By MIKE GILLAM
Extracts from the creative brief delivered by Mr Gillam to the design team in the CBD revitalisation process. The brief is to be used as a reference document for designers, architects and artists undertaking commissioned work in the future pedestrian zone.
Alice Springs has a poor record of delivering quality design, landscaping and art in the public domain. Too often, originality and quality are compromised by a political or ‘community arts’ agenda in favour of safe / vandal proof but ultimately forgettable public art. Equally damaging are the myriad small-scale actions of bureaucrats – referred to in urban design circles as “death by a thousand cuts”. In recent months roundabouts have been filled with concrete. And clay brick pavers are extending across the CBD giving the town an unfortunate uniformity and blurring, instead of highlighting the differences between retail, civic and heritage ‘precincts’.
This failure to draw on creative skills within our community must change if urban design and public art are going to truly benefit Alice Springs and make the town distinctive and ‘competitive’. In practical terms we live in an isolated regional centre, engaged in a daily bid to encourage locals to stay, newcomers to settle and tourists to visit. While we flippantly bestow the phrase ‘world class’ to all manner of projects, this standard will never be achieved if governments seek to control and micro manage artists and the content of public art projects. Small town committees and politics need to be set aside in favour of peer review and expert jury panels.
I was commissioned to provide creative direction for the eastern end of Parsons Street from the ‘ancient red gum’ to the Todd River, a distance of approximately 150 metres. While the expanded (7.8m) pedestrian zone proposed for the southern side of the street is the report’s focus, I am compelled to also mention the section of Parsons Street between the red gum and Hartley Street.
To my mind these ‘mirror’ sections of Parsons Street read as a definable and balanced entity with the red gum as a natural pivot point. The western portion has better amenity overall (focused on two heritage buildings) and enjoys greater use by residents. In time this pedestrian traffic is likely to flow into the eastern end of Parsons Street as amenity improves and purpose returns to the street.
Public art and design projects of the scale envisaged for Parsons Street provide a rare, perhaps once in a generation opportunity to define our sense of identity and place. The dramatic natural environment is regarded as the common ground that binds us all together and this is crystallised in the biodiversity corridor.
I’ve also highlighted the critical importance of distant landmarks and the availability of winter sun. Too often these public assets are only valued and recognised, when they are lost to the streetscape: casualties of ‘progress’.
• Develop a sublime refuge that protects and highlights the fundamentals of place and builds cross-cultural respect. Seek balance in the cultural order in preference to one culture being treated as an addendum of the other.
• Provide seamless integration between ground plane, aerial and subterranean spaces expressed through water harvesting, landscaping, furniture, educational aids and artworks to support storytellers, educators and parents.
• Acknowledge and highlight the authority of the natural landscape, the imperatives of biodiversity and the custodianship of sacred sites by Arrernte people. These elements link contemporary Alice Springs with the earliest human occupation, interpretation and responses to this landscape.
• Find the essence, the history and truth of this place but don’t overwhelm and burden the site with stories that are better told elsewhere. Highlight the existence of common ground and the community’s hopes for the future.
• Reinstate the diminished sightline that extends along Parsons Street and upgrade the pedestrian link to the Todd River in the east. By extension, enhance and highlight physical connections between Todd Mall and the Todd River.
• Infuse Parsons Street with spirit, beauty and purpose so that more LOCAL people return to the area and embattled retailers have reason to be optimistic about the future. Tourists conspicuously outnumber locals in the Mall especially in the afternoons. Many street savvy locals congregate in shopping centres, making brief forays into the mall to a bank or favourite shop.
• Reinstate the primacy of the local population and its everyday recreational and commercial needs. Reduce the predominance of tourist-focused venues by careful mixing of local / visitor facilities.
• Create a gentler egalitarian space where ‘parallel communities’ are encouraged to interact and hopefully overcome their ignorance and distrust of one another but where large groups are unable to assert dominance at the exclusion of the wider community. Carefully establish firm yet permeable boundaries between diverse users and user groups which provide both security and autonomy of use and shared / collective occupation.
TWO-WAY CULTURAL ORDER
• Song-lines and sacred sites unify the physical space including the furthest limits of the 9km east-west sightline, the pivotal ancient gum tree and Lhere Mparntwe, Todd River – the town’s spiritual heart and our destination on a pedestrian walkway that guides us through examples of regional landscaping, history, art, science and design.
• Valuable and enduring partnerships between white and black were forged along the banks of the Todd River. The river is also the backdrop to catastrophic alcohol consumption, violence and despair that touches many families, especially but not only Aboriginal.
• Management of the river at almost every level and the quality of built and engineered structures that contact or intersect with it mostly faily to reflect its iconic importance as a sacred or natural landscape.
• We should highlight the presence of mountainous features to the west. At some 3.5 kms distance a low ridge is visible and behind this feature at 9 kms a distant bluff dominates the horizon; both are associated with journeys of the Arrernte creative ancestors.
• The ancient red gum equidistant between Hartley Street and Leichhardt Terrace has bi-cultural significance. This feature provides a connection to the fringing woodlands of the Todd River. Combined with the coolibah swamp on the eastern side of the river these ‘remnant’ trees provide a visual reference to the historical footprint of the river channel and floodplains.
• Parsons Street featured prominently in the early administration history of Stuart / Alice Springs and was named in honour of J. Langdon Parsons, a former Baptist Minister and SA Government Minister controlling the NT. He was Government Resident based in Darwin from 1884-90. He became government resident at a time when an uprising of Aborigines was feared and his appointment coincides with massacres of Aboriginal people during ‘punitive expeditions’. He was greatly affected by the brutality of this conflict and changes in his thinking are reflected in his advocacy, albeit unsuccessful, for the establishment of reserves for Aboriginal people and fair payment and conditions for Aborigines in employment.
• The Wallis Fogarty Store on the south-west corner of the mall was built in 1939 and has been nominated for heritage listing. Much of the original building frontage remains intact beneath the more recent sheet metal facade.
• The YHA Hostel located at the heritage-listed Pioneer Walk-in Theatre is a critical feature of the eastern end of Parsons Street. This location provides opportunities for projection onto surfaces in the street and originating from the old walk-in theatre. While the adjacent lane creates a problematic vehicle cross-over within the pedestrian zone, the lane-way walls could be readily modified for exhibition surfaces. Improvements in amenity such as shade and seating would entice backpackers into the public domain.
PUBLIC ART & DESIGN COMMISSIONS
• We need to find the key points of difference and integrity that will allow Alice Springs to shine nationally despite our small population and therefore, modest budgets.
• This is an opportunity to showcase our ingenuity, originality and resourcefulness, remembering that Parsons Street is a public space. From all artists and trades we need a generosity of spirit to help us illuminate the special qualities of the street and raise the morale of our community.
• Our collective sense of identity must prevail over artistic self-indulgence. We don’t need to be populist or banal but we must strike a chord with Alice Springs residents. Social development and bi-cultural collaboration are key issues. • Less is more. The first stage must establish a strong sense of identity while laying down quality foundations for the future growth of the site. Crucial elements should be delivered early and high standards maintained throughout.
• Projects should exhibit elegant design with a hint of frontier vernacular, combining whimsy, form and function, drawing upon some of our strengths as a creative community. Alice Springs sculptors and builders are especially accomplished in their under-stated use of recycled materials. We must avoid outback clichés and ‘moozeum’ humour.
• Within the constraints of public liability and engineering standards, off the shelf solutions to seating and street furniture must be avoided or at the very least, tempered, adapted or subverted to reflect regional design.
• As a rule of thumb we should avoid expensive materials and processes that are not practiced here. For instance, the large-scale use of bronze, a hallmark of public art and prosperity in major cities, represents an insufficient cost benefit to both the struggling arts sector and the impoverished public domain of Alice Springs. Alternatively, funding assistance to provide establishment of basic facilities for large-scale bronze or aluminium casting in Alice Springs could form part of future commissions on offer.
Our primary audience is the local community. In the process of creating a beautiful, innovative and reflective public space we expect to project a strong regional identity that will attract and intrigue tourists. Increasingly, tourists are wary of contrived attractions, overtly presented for their consumption.
• We will reach people through their children, remembering that children need to be nurtured, encouraged and protected. Like adults they also need beauty and hope.
• This public thoroughfare will need to address day/night activity cycles, a multi-layered space for differing levels of use. For example, there could be a family recreation/early childhood discovery path, a street frontage for backpackers staying at the YHA, a thoroughfare to the river, access for police and security services at night.
• We can create social activity nodes with carefully designed and configured street furniture to support diverse social networking needs, future business potential and public safety within the street.
• Deteriorating amenity in the Mall and surrounds has contributed to anti social behaviour and long periods of vacancy for commercial properties. Through improved public amenity and re-opening of the northern end of the Mall to traffic, we will take the first steps to reverse the current trend of dwindling patronage, failing businesses and plummeting morale amongst Todd Mall and Parsons Street property owners and traders.
SCOPE OF THE BIODIVERSITY CORRIDOR (not in any particular order)
• Landscaping elements inspired by desert rivers and arid zone design, eg grouped ‘dancing’ trees – river red gums and some coolibahs – connected by a ragged line of trees, becoming the dominant sculptural forms in the pedestrian zone. Some formal street tree planting, particularly along the ANZ car-park edge (widely spaced river red gums) and on the south-east corner of Parsons St, would help to frame the street and reinforce the sightline.
• Riparian (riverside) plants selected for biological and cultural values. • Landscaping and design features to attract birds and butterflies, eg water points and ‘perching’ trees. For several months butterflies and moths ‘activate’ Capparis spinosa (native passionfruit). Hawk-moths are drawn to the spectacular white flowers that open at night and after sunrise the moths are replaced by clouds of butterflies. • Landscaping and design to highlight day / night cycles. For example, LED street lights could be used to project stencil shapes onto surfaces and create soft amenity lighting for walkways at night.
• Wind generator/sculpture and revolving information tower, which could be designed as an object of ‘exploration and play’.
• Light beam from setting sun passed through a simple prism to split wave-lengths (the last rays of light during mid winter bathe Parsons Street in spectacular light and spotlight red gums on the banks of the Todd River). • Early childhood discovery path, exploratory devices (old lenses and telescopes dismantled and reconfigured), cryptic and kinetic sculptures (avoiding literal representations of animals, powered by solar panels placed on a nearby verandah).
• Pavement treatment should be expressed simply through the use of widely spaced expansion joints to convey a bold abstract design.
• A covered walkway could use semi-transparent sheeting such as blue danpalon to ‘pull down’ the sky and provide a perfect ‘backdrop’ for textured organic elements set above and below.
• Sculptural fissure and water feature uniting elements of the pedestrian walkway – a narrow thread carrying the memories of this place, taking us from the ancient red gum on a walk of discovery to the river.
• Water could be integrated with soundscape media that could carry spoken language, incorporating water and water life-forms as part of a bi-lingual Arrernte-English alphabet.
• Projection surfaces could be created when new shade structures are designed. Limited potential exists on various building frontages and in the lane-way behind YHA, where potential outdoor gallery walls exist on both sides.
• Examples of historical and contemporary literature are another option that would work well as a ‘side-bar’ in this lane-way. Every feature from the pavement to sub-surface drains and overhead cables, every piece of nondescript infrastructure should be re-imagined and re-assembled to showcase arid zone innovation, elegance and beauty. Artistic and design briefs should maximize opportunities for designers and arts practitioners who live and reside in central Australia. This must be balanced by rigorous peer review and may also require pairing local artists with highly experienced ‘outsiders’ who can help with the development of ideas and artistic practice. Water harvesting would evoke and connect the visual, sensory, cultural, creative and scientific dimensions of this public space. Existing buildings and the covered walkway would be connected by a system of roof gutters. Storm-water would be captured, stored, filtered and then used for display and irrigating gardens. Substantial storm-water drains run underneath Parsons Street to the river and present obvious opportunities for this project.
THE PAVEMENT CRACK AS SYMBOL AND METAPHOR
A vision for the Parsons Street water feature
Based on moulds taken from pavement cracks and dramatically up-scaled to form a simple linear sculpture and water feature, the proposed ‘fracture’ reads as a subtle uplift that changes and alternates in response to unseen forces. Opposing sides of the pavement are occasionally level but more often adopt a contrasting and alternating high-low position. Connecting some 40 metres of walkway elements, this narrow fracture line contracts and expands from a minimum diameter of just 12 mm to a maximum of 100mm.
Water emerges from a single source and enters the fracture, travelling down-slope through a series of small basins before disappearing and returning via a submersible pump to the starting point. At times the tendril of water is pumped to gain height and occasionally it disappears altogether and reappears further ‘down-stream’. A broad independent ‘channel’ hidden below the surface of the ground plane carries the flow of water that is visible through the narrow concrete fracture, not contained by it.
This subsurface channel would incorporate various major shifts in direction and be sufficiently deep and wide to ‘overlap’ the degrees of movement required by the pavement fracture directly above. This sculpture and water feature should not be branded with a single message but rather it will be up to those who use this place to decide what it means to them.
Over time different interpretations will be applied to this space. It may be helpful however to list some that occurred to me:-
• connection of the ground plane to an implied presence and force beneath the street;
• a human vein or viewed from the air, the arterial course of a desert river cutting across lowland plains;
• a dynamic rift in racial and community relationships that will ebb and flow over time. The fracture charts these possibilities. At times the two sides separate widely but occasionally they meet on level ground and the crack disappears for a while.
• the pulse of tears (a mixture of joy or sadness) coursing across a weathered landscape;
• in the manner of desert springs and seepages the fissure carries water through bare rock, delivering the constant moisture needed to sustain rare relict plants that provide a link with our pre-historical past.
• finally, the fissure celebrates the humble pavement crack, so often viewed as a failure of design; indicator of an invasive tree root, uplift, subsidence and fatigue; a feature that is more powerful and intriguing to small children (remember, jumping over the cracks) than adults. This simple, glistening, moving feature would unify the special features of the site and guide people along the biodiversity pathway and bi-lingual soundscape.
The fracture should not be presented with too much decoration or even a hint of contrivance. Hopefully it will evoke a mix of familiarity, intrigue and uncertainty among locals and visitors alike and some people may even believe it is a badly damaged pavement in need of repair. But it should not be gilt edged and architecturally transported beyond the humble under-stated character and form of a gigantic, zigzagging, rising and falling, pavement crack.
The fracture should be further accentuated with ‘sculptural’ plantings, primarily sedges and other fringing vegetation that allow close inspection of the fissure while preventing people from tripping over it. These linear plantings contained within a permeable substrate bed also act as eyelashes and catch some of the pavement dust and detritus that would otherwise enter the body of flowing water. Intermittent grates will provide regular pedestrian cross-overs and occasionally the fracture, water feature and fringe plantings will completely disappear from view returning the footpath to a normal walking surface.
The use of gradient, basins, shade and reduced surface evaporation will assist water conservation, minimize algal growth, optimize bird drinking points and ensure that the system is largely self cleaning. Deposits of sediment and leaves can be directed to basin features and mesh screens for ease of cleaning. As a linear and intermittent feature, the fracture could incorporate a diversity of artistic responses as opposed to a rigorously recurring ‘style’. The source point/s of water entering the fracture, basin features and the ‘end point’ of the water feature provide discreet opportunities for individual creative commissions. A section between the final two basins could be designed to incorporate children’s play features, for example, allowing them to float twigs down the stream.
Mr Gillam acknowledges custodian Doris Stuart for her support, encouragement and guidance.
Pictured: From top – •Native passion fruit (arrutnenge), fruiting stem and unopened flower – inspiration for contemporary lighting. • Night-flowering native passion fruit. • Magpie Lark (Teye-teye, Rteye-rteye – Eastern and Central Arrernte). These birds are frequent visitors at outdoor cafes around town. • Chrysalis of the caper white butterfly (irrarle), inspiration for LED lighting and decorative lantern building. • The humble pavement crack – magical to children who intuit its metaphoric potential – could be upscaled to form a water feature along the biodiversity corridor. •Parsons Street sightline, west-northwest (295 deg), with penetrating mid-winter setting sun. In the distance a mountain at 9km and mid-range feature at 3.5 km. These natural landmarks are associated with highly significant Arrernte song-lines and sacred sites. This critical sightline should be extended and reinstated east-southeast to the banks of Lhere Mparntwe, the Todd River. All photographs copyright MIKE GILLAM.
Revealing the spirit of Parsons Street
By MIKE GILLAM