A Critique of Current Government Policies on the Built Environment in the Australian National Park & A design re-analysis of The Belah Camp Site at Lake Mungo National Park in New South Wales
The national park represents the official and authentic ‘nature zone’ in government politics. This zone does not (and could not) represent the human in nature, but more importantly it houses the current hermeneutics of the human condition in relation to the non-human condition. The ‘park boundary’, the ‘park policies’ and the ‘design guidelines’ reflect contemporary government interpretations of this complex relationship. Despite the everchanging nature of this interpretation, the recommended strategies for marking and ‘designing’ the ‘nature zone’ have remained static in government policies. The National Parks and Wildlife Services Guidelines for Signs and Recreational Facilities1 rely heavily on a post colonial nostalgia and a self righteous ‘blend in with nature’ mentality. The visitor’s desire to interpret the zone at more critical levels is hindered by a distinctive and outdated cultural hegemony.
The built environment in national parks necessarily provokes ‘other’ interpretations of the non-human world, programatically, physically and metaphysically. Rather than a Descartian notion of the site for the scientific gaze, the focus here is concerned with our cultural interpretation. The following scheme is a specific re-analysis of an existing campsite at Lake Mungo National Park in South-West New South Wales. It explores alternative design strategies to khaki paint and picturesque post and beam fences, viz. visual camouflage and semantic camouflage.
AN ‘OTHER’ PLACE
The national park is an indispensable institution in every modern democracy. It is considered place for the development and expression of humanity’s ‘alternate constitution’. Democratic processes institutionalise particular places2 that challenge societal norms. Prisons, migrant centres and psychiatric hospitals are examples of these ‘other’ conditions. There is a strong conviction that the national park plays a functional role as a ‘meaningful’ counter point to the site of human knowledge, order and reason. Humans maintain these sites in order to ‘maintain’ themselves as Wilson (1992) states that:
We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.3
In the 1987 Fourth World Wilderness Congress, the value of national parks in relation to human therapy and personal growth was first recognised.4 This relationship was previously unaccounted for due to the difficulty in valorising the impact on national park visitors. The existing National Park Guidelines frame ‘appropriate’ visitor behaviour and dictate desirable representations of human intervention in the ‘nature zone’. Three detectable themes are privileged in the policies. The first and foremost is the aim to ‘protect’ and ‘preserve’ the non-human environment from human ‘spoiling’. This paradoxical intention is taken as an acceptable given. The other two themes may be termed cultural and physical camouflage. The acts of camouflage support a human desire to ‘stake out’ and understand or control another system so that informed or coercive action may be taken; in this case, by mimicking the aesthetics of nature or mimicking nostalgic objects in the landscape. Ironically the success of the act depends on how well the human marker denies human presence. In an act of mimicry, there is a desire to part take without being seen to part take. Camouflage operations are seen to be empathetic with the aim to ‘protect’ and ‘preserve’ since human presence is marked by ‘false’ denial. This servile mimicry amounts to what Richard Weller deservingly calls ‘a phoney harmony’.5
The National Parks and Wildlife Services Guidelines for Signs and Infrastructure states that:
Local Materials usually look more natural than those bought in from elsewhere. On tracks where a sense of remoteness or naturalness is particularly important, materials with urban connotations (eg. bitumen, concrete) should be avoided or at least disguised by rolling crushed local rock or pebbles into their surface.6
The premise is that the built objects match or ‘blend in’ visually with the landscape to a point where it is almost absent. The somewhat uncritical ideology that urban signifiers, such as bitumen, have a negative impact on the natural environment, is a traditional favourite in national park policies. If the real aim of the guideline is to protect and preserve, the question must be posed, how does the pebble surface preserve and protect the environment? Will such gesture affect the flora, fauna, archaeology, and geology? The assumption that the non-human world interprets its surroundings through a human culture is absurdly egocentric.
The following guideline personifies the landscape. The landscape is thought to actively interpret and accommodate human signs. The implication is that the landscape would reject a vertical sign. The accurate reading is that human kind will accomodate a long horizontal sign in the landscape as it ‘blends in’ with the cultural norm.
A good sign should be obvious but not dominant, and should not intrude on Cultural Camouflage.
Fences and railings can serve a number of different functions including enhancing the entries to parks, visitor centres etc. by adding character The entrance to this park has been enhanced by building a timber post and rail fence. Timber post and rail fences are still being built these days because of their unique charm.7
The hegemony of the colonial romantic landscape promotes the typology of semantic camouflage, where the object is considered harmonious because of its cultural meaning and location in history. Icons such as windmills, corrugated steel roofs, water tanks, timber bridges, fences or even a flock of sheep appeal to a nostalgia for the colonial past; a white cultural association with ‘Australian’ identity and landscape. Such signs encapsulate a popular notion of ‘Australian-ness’; a sense of place which is easily digested. The fact that such iconography is decontextualised in time, space and meaning is seemingly irrelevant. The inherent socio-political problems with these representations have been a source of constant conversation in Australian cultural studies.
‘The eighteenth century notion of the picturesque has had an effect on forcing the disjunction between the natural and the cultural landscape. Landscapes derived from this idea, common in Australia, have done little to add to our understanding of natural systems and ecology.’8
Without a doubt, the romantic tradition has been the most powerful ideology in Anglosaxon interpretation of blurring its relationship with the landscape. The important issue here is not the ideological correctness of the subject matter in its original context but its bold commitment to a synthesis of human and nature ecology. The aesthetic codes, as represented in the Claudian and Turneresque traditions encompass a perverse reverence for the non-human world without the denial of the human presence. The aphorism, Et in Arcadia Ego (Even in Arcady I am), associated with romanticism does not alienate the human body or its marker.
Where the original essence of romanticism was to blur the ‘beauty’ of the human marker with the landscape, the affect of ‘Australian’ romantic iconography in the national park context is one of legitimating a past built environment in order to exclude a contemporary interpretation. The timber post fence is culturally camouflaged in the natural environment.
The visitor to the national park enters the zone with a cultural toolkit. The kit is filled with assumptions, expectations, myths, codes, systemic knowledge related to the human presence therein. This is the only state in which a person can approach the boundary, viz. as a human. The most arresting quality about this condition is articulated by Scherl:
[The national park] presents an ideal case of an environment that makes’ a minimal ‘response to the individual entering it … The wilderness does not react to a person, does not argue with him (her), attack him (her), or fight back when attacked — at least not in any discernible sense. More generally, it does not lock the person into a feedback loop, in which any response sets off a counter response. 9
Since the non-human world operates from its own system it provides humans with a space that has no human reason for being. This knowledge, this self knowledge alone, is freedom.10
This quality has been recognised in post enlightenment literature. The scenario of the wanderer explores the search of self understanding and reconstitution of the spirit through the veil of the ‘other’.
Thoreau goes into the forest not like medieval Christian saints who sought out an extreme condition where a pre established truth could impose itself more rigorously upon them, but as one who would put to the test the meaning of being on earth.11
The extremity of Henry Paul Thoreau’s On Walden Pond and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker is thematised in tourist culture in a ‘watered down’ version. Notions of ‘breaking away’, ‘wunderlust’, and ‘solitude’ are popular impetus for visitations to foreign zones, including the national park. This act of interpreting and presensing the contemporary human condition through site of nature is not recognised in the national park agenda. As discussed previously, the current notion of remoteness is spuriously characterised by physical and cultural camouflage. Built examples of fresh interpretations of our ecology (including humans) in national parks are scarce.
ARCHITECTURAL STRATEGIES FOR THE NATIONAL PARK
Architectural markings in the national park cannot undermine the visitor’s repertoire of cultural assumptions, but may encourage the visitor to experience the ‘other’ world through unexplored means.
Some propositions for building and designing in a national park are:
- introducing untraditional or exceptional programmes to the site to heighten a notion of the heterotopia
- reassessing the impact of semantic aesthetics, such as khaki paint and pebble surfaces on the natural world, the introduction of colour fields explicitly for the human eye
- presence the specificity of the site (historically, geographically, anthropologically) to reveal qualities that may be unrecognised by the visitor
- expose the tourist’s impact in the zone without inducing guilt by reducing camouflage interface
- include human technology, such as telescopic devices to locate the visitor ‘in’ micro scale fauna or the constellation field or electronic communication to transcribe points of interest and human connectivity
This argument only maintains its integrity if the human component operates boldly and cautiously with a real intention to ultimately ‘protect and preserve’ the spirit and physical contents of the zone. Part of my interpretation is that the heterotopic qualities housed in the national park are vulnerable to human intervention but necessary to the human condition. By camouflaging or concealing the contemporary built environment, the hermeneutics of the human in relation to nature remain static and obsolete.
- (National Parks and Wildlife Services Guidelines for Signs and Infrastructure 1987), The National Parks Act (National Ecotourism Strategy Commonwealth Department of Tourism Commonwealth of Australia 1994) and the National Ecotourism Strategy (National Parks and Wildlife Act 1975),↩
- Cawley, McGreggor 1993, ‘The Great Wild Hope: Nature, Environmentalism, and the Open Secret’, p. 7. In the Nature of Things, eds. J. Bennett & W. Chaloupka, Minnesota Press.↩
- Wilson, Alexander 1992, The Culture of Nature, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts.↩
- Scherl, Lea 1988, ‘Understanding the Wilderness Experience: A Tool for Policy Formulation and Management of Wilderness Areas’, Ecopolitical Theory Essays from Australia (eds. Hay, Peter and Eckersley, Robin ), University of Tasmania, p.113.↩
- Weller, Richard 1994, ‘Notes from the Ground’, Hope Art Design Ecology, The School of Fine Arts and Architecture, University of Perth. p 32.↩
- National Parks and Wildlife Services Guidelines for Signs and Infrastructure 1987. Chapter 20.↩
- Paterson, Garth 1994, ‘The Visible Landscape’, The Culture of Land- scape Architecture, Pettus, Anne. T Edge Publishing, PP 139-154.↩
- Scherl, Lea 1988, ‘Understanding the Wilderness Experience: A Tool for Policy Formulation and Management of Wilderness Areas’, Ecopolitical Theory Essays from Australia (eds. Hay, Peter and Eckersley, Robin ), University of Tasmania, p.114.↩
- Harrison, Robert 1992, Forests, The Shadow of Civilization, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. p. 231.↩