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Dianna Wells’s suburban geometries

Photographer Dianna Wells’s Suburban Geometric series examines landscapes on the rural-urban fringe, revealing abstract geometric forms and traces of human presence. Vanessa Mooney reviews the exhibition for ArchitectureAU.

Photographer Dianna Wells creates a colourful, sharp and striking vision of the outer-suburban built environment in her series Suburban Geometric. The body of work was recently exhibited at the Gee Lee-Wik Doleen Gallery in Craigieburn, a suburb 30 km north of the Melbourne CBD that is a veritable hot spot of outer-suburban growth.

Exhibiting here is no accident as it is this context that provides the subject matter of some of Wells’s studies. Each image captures the blunt, muted and empty spaces of some of Melbourne’s outer urban areas. The title of the exhibition reveals Wells’s main preoccupation: geometry. She seeks it out in each surface and each intersection: painted surfaces interrupted by shadows or tyre burnout marks, rooflines folding into the ground plane and even the faded grass revealing its tiled origins. However, there is something else at play in her work: the scale-less, unoccupied places reveal, or evoke, an abyss that is often detectable in these newly built places. Reinforcing this, the lack of texture and detail in the architecture is only mildly offset by the detectable traces of human-scaled activity such as seating, rubbish bins and a well-used skatepark surface. In fact, Wells describes the places in her photographs as “quiet spaces.” As a series, they are filled with a palpable sense of the brutal change that has taken place in the transition from rural to urban – in many ways, these spaces remain “on the fringe.” Life is yet to move in.

Taylors Hill #1 by Dianna Wells.

Taylors Hill #1 by Dianna Wells.

Image: Dianna Wells

Wells has an ongoing curiosity for Melbourne’s outer-urban landscapes. For a number of years she has driven extensively around this peripheral landscape, photographing its transformation from farms to suburbs – a previous series, On Edge (2010–12), documented the urban landscape creeping into previously pastoral settings. She explains that while some of her other work focuses on the landscape details such as the loss of farms or the suburbanization of creeks, Suburban Geometric is concerned with the moment when the built form has taken over. The images readily reflect this cusp as if the construction process never happened, as if an invisible force brought the giant structures into being.

It is easy to be shocked by the changes to the outer-urban landscape because they are so dramatic. And, of course, they do not occur “out of the blue” or as a result of mysterious forces. Rather, the creation of the spaces and structures Wells is examining emerge from a long and complicated process of urban expansion. The drive out to Craigieburn provides a good opportunity to reflect on this. It is a landscape in transition: open landscape, industrial areas, quarries and greenfield residential developments. Opposite the gallery, a single paddock of what was once farmland remains. Adjacent to this are a number of construction sites and the major shopping centre Craigieburn Central – the subject of three of Wells’s photographs. Within this context, the role of architecture and urban design is critical in shaping the enduring legacy of the development process. The architecture of growth areas is rarely the subject of an artistic study, but Wells has scrutinized it through the lens. The images are both alluring and unsettling, monumental and empty.

Pyramid, Tangalle (left) and Pyramid, Taylors Hill (right) by Dianna Wells.

Pyramid, Tangalle (left) and Pyramid, Taylors Hill (right) by Dianna Wells.

Image: Dianna Wells

As a counterpoint to the main images of the exhibition, Wells included a series of six smaller photographs of suburban play equipment. The point of difference here is that three of the images are of equipment located in suburban Sri Lanka. Each image, each geometry, is matched with a local example; Pyramid, Tangalle versus Pyramid, Taylors Hill. A universal language of play-inducing shapes emerges: pyramid, cone and cylinder.

While this series is not as visually arresting as the main images, they provide an intriguing commentary on the built environment we shape for ourselves. Contemporary urban design theory puts emphasis on creating places that reflect the uniqueness of each locale, drawing on local history, natural features and characteristics and, importantly, community. By contrast, Wells’s photographs reveal the potential for design – both architectural and industrial – to skim the specifics of a place and settle for universal syntax.

Paradoxically, the exhibition Suburban Geometric has engaged well the local community who use the library housed in the same building. The images have revealed another way of seeing the massive forms, open spaces and vast surfaces negotiated by local residents and shoppers on a daily basis. In this sense, the images can be read as vignettes that break down the universal forms, capturing modest, everyday views. This could be the real strength of the exhibition: it commences the feedback loop necessary for building the meaning of a place. Despite the objectivity and distance of her photographs, Wells has created a new layer of meaning that is open to interpretation. Suburban Geometric brings the outer-urban built environment into focus and, in doing so, contributes to its ongoing process of “becoming.”

Suburban Geometric was exhibited at the Gee Lee-Wik Doleen Gallery in Craigieburn, Victoria from 12 May – 17 July 2016. It was first exhibited at Sofitel Melbourne on Collins from 31 May – 27 July 2014.

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