Lost Landscapes of Waterloo

My new essay in the Sydney Review of Books: http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/lost-landscapes-of-waterloo/

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

The better warehouses of Alexandria

The most recent heritage listing in the  62 places of industry selected by City of Sydney is a 1970s warehouse known as the Q Store, built by Harry Seidler and refurbished by Lacoste and Stevenson prior to the listing. The refurbishment has been very nicely done. It retains the contrast of softness and force evident in Seidler’s design and looks like a close enough approximation to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. It’s light industry materially manifest and wouldn’t look out of place among the exhibition architecture of Philip Cox in the 1980s, with the exposed structural features in white painted metal and sculptural cement columns.

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The architects described their brief as compelling them to treat the site like a heritage item that hadn’t been listed yet. This is an example that’s likenable to what Rem Koolhaas has described as prospective preservation, whereby we “decide in advance what we are going to build for posterity.” Koolhaas notes that in 1818 the interval between the present and what was preserved was two thousand years, in 1900, two hundred years and now it is twenty years or less, which is about the limit for the amount of time required to elapse in the nostalgia cycles that supposedly operate in pop culture.

Koolhaas seems largely cynical about this compulsion to preserve. But it needn’t be interpreted this way, as long as it isn’t stifling the practical considerations of architects and builders.

The bulk of heritage listed industrial items in the City of Sydney are pre 1970s. Nearly all of them are some combination of brick and cement, with the red brick, functionalist or deco facade arguably the stereotypical example. Pebbledash and cement buildings are less well represented  on the inventory.

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Unlike the duel warehouse-shop functionality of the contemporary Bunnings model, most of the listed buildings were warehouses or factories that for better or worse were insensitive to the interior design demands of contemporary showrooms–apart from the former Joseph Lucas building, which is now the Larke Hoskins car dealership. They have a distinctively different look to the post 1970s buildings in the area that often incorporate a significant glazing, either with elongated strips of wrap around, heavily tinted windows in the facade or in a boxy section jutting out from the site of the building supported by columns.

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Hopefully they don’t demolish 118 Bourke and its heritage worthy guard’s compartment (see below)

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On Botany Rd, Harry Seidler would be keen on this one
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A small iteration of the above on McEvoy Street
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Preserving such buildings will be essential to maintaining the airport terminal aesthetic  unique to the area.

I wonder what decisions will be made in the future about these more recent examples of warehouse design? Will the current character of the area be recognised as valuable and worth preserving? Or will the crop of 62 or so earlier listings be deemed enough of the past to permit the forgetting of a more contemporary version of nostalgia?

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The pebbledash facade: Faring worse than brick in terms of heritage listings

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The Sunshades Warehouse on McEvoy: a unique combination of fine pebbledash are large, vertical, heavily tinted windows

Many contingencies hidden from view are at work in the decisions about what parts of the past we choose to keep. Perhaps digitised records might substitute for physical heritage in the near future? Perhaps yet to be created works of literature or film might provoke reverence for certain sites? Either way, it is enjoyable to wander around the area and earmark things as significant before they are identified as heritage items or demolished. It’s like playing the role of heritage consultant for your own personalised vision of a future past preserved.

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The Weightbridge Cafe: unique among Sydney’s many genres of cafe
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Although not in Alexandria, the Ming on Trading warehouse on Addison Rd in Marrickville surely warrants a heritage listing.

 

Pretty Disgusting: The new five dollar note

Grayson Perry tapestry Comfort Blanket, 2014

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Responses to the new Australian five dollar note remind us that the old chestnuts of modernist and postmodernists approaches to aesthetics still have some life in them with regard to understanding contemporary culture, both in terms of the qualities of objects and the subjective responses to them.

The bright, plastic money of Australia is already gaudy in comparison with the muted hues and forgiving paper texture of the more globally pervasive American dollar bill and the majority of other national currencies. The new design is arguably a further amplification of these qualities of questionable aesthetic value.

As Robin Boyd’s seminal diatribe The Australian Ugliness attests, it’s hard going for a devout modernist in Australia, you have to make do with dribs and drabs at best. The visual illiteracy of the Australian population has long been bugbear for architects and designers and the reception of the new five dollar note is a case study in disappointment for anyone who holds dear modernist aesthetic principles to do with cohesion, nuance and precision.

What might have been heartening for Boyd and his ilk is that the strong negative reactions to the note are widely shared in the popular press and largely fall in line with modernist sentiments for something more legible and less flamboyant.

The prettiness exemplified in the design of the note is an anathema to the bold plainness of modernism, which regards beauty and necessity as constitutive of each other. As Boyd noted in “The Design of Future Practice”, design ought to have ambitions to do with what is ‘real’ and dignified rather than pretty or even beautiful (1957, 67).

Prettiness is sometimes regarded in a pejorative sense as a minor form of beauty. The weak appeal of pretty things can easily give way to disgust. They tend to lack the force of the sublime and the formal confidence and cohesion common to the beautiful. In this sense prettiness can seem to be the worst of both worlds, insipid and deformed, which is a fusing together of negatives that tend to occur in isolation from each other (deformed things tend to be interesting enough not to be insipid).

At the root of the modernist aesthetic paradigm is the aesthetic category of the sublime, which cleaves to the laudable demands that art, architecture or design must be original, profound and affirmative of human ingenuity. The sublime doesn’t muddle in half measures. Despite being about anxiety inducing shows of force or genius, in the end the sublime involves the kind of cathartic response whereby the audience is purged of their temporary uncertainty in the face of what is reassimilated as emotionally uplifting.

This is not the case for the post modern paradigm, where artistic or technological ambition is regarded with ambivalence. As the American post modern poet John Ashbery said of his expectations regarding his own work, “pleasantly surprising” seemed a better fit than any of the more orgasmic models for aesthetic appreciation and artistic originality.

Compositionally, the note is a motley, in terms of the colours, fonts, and the symbolic content. It’s as scraggly as a prize patch of east coast dry sclerophyll in the dog days of summer and as garish as RSL carpet.

The lack of aesthetic unity is perhaps indicative of the lack of a binding political and historical narrative for the country. There’s a half hearted effort to assert a national identity based on the peculiarities of history and place, with native flora, fauna, architecture and a remote reference to the first Australians in the radial, dot patterns in front of the parliament house. The prominent effigy of the queen is a glaring reminder that such an identity is compromised by a colonial history variously regarded with pride, reprehension, sadness and irony.

The decision to leave the queen in what now looks a comparatively hard, dull grey, etching style, makes her presence on the note seem more overtly anachronistic than in the previous design. While art perhaps ought to have greater ambitions than simply reflecting culture, it was only a year ago that in comparatively anachronistic effort our government reintroduced knights and dames. Perhaps in this regard the note has, unintentionally or not, captured something of the national zeitgeist in manner comparable to Grayson Perry’s no less gaudy efforts to exemplify Britishness.

The note has been likened to vomit, bacteria and clowns. This set of abject things all conform to the idea of something that at once belongs and doesn’t belong, extrusions, passengers or misfits with difficult appeal. The note is the consequence of a cultural, historical and political pluralism that in light of our supposed reverence for democracy we ought to find appealing. As the most vocal responses to the new design demonstrate, egalitarian virtues don’t always translate unproblematically into the objects of culture.

Green Square Station

Green Square Station

Green Square Station is the next station after Central heading south on the T2 Airport & South line. Unlike the other six lines, the T2 Airport and South line is privately owned. The owners and their designers obviously didn’t feel the need to integrate the aesthetics of the station with the other government owned lines.

The peculiar choices made in the design of the station are most conspicuous in the maps displayed in billboard form around the station. The city map looks like a game of Sim City. They’ve chosen a dusty-peachy orange as the dominant colour for land and azure for the harbour (parched yellow for the Botanic Gardens and other parkland).

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The version of the city map available online has the same visual identity, with little icons for various buildings  scattered across the map. Most are north-south along the Macquarie, Pitt, Castlereagh, George St axis. Some buildings are labeled, others are just icons. Citi Group Centre, Cancer Council, Wentworth Park and the Prince Alfred Park Building are among the outliers alongside more predicable icons: the Opera House, Exhibition and Entertainment Centres, SFS and SCG, Aquarium, Hyde Park Barracks, St Mary’s and the Sydney Museum.  A couple of anonymous churches litter the boundaries on Burke and Flinders St. Without names, these are a curious addition that I can only put down to redundant need to include some churchy looking icons of that kind.

Further curious additions can be discovered on the ‘Places of interest’ key which is featured on the Green Square Station Precinct Map, with Autohaus One, The Chirstmas Warehouse, Rent-a-Wreck giving a sense of the area that seems objective in its randomness. It certainly gives a good idea of what you’d expect to find in the area, though it’s hard to imagine it being of much use to anyone. It’s a shame not to see these buildings in 3-D profile like those on the City Map. The same orange is once again pervasive. Did the designers aim to portray Sydney in a colour palate suited to the red centre?

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Otherwise the station has the look and feel of an airport, with large plastic panels in neutral colours and lots of white light. Large maps backed by the city skyline offer a continual reminder of other stations on the line, perhaps frequency and scale is an effort to substitute for quality.

The ticket gates are bizarrely placed and with the expected increase in passengers to the area a few more are desperately needed.

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Image credit: Gareth Edwards (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Outside, the building retains the same airport feel, with suspension roofing, plenty of vents and large plastic panels in matt grey. Here, against the striking, Sydney blue sky and sunshine, it seems more inviting. It doesn’t compete with the freshness and energy of the sky, and there’s a lightness to the building that suits the etherial aspirations of an airport line.

The public art definitely qualifies as ‘interesting’ rather than beautiful or sublime–leftover sandstone offcuts and metal?– and the benches that scatter the large open, paved area at the moment seem like wishfull thinking. When the massive Infinity building and town centre are finished maybe they’ll be hot property? Wedged in between Bourke, Botany and O’Riordan at this stage it is still very much a place of transit rather than lingering, evoking the feel of some areas of Canberra or the area outside a large stadium.

 

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Image credit: Gareth Edwards, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://commons.wikimedia,org/w/index.php?curid-14536316
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Image credit: J Bar, via Wikimedia Commons
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Image credit: J Bar, Wikimedia Commons

When you think about the character of stations like St James and Museum, which trade on their heritage value, and the similarly quaint old-worldness of the Federation style employed at Redfern and Erskineville, Green Square Station seems a sterile, impersonal and alienating place. No doubt if it is similarly well-preserved, its character will come. In the mean time, perhaps great feats of the imagination will provoked by the blandness and vacancy at its core?

 

Ultimo TAFE/ Sydney Technical College

Ultimo TAFE/ Sydney Technical College

Just across the road and down Harris St a bit from UTS Building 6 is the Ultimo TAFE, formerly the Sydney Technical College and Technological Museum. It stands out amid the newer large buildings that tend to be glass and steel–though the new Frank Gehry is an exception. Unlike Gehry, TAFE features polychrome brickwork and an abundance of fine sandstone carvings (over 100 on the facade) largely of Australian flora and fauna.

William Kemp designed the building and most of it was completed between 1891 and 1893 in the Romanesque Federation style which I identify in opposition it the gothic because the archways and windows are curved rather than pointed. The building feels it belongs somewhere hotter than Gothic buildings do. The stonework on the building is worth a look just in itself, there’s cockatoos, marsupials, cassowary, possums, eucalyptus, corral trees, banksias, lizards, ferns, flame trees and various other pods and leaves. The building looks good against the large palms which would otherwise seem a bit out of place in this part of the city. I often find the use of palms, ferns and spiky fern-like palmy things (especially these) a bit misplaced in urban Sydney, but sometimes they work (another example are the four palms in a square outside the ranger’s lodge near the Robinson Gates to Centennial Park, very evocative).

There’s also distinctively patterned terracotta tiles on the facade that seem almost to herald Tetris or some other game from that era, and the feature that I kept finding myself ogling, the large, knob-like sandstone finials which in my experience lack a comparison in this city, finials are almost guaranteed to be pointy and delicate rather than blunt like this lot.

If you snoop around the building you’ll find a number of stained glass windows with the marriage of the arts and industry a key theme in the various scenes, and inside a decorative wooden staircase with plenty of excess panelling. In addition to the palms, the local Ibises make the building feel a bit warmer too, you’ll often see them perched on the finials or roof ridges. You can find out more about the architecture of Ultimo on this gem of a blog.

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Strickland Building, Chippendale

Strickland Building, Chippendale

This was Sydney Council’s first affordable housing project, designed by Robert Hargreave Brodrick and built in 1914. It’s historically significant because it represents the beginning of a shift from residential terraces to apartments, a herald of the now generic residential format that as colonised the surrounding area. The total complex includes sixty seven apartments and eight shops, one of which, Brickfields, makes the best croissants in Sydney.

The building is in the Federation Arts and Crafts style, which is identifiable to my eye by mixture of contrasting building materials, including a chunky sandstone base (this looks better on a building of this size than small houses like those in Haberfield, some of which remind me of criminals with their feet in cement buckets), brick middle and stucco upper level.There are no living areas out the back but there is apparently a terraced roof with space for drying clothes (better than a dryer in the bathroom which is what they’ve given us at Waterloo!), and each apartment has a small balcony and space for a garden. The yellowy-cream and deep reddy-brown is also common to many Federation buildings and is on show again at Redfern and Erksineville Stations just up the road. Another notable feature are the curved stoops, with timber finishes common to buildings of this era.

In my experience Strickland and its surrounding area always seem to be reliably damp, shady and relatively cool. I imagine the apartments would be nice and cool in summer but would probably be too dim inside for my liking, perhaps this is revealing of the architectural preferences endemic to my era: optimal light, openness and airflow, facilitated by glass and contemporary window and door formats. The are sizeable plane trees out the front and in place of flourishing vegetable gardens as the architect might have imagined, the residents favour the maintenance free alternatives of fake grass, dirt and heaped up rubbish.

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And Brickfields in 1915 below. Very glad they’ve kept these in good order, a Brickfields croissant  is good anywhere but it’s such a nice space too.