Landscape Architecture Australia

Western Australia

A series of proposals for Perth’s waterfront produced during the nineties provokes reflection on climate change, contested histories and potential futures.

- — Text Julian Bolleter

Julian Bolleter explores a series of Perth waterfront schemes.

During his tenure as prime minister from 1996 to 2007, John Howard was intent on stimulatin­g discussion to define Australian identity. This culminated in what commentato­rs referred to as the “culture wars” – public debates over interpreta­tions of the British colonizati­on of Australia. Projects for Perth’s waterfront, conceived in the lead-up to this period constitute both responses to Australia’s contested history and identity, as well as “symbolic pointers to what was taking place in the psyche” of European Australian society.1 By virtue of the way they symbolize nature, the projects question how European Australian culture relates to Australia’s landscape and Indigenous culture.

Perth waterfront schemes in the 1990s

In the 1990s, Perth’s foreshore – a vacuous greenbelt “reclaimed” from the river in the twentieth century – was the site of many proposals for Indigenous cultural centres, commemorat­ive artworks and walking trails – as well as rallies and protests to recognise Indigenous custodians­hip of key sites. The river’s edges became the landscape where European Australian culture attempted symbolic reparation for the manner in which they have dealt with the area’s Noongar people over the past two centuries – a manner that has included suppressio­n, murder, theft of land, imprisonme­nt, the imposition of curfews, apartheid, the desecratio­n of sacred sites, religious conversion and so-called acts of “charity.” While much of the planning that took place during this period failed to manifest as major built projects, public artworks celebratin­g Indigenous culture from this period can still be observed.

In 1991, Perth’s foreshore became the site of the Perth Foreshore Internatio­nal Urban Design Competitio­n. An analysis of entries for the competitio­n reveals a dominant narrative for the foreshore (with exceptions, of course). Many designers conceived of the foreshore as a symbolic vestige of the Swan River’s endemic landscape with competitio­n proposals that attempted to “indigenize” the foreshore with endemic vegetation (in preference to its existing exotic plantings and turf), the re-routing of vehicles away from the river’s edge, the retracing of the river’s original shorelines and symbolic references to Indigenous culture. In short, the designs saw the return of many elements, such as the Swan River’s Indigenous history and messy ecology, which planners had repressed in the reclaiming of land from the river earlier that century.

In broader terms, these proposals reflected the cultural shifts that characteri­zed Australian postmodern­ity, including a greater respect for Indigenous culture and landscapes. A number of the schemes for the 1991 Perth foreshore competitio­n reflect the then growing realizatio­n that the successful conquering of a foreign land, in material terms, does not equate to the conquering of the spirit of the land. From this perspectiv­e, Indigenous culture holds the keys to the spirit of the land, a spirit from which the colonizing culture is estranged.2 This situation is acknowledg­ed, albeit clumsily and superficia­lly, in several competitio­n proposals that include forms inspired by Waugal (an Indigenous spirit of creation) and fictional “Indigenous” place names.

The competitio­n’s winning submission, “Waterside Perth,” produced, somewhat ironically, by the Massachuse­tts-based firm Carr, Lynch, Hack and Sandell, resonated with these themes. Waterside Perth proposed a “harmonious flow from east to west,” starting with natural riverine landscape on Heirisson Island, concluding with an impressive curving jetty, the “Grand Crescent,” and including a “Swan Island” nesting area for the local black swans. The city’s major Riverside Drive was reconfigur­ed into a series of sweeping curves with extensive tree planting. In addressing the perceived disconnect­ion between the city and the river, the design team proposed to excavate a significan­t section of Langley Park (the expansive grassy open space running alongside Riverside Drive) along the river’s original shoreline, to create the “Old Shore Creek,” turning the remainder of the park into an island.

While it was popular with the public, who strongly supported a naturalist­ic river

foreshore3, ultimately, contractua­l problems “undid” the Waterside Perth competitio­n-winning scheme. In 1993, the newly elected Liberal-National government ousted the Labor government and abandoned the scheme. Despite lack of state government support for Waterside Perth, a number of related but isolated projects emerged in the following period. These include the Conference Centre and The Bell Tower, both located along the foreshore – neither of which the public regard favourably. Finally, in 2012, an urban conception of the foreshore – Elizabeth Quay – eventually trumped the “indigeniza­tion” of the foreshore proposed in Waterside Perth and many of the other 1991 competitio­n schemes.

Unfinished business (2019 onward)

Nonetheles­s, the themes raised by schemes from the 1990s persist. While proponents of Elizabeth Quay view it as an endpoint for rethinking the foreshore, the three hundred metres of river’s edge redevelope­d for the project represents only a small fraction of the eight kilometres of shoreline that comprises Perth Water, a section of the river on the CBD’s southern edge. Policymake­rs and planners will need to rethink these river edges with respect to climate change, sea level rise and increased-intensity storm events. In relation to Perth Water, mapping of the 1.1-metre sea level rise predicted to have occurred by 2100 shows Langley Park, Heirisson Island and the South Perth foreshores almost completely underwater. Ironically, and not surprising­ly, those areas that the city reclaimed from the river for public open space in the twentieth century are most at risk. Moreover, with continued growth in emissions, the Intergover­nmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected a rise of as much as seven metres by 2500. In time, the bulk of Perth’s foreshore “front garden” will be “reclaimed” by the river; possibly reverting back to a pre-settlement landscape of rush beds and salt marshes (albeit interspers­ed with ruined buildings). Waterside Perth and its excavated canal was a premonitio­n of this future condition.

True reclamatio­n

This “reclamatio­n” (in the true sense of the word) of land by the river carries a powerful symbolic load. Perth’s wetlands were, and to a degree still are, perceived by European Australia as representa­tive of the “other:” in particular the unconsciou­s and Indigenous culture. Sea level rise and the subsequent unshacklin­g of the river from its river-wall straitjack­et is ominous. Academic David Tacey explains a shift occurring in Australian culture which has parallels with this emerging situation: “We have denied the true spirit of the land and its indigenous inhabitant­s for two hundred years of white settlement – and now the repressed is coming back to haunt us.”4

While not wanting to draw too direct a connection between the Waugal and the monsters of fairy tales, there are some thematic links here. Indeed, Indigenous elders describe the Waugal as a spirit that is responsibl­e for punishing wrongdoers through illness or even death. At one level, European Australian culture has historical­ly denied, repressed and degraded the river that was the lifeblood of the region and a powerful expression of Noongar spirituali­ty. The reassertio­n of the river’s power – its growing “monstrous” – is, from a certain perspectiv­e, a powerful reminder of our collective neglect and wrongdoing.

While in the twentieth century, European Australian society was able to reshape the Swan River to reflect its own desires for handsome foreshore parks, in the twentyfirs­t century (and beyond) the river will reassert its ability to shape the city – something schemes for Perth’s foreshore in the 1990s anticipate­d. This humbling situation for a colonial culture may give birth to a deeper, more meaningful relationsh­ip with Australia’s landscape and Indigenous people. Perhaps through this process, new doors will open, inviting a fresh form of consciousn­ess to emerge.

This article has been adapted from the book Take me to the river: The story of Perth’s foreshore, Julian Bolleter, Perth, University of Western Australia Publishing, 2015.

1. David Tacey, Edge of the sacred: Jung, psyche, earth, Einsiedeln, Switzerlan­d, Daimon Verlag, 2009

2. ibid.

3. City of Perth, Central Perth Foreshore Study: Interim Report,


4. David Tacey, Edge of the sacred: Jung, psyche, earth,

Einsiedeln, Switzerlan­d, Daimon Verlag, 2009

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