Revival – Revived dormant urban landscapes in Queensland

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Southport Broadwater Parklands by AECOM.

Southport Broadwater Parklands by AECOM. Image: Scott Burrows

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The Barracks by Gamble Mckinnon Green.

The Barracks by Gamble Mckinnon Green. Image: Scott Burrows

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Cutters Landing by Place Design Group.

Cutters Landing by Place Design Group. Image: Scott Burrows

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Brisbane Foreshore Parklands by Brisbane 
City Council.

Brisbane Foreshore Parklands by Brisbane City Council. Image: Christopher Frederick Jones

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Consisting of recent Queensland landscape architecture projects, the Revival exhibition aims to “showcase photography and design and the power of a single image to encapsulate a sense of place.”

As I make my way down to the Gallery of Australian Design, situated on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, it is a brisk five degrees. With the wind chill, it feels a lot cooler and my jacket is doing little to combat the bracing weather. How ironic, then, to walk into the gallery to be confronted with photos of balmy, sunny, tropical Queensland. Judging by the fifty or so faces in the room, perhaps we are all indulging in a little escapism?

This collection of photos makes up the exhibition Revival. Nine different projects from six Queensland design practices – AECOM, Brisbane City Council, Cardno S.P.L.A.T., Gamble McKinnon Green, the Place Design Group and RPS – are each represented by a single image.

Cutters Landing by Place Design Group.  Image:  Scott Burrows

The projects included in this exhibition have been chosen as they demonstrate revived dormant urban landscapes in Queensland. Revival, as defined by the exhibition curators Gamble McKinnon Green, is:

  1. the act of an instance of reviving
  2. the condition of being revived
  3. a restoration to use, acceptance, activity or vigour after a period of obscurity or quiescence.

Each project, showing a revived landscape, is presented as one very large photograph. This single-image format and the revival theme is an awkward pairing. All the viewer sees is an end product. Consequently, they are left questioning. What was the space before? How has the place evolved over time to this point of revival? It quickly becomes clear that it is difficult to understand how a place has been revived without seeing before and after images. The curatorial desire for the impact of a single image per project comes at the expense of showing a range of information about the project and leaves the viewer guessing.

Aside from showcasing revived landscapes, the exhibition also aims “to showcase photography and design and the power of a single image to encapsulate a sense of place” – hence the single-image format of the exhibition. This objective is ambitious and has been achieved with varying degrees of success.

The Barracks by Gamble Mckinnon Green. Image:  Scott Burrows

The photographs in this exhibition are undoubtedly impressive. Each true-to-life scale photo is between 2.7 and three metres high and from 3.7 to ten metres wide. This size, along with a clever balance between scale and angle, enables the viewer to feel, with some images, as though they could walk into the space. This feeling is never more present than when standing in front of the image of the Barracks (Petrie Terrace, Brisbane) – a Gamble McKinnon Green project. One feels tempted to slip into the historical precinct to indulge in a coffee. This feeling is not produced by all photos, but when it is, the result is certainly engaging.

Photographers Scott Burrows and Christopher Frederick Jones have taken a simple, no-frills approach to documenting each space. This allows the viewer to focus on the design aspect of the exhibition. For some projects the design’s success is captured despite the lack of detail shown. For example, the photo of the Southbank Institute of Technology (Southbank, Brisbane) project by Gamble McKinnon Green is taken from an aerial perspective. It precisely captures the bold, modern forms and palette employed as part of the design.

Brisbane Foreshore Parklands by Brisbane City Council. Image:  Christopher Frederick Jones

However, in many instances the exhibition’s showcase of design is frustratingly limited. This is most evident in the photo of the RPS-designed Northshore Riverside Park (Hamilton, Brisbane). Built form is the dominant aspect of the photo. The back-of-house photograph, taken from the rear of a cafe, leaves the viewer seeking to better understand the landscape. Glimpses of the Brisbane River raise more questions than they answer: how does the design interact with the water; how do people move through this space; how does the landscape serve the ten thousand residents anticipated to live in the new Northshore Hamilton suburb; why was this photo taken from this vantage point? In this particular example, the two-dimensional nature of photography restricts the intention to convey the relationship of the space to the surrounding area and the details of the design.

The final aim of the exhibition was to use a single image to encapsulate a sense of place. The question that needs to be raised in response to this aim is: how is a sense of place defined in this instance? Are the curators referring to the idea of the viewer getting a sense of being in the place? As the example of the barracks shows, some of the photos do achieve this feeling of being able to slip into the place despite being more than one thousand kilometres away from Canberra. Or have the curators defined sense of place as being the attachment and belonging people have to place? If so it was an admirable objective, as sense of place in this regard is so much more than can be captured with a single image. It is the relationship people have with a place. Their memories and the history they associate with that place. Picnics with friends, learning to skateboard, countless morning walks. It is these memories and associations that cannot be captured with a single image.

Whether a single image can capture a sense of place depends on how it is defined. A single image cannot capture the connection people feel to place. However, as shown in several photos, it can be powerful in its ability to immerse the viewer in the place. In terms of communicating design, a single image can also only achieve so much, as often it raises more questions than it answers.

Yet it is this lack of detail that acts to generate discussion and creative thought, as the viewer tries to imagine that which is not communicated. And therein lies the true worth of this exhibition as it raises questions and discussion about the idea of sense of place and the communication of design.

The Revival exhibition was on show at the Gallery of Australian Design, Canberra, 5 May – 4 June 2011.

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