Tag Archives: place

Look Up!

 

I don’t regard myself as parochial toward any particular city. I relate to Melbourne best, because I lived there for so many years. So although I imagine myself to be Melburnian (or however we’re supposed to spell it), I cringe at the thought of comparing Melbourne to other places or spouting Melbourne to be anything other than a great city. Sydney’s a great city too. Great because it’s different to Melbourne, and because it’s not Melbourne. I’d better explain.

 

On this trip to Sydney, I’ve been struck by the beauty of her built form. I’m keenly aware of some of her prominent historical buildings (around Martin Place, St James Park and elsewhere), but my surprise has come from doing something that most forget to do. As I walked down Market street on my way to the water, I cast my eye up to the buildings high above. Looking up is something all of us that love the city, should do.

 

Downtown Sydney (oh yes, I did go there… girlfriend) is laid out on an elongated grid of streets running south from Circular Quay. The layout is often traduced for its long blocks, narrow street reserves and (of course), even narrower footpaths. But one of the finer points often missed about the elongated grid, is the view it offers those that bother to look up and along the long blocks of buildings that make up the CBD.

 

The concentration of high-rise buildings are a demonstration in contrast of material, height, shape and colour. The effect is quite unique in my experience, from any other Australian city. Sure, other State capitals have high rise buildings, but what Sydneyhas is more in the style I imagine many US cities like Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago and New York, to be. By Australian standards they look bigger, and there are more of them. They are in the minds of many, a discerning feature that makes the city, the city. Sydney does high-rise better than, um, Melbourne. In my humble view, Sydney does them best.

 

But there is no escaping inter-city rivalry, unfortunately. On the Airport Link to Central Station I overheard a middle-aged Sydney local explain the difference between Melbourne and Sydney to a couple who had most obviously just flown in from Asia. “It’s the people” he said. “In Melbourne, they think they’re more cultured than us. But I don’t know… I’d prefer the harbor and the sunshine, you know? Plus, I don’t think Melbournepeople are as friendly as us…”

 

‘Fuck off’ I thought. But I didn’t say it. That wouldn’t have been very friendly. Plus, I’m not one of those that regard themselves as parochial toward any particular city – as I’ve already explained.

 

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So Many Buildings, So Little Religion

I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between people, space and place. In fact, my long term attachment to the hospitality and retail food service industry is directly attributable to my broad interest, but narrow understanding of this trio of abstractions.

With an established career in hospitality management, training and consultancy, others have at times raised an eyebrow when I explain I’m a student of urban, rural and environmental planning. The link is, I admit, not immediately obvious. I too have wondered if indeed there is any link, or anything at all from my professional background that might be regarded as relevant to my current field of study. But there is. Really, there is…

Restaurants in particular, and other other food service places play a unique role in our society. For me, these are ‘places’ in a similar way that home, school, or work-places [sic] are spaces that have meaning and purpose to each of us at different times throughout out lives. The unique, and to me, exciting thing about restaurants is that they transcend the typical understanding of place. They represent a nexus of people, space and events that are mostly joyful, celebratory or significant in people’s daily lives. In a way, restaurants, bars, cafes and pubs have come to replace more traditional places of congregation and celebration. Places we once used to congregate and reflect (and ask for forgiveness) have to many given way to places we go to meet friends and pontificate (and to forget perhaps, in the morning).

I’ve observed a fairly rapid change in the way people use restaurant and food service spaces over my career. But its only been recently that I’ve stopped to think about what this type of change means from a land use and community infrastructure prospective. Here, in Prague (Praha, Czech Republic), similar impacts are quite dramatic. And the future implications for cultural and historical heritage are significant.

Our architectural walking tour in the early evening was much like many of us expected. Neo-gothic this, Romanesque that. Prague is a beautiful city, this is undisputed. But I guess my expectations were raised by each of those presumptuous enough to tell me before I got here that I would love it. My expectations were, um… satisfied. Sorry Prague, but you have been a victim of your own success.

Toward the end of the tour, as we stood among the substantive structures that make up the Prague Castle and modern day Presidential residence and administrative quarters. We were told about how many of the buildings around us had little religious significance to the residents of modern Prague. We were told by Jerry (our guide) that although still in use, the Basilica holds a place of religious significance to fewer than 15% of the cities residents, and of course, the occasional Catholic tourist. Each other building of religious heritage was largely unused, and those that were had been converted to one form of tourism related attraction or another. These buildings it would seem, had outlived their usefulness.

So just what do you do with so many buildings of great architectural value, but such diminished community worth?

I don’t know. One of the academics on tour with us – let’s call her “JR” – asked me a related question along the way. Imagine if, in Australian cities we had buildings of similar architectural and historical value. What would happen to them? Given contemporary debates regarding our built heritage, would they be demolished to make way for high rise apartment buildings and car parks? Or would we, as those in Prague have done, turn them in to a museum and hope that somehow tourists will continue to understand the cultural context of each enough to keep paying a fee to visit and take photos?

At the rate were going in Australia though, it appears this won’t really be much of a problem. If you don’t allow a building or precinct to develop much in the way of historical value, and you knock it down and build something more functional and modern, this never really becomes a problem. That’s where the residents and administrators of Prague got it wrong, you see; they should have just knocked the buildings down back in the day and they wouldn’t have had to deal with the problem of maintaining their architectural, cultural and religious heritage at the behest of foreign tourists.

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