Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Australia is different. There are numerous circumstances where one is left questioning just what this difference might be and why it is there. In Britain, one is allowed to build one’s own home, carry out one’s own electrical installation and install one’s own plumbing: but not in Australia. Here one is not even allowed to replace a tap washer or an electrical plug – but we do it. One is not even allowed to trap a nuisance possum or scrub turkey – but we do it. There is a rogue attitude amongst this difference too. Where did this come from?

When entering the UK and when leaving it, those with UK passports are allowed free access and exit without having to complete forms or undergo any other inquisition. A friendly welcome is offered. But Australia insists on those it has granted passports to, filling out forms that require all types of detailed information, when both leaving and entering the country. So much for passing through the port! The passport has the same status as any other in the world and means nothing in particular for an Australian, other than to prove one is. Roguish behaviour at immigration is treated with disdain and one is likely to find oneself locked up for any cheek or refusal. Where does this attitude come from?

Then there is the regional difference. There is the clarion call that declares that Queenslanders are different; that Sydney differs from Brisbane and Melbourne; that Perth is different from Townsville. Why? How? It is merely topography? Is it geology? Social?

While browsing through a book of old drawings and paintintgs of Brisbane one day - Historic Brisbane and its Early Artists by Susann Evans, Boolarong Publications, 1982 - I was surprised to discover a pen and grisaille  wash drawing of a vista of the Moreton Bay Settlement looking from South Brisbane - by Henry William Boucher - illustrating the buildings from the windmill on Wickham Terrace on the left to Kangaroo Point on the right. A small building near the windmill was labelled 'Treadmill.' What was this? It is just open parkland at present. What used to be there? What has now gone?

Looking more closely at the drawing gave no further information. What was this? A grain mill? No, the windmill ground the grain. Reading the associated text on a previous page under the title The Treadmill on Wickham Terrace, explained that this was a device for punishment and was an extremely cruel form of discipline. Men, frequently in leg-irons, were forced to tread this mill for fourteen hours at a time, and were whipped if they stumbled. A fall could kill or mame. It was managed by cruel guards and was the most extreme form of punishment that this convict settlement could offer. It was feared. One convict wrote that it 'robbed even death of its terrors.' It was the malfunctioning of the original windmill sails that made the treadmill a necessity. The treadmill was initially used to suplement the windmill but became a necessity when its sails proved inefficient. I had known that Moreton Bay - a totally closed military camp - was the place that the worst of convicts were sent to, but I had never known of this pitiless device. Does its ghost still linger? Can the cries of the men still be heard in the silence? – on the wind?

The method of operation on the treadmill was for the convicts, in leg-irons or without them, to grasp an overhead rail with both hands and tread the 9-inch wide steps or treads, as if walking continuously upstairs. They had to step out briskly or be painfully hit on the shins by the next tread as it came round and so for long periods, often in steaming heat, they were forced to tread unremittingly, as though on a long march. (ibid., page 14.)

The thought arose: do the ghosts of the suffering convicts and their brutal guards still haunt us? Does Australia have this lingering pain and desire for punishment as a part of its silent culture? Does government still have the lack of trust and the desire for control that those in the past held for their prisoners? Have rules for control in our laws and paperwork become stained with the past extremes? Is this why everyone, even those with passports, have to complete forms at ports? Is government merely continuing on with its old habits? Is this why ordinary people are banned from building?

Perhaps this is why the Board of Architects has developed its CPD programme? One can just not trust people – even architects – to do the right thing. After all, Francis Greenway was a convict; and architects, along with artists and nurses, were listed as those who were most likely to contract AIDS. The idea seemed to be that being ‘arty,’ architects were probably pansies, and AIDS came from homosexual contact. Had this trait been observed in the convicts? Could this careless perception of things subtle and beautiful only have arisen in those applying brute force and managing by strict control?

These generalisations are simply astonishing, but given the latter proposition, arguing that convict ghosts still linger in our midst is not so silly. The thought of the suffering on that treadmill in Wickham Terrace still gives nightmares. Such agony and hatred does not disappear, any more than, as Rem Koolhaus suggested, the energy and enthusiasm of the Russian constructivists did. His proposition was that this energy was transferred to America where modernism thrived. Did the convicts’ anguish and the guards’ disregard tarnish our society?

The more one thinks about place and its character in Australia, the more one can believe that our past has infiltrated into our present systems, albeit very subtly. This could explain why Australia is different and why cities vary. What else lingers in our present and changes us today? Conviction? – a conviction to govern all as untrustworthy incompetents? A conviction to cheat the system? Is this lack of trust why we have CPD, because we all know that it will become a numbers game, in spite of any different intent or spin? What the profession needs is the conviction to act to overcome such silliness. Learning is more than convicts ticking boxes and guards checking these. It is more than a roll call where one makes claims for being and another looks to confirm this. This only means that the tick of approval has been allocated at this time, for this particular circumstance. Nothing else. Architects, like others, do not want to be controlled as convicts once were. Francis Greenway had the conviction to take government on. Why not us? Why is the professional body doing nothing other than re-enacting a past of subservience? One wonders: will we be put on the treadmill for protesting? – for questioning? Is this why there is silence?

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