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I recently had a holiday break at a favourite coastal place near Jervis Bay. It was one of the spots that got me thinking about the history of our coast a decade or so ago after many stays.

Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

Like most other places within three hours of Sydney, this little town is now well and truly on the holiday map for city folk so, by the time I got around to organising things, it was impossible to rent anything in the streets that I’m familiar with – wide ones with big blocks and old relaxed fibro.

But staying in a different part of town gave me another insight into the place. For the first time I was down on the main entry thoroughfare. My rental was a small bungalow – probably original fibro but reclad out front and so ‘coastified’ within it was a bit like a inhabiting a mini theme park. There were framed surf photographs from the Australia’s ‘longboard days’, not one but two longboards squeezed in as decorations, various bits of ‘word art’ telling me to ‘relax’ and so much artfully arranged driftwood and shell that it was difficult to find a spot for sun cream and keys.

White Australia’s collective love affair with the coast is, I have argued, only a little over a century old. But within that timeframe there are enough generations of accumulated memory to generate an aesthetic of somewhat mawkish nostalgia both generic in its bleached beachiness and specific in its references to the history of Australian surfing.

Judging by the amount of mowing and edging going on around my little shrine to modern coast culture, I guessed this was the centre of the owner-occupied - rather than rented – part of town.

The intensity of the grass trimming was intriguing, even if the noise was incessant. I was immediately reminded of Allan Ashbolt’s pessimistic portrayal of Australian suburban life which appeared in the literary journal Meanjin in 1966, part of a symposium called ‘Godzone’ exploring aspects of ‘God’s own country’ as Australia was sometimes described:

Behold the man - the Australian of today – on Sunday morning in the suburbs, when the high decibel drone of the motor-mower is call the faithful to worship. A block of land, a brick veneer, and the motor mower beside him in the wilderness - what more does he want to sustain him.

Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

Ashbolt was a man of the intellectual left. For him the lawn mower was, in effect, the intrusive machine in the Edenic garden of Australian radicalism. Like the surburbia it helped to maintain, the mower reflected a deadening quest for conformity and respectability that was consuming Australian working ‘men’. It, and the gardens it created, sat counter to the labour movement led reform that had made this country one of the world’s most progressive societies - in class terms at least. The ‘motor-mower’ was a manifestation of false consciousness.

The manicured lawn also annoyed a contemporary of Ashbolt, the architect and social commentator Robin Boyd – but for aesthetic and cultural rather than political reasons. In his classic 1960 jeremiad, Australian Ugliness, Boyd wrote despairingly that ‘progress is measured by the number of acres transformed from the native state of sloppiness [ie natural bush] to the desirable state of clipped artificiality’. Boyd used the term arboraphobia to describe the contemporary attitude to native vegetation echoing, in turn, the blunt observations of historian WK Hancock who in 1930 wrote that white Australians ‘hated trees’.

Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

In recent decades the Australian suburb has been embraced by a less judgmental intelligentsia who see creativity and an authentic democratic culture expressed there. In terms of gardening there could be a degree of nostalgia here too. For the new suburbs of Sydney, at least, pay little heed to the need for private gardens. Bloated houses spread over as much of their respective blocks as planning laws permit. Shrubs are a low maintenance ‘designer’ afterthought. So anyone nurturing or growing anything outdoors must be a good thing. In this context, the well-tended blocks of Ashbolt and Boyd’s suburbia, or indeed present-day south coast settlements, could be examples of ‘creative suburbs’.

I must admit, I felt the power of nostalgia as I sat and watched the passing parade from the front of my little ‘temple’. Not wistful for the trim gardens outside or the surfing past celebrated inside but for the casual freedom of this re-creation of old suburbia. This little town is a place where people ride bikes without helmets and where children roam unsupervised. I suspect my  nostalgia was shared by the parents who bring their offspring here to delight in letting them head off to make their own fun away from scrutiny and electronic devices – just as they did ‘back in the day’. In the context of contemporary life, this old ‘suburbia’ is an added attraction of the modern coast holiday.

Yet the apparent casualness sits at odds with the obsessive pursuit of neatness and all the effort and the noise generated to create it. So while I wince a little at the stridency of Ashbolt and Boyd’s attacks from on high, the starkness of the ‘clipped artificiality’ of these coast gardens is still bewildering.

Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
The threatening 'sloppiness' of the bush. Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

There is a sense of place reflected here. But it seems to be one in which manicured gardens and trim facades are constructed as psychological and perhaps real bulwarks against the surrounding native forest and heath – a buffer of order where all beyond is alien disorder just as Robin Boyd suggested. Stranger still is the prevalence of the cultivated plants that evoke other coasts; Cocos Island Palms, exotic Hibiscus from Hawaii and Pandanus from the north. This is a confounding relationship to place and beauty for it suggests a need to sit apart from one’s habitat rather than within it. There is a need to make this specific place – glorious though it is - conform to some generic postcard version of ‘coastiness’ just as the décor of my holiday house did.

I was awoken on the last day of my break by the high decibel drone of a 'whipper snipper' outside my bedroom window. It was wielded by the owner, clearly offended by a few wisps of grass and oblivious to the possible annoyance his noisy obsession might cause. It was a Sunday morning. Allan Ashbolt would have felt vindicated and I was decidedly not ‘relaxed’.

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I’ve been looking through my mess of newspaper cuttings on the Barangaroo development in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. Eight years’ worth, minus a couple of articles that my rabbit chewed during a period of accidental incarceration in the study - he's a survivor. My incomplete archive of newsprint doesn’t quite extend back to the original design competition in 2006 but it gives a pretty good outline of the extraordinary convolutions in this project. If anything gives credence to the clichés about the fundamental connect between Sydney development and big money, Barangaroo is it.

Barangaroo from the water with headland park on the left and construction still underway on towers to the south. The Packer tower will sit between. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2015
Barangaroo from the water. The northern end headland park with the doomed port control tower can be seen on the left. Construction is still underway on towers to the south. The much larger Packer tower will sit between - the city's tallest building. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2015

Currently billionaire James Packer’s ‘unsolicited proposal’ for a 275 metre tall tower is being considered as Modification No. 8 - or just ‘Mod 8’ as it has become, shorthanded at the end of a growing list of alterations. The City of Sydney’s lengthy submission opposes the proposal in tight clear language that nonetheless conveys a sense of bewilderment at the ongoing ‘planning creep’ which has seen a hotel appear over the water (Mod 4), then disappear, then reappear in a much larger incarnation replete with casino and apartments – all encroaching upon public recreation space in the middle section of the project. Apparently this is part ‘concession’ to public complaints about a hotel built on the harbour and part ‘necessary’ adjustment for financial viability after the extraordinary push of the envelope four modifications earlier.

Packer has long argued that a high end casino is essential if Sydney is to compete for the growing Chinese tourist dollar. And apartments in this tower are estimated to sell for up to $100 million – figures that might also tempt the new Asian oligarchs. Concept drawings show a glass shard that would be at home on the waterfronts of Hong Kong or the Middle East where the display of wealth and power has complete sanction. Packer’s interest is, we are to assume, equal to the national interest.

There has been much talk about transparency throughout the planning of the place, but just how it came to this is still not clear to me.

That is the unfinished story of built Barangaroo which occupies the middle and southern end of the precinct. The tale of the ‘headland park’ to the north, on the other hand, is mostly over - it opened to the public on 24th August this year. But that, too, has been a drama. The original winning entry from a group led by Philip Thalis back in 2006 began with the idea that the existing shoreline, which was then a flat apron of concrete built to accommodate shipping containers in the late 1960s, was to be respected as an erstwhile working waterfront. There was green space, some of it tiered, but this was obviously a modified angular landscape.

The Thalis design was, however, superseded in both its landscaped and built elements in an opaque process that saw buildings get bigger and parkland rearranged, much to the disappointment of many. The Barangaroo Action Group was one manifestation of this discontent. It had formed by 2010 to protest the changes and encourage citizens to help ‘Stop the Plunder of Sydney Harbour’ by telling the Government to retain a plan for the place ‘in keeping with the originally approved concept’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 8-9 May 2010).

It was design enthusiast and former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who did most to alter the angular parkway so as to create a ‘naturalistic’ park. As Chair of the Barangaroo Design Excellence Review Panel that had apparently embraced the Thalis scheme, Keating nonetheless convinced the State Premier Morris Iemma to reinstate the headland that ‘man, through industrialisation, took away’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 9-10 August 2008). That was back in 2008. The new place was dubbed Barangaroo after the strong-willed Aboriginal woman described with rare clarity in colonial accounts; along with her husband Bennelong after whom the point which came to accommodate the Sydney Opera House was named. By intent or otherwise the two places were thereby related as dichotomous points on either side of Circular Quay – man/woman, husband/wife, culture/nature.

Keating continued to guide the park design despite resigning from the Review Panel in May 2011, furious at criticisms about process and scale from Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, whom he dismissed as the representative of ‘sandal-wearing muesli-chewing bike-riding pedestrians’ – self-evidently the most undeserving of constituencies (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2011). Upon the opening of the park in 2015, Keating argued that the resulting park would not have been possible within the confines of the planning process. It took his vision and ‘horsepower’. For that single-mindedness the Herald dubbed him ‘The lord of Barangaroo’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 22-23 August 2015).

Mr Keating is renowned for bold, and sometimes bizarre, hyperbole (by definition pedestrians don’t ride bikes). At the opening of the park in August this year he reportedly claimed that the newly landscaped space would Sydney's best example of a harbour headland 'before European settlement’ (Sun Herald, 23 August 2015). Allowing for the gradual growth of the trees and shrubs at Barangaroo – it is currently quite a stark park - that is an extraordinary prophecy. Barangaroo will never match the thick Angophora forests of Bradleys Head and Berry Island (now joined to the mainland to create a headland). Even Balls Head, the oldest plantings on which only date back to the 1930s, is more indicative of the pre-colonial foreshore. Though the jury seems to be out on the extent of Aboriginal burning - 'firestick farming' - around the Harbour, controlled burning at Balls Head and on Berry Island has approximated any pre-European landscape subjected to such a regime.

The Reserve is, in fact, a highly structured landscape. It is obviously terraced and the foreshore is lined with square cut blocks of sandstone, albeit stone obtained from the site. The waterline of the Point does now resemble the earliest charted foreshore but it is much less steep and the trees, a mix of eucalypts and figs, are not representative of the range or density of the original growth. To have replicated that would, of course, have compromised the all-important views. And then there is the curious inclusion of a formal grove of deciduous exotics near Hickson Road – what I took to be London Plane trees but which may be some of the North American Honey Locusts that have raised eyebrows among the horticultural community, not least because the plant is classified here as a weed.

The foreshore blocks and terraced plantings of Barangaroo. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015
The foreshore blocks and terraced plantings of Barangaroo. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015

For a man who emerged from the political labour movement in Australia, Paul Keating has a curious dislike of industrial heritage. Had the site of Barangaroo retained a vestige of the early colonial Georgian architecture he admires, Keating’s desire for a natural headland might have been curbed. But the structures of the early 20th century have no place in his aesthetic view. Indeed, years ago Keating argued for the demolition of the Woolloomooloo finger wharf – something many regard as a beautiful combination of graceful form and function. As it is, the finger wharves of East Darling Harbour  - today's Barangaroo - were demolished for the concrete container wharf of the early 1970s. The Maritime Services Board tower which sits atop the new park is all that is left of that era and, therefore, is slated for demolition – a particularly egregious eyesore in Keating’s estimation.

When the tower goes Sydney Harbour will have lost yet another skyline element of its industrial/commercial heritage – one to follow the erstwhile hammer head crane at Garden Island. While there was probably no way to adapt that structure for other uses, the tower is reusable as a viewing platform – one with a far more organic connection to place than the truly ugly faux spinnaker lookout built on the waterfront at Portsmouth. It is contemporary with the Opera House and represents the last incarnation of an historic working harbour, just as the gleaming shells on Bennelong Point symbolise a post-industrial waterway.

The area adjoining Barangaroo is already being emptied of its working class constituents as the government-owned terraced housing, originally built to accommodate waterside workers, is sold off.

Of course the view from Barangaroo headland is wonderful – and free. However,  the social context of the park is shifting. It certainly won't be the next hipster mecca implied by Mr Keating's characterisation of Clover and her muesli munching, pedal pushing constituents. Time may prove me wrong but my suspicion is that it will be less a people’s park for the residents of a multi-layered city than a tourist resort and a running track for the bankers who will have bought the nearby terraces as boltholes.

And when the two billion dollar tower is built on its southern edge, the park will also be the forecourt to another man’s vision, 'horsepower' and willingness to defy planning process. Packer's tower, rather than the 'naturalistic' headland, will be the obvious counterpoint to the Opera House on Bennelong Point: the latter a symbol of cultural aspiration, the former a temple to avarice both realised and hopeless. Australians are, we have just been told, the biggest gamblers in the world. The $20 minimum bet will still see a great many coming to try their luck at Barangaroo. What a profound statement.

The view to the south from the headland park. Packer's tower will on the other side of the water. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015
The view to the south from the headland park. Packer's tower will loom up from the other side of the little cove. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2015

The view from Sydney's tallest building (the antennae of Centrepoint Tower is slightly taller) will be so much better than from the headland or even the old maritime tower but I doubt if the occupants will care much about the intricacies of park design or heritage. Then James Packer will be the real Lord of Barangaroo.

 

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Last month I took advantage of the public open day at the Bays Precinct – White Bay and Glebe Island specifically - in Sydney’s inner western harbour and went for a walk by the water. That area has been the heart of Sydney Harbour’s working waterfront since the mid-19th century. An abattoir at Glebe Island in the 1860s was followed by timber yards, boatyards, and a coal gas works. In the 20th came ever bigger things - the White Bay power station, huge grain silos and, later, a coal loader and deep water long-shore wharf front that accommodated containers, bulk carriers, tankers and car carriers.

The Stolt Vanguard chemical tanker at White Bay in April 2015 with power station behind, Photo by Ian Hoskins
The Stolt Vanguard chemical tanker at White Bay in April 2015 with power station behind, Photo by Ian Hoskins

Seven years ago, as I was writing my history of Sydney Harbour, the sight of thousands of vehicles parked on the concrete apron beside the harbour awaiting delivery by truck to yards around the city raised several questions in my mind, among them: Was there a better use of waterfront? What would happen to the ‘muscular’ working harbour if this commercial use ended?

It only dawned on me after finishing the book that the Y-shaped configuration of bays – White, Rozelle and Blackwattle – form an extraordinary inner waterway within the larger harbour. This could be such a vibrant mixed use ‘lake’ which might even see a revitalisation of the harbour as a means of transit and possibly maintain a vestige of the working harbour.

The departure of the last ‘roll on, roll-off’ [RORO] car carrier at White Bay in November 2008 prompted rumination about the loss of the harbour’s soul. It seemed that the writing for the working harbour was on the wall. The container terminal at nearby East Darling Harbour had just closed. The high density residential development, Jackson’s Landing, was underway on the old Colonial Sugar Refinery site at Pyrmont opposite. The White Bay Power Station had been redundant for years.

Storage silos on Glebe Island with Anzac Bridge behind. Photo by Ian Hoskins
Storage silos on Glebe Island with Anzac Bridge behind. Photo by Ian Hoskins

My recent walk by the Bay – seven years after the ROROs had left - impressed upon me that the working harbour is not quite dead. There was a large chemical tanker berthed at White Bay and cement is still being stored at Glebe Island. A new cruise ship terminal has just been completed to cater for small top-end and domestic liners.

Because this area was refitted in the second half of the 20th century, there is none of the fine-grained waterfront of Walsh Bay where finger wharves survive to maintain texture and wonderful scale in the new guise as cultural and residential precinct. The open space at White Bay is vast and waiting to be filled. Redeveloping the area is a huge opportunity to produce something wonderful; or something very wrong. When there is nothing little that is layered or organic – ie developed over time - the master plan has to be extraordinary. The ever-increasing bulk of Barangaroo does not augur well. Hopefully UrbanGrowth NSW, which is the government instrumentality overseeing the Bays redevelopment and several other huge Sydney projects, has learned something from that process.

White Bay Power Station and vacant land, April 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins
White Bay Power Station and vacant land, April 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins

The upside of the wind-up of the working waterfronts is that public access to the harbour is improved. The downside is the potential transformation of a busy waterway, with all the interest and excitement that goes with that, into a pleasure pond which is largely empty during the week and full of yachts on the weekend. Along with the oil tankers that continue to dock at Gore Cove, the large vessels arriving and departing from White Bay add working texture to a waterway that has lost so much of that. The retention of waterfront jobs is far less an issue because there are relatively few workers needed at White Bay.

The Port Authority of NSW, who manage the facility, are keen that this work be maintained alongside greater public access to the waterfront. It will be fascinating to see how that is achieved. And a good thing if it is done successfully. There are many, myself included, who would regret the passing of the last remaining parts of the working harbour.

But although there has been much anguish expressed over the shrinking working harbour, those sites and upmarket residential waterfronts mix about as well as oil and water. Security and safety make access to working sites difficult while, noise, pollution and heavy traffic offend the sensibilities of those who regard the area as home rather than a workplace. This has been the case in the Harbour’s working west since gentrification began apace in the 1980s. The prospect and realisation of the new cruise terminal has caused angst in neighbouring Balmain for years now.

The question of how many people will live in the wider Bays Precinct has already prompted suspicion. In November 2014 the State Treasurer, Andrew Constance, suggested as many as 16,000 people would be accommodated there, pre-empting the results of a masterplan and community consultation. It is ‘essential’, he said, ‘that UrbanGrowth captures a fair return on the value of the Government's land assets and commensurate with their development potential’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 2014).

At exactly the same time, UrbanGrowth was convening an ‘International Summit’ of 71 experts – planners, architects and politicians for the most part - which arrived at a set of 20 principles. These say all the right things about sustainability, liveability and transparency. One of the 20 is diverse housing which I’d like to think includes affordable housing - so that this vast 80 hectares doesn’t become simply another prohibitively expensive and exclusive enclave. I love visiting Walsh Bay but I am aware that the lower income population that called that area home for over a century are now invisible on the waterfront (one or two rod fishers aside) and the present Government is determined to remove the last vestige of their presence from nearby Millers Point public housing.

Walsh Bay finger wharf, 2014. Photo by Ian Hoskins
Walsh Bay finger wharf, 2014. Photo by Ian Hoskins

Remarkably enough the very first of the 20 principles is to ‘build on’ of the ‘unique’ history and heritage of the area. Given the strange absence of any historians in the select 71 that is heartening. It suggests that the huge Power Station that sits in a wonderfully picturesque state of decay will be reused in some way. That will be a challenge for I really can’t see it working as a ‘museum’ – the most-common off-the-cuff solution to its obsolescence. Our present set of collecting institutions are having trouble enough keeping their heads above water, so to speak.

White Bay Power Station, 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins
White Bay Power Station, 2015. Photo by Ian Hoskins

It is still relatively early days. There is public consultation planned – see http://sydneyyoursay.com.au/bays-precinct - and have your say.

I share the scepticism of many that the Sydney property market is the ‘magic pudding’ that can deliver equity with the proceeds of leasing or selling public land. I suspect it is hoped that it can at least underpin some of the 20 ‘International Summit’ principles. But chasing top market dollar may undermine those very principles.

View the principles at UrbanGrowth NSW.

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It being nearly Christmas, some may be considering things loftier than the usual splurge on gifts and food. My mind was turned to religious architecture again during a recent wander around Armidale in northern New South Wales – a country centre with two fine cathedrals (Anglican and Catholic) and a very handsome Presbyterian Church adjacent to the retail centre.

St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins
St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins

I often tell those who come on my guided walks around North Sydney that architecture provides the  most accessible way of comprehending the material culture of past generations. Unlike clothing, cars or other forms of technology, the structures of the past are still all about us.

Few buildings wear the ideological intent of the architect or owner more clearly than places of worship and their associated structures. These were literally built to express and evoke religious sentiment. And what I find especially fascinating is that, despite the apparent immutability of the truths presented in them, buildings erected by the various Christian churches in Australia reflect changing architectural fashion and thought just as non-sacred structures do.

Gothic architecture, in its various forms, was the dominant mode of sacred expression in this country through the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth. It is not surprising given that the consolidation of British occupation of the Australian colonies coincided with the revival of the Gothic in the ‘mother country’. Americans, by contrast, were far more willing to erect a church that looked like a Greek or Roman temple, something that would have appalled John Ruskin for whom classicism was synonymous with paganism.

The spiritual message of much Gothic architecture is clear. Cathedral spires and pinnacles reach for the heavens. Even in their absence the pointed arch window directs one’s gaze, and hopefully thoughts, upwards. Then, of course, in Catholic and some Anglican churches there is the obvious iconography apparent in statues and stained glass windows.

All this is very apparent with St Mary and Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in Armidale. It was designed in 1910-11 by the firm Sherrin and Hennessey who did a huge amount of work for the Catholic Church at the time. Heavenly thoughts are conveyed to all who enter or pass by with the spire, pinnacles and pantheon of saints.

The Cathedral is built of brick rather than stone, as was the case with many Federation-era Gothic churches. In this instance the construction also shows off the characteristic local light and dark bricks and the polychromatic brickwork of the prolific local builder, GF Nott. St Mary and Joseph’s looks like it belongs in Armidale because of this localism.

The extravagant expression of Gothicism was pared back during the first half of the 20th century by the impact of Modernism, which celebrated mass production and tended to eschew ornamentation. Accordingly the celebration of the craft of the carpenter, bricklayer, and mason, so apparent in earlier Gothic structures, was muted and then lost altogether.

Cathedral Hall, built 1938, photograph by Ian Hoskins
Cathedral Hall, built 1938. Photo by Ian Hoskins

This move to austerity is so apparent in the ‘Cathedral Hall’ that was built by Armidale's Catholics near the sublime structure from which it gets its name. It is clearly a building that has been designed rather than simply erected as a functional shelter. The Gothic ancestry is referenced by the stylised battlements on the bay front. The decision to leave the grey concrete render unpainted seems to be part of the original intent of the architect or builder. There is a grimness about it that may reflect the impact of the Great Depression, just past when the place was built. Possibly cost was an issue. To me it also expresses an age when totalitarian ideas were in conflict with democracy and the Catholic Church was trying to find its place within this turmoil. But was arrival at the Cathedral Hall meant to uplift and express hope in the future through its modernity? Or was the bleakness an attempt to cower a congregation and secure their allegiance? Either way, for such as small building, it is amazingly affecting.

 

 

 

 

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I’ve never understood the urge to cheer when something is destroyed, however spectacular the destruction might be. My feeling is that objects embody effort, skill and time – and sometimes a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. All that is worthy of respect and consideration, at least. There are some exceptions to this of course; not least the toppling of the statues of tyrants. The golden likeness of the brutal Enver Hoxha of Albania is a good example.

The demolition of the towering Port Kembla copper smelter chimney last week produced whoops and claps from the audience assembled to watch the structure come crashing down. Admittedly I didn’t grow up near what the Daily Telegraph (20 February 2014) referred to as the ‘infamous’ tower. My washing was never spoiled by it, nor did I breathe in its exhaust. Perhaps some of those who cheered were really glad to see the thing go because of the bad memories it triggered and what it represented – though it hadn’t been operational since 2003. Perhaps the chimney was something of a tyrant in its own right.

But reports also suggested there were those who shed a tear. Some worked at the place, others considered it a defining landmark. One man’s father helped build the stack and was too upset to see it destroyed. The chimney was just under 50 years old; built in 1965 it symbolised the post-war industrial development of Port Kembla. The copper smelter gave many immigrants their first permanent job. Indeed for a community that now suffers from chronic unemployment it was a very obvious reminder of a productive, even heroic, past.

‘A relic’s worth’, as the writer David Lowenthal points out, depends in part ‘on what use its serves’. If the retention of the chimney serves no purpose as a reminder, an icon, a focal point of community identity then I suppose its loss does not matter. Lowenthal goes on to say ‘everything surviving from the past has some value which is forfeited unless it is preserved’. I’m not sure, however, if that value or the depth of community feeling was much assessed in Port Kembla.

Retaining the obsolete industrial monoliths of the 20th century is fraught. They are often hard to re-use and expensive to maintain. Some are contaminated, though in the case of the Port Kembla chimney reports suggest that the asbestos had been removed. Size and retention cost are the reasons that the 60 year old Garden Island hammer head crane will be dismantled. Its removal will profoundly change the skyline of Sydney Harbour, cutting the last significant focal link to that waterway’s industrial past.

But at Catherine Hill Bay – a small State Heritage Listed mining settlement on the NSW’s central coast – the case for retaining the massive coal loading jetty may just have become stronger. It was not included in the Heritage Listing and was slated for demolition for the same reasons as Sydney Harbour’s hammer head crane. However, a fire in late 2013 that destroyed other heritage sites in the 130 year old town left most of the jetty intact. The local Progress Association and Lake Macquarie City Council hope the owner, Lake Coal, will fund its restoration. It is unlikely that any reuse can be found for the structure – it is too high to be used as a fishing wharf. But it has ‘symbolic’ value as a link to the origins of the settlement. And as one of the last of the long jetties that once extended like fingers into the sea from Byron Bay to the Illawarra it surely has state significance. Maybe the case can be made again as plans proceed to build the large subdivision just south of the original settlement. Maybe funds might be found through that development. For the jetty would be clearest reminder of Catherine Hill’s historical reason for being.

The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire
The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire

There is precious little industrial heritage left on the NSW coast. The phenomenon of sea change has so transformed towns that it is hard to imagine our relationship with the coast before the advent of surfing and mass holidays. Structures like the Catherine Hill jetty help offset that collective amnesia.

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