Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Wide Streets and Deep Verandahs

I love going on road trips in Australia. What I love best about them is stopping at country towns. Country towns display so many of the qualities that I miss in Canberra, Australia's capital and the city that is my home.

I acknowledge that Canberra is very easy to live in. From my house, I can walk ten minutes in one direction if I want to reach bushland or twenty minutes in the other direction if I want to be in the centre of town (with all its rich, hem hem, offerings). I can drive about the place without hitting traffic jams. I can even go interstate - to Yass or Queanbeyan or Goulburn, (and I do, quite often) - without getting caught in the usual tangle of traffic one encounters trying to leave a really big city.

Even so there still remains the problem that Canberra is not very interesting to look at. While there is no denying that a great deal of thought went into its planning, it is less clear whether imagination was part of the process at all.  Most of the town has been constructed quite recently, in an era when a fondness for craftsmanship and humanising decorative details in architecture has largely given way to other concerns - mainly related to lowering costs.

There are still a few solid, well-proportioned old buildings about the place - the Albert Hall, the original Parliament House, for instance - and a handful of suburbs or bits of suburbs where the original cottages, built in the 1920s and 1930s and set on decent sized blocks of land, have been preserved. Sadly, though, newer areas of the city are filled with less carefully crafted dwellings, erected on increasingly tiny blocks, and the government's recent big civic projects are engineering feats rather than triumphs of the combined craftsmanship of skilled individuals. The new Parliament House is a perfect example of this. I suppose it is amazing to have created a building that disappears into the landscape rather than rising above it, but the visual effect is of a bunker or something we're so ashamed of we've had to hide it underneath a hill.

But enough griping about where I live. What I really want to do is talk about the country towns I went through last week on my way to and from Melbourne. They included Gundagai and Rutherglen and one other I've forgotten the name of. I loved their wide verandahed hotels. I loved the solid charm of their civic buildings - courthouses, schools, fire stations, banks (as usual the Commonwealth bank let the side down in Rutherglen - they, plus Westpac, seem to have vandalised so many of their fine buildings round the country, and sometimes even seem proud of what they've done). I even loved the rather clunky corner pub in Gundagai where someone somehow had learned about Art Deco and got so excited that they designed their building in that style, probably to the shock and horror of the local inhabitants. The result still looks surprising, especially with the rather bare stretch of open country rising up behind it.

The confident scale of these buildings lends them poignance, given that most country towns are far from affluent. Like all of us, they have seen better days.

 The church demonstrates yet again how much more visionary it once was:

And here's a house built before half your facade was routinely given over to a rolladoor garage:
 A very Australian sight - boots left at the door:
While we're on the subject, what in heaven's name were people thinking of when they spoiled the road running along the water's edge at Williamstown:

with this (and did they really think calling the building after Admiral Nelson would make it all right):


  1. I think they were thinking, "Let's house a lot of people quickly and cheaply in a rundown area of town." People who were born in Willie tell me that it used to be incredibly poor. Now a wrecked little cottage goes for a million. A large house just along the shoreline went for eight. One of them (not the eight million dollar one but a different old one almost next to it) has moulded faces extruding from the interior walls. We walked through while they were selling. You would have liked it.

    1. 1. Isn't it amazing how some kind of group think prevented people seeing how nice many city areas actually are.
      2. Faces on the inside might be a bit creepy for me
      3. There's cheap and then there's cheap and nasty and that building is cheap, nasty, charmless and a recipe for unhappiness, I reckon

  2. They were talking about changing it a while ago (I don't remember exactly how) but there were people inside who didn't want to move. The view is amazing, they said. How else could I afford a view like this?

    1. I've never been able to understand the whole 'view' obsession. Even if they put balconies on it, it would be better.