A quick thought on Landscapes

In John Dixon Hunts’ book Greater Perfections in the chapter ‘Word and Image in the Garden’ he discusses the role of the word and narrative and experience in landscape architecture. In context of narrative, he argues:

“[N]arratives that recount times past do so in the present, which with landscape architecture is intimately linked to the configurations of the site that functions both as setting and presumably as prompt for the narrative to be recounted. Further, the “reader” is thrust into prominence; the narrative of a place relies on the verbal skills of its visitor, who has to infer or “translate” from the given materials, which can never (qua narrative) be as complete as they would be, for instance, on the pages of a novel.”

Thus, the verbal skills of a viewer, reader or visitor in a didactic, narrative designed landscape can never as complete as the reader of a novel. This is because of the “translation” from the abstraction of the inscriptions on the materials of the site, and the site itself. Therefore, for example, a plaque by the ocean may describe the anchorage of a ship in a port two hundred years earlier. The visitor reads the plaque, looks over to the position of anchorage, and is imagines a ship there. The argument put forward by Hunt is that this scenario is not as complete a narrative on the pages of a novel. However, I think there are grounds for a contrary argument. A visitor with verbal skills may have their experienced enhanced by looking out to where the boats set anchor. A purely fictionalised novel has no landscape equivalent to compare the given materials.

Unless of course, Hunt means that a plaque can never be as long or as big as a novel. In which case he is correct. He concludes: “in short, the site qua site may play a greater or lesser role.” When, I think what he means to say is: the abstract site (narrative) within a real landscape may play a greater or lesser role.

Sites within sites, narratives within narratives; the way our minds work and our body moves through a site is immensely complex. There are an infinite amount of impressions, senses, ideas and events that coalesce to complete our understanding of a landscape or site. While historical narratives within sites seek to represent a true interpretation of a sites past, what of the fictional impressions we gain from a site? How does a shift in scale, an imagined people of the past, an animated artefact, the re evaluation of the ugly change the way we read landscapes? Can, or do we reach neutrality by championing the fake and the ugly when best practise seeks to promote the good and feel good?

Ashfield Flats

Im conducting a site analysis of the Ashfield Flats; a wetland near where I grew up. On the 19th of March I walked through the flats with a video camera. You can watch the video here:

And first poem analysis:

Site Visit Ashfield Flats

Part of the river begins here, car carcasses
Filter run-off, houses fenced off
Red tap on top of fire extinguisher.

Buffalo grass covers a culvert
Large concrete block monuments
Pine bollards and a steel gate.

‘No unauthorised vehicles passed this point’
The sign, twenty metres beyond the fence;
Galahs cackle overhead.

As if in distrust of the drain
Houses a but the 100 year flood line
Stink from the drainage block.

A two foot foam toy stealth bomber
Discarded in the buffalo – ‘the F27C
Striker Brushless’ neglected, ignored.

Broken, landlocked like concrete islands
Bark shards and a dying tomato plant
Part of the river begins here.

My body moves expectantly
Barefoot, aware of tiger snakes
A stick wrapped around my ankle.

MWB infrastructure tagged with ‘SK’
As alien as the stand of tapping bamboo
Within phone range, without credit.

Sweet mud smell, the hill you slide down
On tin, the old man keen to shoot to shoo
You away, his property as far as his scope.

To kill the grass they kill the liquid amber
Yellow bamboo pole matresses
The ‘clean fill’ sand will absorb it eventually.

Salt bush tagged pink, ready for pruning
Fifty yards from a fence, ‘our home’
Our ten metre limestone retaining wall.

More graffiti on blocks thick with melaleucas
A safe place to practise, DK in red texta
On paperbarks, more practise.

Rows are rows of planted tulips: a concerted
Effort to pretty the place up, beside long lines
Of blackberry bush, an air conditioner hums.

Water collects here; lentic. Overflowing rubbish
Bins on the driveway, a baby crying
Her life begins here, mosquito coils.

I become impatient, lustful and lacking narrative
I pause on the authorised vehicle track
Parrots squawk, a German Sheppard barks.

Then, evidence of machinery; mown lawn
Drainage swales, designed drains,
Another Main Water Board Block: Stourhead Grotto?

Dead gums, kids playing cricket
Adopting famous players names
Recreating classic moments: the pathetic fallacy?

A netball ring attached to fence
Bark crunching, parrots munching
A train a truck an aeroplane.

A fences, a concrete path
A stream sidled by casuarinas
Hesitate to use the word weed.

A small stand of xanthorrhoeas, cleared
Drain fenced off for important revegetation
Vineless archways.

Dog shit on the side of the path
A few days old
Clear blue sky overhead, hazy at the horizon.

I imagine walking straight the swamp
With a video camera, a document,
Not now – not the right time, never the right time.

Go right, I go left, through the thicket
To much of a sissy I stick to the path
The birds becoming louder.

In imagining the future I left the present
And missed the approach to the foreshore
A flat pyramid of arrow, ground cover.

Velvet pillows jammed in amongst the limestone
Banks – a fisherman’s forgotten seat
Long neck turtles, high tide tomorrow.

A kelpie freaking out over rollerblades
Fallen trees, their rotten roots
Suspended in floating mud. Not a sculpture.

Nor is this paradise, the river, in pieces
Has kept clear, held back proper light
Part of the river begins here.

The DC266 Evenrude outboard dingy
Its fishermen, shiners of the torch
Throw cigarette butts in the water: 18:35pm.

The bridge monument – maximum load limit
Three hundred kilograms
Hugs the bank like Michelangelo’s staircase

The last of the sunlight, duck tracks,
Great Egrets picking at the rushes
Mistook them for a chip wrapper.

Still as salty as the day purchased
At the supermarket:
The Great Egret Supermarket.

I jump off the bridge – heading home
Find a toy walkie talkie, possibly from the stealth bomber:
You used to be able to see the bottom, over.

‘Surprised by the amount of water in here
At this time of year, over.’ No frog noises
So silence. Still, plenty of mossies and guppies, over

‘Copy, over.’ Walk around puddles.
Now it dawns on me —the camps—
We used to see as kids, the piles of rubbish

Buckets, blankets, remnants of small fires
Were aboriginal camps, a midden under my nose.
‘Fucking Hell’ sprayed blue on a she oak, a totem.

Car wrecks half way up the drain
When the water’s high become tip islands
Rusting ruins: they dont make ‘em like they used to.

Clay sediments and oxidise metal mixing:
Follies of the future,
Slowly leaking into the creek.

You can see the wet line on the side
of the drain, the high water water mark
A white horizontal line of phosphate

Part of the river begins here, car carcasses.

Self Portrait in Perth

Solitude is like Bali:
Vacant and full of Aussie tourists.
I snuggle up to SBS
Daytime is a corner in soccer.

My coffee is enough to entice you.

Here at the rally
The dust lets me forget
About my holiday in Hyden.
Playing golf on the red sand
And sheep dogs…

A kangaroo zooming
Above the Spinifex,
A 20 000 watt globe
Behind it.

Listening to the Dirty Three
Or Shellac
Gravity wrapped around me.

I apologise for the full moon, Holden’s
Just beneath my skin
I am, my summer solstice
Streaking across the sky like an F-111
The joy of a laser guided slideshow
And a simulation of any situation you want.

Which one do you like best?
Im still tweaking it, making it heavier, new software.

From the bus, the Swan enters
Me like glass, limestone lapping as a dog runs
The coincidental beauty
Of bumping into a friend
who has to go. Your tear drop
in my hand and the hills ablaze
with sickness that could be love
or a new haircut
when you put on your favourite C.D.
and pick up that tamborine
it’s lonely drinking Solo.

The Riley Complex

‘The Riley Complex’: A Review of Univeristy of Western Australia’s, University House

“Every advantage so magnificent a site offers shall be the property of the community at large.” Sir John Winthrop Hackett, first chancellor of UWA.


For some people, completion of the new university house situated on Riley Oval may be considered an overwhelming success. The building’s facilities function the way UWA’s Senate originally intended: “they will be quality facilities, both linked to the club facilities for conferences and seminars, but able to be closed off, to keep academic and club activities separate.” Academic and teaching staff, along with their distinguished guests now possess a luxurious and comfortable place to relax and take stock amidst their busy work load. Here I argue that in the case of ‘the Riley Complex’ Hackett’s visions of unification between landscape and architecture have, over time, become unappreciated. The values behind the design for ‘the Riley Complex’ of “individualism” and “separation” are to the detriment of broader community involvement in UWA. In the words of a colleague, the building is a big ‘fuck off’.


Sir John Winthrop Hackett, UWA’s first chancellor argued that construction of a campus advantageous to both research and teaching needed to address and incorporate landscape with architecture. The chosen forty two hectare site for the UWA campus was on the shores of Matilda Bay. A letter written by Hackett addressed to the UWA Senate in 1914 stated that “special attention should be given to the laying out of the land on convenient, wide and spacious lines.” Hackett urged that “no large step should be taken without careful consideration of the needs and opportunities of the position.” He cited the river as the sites greatest asset: “the river front which this beautiful area is favoured can be made one of the rarest attractions offered of any of the universities of Australia.” Over a decade later, Hackett’s visions for the campus were suitably maintained by designer Leslie Wilkinson. Most significantly, Wilkinson understood the value of sustaining a visual and spatial dialogue between the campus and the river.


A slight but integral shift in architectural ideology took place in the post-world-war-two era. The post-war period observed a consultancy, rather than a competition based approach to development. An emphasis on courtyard and quadrangle configurations began the dichotomisation of the close relationship between landscape and architecture. In contrast to earlier methodology (a holistic approach to campus design) microcosmic spaces were created. The result was the emergence of separate and distinguishable spaces. These spaces were not defined by change in planting scheme, but by the new buildings themselves. Consequently, as Christopher Vernon (senior lecturer over at Landscape Architecture) concludes, “this approach incrementally obstructed, if not severed, the visual connection between the university and Matilda Bay.” A definitive, but by no means diabolical change in planning meant that one of the central and overarching ideals of the fore founders of the university had been eroded. The ideological tenet that these architects did not abandon was the notion that the university belonged to the community at large. In 2002, the UWA Senate announced the approval of plans and construction of a new university house under the working title ‘the Riley Complex.’


Championing a return to tradition, design for ‘the Riley Complex’ was put to competition. The winning entry came from Perth architectural firm Donaldson and Warn. Their website slogan states: “by seeing buildings not as monuments, but as natural sensate extensions of the individual, they [the firm] aim to empower people and enliven their environments.” Donaldson and Warn’s primary concern is clearly aimed toward the empowerment of the individual, not the community. Little surprise then that they won considering that the Senate’s visions for the building was to “keep academic and club activities separate” from the rest of the university and community. Both of these resolutions are at a complete impasse with Hackett’s original visions for the university: “every advantage so magnificent a site offers shall be the property of the community at large.” After one century there are bound to be changes in values and attitudes toward a place such as a university campus. It is whimsical to claim that attitudes and values should not change in the face of pertinent contemporary forces.


Nevertheless, any justification for the severance of the first visions for the campus must include and assume confidence in their prophetical values regarding the future. Such counter-utterances tacitly imply flaws in the values and methodology of the past. Therefore the physical manifestation of such a building based on these “individual” and “separate” principles would come to symbolise thinking of the “the community at large” as extraneous and outdated. In effect ‘the Riley Complex’ says ‘fuck you’ to Hackett, ‘fuck off’ to students and ‘suffer in your jocks’ to the community.


UWA’s signature building Winthrop Hall does not represent concepts such as “individual” and “separate”. While maintaining an atmosphere of prestige and excellence, Winthrop Hall stands as an icon of unity and invitation within a city bent on sprawl. Pedestrian access from Stirling highway into Whitfield Court involves a descent to the ground level of the Undercroft. Such a descent suggests a certain level of subservience on the universities part to the greater populus. The Undercroft itself was originally designed as a meeting place for students to engage and argue their ideas. Students were encouraged to fill an important place in the heart of the university.


‘The Riley Complex’ does not represent these endeavours; it merely nods toward Winthrop Hall via cream tinted brick and orange tile roofing. Supporting the design, Vernon concludes that “Geoff Warn’s design for University House strikes a resonant balance between the arguable anonymity of the more formulaic, context-driven design and, at the other extreme, architecture as fashion statement, if not advertisement.” Firstly, the anonymity is not arguable. Through Hackett’s formerly expressed wishes it certainly seems clear and unambiguous to me the parameters and rationale for a formulaic and context-driven design. It is to ensure that views to the river is for the many, not the few. Secondly, the “advertisement” does little to advance the social standing of the university; Winthrop Hall continues to provide this purpose with success. But if Winthrop Hall is considered outdated to this purpose, what kind of ‘fashion statement’ or ‘advertisement’ does the building represent? Where is UWA headed? In a global milieu where universities are forced to become fiscally self-sufficient, UWA decision makers, it must be assumed, are appealing to students who are also financially self-sufficient. For the moment at least, placements are still reserved for the less wealthy. However this ‘fashion statement’ known as ‘the Riley Complex’ basically says that if you’re not wearing a three piece Armani suit; find another university.


The eastern and primary façade of looks more like an army barracks than a meaningful place of conferral. On the main door, wood slats interlock with glass, creating a pill-box like quality. You can imagine erecting an M-60 inside this bad-boy.


Pill Box


But you have to ask yourself: to what end is an internal program of a building so important that the relationship between the internal and external is altered so as to be to the detriment of the users? The architects were so preoccupied with keeping riff-raff out, and out of view that it is at the expense of the patron’s views to the river.

In conclusion, ‘the Riley Complex’ goes against everything that makes UWA a great campus. It is a large step taken without careful consideration of the needs and opportunities of the position at the expense of the community at large. If you agree with me so far, here are some suggestions: write a letter to the Senate detailing your annoyance. While ‘the Riley Complex’ isn’t going to be pulled down anytime soon, it may prevent any elitist buildings planned in the future. Alternatively, if you’re a student and you have 10 minutes to spare go into the café or ballroom and ask for a meal or coffee. You’ll be asked to leave, but hopefully this will have two effects. You might spoil the meals of the snobs that are eating there and you’ll be forcing the staff to fabricate an illegitimate position of power. If they have any moral fibre this will make them distressed, resulting in poor service. Henceforth the building will start running at a loss on top of its $21 million price tag.


More Images:


Riley 03


Riley Complex