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Urban life

Urban life

Examines how Australian governments, planners, architects, developers and residents have built cities as places to live, work and play.

Australia is one of the most urbanised nations in the world. The first European settlements grew quickly into bustling administrative, commercial towns centred on ports. But until the 1890s most Australians lived on the land or in small rural towns.

Then farms mechanised and people moved to the coastal cities. Suburbs spread, city buildings rose and roadways multiplied. In 2015 about 90 per cent of Australia's 23 million people were city dwellers.

Rottnest Island, Western Australia

Darrell Hick's 'Hernia' bicycle

Rottnest Island lies about 20 kilometres off the coast of Perth. It is famous in Western Australia but far less known in the eastern states of Australia. Only 11 kilometres long and four kilometres at its widest point, this small island has played a great role in the history of Perth and the west coast.

Crescent-shaped beach and bay, with wooden stairs in the foreground
Salmon Bay, Rottnest Island. Photo: Daniel Oakman.

Rottnest first appeared in European maritime charts in the early 1600s and was named by Dutch cartographer Willem de Vlamigh in 1696. He called the island 'Ratsnest' or 'Rottenest' after the small species of kangaroo, known as the quokka, which he first thought were giant rats.

Early settlers at the Swan River colony used the island for food and salt production from 1828. From the 1850s it was a prison for Aboriginal offenders, infamous for its horrific conditions. The island was an internment camp for German and Italian prisoners in the First World War.

During the 1920s and 1930s the construction of campsites, hostels, and a faster ferry service all helped generate interest in Rottnest.

After the Second World War, rising affluence saw the island emerge as a place of recreation and escape from the city. Many Western Australians have a powerfully nostalgic regard for the island as a place of freedom, exploration and discovery.

Darrell Hick's 'Hernia' bicycle

This bicycle belonged to Darrell Hick, who grew up in the Perth beachside suburb of Scarborough and travelled to Rottnest Island from a young age. The Hick family first took their bikes to the island in the 1950s, when roads were rough and naturally sandy, and bikes were one of the few forms of available transport.

A bicycle with a leather seat, yellow paintwork and a wooden tray at the front
Darrell Hick's 'Hernia' bicycle. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Darrell purchased this bike at a garage sale in the 1970s. Dubbed 'Hernia', it has its original leather seat, paintwork and wheels.

The front tray was one of two homemade wooden 'seats' used to transport the Hick's children around the island.

'Hernia' was used as recently as Christmas 2007 when Darrell's daughter and grandson rode along the Rockingham foreshore. Darrell's children have fond memories of their journeys across the island on the bike, although the eldest, Chloe, remembers regularly swallowing sandflies during fast descents.

Bowen Hills, Brisbane

Queenslander architectural detail

In 2009 all that remained of Lanham Street, Bowen Hills, was a street sign that pointed to a construction site of earthworks and barricades for the northern portal of the north south bypass tunnel below the Brisbane River, the latest attempt to ease Brisbane's traffic gridlock.

Timber house with a red, corrugated iron roof, raised on wooden supports
No. 3 Lanham Street, a Queenslander house built in Brisbane in the 1880s.
Photo: Daniel Oakman.

Located about a kilometre from the bustling Fortitude Valley and two kilometres from the central business district, Bowen Hills was an inner city dormitory suburb since self-government and the incorporation of the Brisbane city municipality in 1859.

It was home to Brisbane's working class, from labourers to craftsmen.

The suburb was particularly vulnerable to changes in urban development over the past 150 years, bisected by railways, a dual bypass and the emerging tunnel.

Queenslander architectural detail

No. 3 Lanham Street is a Queenslander home built in the 1880s. In 2006, when site preparations for the Brisbane River tunnel began, the house was trucked 30 kilometres north to Narangba, awaiting a new buyer.

The home's verandah was restored by Mackay House Removals in 2007. Casement windows and fibro cement cladding once added to enclose the structure were removed, in keeping with a more modern appreciation of the typical Queenslander home.

Side view of shaded, glass windows on a wooden house.
Side windows, No. 3 Lanham Street.
Photo: Daniel Oakman.

The distinctive architectural style known as the Queenslander evolved in the 50 years since the mid-19th century. The style is now identified with a popular image with contemporary and historical resonances. Although imprecise, a Queenslander is widely understood to include the following elements:

  • made of timber with a corrugated-iron roof
  • highset on timber stumps
  • singleskin cladding for partitions and some external walls
  • verandahs front and back, and perhaps at the sides
  • decorative features which screen the sun or ventilate the interiors.

The concept of the Queenslander house continues to evolve at the hands of local architects and developers.

No. 3 Lanham Street has undergone extensive architectural changes, reflecting the social and economic circumstances of its occupants as well as the broader history of Brisbane. Landmarks includes a nine-minute animated film inspired by the history of No. 3 and the families who lived there.

Castlecrag, Sydney, New South Wales

Knitlock brick-making machine and brick

Castlecrag, situated on the once isolated and forested promontories of Middle Harbour in Sydney, was chosen in 1919 as the site of a new community which would showcase a fusion between the natural and built worlds.

Detail of a knitlock brick-making machine
Part of the knitlock brick-making machine, patented in 1917 and used to make bricks which were central to Walter Burley Griffin's architectural vision.
Photo: Lannon Harley.

Water Burley Griffin and his architect wife Marion had a social and architectural vision for a planned residential community at Castlecrag.

Walter was the American architect who won the competition to design the Australian capital, Canberra.

The land at Castlecrag was owned by a struggling London-based company who thought the steep, rocky outcrops sounded unfit for development.

Walter bought 650 acres with more than six kilometres of water frontage at a price much lower than he anticipated.

The Greater Sydney Development Association was formed to develop the area and drew together shareholders who were supportive of Griffin's vision for the suburb.

Inspired by Castlecrag's relative isolation, they designed a unique suburban plan, with a strong sense of their philosophical understanding of urban life and the fusion between the natural and built worlds. The residents of Castlecrag continue to promote this legacy today.

Landmarks includes two large puppets of Walter and Marion Griffin. The puppets were used in local theatre productions and community rallies.

Images from the installation of the Griffin puppets

Knitlock brick-making machine and brick

Walter Burley Griffin began developing the knitlock construction method while working in Canberra. Possibly motivated by the labour and material shortages which beset the implementation of his architectural vision, the interlocking construction system formed an integral part of Griffin's vision for a simple, but non-standard workers cottage.

Curved, moulded concrete brick on a wooden mould
Knitlock brick in a wooden mould.
Photo: Lannon Harley.

Patented in 1917, Griffin's 'segmental architecture', commonly known as knitlock, was intended as an antidote to the increasing standardisation of building and design processes in the 1920s.

The knitlock system relied on two types of 'vertebrae' to form a concrete skeleton. Knitlock bricks required no cutting, bedding or plastering and allowed a greater diversity in building shapes. Their design was light yet sturdy, with a finished wall only six centimetres wide.

The knitlock method has come to embody both Griffin's idealism as well as his commitment to a practical, adaptable and democratic architecture.


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Bennelong Point, Sydney, New South Wales

Bennelong Had a Point sculpture

Opera House commemorative model

Bennelong Point, now home of the Sydney Opera House, is one of the most prominent places in Australia's history. Few sites have been so consistently represented in writing and art about the development of Australia.

The Sydney Opera House by night, with blue-coloured lights projected onto its sails.
The Sydney Opera House by night. Photo: Pavel Sigarteu.

Largely because of its proximity to the emerging city, the peninsula known to its Indigenous people as Jubgalee, has come to represent the richness of harbour environment, the new colony's vulnerability, and, more recently, a contested site symbolising dispossession of Aboriginal people.

The peninsula became known as Cattle Point, for the livestock that grazed there, after European settlement in 1788. It was renamed for Aboriginal man Bennelong, when a hut was constructed for him on the peninsula and the area became a gathering place for the Aboriginal people.

Since the 1950s Bennelong Point has become synonymous with the Sydney Opera House, a building which completely occupies the area. It was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon and constructed in controversial circumstances. The walls of the giant concrete platform, on which the Opera House's shells sit, run vertically into the water, leaving little trace of land or its earlier uses.

Bennelong Had a Point sculpture

The Landmarks gallery begins and ends at Sydney Cove, starting with an exhibit focusing on the first British camp on the continent in January 1788 and finishing with the story of Bennelong Point, once an important fishing and gathering ground for Gadigal people and now the site of the Sydney Opera House.

Urban Indigenous artists such as Black Douglas have reinterpreted the Sydney Opera House as a prominent symbol of Australia in recent years.

Sculpture by Adam Hill

Bennelong Had a Point, 2012, by Blak Douglas. National Museum of Australia.

In Bennelong Had a Point, the Sydney-based artist references Indigenous understandings of Bennelong Point as a contested site symbolising Aboriginal dispossession.

The Opera House, in Douglas' view, personifies 'the very ethic of the British colonial ... The structure is "white, it's large and bold ... and it "juts out" as if the bow of a tall fleet ship'.

The branches recall the bush that once covered the area and the shelled box evokes shell middens, as well as the shellwork souvenirs sold by Aboriginal women in the area in the 1880s.

The Aboriginal 'Neville and Noelene' figures, typical of those found in suburban gardens around the time the Opera House was completed, represent 'a form of token material sentimentality', which Douglas compared to the naming of Bennelong Point after an Aboriginal man who actually spent a good part of his life elsewhere'.

Opera House commemorative model

A small metal relief replica of the Sydney Opera House, plaque and the Australian coat of arms, on a polished timber base
The Opera House commemorative model presented to mark the building's official opening in 1973. Photo: Lannon Harley.

The Opera House has been endlessly reproduced in tourist souvenirs and commemorative objects as a symbol of Sydney and Australia.

This metal miniature copy of the Sydney Opera House on a polished wooden base is one of the first.

It was presented to the President of the New South Wales division of the Arts Council of Australia, Justice Rae Else-Mitchell, by the Government of New South Wales to commemorate the official opening of the Sydney Opera House on 20 October 1973.


Take a closer look at the Opera House commemorative model
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