ARM Architecture and Taylor Cullity Lethlean combine post-punk populism with old-fashioned civic amenity to redefine Perth’s urban identity at Elizabeth Quay.
After moving to Perth in 1991 I was taken up to King’s Park, where I remember looking across to the city’s “postcard view” for the first time – a thin wall of buildings forming a backdrop to a neat rectangle of waterfront grass, a line of rather out-of-place palm trees and a four-lane road. It reminded me more than anything of that suburban desert that George Johnston described in My Brother Jack, in which the only activities were cleaning the car on Sunday and mowing the lawn. The protagonist is up on his roof, and realizes that all there is to see is an expanse of red rooftops, of “green squares and rectangles of lawn intersected by ribbons of asphalt and cement,” of mute propriety concealing whatever private desolation – a sorry vision.
The design of Perth’s “front lawn”, its waterfront, has been one of the more contentious urban design issues the city has faced in the post-war period, subject to scores of proposals and counterproposals. As Julian Bolleter’s recent book Take Me to the River: the Story of Perth’s Foreshore reveals, most of these schemes yielded little to nothing. Behind the proposals, it would seem, lay a sense that Perth lacked the kind of metropolitan vibrancy that might draw both tourists and new settlers.
An ambitious civic vision for the site finally began to take root in the early 1990s. In 1991, the then-Labor Premier Carmen Lawrence commissioned a competition for the redesign of the foreshore as an active public open space. To the great consternation of local interests, the American firm of Carr, Lynch, Hack and Sandell won the competition. But as economic recession began to bite, the scheme was soon abandoned. Some of the ideas raised by the 1991 competition were, however, revived by the Gallop and Carpenter Labor governments (2001-2008) and driven forward by the take-no-prisoners Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, Alannah MacTiernan. Not least, the Point Fraser park and wetland by Syrinx (2002-2006) realized some of the ecological objectives of the scheme. But the problem still remained of how to reconnect Central Perth to its river. For pedestrians, access from the CBD down to the river was an unpleasant experience, with the Esplanade and Riverside Drive forming windy traffic barriers. The undistinguished Bell Tower and tourist facilities at the so-called Barrack Square felt unrelated to the city. Furthermore, the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre formed an unfortunate visual and physical barrier between the river and city. Invited experts such as Charles Landry (2007) and Jan Gehl (2009) advocated learning from the international precedents of successful urban waterfronts. Under MacTiernan, a number of measures were implemented to reintegrate the river – a notable contribution being the opening of the Esplanade train station (2007). Furthermore, after a public call for expressions of interest, a workshop in 2007 and a limited competition enabled by then-Government Architect Geoffrey London, the firm of Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM Architecture), in association with Roberts Day, Room 4.1.3/Oculus and Hocking Planning and Architecture, were commissioned to design a masterplan for the transformation of the area occupied by the Esplanade Park, a historic but little-used green space on the city’s doorstep.
The result was a striking scheme centred on a circular water basin containing a swan-shaped island. In the computer visualizations by ARM Architecture, an extraordinarily priapic tower thrust out of the water, above blobby pavilions of apparently public function. A backdrop of digitally enhanced buildings shaped like icecreams melting in the sun enclosed the basin. But the scheme’s real brilliance was in its deemphasizing of Riverside Drive – motorists would be forced to slow down and negotiate the city grid. This was a project that would bring the city to the waterfront, and the river to the city through a “water gate,” or watery urban square. The designers explored interference patterns and water ripples to generate a concept for the water’s edge and paving. Negative reaction came swiftly from a host of different groups: there was the History Council, the RSL lobby (“the RSL has always assembled there on Anzac Day”), the City Vision lobby (which fervently defended our right to drive along the waterfront as a priority, and favoured a village scale, as though the CBD behind didn’t exist), and the City Gatekeepers (a splinter protest body which utilized “creative” Photoshop imagery to emphasize the perils of the project). But as Richard Weller pointed out in 2008, the Esplanade Park was hardly the Roman Forum. In truth, it was more like an under-used, sun-bleached relic of a former generation. Bolleter sees this opposition to the Elizabeth Quay design as based on a conception of the foreshore as “a moral, civilizing counterpoint to ‘the city’”.1 But this does not seem to ring true with the critics’ 1970s-style insistence that the existing four-lane Esplanade road following the water’s edge should bridge over the site to connect the two halves of the city, effectively blocking pedestrians’ access to the water, in a reprise of the old traffic engineer’s dream of a freeway ringing Perth Water.
Given the noisy opposition of conservative critics and vested interests, it has been especially reassuring that the current premier, Colin Barnett, and his Planning Minister, John Day, have, since attaining power in 2008, maintained consistent support for the project, unlike the Labor opposition, which appears to have forgotten its role in the project’s inception and has engaged in shameless politicking. ARM Architecture, together with Weller and the eminent landscape firm Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL), were commissioned by the incoming Liberal government to design a less architecturally striking, but more nuanced development of the original masterplan. The new scheme seems to have been deliberately designed to pass under the radar of public scrutiny – simple building envelopes, rather than expressive architectural forms, were depicted in the new visualizations of 2013, surrounding a hard urban landscape that enclosed the basin. Thus, whereas the original 3D images were lurid and would have given a Freudian analyst lots to work with, the new publicity images were mute, populated by non-architecture.
Now that the development has finally been opened, how successful has it been in achieving the aims of its architects? Certainly the economic downturn has had a negative effect, delaying the commencement of any of the high-rise developments. And as American public art advisor Deborah Cullinan noted recently, there are no public institutions in the first stage of the development that might draw the community to the site.2 However, the core elements of the project that the design team has delivered are undeniably impressive. Walking through the now-completed hard landscape of Perth’s new waterfront is a revelation. ARM Architecture and TCL have produced a vibrant hard and soft landscape in a wonderful homage to Roberto Burle Marx and Rio’s Copacabana. Swirling eddies of cobblestones re-enact imagined fluvial watermarks and flow into heavy timber quays. While the original digital images of the revised scheme seemed like a graphic imposition, in its physical manifestation the material response seems highly appropriate: essential infrastructure like benches, buffers, and landscape, are transformed into abstract expressionist sculpture; a delightful swirl of variegated stone bands culminates in a water park (temporarily out of action with teething problems), while the utilitarian function of a ferry terminal provides an opportunity for ARM Architecture’s signature post-punk populism – here a cloud form is suggested by a repetition of blue, free-form blades, interspersed by transluscent polka-dot panels that float over the ferry landing. While ultimate design responsibility for the sinuous pedestrian bridge, a conceptual element of the scheme from the beginning, was eventually awarded to Arup, it follows the spirit of the original and is a beautiful thing, providing both a panoramic vantage point and a delightful passage over the inlet, its surface suspended between two counterpoised arches. The central water basin has evolved substantially from its original circular shape to a rectilinear form. Bolleter attributes this shift to Premier Barnett’s conservative influence, seeing the revised scheme as “a hybrid of the directive of a conservative premier and an avant-garde design practice with a penchant for often-complex geometries.”3 Personally, I’m on Barnett’s side in this respect – the resultant layout has allowed the wilful forms of the artificial island, boardwalks and pavilions to play against the “straight man” of the city grid. Legible connections have been made with the existing infrastructure – to the north, an east-west pedestrian street links Elizabeth Quay railway station with the Supreme Court Gardens, while the pedestrian routes and bridge connect with, and provide a destination for, the existing bike and pedestrian waterfront paths. The planned private developments will inevitably be realized as market conditions permit – perhaps the delay might permit the government to institute a competitive design policy of the kind practised by Sydney City Council? And the many residential developments planned or realized nearby will contribute a local population to actively engage with the site, and fuel the development of street and waterfront life.
Had the government followed Perth’s default position of “business as usual,” as reflected in the counter-proposals of the project’s critics, who knows what this wonderful microcosm might have turned into? But I still have a few misgivings. After ARM Architecture designed a series of striking, contextually-specific commercial pavilions – a swirling form on the island, a reprise of the Melbourne Yellow Pavilion, a “splash” pavilion and a “lighthouse” that aligned with Riverside Drive, the project manager, Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority (MRA), commissioned local architects CODA Studio (Eastern promenade), Matthews & Scavalli Architects (near the water park) and Iredale Pederson Hook (at the north-east corner) to design “funky” commercial outlets that are overscaled, bear little relation to their context and are of a design standard far below the public architecture. To the project’s detriment, it would appear that neither ARM nor TCL have been consulted at all about the integration of these buildings into the scheme. More seriously, a decision of 2012 by Barnett has resulted in a federation-style pavilion of no great distinction from the old Esplanade Park, the Florence Hummerston Kiosk, being rebuilt on the island, together with an oddly out-of place children’s playground (designed by Aspect Studios and managed by MRA), that would be better suited to a suburban park. Not surprisingly, the Heritage Council have not been vocal in condemning the rebuilding of the old kiosk, which detracts from any heritage value the building possessed, and is completely out of scale in relation to the landscape design. There are a couple of elements of the urban design that might need tweaking – for example, the ingeniously crafted seat-barriers appear to offer little protection from the harbour-edge for children, or the inevitable drunken revellers. But the grey hands of the bureaucrats have been unable to prevent the designers from extracting frequent moments of delight – witness the exquisite transformation by ARM Architecture of the original ripple concept for the basin into a patterning for the vertical concrete panels abutting the basin that creates the illusion of watery reflections. Despite the slightly dispiriting watering down of the original urban design concepts of ARM Architecture, Weller and TCL, overall this is a project of high quality that is a credit to its participants, not least those politicians on both sides of the divide, who have been responsible for bringing it to fruition after a long haul, and in the face of such misguided opposition.
 Julian Bolleter, Take Me to the River: the Story of Perth’s Foreshore (Perth: UWA Press, 2015)129.
Laura Gartry, ‘Perth’s Elizabeth Quay lacks soul, sense of place, US urban art expert Deborah Cullinan says’, ABC News Saturday April 02, 6.52am.
Julian Bolleter, Take Me to the River (2015) 123.