It constantly amazes me that people don’t seem to notice the ugliness around us. Australia is a magnificent continent full of grandeur, but the built environment is largely a chaotic, depressing mess. Of course we have the Opera House and the Bridge in Sydney, but they are vastly outnumbered by the endless acres of McMansions, the aerial clutter of elevated powerlines, the gaudily decorated business premises, the unit blocks without a scintilla of charm, in fact good design is really so hard to find that we note it with surprise when we see it.
It has long been my practice to alter my route to work in order to avoid the most egregious examples of visual pollution, so I dodge the Holden dealership in Windsor for example. Why start my day angry? The flood bypass bridge has proved a boon as it gives me a view of cows or horses at the end of the morning drive instead of having to be visually assaulted by the downhill slide of what was once a lovely town.
The development of Windsor’s Riverview shopping centre, with its fake heritage façade, had many detractors, including myself, who spoke against it at council meetings before its approval. The developer (for whom a special warmer corner awaits in hell, catering for him and all his ilk) assured council that the development would have “restaurants with big windows overlooking the Hawkesbury River” and what do we have? A sad food court, a large section of which has never been occupied by a business and remains unlined, with bare Besser blocks and exposed foil air-conditioning ducts and wires. People actually sit and eat there!! Of course no windows exist but glass doors go out onto a rarely used balcony. Apart from this, the view of the River is completely blocked by the walls of Coles and the food hall outlets. What a wasted opportunity.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In my brother’s city of Halifax in Yorkshire, the strict planning laws insist on new buildings, including shopping centres and fast food franchises, being built in the local stone to blend with the original architecture. In Paris, McDonalds was forced to use all black and white signage so as to keep the city in its traditional grey tones. But here the developer is king (never a queen you may note) and these people make their pile while laughing up their sleeve at the pathetically inadequate rules they need to follow. You can bet the homes they go back to in the evenings are on the waterways or lovingly restored heritage piles. We can’t all live in Hunters Hill, but we can make our individual environments as good as they can possibly be, keeping the developers at bay and electing councillors who have some aesthetic sensibility.
In Canberra recently I was excited to have a tour of the newish Nishi building, with its 4 different facades, varying to provide so much visual interest and to better suit the particular micro-climate each side is facing. So I do live in hope, there are some people leaving behind buildings to be proud of, but as John Betjeman wished in his much criticised poem beginning ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!’ there are times when you just want to wield a giant eraser on the lot.