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.

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Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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