Monday, December 9, 2013


The Spectator Australia publishes a regular Diary page segment that is written by a different guest author each week. Eugene Robinson had been invited to write this page, (page v), in the 16 November 2013 edition. The Diary intends to add some interesting personal stories to the magazine’s content. Eugene Robinson chose to write about his time in Australia. It is interesting to see the country through another’s experiences.

The diary started with some name-dropping, (The Spectator is good at this), with Mr. Robinson telling how, on his second day in Australia, he was walking with Lord Black and met I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on Circular Quay in Sydney. After a quick chat, he adds: ‘I looked ahead at the brilliant white shells of the Opera House, which was where Lord Black and I were headed, (for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas), and up at the magnificent arc of the great bridge, and thought: wow. Oz is a pretty interesting place.’ Strangely, this makes it sound as if these very obvious, truly landmark structures had not been noticed previously! Wow!

Robinson continues on with more about the festival and then reports: ‘After a day-long conference . . . my wife Avis and I flew off to the Whitsunday Islands.’ Then there is some advice given to Australians: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. Australian airports . . . (are) both faster and less demeaning (than some others).’ Wow! Thanks!

On the Great Barrier Reef experience, he says: ‘Hamilton Island was beautiful and tranquil - a perfect spot for a quick three days-in-paradise vacation.’ Wow! Then the journey resumes: ‘From there we flew on to Canberra to visit some dear friends’ - followed again by more name-dropping. ‘The museums are impressive . . . We had good Thai food . . . The next day our hosts drove us to a countryside roost . . . for a very good lunch.’ . . . Wow!

He concludes: ‘And on our last day, as we were being driven to the airport to fly home, we stopped and watched a large group of kangaroos. . . . You really have kangaroos, just hopping all over the place. The moment was enchanting and unforgettable. An amazing place Oz.’ WOW!

The text concludes with the note: ‘Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.’ This was his Australia! WOW!

So there is was, with what seems to be just one week in Australia, Mr. Robinson fleetingly saw the opera house and the bridge in Sydney; sat on the reef beaches of Hamilton Island for a couple of days; visited some of Canberra’s public buildings in the parliamentary triangle; spent time at a few local restaurants; and saw a few kangaroos as he was leaving. Wow! He experienced nearly every cliché Australia can promote and felt smugly satisfied: ‘an amazing place Oz.’ WOW! This vision encapsulated his Australia. The real concern is that he leaves Australia contented after seeing so little, with his, (and his wife’s), experience finally embellished with what appears to be the highlight: the sight of a few nuisance rogue roos that he passed as he was departing, leaving him convinced that he, and no doubt his wife, had captured the true Oz experience, naively believing, it seems, there were kangaroos hopping everywhere across the continent. The tourist brochure had been confirmed from so little. Sadly, the circumstance is close to pure farce.

How many tourists or visitors experience such a specialised and limited array of ‘icons’ that represent only the ‘souvenir’ façade of our country, as seen on the TV promotional pieces? The true substance of place is ignored, left concealed by the easy glitz, the ticking off of glimpses of what one has been told to see. Meaning and place are much richer, deeper and more complex than any skimpy, shallow overview of highlights. A place has to be lived, touched, felt, known, and understood in depth if it is to be comprehensively perceived. Land itself is important, its feel: just ask the aboriginal residents.

After reading this Diary, it became clear how easy it is for a place to develop an image that misrepresents its true strengths and complexities - its significance; its substance; its story: history. The concern is that such insubstantial understandings of place can get used as a reference for its growth and development as well as its promotion, as guidelines that conceal the songlines of its being. It is a strategy that only adds to the shallowness of the perceptions of place, reinforcing every cliché while true value and meaning are squashed, blighted by the mass dazzle of things superficially sparkling.

Springbrook World Herutage Area

The proposals for the Gold Coast Cutlural Centre came to mind. All of the three finalists seem to have based their concepts of an ephemeral understanding of this region that has popularly come to be known as an ad hoc accumulation of clichés. The perception of the Gold Coast is of a fun destination; a playground; the theme park capital of Australia; a holiday venue where excess, diversions and differences are sought, expressed and experienced like nowhere else. Lying latent behind this understanding is the intellectual mockery that sees this portion of Queensland as crass and indulgent, complete with extremes of bad taste and perverted morals, ignorant, with a dismal lack of ethics that extends deep into its fabric that has been shaped by slick developers seeking fast ‘gold’ from the shoreline gloss. This attitude is encompassed in the reflexive local joke that tells how Victorians see the Gold Coast as ‘the arsehole of Australia’; a statement that gets the parochial punch line response: but a lot of Victorians pass through! Got ya! Rivalry between the states is strong. The destination is in fact seen as a wintering playground for those in colder, less sunny regions of Australia, a place to relax all inhibitions. This aspect becomes embedded in youth who use the area for the mayhem of ‘schoolies’ week every year.

Article, The Australian, Friday, 22 November 2013

The brash rudeness of this pretend paradise is accepted as part of its divergence and disparity, giving the region its ‘edge’ in doubtful character: snide and dodgy; the not-so-cheap but nasty, anti-intellectual, ‘Queensland’ location standing beside some glorious natural wonders - the beaches; the headlands; the rivers; the creeks; the wetlands; the forests; the bushland; backed by the hinterland: the hills; and the mountains with unique World Heritage quality flora and fauna. These surroundings are indeed World Heritage listed for their unique biodiversity. Yet no one would ever know this from the hype of the promos that push the fun and games: Movie World; Dreamworld; Sea World; Wet and Wild; and the buzz of high, high-rise development and its lights. Any subtle feeling for place is squashed under the careless, indulgent extremities of entertaining propaganda: see
  The only attention that the World Heritage region gets is when it is seen as a location for mass tourism transported by the dream of a cableway: wow! There have been repeated attempts to achieve this outrageous outcome that is based on the hype of the clichés rather than on any love, respect, and concern for place - its flora and fauna that has been recognised by the rest of the world.

Springbrook World Heritage Area

In spite of all of this natural world wonder, it is the clichés that have become the core identity of this region, the plaything for designers to ‘reference.’ The finalists in the cultural centre competition indulge the idea with a big spider; a pink poodle; a big man; bungee jumps; water slides - all these become part of an intellectual joke that continues on with its disparagement in these chosen schemes, albeit it latently - as ‘architectural’ references. Why should architecture reference? What story is being pushed? What is the theory here? Why? Does this simply become the old contextual concept of the 1980’s? Is it an excuse to mock - a reason to be extravagantly playful, to make things ‘interesting’ within a cunning ‘cultural collage’? Is this the only idea that architects know of? What else might inform form and hold meaning in this place that the winner sees as becoming ‘the soul’ of the region? Is this ARM wrestling, playing with concepts and outcomes? What is the function of function these days? Indeed, what is the function of references - of soul?

ARM 'Eiffel Tower' proposal, with waterslide and bungy jump surround

Dare one ask how fast one might end up travelling down the waterslide as presently illustrated by ARM? Might one ever ask if it would be impossible for the bungee leap to never whip against the building fabric? It would be ironic if folk could lose and arm or a leg in this project by ARM! These thoughts have hardly any connection to the other deliberation that asks how the experience of art in the ‘museum’ wrapped in a waterslide jump has any relationship to these excrescences beyond that expressed by the Mayor when he suggested that mum and dad could enjoy the Picassos, (does the coast have some or is this a cliché for ‘art’?), while the kids were jumping and sliding. Has he no children? Will these game pieces ever be built, for they are game indeed? Are these ideas just a Melbourne joke that takes the ‘mickey,’ the ‘piss’ out of Queenslanders, the ‘rednecks’ of Australia? Is there now a private giggle that belligerently says, “I told you they’d love it - the hillbillies!”? WOW! More Gold Coast clutter and chaos! - ?

Burleigh Heads National Park, Gold Coast

So is this how we get the ambition for the ‘Guggenheim Gangnam’ style: the ‘Bilbao’ effect with more outrageous screams, both metaphorical and those from the waterslide-bungy jump art gallery? If only Frank Lloyd Wright had such ideas - poor fellow; so limited! He is probably gyrating now as the words rage on, mindlessly encompassing his Guggenheim in the wild Gold Coast ambitions.

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