with five days ago. By this stage of the walk everyone was in need of refreshment, including the dog who enjoyed a palm full of water from my water bottle.
The last stretch along Botany Rd was largely completed in a hurried silence, with some questions about the curvature of corrugated iron roofing on some of the verandas and distinctions being made between the cottages of menial workers and artisans.