April 2014


Perth goes boom

By Robyn Annear
Perth’s Council House and the Ore Obelisk: celebrating “the harmony of mining and environment”. © City of Perth

Perth’s Council House and the Ore Obelisk: celebrating “the harmony of mining and environment”. © City of Perth

A week among the arts in the City of Light

Barry Humphries likened it to a giant shish kebab. Fifteen artless lumps of ore skewered on a 14-metre pipe from an oil drill, stood upright in a public park. That’s the Ore Obelisk, planted on Perth’s busy St Georges Terrace in 1972 to celebrate Western Australia’s one-millionth citizen and “the harmony of mining and environment”.

Twenty kilometres away, at Hillarys Boat Harbour, a glitzy marina complex situated midway along the stretch of showroom suburbs that follows the coast north from the city, stands another monument in ore. Commissioned by Gina Rinehart in 2002 to mark the 50th anniversary of her father’s “discovery flight” over the Pilbara, it was originally meant to take a prominent position near the entrance to Kings Park. But, after objectors pointed to Lang Hancock’s other discovery, of blue asbestos at Wittenoom, Perth City Council withdrew its support for the monument. Now it stands in a fenced alcove at the entrance to the shopping arcade at Hillarys: a blunt boulder of iron ore featuring a polished granite plaque on which is etched a portrait of “Langley George Hancock Esq.” and an obituary-length tribute to “his discoveries, his vision, the risks he took, his persistence and his dedication to Western Australia”. Signs advising that the monument is on loan from Gina Rinehart and family imply that a better location may yet turn up.

It was by accident that I found Hancock’s memorial on the morning of my seventh and last day in Perth. I’d joined a bumper-to-bumper pilgrimage to nearby Sorrento Beach in the hope of seeing a 2-tonne elephant seal that had been basking there all week, bumping sharks off the front page for a change. But he’d hauled back into the ocean the night before, ceding the beach to the legions of junior surf lifesavers doing their Sunday-morning drills. Encountering Hancock Esq.’s tribute at Hillarys was a small consolation for having missed out on seeing the blubbery grandstander.

Neither the Hancock monument nor the Ore Obelisk rates a mention in David Whish-Wilson’s Perth, the latest addition to NewSouth’s “City” series. It’s hard to figure out who the intended audience is for the titles in this series. They’re far from being guidebooks and yet hometown readers would doubtless find things to quibble with in the portrait presented of their city. But these books make no claims to inclusiveness; each is unapologetically one writer’s view of the city they call home. And the affection and biases inherent in that approach make for the books’ strength and their weakness. For me, planning my first-ever visit to Perth, Whish-Wilson’s book worked as a fond and insightful introduction to a city of which I’d formed only the most cartoonish “boomtown” image.

Raised in Perth (with a dad who played in the West Australian Football League) and now raising a family of his own there, Whish-Wilson is well placed to cast his view of the place forward as well as back. Just as important, though, he has lived away from Perth for much of his adult life, so that not only does he have other cities to measure it by but he also remembers what he was homesick for: “a light so clean and sharp that it feels like an instrument of grace”. Whish-Wilson is known as a crime writer, of the nascent “Perth noir” school. Two novels in (Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone), his gritty evocations of Perth’s dark side in the 1970s and ’80s – drugs, corruption, shallow graves – are redolent of David Peace’s Red Riding series, set in Yorkshire in the same era. Now, in Perth, Whish-Wilson’s noirish sensibility and a strong taste for justice lend shading to his portrayal of the antipodean City of Light.

Early on, he tells the story of how Perth came by that appellation. When American astronaut John Glenn was solo-orbiting the Earth in 1962, the people of Perth, recognising a “fellow traveller on the dark edge of what was known”, left their lights on all night to keep him company. In gratitude, Glenn dubbed Perth “the City of Light”. The city’s mayor, who had opposed the show of lights as an extravagance, was nonetheless invited to ride in Glenn’s ticker-tape parade through Manhattan, just one car behind President Kennedy’s. Back then, writes Whish-Wilson, Perth was an “asbestos and tin city visible to the world only from outer space” – a tad hyperbolic, perhaps, given that it played host that same year to the British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

Coming from “Over East” (as I learnt, for the duration of my stay, to think of the other five states) and knowing just enough history to be misled, it hadn’t occurred to me to think of Perth as remote, historically. After all, wasn’t it – or its coast – long held in national affection as the first and last of Australia seen by generations of sea travellers? I read somewhere that Indian Ocean seafarers might get their first intimation of landfall from the scent of eucalyptus wafting far, far from shore – the olfactory equivalent of a show of lights for an astronaut.

Alongside the Ore Obelisk on St Georges Terrace rears the 13-storey Council House, built in 1963 to accommodate the city council and its functionaries. Saved from demolition in 1996 and now lit at night by 20,000 LEDs on a rainbow roster, it is regarded as a modernist gem and landmark, but its slab-fronted form also exemplifies the barrier that exists in Perth between the city and its river.

Behind Council House is the grassy sweep of the Supreme Court Gardens with the wide and dreamy Swan River just beyond. Intervening, though, is the four-lane Riverside Drive, which siphons traffic to and from the Kwinana and Mitchell freeways. The tangle of interchanges mars the riverfront at the western end of the CBD, as does the hulking cold shoulder of the newish Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre. As in most cities, much of the waterfront has been reclaimed from swamp and shallows. Now Perth is in the process of unreclaiming a chunk of land between Barrack and William streets to create the new Elizabeth Quay.

Named in honour of the Queen, Elizabeth Quay will bite an inlet from the shoreline, bringing the river into the city. At least, that’s how it’s touted. An artist’s view of the reconfigured waterfront shows the Quay and its promenade shut in on three sides by new commercial, residential and retail buildings. Whish-Wilson and others rue the loss of Perth’s “front lawn”, the parkland that formerly occupied the site.

Right now, Elizabeth Quay is a hoarded-up expanse of sand mounds and reversing earthmovers, not to mention a major bugbear to motorists. An ongoing objection to the development is that it interrupts the flow of traffic between riverfront and freeway, for Perth is among the most car-centric of cities. Per capita, few cities in the world can boast higher rates of car-ownership; in Australia, no other city comes close. Perth’s population hit the 2-million mark in 2013, an increase of almost one third in just seven years, and a thousand newcomers arrive each week. To house them all, suburbs extend for 120 kilometres, north to south, making Perth one of the most sprawling cities on earth.

Until the elephant seal traffic-snarl, I mostly got about Perth by foot, bus or ferry. In the course of a week, I came to love the ten-minute ferry ride between the Barrack Street jetty and South Perth. My first trip across was to see Do Ho Suh’s Net-Work, one of the Perth International Arts Festival’s visual arts offerings. A mesh composed of tiny human figures, it shimmered silver and gold on the sandy South Perth foreshore. But, even at 5 metres long, it was rendered insignificant by its backdrop, the dancing expanse of river with the city of Perth beyond. To see if it might grow on me, I sat for a while and so overheard a pair of festival-goers who’d come by car over the Narrows Bridge: “We came all that way for this?”

South Perth, like most of the Perth that I saw, looks new, new, shiny new. Along the waterfront run separate walking and bike paths, outfitted with every amenity – seats, bins, water fountains, playgrounds. Apartment blocks pile up for the best water views. Only an occasional stand-alone house fronts the foreshore with a smug air of “I was here first” or, perhaps, “I can afford it.” I sensed an anxiety, both here and out in the beachside suburbs, in the straining for a water view.

I took the ferry to South Perth and back at least daily during the rest of my stay. At $2.80 for a two-hour ticket, it was cheap fun – cheaper than a Shark Hunt Cruise. “Shoot sharks (cameras only),” read the flier. Waiting at the jetty for the ferry, I’d count jellyfish. During my third visit to South Perth, I took the foreshore path west from the landing. At the end of Mill Point Road, hard against the freeway’s edge, I came to the old mill for which the road was named. And I realised that I’d seen it before, from the heights of Kings Park, where I’d gone on my first day in Perth to take the lie of the land. It had stood out as plainly old in a vista suffused with new. I’d wondered what it was – and how it had survived. Turns out it’s one of the oldest buildings in Perth, dating to 1835 when it replaced an even earlier mill that had been destroyed by local Nyungar people. After just a short time as a working mill, it was adapted as a poultry farm, a boarding house, even a dance hall run by a man known as “Satan” Browne. Somehow, though long derelict, the building was still standing in 1957 when the Kwinana Freeway was routed to run straight through it. (The fact that it had survived till then, though derelict, says how different a place Perth must have been 60-odd years ago. Dereliction would not be tolerated now.) A sentimental industrialist, Sir Lance Brisbane, used his influence to alter the freeway route and funded the restoration of the old mill.

Time works as it ought to in Perth: there’s no daylight saving. I don’t believe that the famed Fremantle Doctor, the cooling sea breeze, reached as far inland as Perth on more than a couple of days out of the seven I was there, and the temperature consistently peaked in the mid-30s. Dry, glaring heat. Never do I recall being so aware of which side of a street was favoured by the shifting shade or of being so grateful for the long shadows thrown by skyscrapers.

I liked to return to the mainland, as I thought of Perth city (imagining South Perth a floating world), in the late afternoon, as the sun was losing its sting. Across from the jetty are the Supreme Court Gardens where Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege, a large-scale replica of Stonehenge in the form of a bouncy castle, held residence for the duration of the festival. (The Turner Prize–winning Deller gave the work its title in anticipation of controversy. How many thin-skinned druids did he think write for, or read, the tabloids?) Perth in summer proved a real test for Sacrilege, its surface growing so hot that patrons were advised to wear two pairs of socks. Even so, at lunchtime, blokes in suits poured out from the law courts and office towers, shucked their ties and loafers and went for it. Up to a hundred people at a time could go the bounce, and I happily entrusted my Birkenstocks to the care of the goddess Epona (protector of mules) so that I too could moonwalk among the sarsens.

The route back to my hotel took me by a passage under the Supreme Court, past the city’s original courthouse (another miraculous survivor, from 1836) and through Stirling Gardens, to emerge on St Georges Terrace at the foot of the Ore Obelisk. I’d adopted the spindly monument as my datum point in Perth. Back in 1965, its designer, Paul Ritter, had become Perth’s first city planner. A year earlier, he’d been teaching architecture and town planning in Nottingham when his book, Planning for Man and Motor, advocating the separation of pedestrians and cars, brought him international attention. A disciple of the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and a “practical idealist”, Ritter was a bold choice to head the City of Perth’s brand new planning department. From his office in Council House he clashed with the state government’s planners over the long-term vision for Perth’s development. In particular, he convinced the city council to oppose plans for an eight-lane freeway down the Swan River foreshore. Ritter stressed the importance of pedestrian flow – arcades, walkways, plazas – through the CBD and created a far-sighted parking plan for the growing city. His blend of passion and pragmatism also played a role in saving from demolition such landmark historic buildings as the Barracks’ Arch and the Cloisters.

Though he lasted just two years as city planner (he was sacked, but would successfully sue for wrongful dismissal), Ritter went on to serve for 18 years as a city councillor and was a ministerial adviser for 36 years. The city has remade itself several times over since the 1960s but, beneath the showy surface and in the way the place works, Paul Ritter’s influence is still discernible. I’ll bet that he was responsible for the wording of the plaque accompanying the Ore Obelisk. Who but a “practical idealist” would claim to celebrate “the harmony of mining and environment”? Ritter’s son David, now the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, says of his father, who died in 2010, “He admired the energy and genius of mining, and didn’t like imposed binaries.”

A celebration of the harmony of mining and the arts might be an apt description of the Perth Festival, held each February. Since Sydney’s funding took a dive this year, Perth now boasts the richest arts festival in Australia. Partly, that’s because, according to its artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, the city’s isolation makes it “probably the most expensive place on earth” to stage a festival. But mainly it’s because WA is loaded. On top of a legislated $7.5 million a year from the state-owned Lotterywest, Perth Festival gets solid sponsorship from oil and gas companies Chevron and Woodside, and from Rio Tinto, the sole rusted-on contributor among the Pilbara giants. “[W]ithout financial wealth a nation cannot afford cultural wealth,” commentator Nicolle Flint wrote in the Fairfax press earlier this year. For the mild jibes at WA’s mining industry in his latest novel, Eyrie, she accused Tim Winton of being not only an ingrate but un-Australian. “Do we want to be a nation of lifters or leaners? Entrepreneurs or environmentalists? Wealth creators or wealth takers?” Imposed binaries, anyone?

There appeared to be nothing heavy-handed, though, in the big miners’ sponsorship of the Perth Festival. Rio Tinto’s sponsorship targets family and education programming, while Woodside supports indigenous programming and participation as a component of the company’s reconciliation action plan. This year Chevron’s was the name on the Festival Gardens, the nocturnal open-air lounge and auditorium that occupied the grounds of the WA Museum for the last weeks of summer.

Perth’s climate makes the festival’s outdoor venues a highlight. Not one of the three cardigans I’d packed ever left my suitcase. On a hot night I saw the shouty US indie-rock outfit Okkervil River at the Festival Gardens. The lack of a roof not only let the air circulate but also meant that, for a change from dry ice and frontman Will Sheff’s antics, I could watch a satellite track overhead and think of John Glenn. Likewise, when my attention drifted from the West Australian Ballet’s monochromatic production of Radio and Juliet in City Beach’s Quarry Amphitheatre, there was plenty else to look at. Not just the sky but the swaying backdrop of eucalypts and the pocked, spectral walls of the limestone quarry itself. I was sure I’d seen old buildings in the CBD – the fire station in Murray Street, Old Perth Boys’ School at Brookfield Place – made from the same porous stone.

Brookfield Place is BHP Billiton’s home in Perth. At a double-wide 46 storeys plus towel-rack on top, it’s the city skyline’s self-aggrandiser-in-chief. Down at street level, the tower is surrounded by a network of laneways and plazas incorporating the St Georges Terrace frontages of several historic buildings, among them the original Perth Technical School and Newspaper House. Inside the latter is Print Hall, a classy complex of restaurants and bars that pays homage to the building’s former identity as HQ of the West Australian. Historic features that have been kept (if relocated) include a soaring atrium and the long wooden counter at which classified advertisements used to be lodged, now repurposed as an island bar. A newspaper-lined stairway leads to the rooftop Bob’s Bar, named in honour of our 23rd prime minister, whose best-remembered dictum – “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum!” – is splashed in neon over the bar.

David Whish-Wilson laments the extent to which old Perth was demolished during the heedless, progress-driven decades of the late 20th century. It’s only natural, given the force-of-nature scale and speed of Perth’s ongoing development and past acts of philistinism, to fear that the city’s heritage must be overwhelmed. As a local, Whish-Wilson knows what’s been lost, and his city seems diminished as a result. To me, seeing only what survives, it still feels possible to make out the dimension and character of an older Perth, even in the heart of the CBD. A combination of survivors, restorations, reconstructions and stranded facades conveys a sense of what Perth has been, amid what it has become.

In Perth as elsewhere – witness Brookfield Place and no end of warehouse conversions – there’s a growing prestige in heritage buildings that makes it more likely they’ll be not only kept but also ennobled. What counts as heritage is where the battles still lie. And, of course, even to talk in terms of “heritage” belittles those aspects of a city that locals like Whish-Wilson value for their familiarity but which, lacking filigree credentials, will always be prey to development.

One Perth building with no shortage of filigree is His Majesty’s Theatre in Hay Street, dating from 1904. In consideration of Perth summers, the theatre originally featured two waterfalls on either side of the stage and a “sky dome” ceiling, opened by hand-crank on hot nights. The waterfalls were soon decommissioned, as the sound of running water made a single intermission insufficient for toilet breaks. And, legend has it, the dome was sealed shut after lightning struck an audience member during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

By coincidence or inspired programming, staged at His Majesty’s as part of this year’s festival were Robert Wilson’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, which tyrannised the audience for 40 minutes with an ear-splitting thunderstorm, and a Russian twist on Shakespeare’s thunderstruck comedy, the props of which included a working fountain, necessitating a (belated) offer of towels to patrons seated in the front two rows. The Shakespeare was fun (the Beckett was not). Meanwhile, showing down by the riverfront was the UK-based NoFit State Circus’s Bianco. Inside, the big top was a haze of dry ice; the aerialists and acrobats and their peppy live band were hot as; and the show ended in a swirling cascade of snowflakes, a marvel on a balmy Perth night. Israel Galván also kicked up gusts of the white stuff – in this case, flour – in his rogue flamenco masterpiece, La Curva, at the Regal Theatre in Subiaco. Movement and stillness were equally electric in La Curva, and Galván’s choreography left space for silence. Breaking that silence were the contained and cavernous sublime of Inés Bacán’s singing, Bobote’s laconic but inspired rhythms, and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s extraordinary improvisational stylings. She struck the grand’s keyboard with fingers, fists, forearms, even elbows, and reached inside its workings to pluck and pinch in a manner verging on obstetric. Strange and sensational, La Curva deserved its ovation.

Fanny Balbuk was a Nyungar woman born locally in 1840, when the Swan River settlement was in its infancy. David Whish-Wilson tells how, as the growing town obliterated the food sources and sacred places of her ancestors, Balbuk stuck defiantly to the old tracks. He quotes Daisy Bates: “To the end of her life she raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground” – in particular, her grandmother’s burial place, which lay behind the sentry-guarded gates of Government House. “Through fences and over them,” wrote Bates, “Balbuk took the straight track to the end.” Paul Ritter, as a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, had escaped on the Kindertransport to England before World War Two. But, according to his son David, he “never felt at home anywhere until he moved to Perth as town planner. He loved the city profoundly but tempestuously and, in his final years, with much frustration and melancholy.” Government House and the Ore Obelisk flank Council House on St Georges Terrace, and I couldn’t help but draw a link between the two passionate figures associated with them. Both railed against the despoliation of the place they called home; both advocated “the straight path”, a way through for pedestrians.

As walking cities go, Perth is pretty good. The CBD has plenty of arcades and laneways that allow a pedestrian to cut through rather than go around. The malls in Murray and Hay streets are smoke-free, as is Forrest Place, where free sunscreen is available and cooling jets of water shoot up from the paving, to the delight of small children. (Though it – the footpath fountain, not the smoking ban – looks suspiciously like a crowd-dispersal measure, given that this public square has long been the site of protest meetings and street marches.) Footpaths are unimpeded by cafe seating and everywhere there is street seating: comfortable and in a sound state of repair. It’s a small thing that speaks volumes for the city’s attitude towards people (unlike, say, Melbourne’s). If I’m making Perth sound like Salt Lake City, be assured there are plenty of faux-seedy, hipsterish bolt-holes up graffitied laneways.

One local I spoke with compared Perth to Los Angeles for the impossibility of getting from Point A to Point B on foot. True, you can get a suntan while you wait for the lights to change to WALK. And if getting to the river is a minor ordeal, getting to Kings Park from the city is trickier, especially as the works at Elizabeth Quay have cut off the shared bike-and-footway along with Riverside Drive. But I like a challenge, and it was worth it. Kings Park occupies the only high ground in these parts, on Mount Eliza, at the western edge of the CBD. Covering 4 square kilometres, it’s one of the biggest inner-city parks in the world: bigger even than New York’s Central Park. Perth owes a vote of thanks to the pioneers who had it reserved as public land – and to those who’ve kept it that way. Prime real estate in a city on the make: it’s a miracle.

The best reason for visiting Kings Park is the views, taking in the city and Swan River, and away to the Darling Ranges in the east. Roads within the park are lined with sugar gums, each commemorating a West Australian who died in the Great War. The indigenous gardens are full of wonders: banksias as big as pineapples, gumnuts shaped like flying saucers. And, as I discovered, two thirds of the park’s area is devoted not to rolling lawns and trimmed beds but to the conservation of native bush. Native bush, within a frisbee-throw of the CBD. I took a wrong turn onto Zamia Path and was instantly swallowed by dense banksia and sheoak scrub, impenetrable by any breath of wind and soundless but for crickets and the rustle of sawtooth leaves. Sheoak needles covered the ground in a thick pelt and gathered like armpit hair in every fork and crook. Talk about the straight path: it seemed endless, with not a sign of signage or another soul. All I could think about were shallow graves.

A day earlier, you see, I’d attended a session at the Perth Writers Festival featuring David Whish-Wilson and fellow WA crime writers Alan Carter and Robert Schofield. Apparently, Perth noir is not the antithesis of Nordic noir that hemispheric differences would suggest. In its surface appearance, Perth may seem sunny and wide open compared to the habitual gloom of Scandinavian crime settings, but, said Whish-Wilson, “the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows”. (So much for his “instrument of grace”.) And unrelenting heat, just like a sunless winter, can make people do weird things. Mostly, though, the three crime writers reflected on WA’s boom mentality, from the gold rush of the 1890s down to the present iron-ore bonanza, and on the crime that greed begets. Corruption, of course … Well, mainly corruption and all its mean and desperate by-products, including every crime writer’s bread and butter: murder and a shallow grave. What’s lacking in the current windfall, the panellists agreed, are broad social gains for West Australians – “We’ve still got a half-finished hospital” – compared with the long-term social investment that has come out of Norway’s oil boom.

The writers’ festival was held under canvas in the picture-perfect grounds of the University of Western Australia. On my last night in Perth, I went back to UWA to see the American actor Denis O’Hare perform An Iliad. “Then the shrouds of death enfolded him, and his soul went down, down into the deep …” O’Hare was mesmerising, delivering this meditation on storytelling and the endlessness of war with gravitas and wit. In the Sunken Gardens amphitheatre – another sleeveless Perth night – lemon-scented gums shed their leaves on the stage and their fragrance everywhere.

Jonathan Holloway, who this year delivered his third of a contracted four Perth festivals, told me that he dreams of climbing through a window to discover a long-forgotten industrial interior or an underground tunnel and reanimating it as an arts space. (A vain dream in a city where, these days, no structure is suffered to stand empty and moulder.) Like other arts festivals, Perth is embracing the interiority of the digital arts, where the edge cuts sharpest just now. But Perth gets its own edge from its open space, its climate, and its proximity to land’s edge and an ocean of otherness.

Towards the end of David Whish-Wilson’s Perth, the author wonders whether “a consistent development narrative such as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, a response to and vision of the city in currency since the 1880s, with its implicit undertones of excellence and playfulness, might have made all the difference in Perth too”. Melbourne? A “consistent development narrative”? He’s got to be kidding. All cities are contingent, for better or worse. Arriving back “Over East”, I happened to pass the civic misfortune that is Melbourne’s Docklands and a thought occurred to me: transplant it to Perth and it just might work.

Robyn Annear travelled to Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival.


Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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