At the recent Urban Design Forum, my short talk was about a big word – ‘culture’ – and thinking small in order to foster it. It is a story, as my title suggests, about three red gum benches.
We know we can have an emotional or deep seated cultural attachment to things in the public realm, to place, to art, to artefacts. Big places like Time Square in New York, The Left Bank in Paris or, in the scale of things, small elements like ‘The Clocks’ at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne.
Contemporary urban design practice is often what I call a dis-cultural phenomenon – it does not recognise local cultural values nor public artefacts, does not take the time to assess what it is that has made a place that is to be modified or re-designed, a unique place. Yes I know this is taught, but you only need to compare one or two hundred small ‘town centre’ designs to see this is often not put into practice. This, of course, is an issue in sub-urban capital cities, also in regional communities and, even more so in small rural communities such as mine.
Big cities – Melbourne, Sydney or even New York are not so much one large ‘city’ as they are hundreds of villages. So, what I say can to some extent be applied whether in Nathalia, Victoria (my home town, population 1,450) or Brisbane or Paris alike.
About the three redgum benches. They are located along the banks of the lovely Broken Creek at Nathalia, on the Murray River flood plain. It is these floods that periodically soak the soil allowing these trees to grow and create the world’s largest River Redgum forest. They became the sleepers for rail lines throughout the south-eastern states and gave birth to Nathalia as a timber milling town.
These benches were the last public space vestiges of the river redgum industry. The drop log cabins have all but collapsed, slab fences once common are now gone – even once common rough hewn red gum paling fences are gone. Over the years the timber cutting disappeared, the mills and virtually all evidence of them have been removed. The only evidence of a direct connection in the public domain was these three rough hewn ‘log andslab’ benches.
One day these absolutely unique, hand-made benches were removed by the shire – the shire office is about an hour’s drive away – and replaced by three ‘Picnic Bench/Green/ Metal/584-PB 1275’, or some such attribution from an urban furniture catalogue.
So what do we have? Our real history in wood is replaced by steel picnic benches – manufactured in the millions, and Bunnings powder-coated fences (in one of 4 styles – a Victorian look is favoured). Nathalia is, nonetheless, a lovely town, slowly, ever so slowly having its physical history erased and people here are bravely trying to keep this aspect of its history alive. They have established what I call a ‘memory line’ by having our signs say ‘redgum country’, our newspaper bears a similar name, a metal sculpture of a wood cutter is now located in our main street on a stone plinth, a visitor centre tells the story of our, once publicly evident, rich history.
Malcolm Snow in his presentation spoke of elements, sometimes seemingly simple, which are ‘not decorative but at the core’. Simple but significant words. While professionals have slowly helped to dis-culturalise Nathalia, many in the community have continued to find ways to establish these ‘memory lines.’
My final comment is to say to you, as professionals, ethically no job should be undertaken if you cannot or will not look closely at the community in which you are working, come to some understanding of its history and its stories – reflect on the design possibilities for each individual place which will help keep its landscape unique and its history alive.