I find myself a spot on the point and watch. Gravity lifts mounds of water from the seemingly endless expanse. On a shaped plate of fibreglass, a surfer waits. He is in thick foam. He wants the waves to lift in a certain shape: his eyes are trained to see the first hints of this phenomenon. When he does, he’ll lay flat on the board, beleaguered as a turtle, kicking his legs in the surf before hoisting himself to his feet.
I’ve never surfed. The ocean is not my realm. I swim, of course, and I love swimming. But I don’t feel the confidence that my surfer friend does. Perhaps it’s because I was caught in a rip off King Island when I was a teenager (how to describe the shape of a rip?) and almost found myself wrecked on the rocks like so many ships have on that island’s coastline.
On land it is a different matter. I have great trust in my feet, my balance, in the strength of my legs. Often enough I possess an awareness of my legs; they seem to inhabit the entirety of my body sometimes. As a child, I had five acres to stretch them out into: no wonder they have grown so long and skinny.
In cities they feel cramped. I do not like running up against the confines of urban design. One can only imagine how much more this version of claustrophobia affected Aboriginal Tasmanians, who had lived in a semi-nomadic style until Europeans arrived and claimed large areas of land for themselves.
For the first time, fences came into the landscape. A surreal form, I suppose, to see strung along Tasmanian country, between bulky stringybarks and bendy wattles, with skinks and wrens breaching it. Even today, to see a grey fantail launch off a wire strand and make its circular forays in the air is one of the strangest collision of forms that I can think of.
Sometimes I find creative inspiration from these weird incoherences. Other times, they are ugly in the broadest sense of the word: not only are the forms themselves aesthetically bothersome, but the ideas behind them are dull-witted, ill-conceived, authoritarian, and motivated by nothing more interesting than shallow greed.
In this unappealing category I place the high-rise buildings proposed for Hobart’s waterfront. These are the designs of Singapore-based Fragrance Group. Unfortunately, they are awful designs, which fail to correspond to any of the landscape’s native figures. Anything in Hobart must match the beautiful forms and textures of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and kunanyi/Mount Wellington: these do not. As Richard Flanagan has written recently, these forms are not contiguous to Hobart. They have no relevance to this island. “They do not come out of Tasmanian culture,” Flanagan writes. “Their immense height and bulk do not respect or complement a cityscape where the tallest building is 14 storeys.”
Skyscrapers dominate and bully the small island of Singapore; they ought not in Tasmania. This is not only a contest between economics and aesthetics: when cities are designed in discord with their use and history, locals are alienated from their own places.
Aboriginal Tasmanians would have worried more about the frontier conflict than the frontiers themselves, but, perhaps, with their nuanced understanding of the meaning of forms (as evinced by their artwork), they would have recognised that the straight lines of fences represented a barrier and a boundary in time.
These Tasmanians had their own architecture, from simple east coast shelters to semi-permanent shacks on the west coast. That we have no interest in designing like this shows the perpetuity of a colonial “perceptual faultline” that we need buildings which are tall and straight.
We turn to such buildings as a reflex, trying to prove to the world that we are relevant to them. Instead, we arbitrarily import irrelevant ugliness, when we could come up with something that imaginatively embraces the history and landscape of an island that is like no other on Earth.
Last week I looked at other forms, comparing a west coast mountain to a Cretaceous dinosaur.