In 2004 the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ national conference, held in the Gardens Theatre at Queensland University of Technology was entitled ‘200 Mile City: Designing a Sustainable Urban Future’. This title reflected a governmental and professional recognition that from north to south, the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and the Tweed in Northern NW are quickly developing into a ‘conurbation’ that they are all joining up. The title reflected a desire to both acknowledge, as well as provide solutions for how this might happen. Underlying the theme was a sprawling horror, a sense that these places were just joining anyway, and that measures must be taken to stop this happening. The view of the conference was very much one of apocalypse, but at the same time as people were scared by this, on the flip side of horror is fascination. There is something wondrous about this new type of urban condition, as awful as it is. Many of the schemes in the competition accompanying the conference inevitably became fascinated with the conurbation as a planning problem, or as a mass form solution, using large scale tools to try to propose solutions. The conference title was also a recognition that something remarkable, but not necessarily good, was happening in South East Queensland, a place made of southern dreams and selfishness, where Victorians moved for the weather, but also to escape planning. After becoming a fan of the Gold Coast and a design teacher in Brisbane, the problem appeared even worse (but also much more banal), and reflects the inability of planning to function in the face of a context where relentless development is a defining characteristic of the culture.
In Semester two, 2007 I ran a studio (with Dani Hassell and Glen Macintosh as tutors) for final semester landscape architecture and urban design students at QUT that suggested that the infrastructure of the M1 motorway between Brisbane (QUT entry) and the Gold Coast (Smith Street Motorway exit) was the device that was linking the two cities. This is a distance of 60 kilometres of divided road, much with four lanes in either direction with cars traveling 110 kilometres per hour. The idea of the continuous city seems a reality when one drives the 40 minutes from Brisbane to the beach at Surfers Paradise. Reviewing the reality of the 200 mile city, it is the M1 motorway south that will allow Brisbane to join the Gold Coast (with the Tugin Bypass opening soon that will extend this to Tweed Heads and then to Byron in NSW), while going north the Bruce Highway between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast is obstructive, and therefore a block. Smooth and continuous infrastructure makes for smooth and continuous development. Since one does not have to keep left and weaving is allowed, driving the M1 motorway can be considered recreation and as such new development addresses it directly in celebration of the quality of the road. Recent big box developments at Springbrook such as the new IKEA and other Foster-esque glazed car show rooms now present their best face to cars, reducing the need for traditional road mitigation techniques of planting and sound walls. The motorway becomes a device for orientation and way-finding and, in zoomorphic terms, the blood and guts of development.
The studio was ostensibly an urban design studio, and much of the techniques and thinking that were used in the studio resulted from being first a student and then a colleague of ex-RMIT, now UNITEC senior lecturer, Peter Connolly. ‘Urban design’ was taken to mean an interest in ‘scale’, as a means to subvert the phallocentrism of the masterplan somewhat. The studio had two stages, a group mastery ‘device’ stage (as opposed to the master ‘plan’) that asked the students to put forward some sort of big picture, which in the abstract sense comes with big scale propositions, and then individually to test this masterplan at three locations by extending its principles to the ground. Even in the master scale stages however, the students were encouraged to look at broad scale strategies as ‘emergent’ from the conditions of localised conventions of development and urban relationships. That is to say that when the two cities joined, or didn’t, it would not be through any power of planning, governmental will or master design move or gesture, but would be made up of ‘more of the same’ of what was already there: more of the same banal shit. In framing the project, educationally, the emphasis of the studio was on working with the ‘propensities’ (as Connolly would say) of what is already happening, being ambitious but realistic about what is possible, and using tools that are already latent in the development, for doing so. These tools operate at the individual development scale, and result from developer proposals in response to the development approval and planning process.
The form that we see now, and boggle at, on the Gold Coast has already come from such a process, and so if we want to speculate on a new urbanism there is no point, or no need to, because it’s already there. The general position was to work with existing forms in such a way as to either redeem existing ways of working, or develop hybrids that might fly on the basis of existing trajectories. In order to do this the students had to work as designers in the context of ostensibly non-design process, working from the implications of planning-speak to design, and from design back to planning. Inherent to the studio was a critique of abstract design generation process at an urban scale and a desire to re-connect with the variables that existed for design exploitation in the founding processes of infrastructure provision, zoning amendment and subdivision or consolidation. In this context the individual project was a test of a system rather than a project per se, with the question being asked of any project: ‘how could you make this proposition happen if you had no ability to actually design it?’
In the context of landscape architecture in Queensland, the studio also focused on the development of a culturally-driven landscape design language. In architecture Queensland is known for a particular kind of bespoke Modernism, an elegance that is far removed from the nature of the place culturally. And for landscape architecture, an interest in design is currently a desire for two-dimensional expressionism, a graphic inside with too many materials allocated, where design visibility is about total difference to context. On the other hand Queensland has a very rich formal language that results out of its very commercialism and its tropicality, which is clearly kitsch but is distinctive. Coming from the context of Melbourne where a post-Venturi approach to engaging culture is common, Queensland is wide open for a nuanced design language that could develop from optimising some of its somewhat tasteless trends rather than trying to carte blanche insert ‘good taste’ everywhere. The Arbor at South Bank in Brisbane is one of the few attempts at pushing this language of bad taste that has been built, with its opposed arcs of bougainvillea and top curling tendrils. In the studio this meant trying to give students typological and graphic techniques that might allow them to bring this cultural language to bear.
The following projects demonstrate both the range of approaches taken as well as the tools used to redeem the merging of Brisbane with the Gold Coast.
The most basic excitement that the idea of the 200 mile city elicits is the mega-form. It is the idea of a line, a single architecture stretching along its length that contains all the different things we expect of a city. In many respects the motorway is already that city but in her project Danielle Edmunds looked at how development along the freeway might be orchestrated to give this ‘linear feel’ influencing multiple developments to contribute to its ‘line-ness’. This involved creating a development aesthetic that was itself infrastructural, that used the language of the motorway. At the same time as this might lead to everything addressing the freeway being relentlessly parallel and like a slot, she also looked at the structure of other linear cities such as Las Vegas and Dubai and how the perpendicular urban structure could be developed to connect the line to its adjacent territory. Danielle was also concerned that in creating this megaform along the freeway, any aspect of locale would be destroyed, so she looked at ways that adjacent character, beyond the line, could be incorporated into the line structure, particularly the character of the Gold Coast, which she sought to extend. Different typologies including the coastal promenade and the retail strip were developed within the consistent line treatment, and at a detail level landscape elements were considered which reflected this linear character. For the 200 mile city to be redemptive rather than an abomination, its length must be celebrated.
Even if the city is continuous, perhaps particularly if it is continuous, then changes along the length of the joining infrastructure are important in order to provide some sort of specificity. This has been provided historically by ‘inter-urban breaks’ along the motorway, patches of vegetation between urban settlements, seen as the only real impediments to the conurbation. Since the motorway has traditionally been the ‘back’ of development, the remnants are most intact on the road, whereas they are eaten away closer to the water or on the plain. David Warwick examined the qualities of rural roads and how vegetation, light and sound gave them their immersive feel. Despite the presence of the break, light, universal safety and mitigation measures have ‘drowned out’ the contrast of the dark break that these vegetation patches represent. In order to bring these qualities of experience to the motorway, and thereby maintain the perception of the edge between the cities, David
to the working day, which the parking infrastructure also relates to since it services the day activity. Adam inserted other ‘boxes’ into the development, camper vans and RVs that are organised to collectively make up a mass form like the industrial units, and then reprogrammed the carparks of the adjacent industrial complex to operate as recreational space in support of the transient residential program.
This joined city will also cause the expansion of the Gold Coast’s real innovation in Australia which is the theme park strip made up by Dream World and Wet’ ‘Wild, but now expanding into Outback extravaganzas, serviced by an airport at Coolangata (the conurbated Bris-Goldy will have an airport at each end). In the banal landscapes of the stitch, recreation coming from the south will hybridise with the commercial typologies coming from the north. Craig Macdonald focused on the small lot light industrial areas adjacent to the motorway, and the colocation of similar uses that is caused by the car and car parking, where one can shop around in the same precinct without having to move the car. He looked at Moss Street, an automotive area of mechanics, customisation specialists and parts sellers, as a theme park of cars. He looked at how both streets and lot setbacks could be reconfigured to increase carparking, recognising that in a car precinct, cars are on display. He also wished to create a meaningful wider streetscape to browse this automotive extravaganza, weirdly looking at the Champs Elysees as a precedent, drawing upon the materials of cars and road detailing. Considering the precinct across the entire week, Craig proposed to institutionalise the otherwise covert car racing culture of the suburbs, designing Moss Street to be reprogrammed as a drag strip on weekends, using temporary New Jersey barriers, and transforming an adjacent reserve between the motorway and Moss Street into a park for ‘drifting’, continuous sliding burnouts a la Tokyo Drift. The project recognises the design potential of the ‘Kustom Kulture’ that is developing as a subculture in the suburbs as a way of invigorating the nine-to-five empty landscapes of nether zoning.
The question of what the Future City will be is a topic of perennial utopian speculation, which tends to be divorced from the more banal reality of how cities are changing. The frontiers of the future city are banal and undisciplined, but places nonetheless. There is chance that the future city is the city every we have already, as it was in Blade Runner. The lessons that were taught by Venturi in Learning from La Vegas? are still not learnt even as the landscapes they predict continue to grow. In the future city the universal imperative of creating beauty could create monsters of unfeasible perversity, or potentially worse, good taste. It is important that educators encourage students to recognise the design potential in places that we might not necessarily like. For Queensland this is not just about an imaginary lush wilderness for timber slatted pavilions, open and in synchronicity with an empirical nature. Rather, designers might look to South Eastern Queensland (SEQ). In the throes of high capitalist development, SEQ demonstrates a local design language which is building itself.