Laden with traces of its own past, South Bank is now one of Brisbane’s key public spaces. Louise Noble looks at the accumulated visions for a city.
“I never forget that I am a Provincial.” Peter Cook, The London Effect, 1989.
Brisbane’s South Bank, despite its cheerful newness, has a many-layered past and one that is worth recalling. With plans to extend this pleasure precinct to its western edge at Kurilpa Point, it is timely to reflect on some of the processes that have informed its creation. What does it say about contemporary urban culture in Australia and can we learn from its experiences?%br% A particularly observant convict noted upon his arrival at the new found river colony, “It looked as though some race of men had been here before us, and planted this veritable Garden of Eden.” Brisbane was home to one of the most densely populated regions of Aboriginal Australia and the low lying swamp lands of South Brisbane were one of the habitual camping grounds of the Turrbal people. This north-facing riverbank had a sandy beach named “maroochy”, or swimming, and was favoured for river crossings. South Brisbane as a place of gathering and exchange for the Indigenous communities was swiftly replaced, however, by the port of the fledgling colony.
Brisbane followed a pattern of occupation similar to many river cities, a north bank devoted to government, administration and commerce and a south bank for the port and trades of a more colourful description. Between the wharves and the interstate railway station, built in the 1880s, were streets of sly grog and loose women, dance halls and theatres, a place where local mixed with foreign. In keeping with the social geography of the time, African-American servicemen in transit during the Second World War were not permitted to cross the bridge to the more respectable northern shore.
Foundation Stones. The port was progressively disbanded to the mouth of the river and, by the 1950s, South Brisbane was in serious decline. The construction of the new Victoria Bridge in 1969 and the election of the Bjelke-Peterson government in the early 1970s marked the beginnings of a new era in the re-colonisation of a now dismal shore.
A fitting symbol of this conquest was the decision to build the Queensland Art Gallery, which aimed to be “a fine example of the art of architecture”. Robin Gibson and Partners won the two-staged design competition in April 1973. By late the following year the design brief had evolved to become a cultural centre, including a new museum, theatre complex and state library.
Prior to the completion of the concept design, Gibson undertook a government sponsored study tour to visit galleries around the world – London, USA, Holland and Scandinavia. During this trip he also visited the Teotihuacan archeological site in Mexico.
A photo in his subsequent report shows a back-lit view of stepped terraces with a mountainous backdrop. He noted the “marvellous enclosure of spaces for spectacles (created) by the built pyramidal forms or the natural surrounds”. The relationship between light, massive layered form and the surrounding landscape is certainly an image one retains of these buildings viewed from the expressway on the opposite bank.
The buildings of the Queensland Cultural Centre, inaugurated successively from 1982 to the early 1990s, exhibit many of the characteristics of the modernist utopias in vogue at the time of their conception. Parallels can be drawn between this project and Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre (1964-1976) and the Hayward Gallery (1968) on London’s South Bank. In each of these, the separation of vehicular and pedestrian circulation has proven problematic for the legibility of these buildings in the public realm and is now the subject of reappraisal. Despite these shortcomings, the Art Gallery – along with Harry Seidler’s Riverside Centre (1983-1986) – was arguably one of the first civic buildings in Brisbane with public spaces that directly engage with the river. They signalled a rethinking of the city’s relationship with its most remarkable feature.
Expo 88 and the Cultural Revolution. Brisbane underwent radical physical change during the Joh Bjelke-Peterson years. The Gold Coast was booming and demolitioneers were local media personalities. The urban landscapes of David Malouf were fast disappearing as large sections of the CBD were replaced daily with high-rise, described by visting architect Peter Cook as of a “crummy and jumped-up-quick quality”. Sir Joh had big plans for the state, including the sale and redevelopment of the Botanical Gardens, and nobody could stop him. Street marches were banned in Queensland in 1977, and police powers strengthened against “terrorism” in 1982 when Brisbane hosted the Commonwealth Games. A successful bid for the 1988 World Expo followed with the catchcry “Together we will show the world”.
When the State Government resumed 42 hectares of land with one kilometre of riverfront under the 1984 Expo 88 Act, the locals in the surrounding West End were justifiably apprehensive. Robin Gibson, amongst others, prepared a plan for the redevelopment. Whilst on a sojourn as visiting professor to the University of Queensland, Peter Cook completed a series of delightful drawings in response to the issues raised.
Expo is used as “a trigger for a dwelling and working place that extends the downtown and reinvests the river”. Connecting the two shores were a “thinned-down series of Aussie-big-river bridges – the FANS”. The towers proposed were of two types: one “sleek and styled, not dull and chunky… and the other a rack upon which can be hung a series of updated and extended bungalows”. These drawings raised issues which are still part of the debate concerning the future of the north bank of the river.
Expo 88 was a surprise to all and had a profound impact on the way Brisbane saw itself as a city. The temporary architecture of the site, admirably designed by Bligh MacCormack 88, comprised neutral steel shells for the exhibitors with huge tent-like structures oversailing the site. These membrane surfaces were used for the projection of images at night and the river was transformed to a giant stage. Suddenly Brisbane had a promenade and a place from which to view the spectacle of the city. When the fair packed up, this public space was something that the locals were determined to retain.
Plans to redevelop the site as a new commercial and residential “downtown”, with hotels, a casino and convention centre, luxury canal housing and a river island, were met with community outrage. The Fitzgerald Inquiry into Police Corruption was in full swing and the government was looking rather pasty-faced. In May 1989, an interim premier announced the formation of the South Bank Development Corporation, a body including representation from both state and local governments and the business community, to manage the redevelopment process and recoup the costs incurred in hosting Expo. The corporation was vested with legislative powers above those of the Town Plan and had authority to maintain control over the site through the creation of a new form of government leasehold.
The “People’s Park”. A competition was held and, in August 1989, the winning scheme announced. The Gold Coast based firm Media 5 (subsequently Desmond Brooks International) won with the proposal for “the park in the buildings within the park”.
Described in Architecture Australia as “the Penthouse suite of the city”, the project reveals its weakness in section. Air-rights over the railway were to be sold, Grey Street buried as a bus tunnel, and a new aerial “boulevard” would provide access to the luxury condos that developers would scramble to provide. The riverside parklands were the project’s appeal. Unashamedly populist, one can imagine the reaction of the jury, “Bewdy! There’s a beach!”%br% Was Des Brooks magically responding to the genius loci, albeit in an ersatz form?
South Bank has become a place of feasting and gathering, of face-painted children and fireworks, an aspiration for the communality that our suburban cities crave. As Dr John Macarthur noted in his excellent 1995 essay, “South Bank was intended to enact a strategy of the capture by the centre over a populist culture of the periphery”. The current chair of the South Bank Design Advisory Panel, Dr Cathrin Bull, argued in 1994 that it could be seen as “Brisbane’s Backyard”, an idealised resort landscape for a population who could only dream of such luxury at home.
Four years after the inauguration of the parklands in 1992, development had stalled despite the popularity of a theme-park riverfront. The costs involved in building an elevated boulevard and the impracticalities of staging such infrastructure proved unattractive to investors. A change of government resulted in the appointment of a new board and chairman in November 1996. A vision statement was prepared and the focus of the corporation shifted from maximising development potential to an understanding of the importance of excellence in design. With John Simpson as master architect, a design advisory panel was created to assess all development proposals and, in early 1997, Melbourne firm Denton Corker Marshall was contracted to prepare a new masterplan.
DCM’s appointment was partly due to their urban planning experience in Canberra in the early 1970s where they had experimented with contemporary reinterpretations of traditional street patterns.
DCM and the Lifestyle Precinct. The DCM masterplan concentrated on improving the connectivity of the precinct to the surrounding city fabric and the legibility of movement within the parklands. Bill Corker advised the board that there was “nothing that a bobcat and a chainsaw couldn’t fix”. Circulation was reinstated at grade, and organised parallel to the river. The street, park and river spines, and the cross streets were reopened to a neglected “hinterland” (as South Bank Corporation often describe the surrounding West End area). An 800 space underground car park was proposed and the parklands extended. Pedestrian access from the city was to be improved with a new pedestrian and cycle bridge. The commitment of the board was essential to the success of the masterplan as demolition was a major component of its strategy.
The reinstatement of Grey Street involved the definition of its space and form. Based on a street width slightly less than the 30 metres of Collins Street in Melbourne, a four-storey podium with ten storey mini-towers interfaces the railway line whilst articulated and permeable four storey buildings manage the transition between street and park.
Landscape elements control the quality of the public domain. A seven metre high steel pergola is a contemporary version of a unified street facade which accompanies the planting of low shade trees to the footpath and a median strip of tall Bunya (now Kauri) pines. Standard issue Brisbane City Council street furniture and lighting were chosen to improve integration with the surrounding environment.
The solutions proposed by DCM are undeniably intelligent. However, in the desire to create a “great street” are we trying just a bit too hard? Caught somewhere between a tree-lined “avenue” and a “boulevard” with median planting that is more than just a strip, how much of Grey Street will be permanent? Will it also be edited in time? The object-fabric of the “towers”, which have an undisputed appeal to investors, are a departure from the horizontal arrangement of both the Cultural Centre and Cox Rayner’s Convention and Exhibition Centre (1995) with their explicit references to the backdrop of the d’Aguilar Ranges. It is questionable which is more appropriate.
The recent success of South Bank is a credit to the many design professionals involved and the willingness of the corporation to reconsider previous decisions. This is partly due to a CEO with extensive experience in major redevelopment projects and a chairman who is seen as the home-grown Medici. The corporation has been extremely proactive in the organisation of workshops and “talkfests” to generate dialogue between the many players involved in the shaping of the urban environment. Professional awards have been showered upon the project and it has done much to raise awareness in the development industry of the importance of design issues.
History and Democratic Space. South Bank is laden with traces of its own history – forgettable moments that insist on leaving rather embarrassing stains: the entrance to Grey Street with edges that were designed for a bus tunnel; the 420 metre long Convention and Exhibition Centre built over the only street with any direct connection to West End; the now dislocated pink residential block which lost its luxury neighbours in an election; historic buildings transformed into a Disney streetscape. The need to somehow unite the collage of the parklands has been consecutively structured by a monorail (Expo 88), a canal (Media 5) and, finally, the Leunig-like tendrils of the bougainvillea clad Arbour (DCM). Despite the recent spate of “cleansing”, South Bank still resembles a shopping centre open till midnight. “Passive” recreation areas are zoned in the parklands, as are places and times for drinking. The ambiguities between public and private space are inherent in a project conceived in the age of corporatised infrastructure. Is it a democratic space? Could it be described as the “People’s Park”? Is South Bank growing up or just being gentrified?%br% Brisbane is not a city renowned for the quality of its public spaces. Street planting, until recently, has been sporadic and most of its parklands are remnant low-lying areas unsuitable for building but closely linked to an Indigenous past. They are typically places of recreation rather than gathering. The beach, one could suggest, is the only form of truly public space that many Queenslanders have ever experienced; Surfers Paradise, with all its tawdry glamour, the only promenade. In a miniaturised and symbolic form, South Bank represents the collective experience.
Do current projects at South Bank attempt to move beyond representation? Is simulation the only real experience modern Australians are comfortable to consume?
The nature of the parklands will change with the completion of the Queensland College of Art campus, together with the new pedestrian and cycle bridge linking major tertiary institutions, public parklands and transport nodes. The corporation has chosen to mix a potentially volatile cocktail which should produce some colourful social theatre. It is interesting to observe an evolving city adopt spaces in a manner its creators may not have forseen. If the precinct manages to unleash a life which was not imagined, if elements which are currently excluded can also find their place, South Bank could be deemed successful.
Beaubourg Bricolage. The new Queensland College of Art building, by Bligh Voller Nield/Donovan Hill, is nearing completion, the campus having relocated from suburban Morningside to the very prominent South Bank. The brief required the reuse of a rather dull office block and an understanding of the needs of the twelve rapidly changing user groups, all on a sloping site with public frontages to both street and park. A slim 90 metre block accommodates the main studio facilities along the Grey Street edge while tilt-slab volumes shape courtyard spaces, both public and service, to the park. In order to link old with new, a metal hat is added to the buildings.
The studio areas are stripped of structure, services and circulation to ensure maximum flexibility. Perforated aluminium sunscreens disguise “plugged in” services to the street and generous access balconies, bridge links and a stair tower create an active backdrop to the park. The main courtyard, formed by the tilt-slab theatre and gallery building, opens to the Arbour Walk of South Bank and will provide a public forum for the college. These low buildings, however, present an unfortunate metal roofscape to the balconies and, despite the intention of layering, the Grey Street elevation appears closed and thin to the pedestrian. Glimpses of the underlying complexities of a facade of ducting and painted blockwork are revealed in the upper levels when viewing the building from the Vulture Street corner, particularly at night. With a compositional logic of bricolage, the building looks “tinny” compared to its neighbouring institutions. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing for an art school; not too precious to appropriate.
Muddy Waters. Situated directly below the College of Art, and currently under construction, is the new pedestrian and cycle bridge won in a limited design competition by Cox Rayner. Its location involved lengthy consultations between government, tertiary institutions, South Bank Corporation and private residents. Bridges, due to their ability to colonise and modify the shores they link, are always a subject of debate. Big river bridges even more so.
The South Bank Bridge is a somewhat scaled-up, more sophisticated version of the Cocks Carmichael Whitford pedestrian bridge across the Yarra (1989) with its stepping stone island. The 450 metre length is divided into three separate “experiences” – the “pier”, the “arch” and the “rampart”. The “pier” begins in the mangroves underneath the Captain Cook Bridge, rises with a flourish to the island, before straddling the navigational channel with the “arch” and descending via the “rampart” to the Maritime Museum.
Weather protection is provided to over 75 percent of the bridge’s length and acoustic and privacy screening were incorporated to meet the requirements of the pesky pink building gracing South Bank’s shore.
The 102 metre dual arch steel structure of the main span has been fabricated off site and will be floated upriver and under bridges before taking its rightful home. Awkwardly sited on the river meander, the bridge has an uncomfortable relationship with the freeway. This is exacerbated by the centipede-like structure of the “pier” which lifts its mud-laden feet inelegantly across the water. Perhaps it is better for engineers to design bridges, as architects are often inclined to tell too many stories. Nonetheless the link created will provide a marvellous platform for viewing the speed boat races and the fireworks of the river stage.
The bridge will complete the “loop” and bind the two shores of the river. With the launch of the Millennium Arts Competition for the new Gallery of Modern Art and extension to the State Library, with a masterplan by Cox Rayner, we will see a re-enactment of the strategy applied at the time of the creation of the parklands – that of “luring visitors down from the skies”. The “B” word (Bilbao) has been uttered recently by many prominent politicians. Like Melbourne’s Federation Square, Millennium Arts has ambitions for the city that go beyond a mere extension.
As Lara Croft encounters the sacred stones, the roots of the moreton bay fig trees are heaving. Let us hope that the future will reveal a more dangerous interpretation of our past.
Louise Noble is an architect and urbanist. She lectures at the University of Queensland and is in private practice. She would like to extend her sincere thanks to all the people interviewed for this article: South Bank Corporation, John Simpson, Bill Co
J.G. Steele Brisbane Town in Convict Days 1824-1842 (University of Queensland Press, 1975).
J.G. Steele Aboriginal Pathways in South-East Queensland and the Richmond River (University of Queensland Press, 1984).
Peter Cook Tower Projects 1983-1984 edited by Don Watson (Ray Hughes Gallery 1984).
Dr John Macarthur “On Kodak Beach: technical developments in imaging and architecture”, Transition 48, 1995.
Dr Cathrin Bull, “Southbank Parklands: Brisbane’s backyard”, Landscape Australia, February 1994 vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 49-52.