From the program to the
You Are Here Festival
March 18-22 2015
The world snorted with derision when, for the second year in a row, the OECD nominated Canberra as the world’s best city. Critics pointed out that, although it had come out with the biggest numbers in the OECD’s nine ‘wellbeing indicators’, which included education, jobs, incomes and environment, this did not make for a great city. In fact, they chortled, Canberra is a terrible city. In The Guardian’s words: ‘Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds. It is what a city looks like when it is left to politicians to plan.’ None of that is wrong (the ‘gigantic shopping sheds’ bit is particularly right). But it is very much an attenuated view from lofty London that begs many questions for those of us who are actually making a go of living here. For instance, maybe its monumental conception — Griffin’s grand design for utopian civic virtues — gives our city its brittly surreal, hyperreally heterotopic character for which many of us have developed a cool, wry affection. And maybe some of us like the regular irruptions into our day-to-day travels of raw bush and depthless sky, afforded by the skeletal nature of the relentless axial boulevards. And those axes have also begun to shelter at their fulcrums some fragile urban micro-climates which have slowly been developing over the years.
Since the 1960s, coincidentally Canberra’s heyday, urban discourse has shifted from the macro of the master plan to the micro of the precinct —the local area dense with textures, memories and experiences. Since the 1960s, across the world and without exception, many neighbourhoods of poverty or industry have been remade as waves of gentrification have swept over them. Artists have been the shock troops, reinforced by designers and architects, and followed by developers and trendies in a pattern as familiar and repeated as the tides. For fifty years urbanists have become adept at sniffing out the fluctuating nuances of the ‘local’ as waves of gentrification sweep back and forth. Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece Blow Up, set in swinging London, is not only a film about the limits of knowledge in photography, it is also a film about the ever-transforming psycho-geographies of the postwar city. In his restless need to have everything he sees, the photographer visits a quiet nondescript London street to see a rundown junk shop he wants to buy. As soon as he notices two gay men incongruously walking a poodle there he knows, and the audience knows, that the local area’s character is already changing, and he must snap up the shop quickly. In Blow Up nothing is stable and nothing, not even the city, can ever completely becomes as it seems, before it must become something else. This is now the state for every city in the world, even Canberra.
For instance, ranged around the urban doughnut-hole of Civic are separated sites of local regeneration such as New Acton, Childers Street and Braddon. Of these perhaps only the transformation which Braddon is currently undergoing is intimately and intricately embedded in its past, however brief and prosaic that past may be. Braddon is basically only three parallel streets, and its car yards, hardware stores, panel beaters, takeaways and camping shops are only gradually giving way to coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques, bike shops and apartments. On their brief visit to Canberra the New York Times was kinder than The Guardian, identifying Braddon as Canberra’s ‘decidedly hipster underbelly’.
Pioneers such as the Helen Maxwell Gallery, once upstairs on Mort Street, predicted this urban renaissance many years ago, but couldn’t survive long enough to benefit from it; and some of the temporary pop-ups (who for a few months kept real estate spots warm before the temporary fencing went up around them) such as The Chop Shop, which was briefly located down an alley in Lonsdale Street, recognized past usages in their names. This rich and dense texture was just what sophisticated urbanists want, and is certainly what Canberra needs, probably more so than all the other ‘normal’ cities on the planet, so who am I to quibble?
Only to wish that because Canberra is different, there is the utmost delicacy as Braddon continues its inexorable makeover. Of course delicate urban renewal is what everyone wants, not least the developers themselves who love underbellies just like the rest of us, and for whom creative grunge has an intangible commercial value if handled correctly. But when it comes to the bottom line of the balance sheet, where income has to be plotted against expenditure down to the last percentile point over each individual square metre, the delicate presence of the past, or the tenuous tenancy of the under resourced, sometimes still lose out.
For instance Braddon has always been a car precinct (just as Canberra has always been a car city). From 1920 it was the site of Canberra Garage Limited, servicing the city’s fleet; and up until just a few years ago rev heads would spend their Saturday nights cruising up and down past the car yards, doing the circuit by languidly swinging round the roundabouts at Lonsdale and Torrens Streets; every now again pulling into the Caltex near the Mandalay at Girrawheen Street to pop their hoods for the admiring gazes of their mates; sometimes even attempting a burnout at the top of Lonsdale Street. If they ever ventured back to Braddon now the only circling they would be doing would be looking for a park.
One of the handsomest facades in Braddon was the delicate, white, open brickwork curtain that surrounded National Capital Motors on the corner of Mort and Elouera streets (perhaps the original site of Canberra Garage Limited?). But that piece of delightful architectural texture was flicked over like a house of cards to be replaced by a building of depressing, generic nastiness, with less architectural charm than the Centrelink office around the corner. All of the acres of recycled, undressed timber cladding, Dynabolted to the newly poured concrete walls of Braddon, can’t replace the authenticity of that lost texture. The only ghost I can find now of the facade is on Google Street View. The Google car had driven by National Capital Motors in 2010 and, thankfully, hasn’t been back to Braddon since. When it eventually does come back it will find quite a bit changed, but will implacably wipe away all the old ghosts with one sweep of its robotic camera.
In the meantime the de-Fyshwicking of Braddon continues, and for the pedestrian the mingling smells of gasoline and grease are regularly displaced by doughy, oily, blasts of hot air from each successive bistro kitchen’s exhaust. The pop-ups have popped off, and replacement aluminum and glass apartments have been cad-cammed into instantaneous existence. Street shop fronts have become enclosed retail experiences, and the artists left walking outside on the streets of Canberra’s erstwhile underbelly are beginning to feel the backs of their necks prickling as they are distantly surveilled by the area’s new residents from their be-Webered fifth-floor balconies.
These changes to Braddon are not just inevitable, they will probably end up being, on balance, ultimately good for Canberra too. They are nearly identical to the changes in a thousand similar inner city neighbourhoods around the world. But only nearly identical, not completely identical, because Canberra is different, Canberra, as we are frequently reminded by the rest of the world, is a special case. This makes any more than an absolutely necessary lack of delicacy in the ongoing gentrification of Braddon especially tragic, not that there will be of course.
Martyn Jolly (Thanks to Erin Hinton and Ursula Frederick for the tip-offs)
Oliver Wainwright, ‘50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?’, The Guardian, 13 December, 2014
Emma Pearse, ‘36 Hours in Canberra, Australia’, New York Times, 5 June 2014