A Terrible Emptiness

The February issue of the Australian Literary Review contains an interesting essay by Luke Slattery on the role of Macquarie and Greenway in the development of the early colony in Sydney.

‘This year,’ Slattery writes, ‘marks the bicentenary of Macquarie’s governorship and recalls his fruitful, though at times fractious, partnership with Greenway. Both men were fired by a belief in the built forms of civility and in the capacity of what we now call the public sector to provide cultural and economic stimulus … Macquarie understood instinctively that inward-dwelling civic virtues are nurtured by noble outward forms: space, mass, order, ornament … [he] embarked on a program of enlightened reform, civic improvement and territorial expansion that utterly changed the young colony’s sense of itself and its possibilities.’

How remote these sensibilities are from our present day. No matter that, as a nation, we continue to reap their benefits.

I live, along with some six to ten thousand other souls, in the Hinterland behind the Sunshine Coast, a loose geographical area to the north of Brisbane, in Queensland’s south-east corner. The Sunshine Coast is not the Gold Coast, that region to the south where Mammon has entirely taken hold, it is a place still coming into being.

At the moment the population is a bit more than two hundred thousand, but the plan is to ‘grow the city’ to five hundred thousand over the next ten to fifteen years. The trouble is that there is no city, there is, in fact, nothing that defines the place other than a few iconic landscape features every one of which is in danger of being destroyed by the influx of people. I speak, of course, of the beaches, the Glasshouse Mountains, the paperbark and wollum coastal swamps, and the Hinterland itself.

There are several urban centres which have recently been forcibly amalgamated into one region, and the new overarching Council is trying hard to find some common thread, some defining characteristic which can unite the population and give it some sense of community. The difficulty is that all of these urban centres have seen rapid and often unstructured growth over the last two decades and there is only a vague sense of community within the smaller districts, let alone in the larger area. One might be forgiven for thinking the whole place was simply a creation of the late twentieth century’s passion for real estate.

Certainly there is nothing which might be described as an architecture of the region.

There are individual houses that attract attention from those interested in design, but there is barely a public building worth mention. The one place where this might have been rectified, at the new university, failed fundamentally, at the very instant of its creation, by locating itself on a greenfield site (the land was cheaper) instead of in the centre of Maroochydore where it might have given stimulus to the civic ideal. Now the institution sits, irrelevant on its windswept paddock, while around its generous fringes arises a shocking urban sprawl typified by tilt-up concrete warehouses and brick veneer homes begging to be retro-fitted the day they are complete.

Anna Bligh, the Premier, had the gall to appear on the ABC’s By Design program on Radio National to spruik her government’s vision of good design. Here, on the Sunshine Coast, its absence screams from every gaudy shopping mall, from every excruciating traffic light, from the lack of a rail link to the missing hospitals.

Up here in the Hinterland we take a broad view: The Sunshine Coast is buggered, might sum it up fairly neatly, we need to concentrate on what can still be saved here on the Range. But is this enough? If Macquarie and Greenway could see the possibilities in a bunch of maltreated convicts (Greenway being one himself), if they could recognise that,

‘the flowering of a civilised community could be encouraged not only by the strict regularising of the precepts of government but also by providing – in the form of buildings and roads, the planning of towns and the demarcation of counties – physical frameworks within which to develop.’

and through this recognition utterly transform the early settlement of this nation, is it not our responsibility to try to achieve the same? Even if the clay we have to work with is so much more amorphous, so given over to the lure of instant wealth?

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2 Comments on “A Terrible Emptiness”

  1. fringe dweller Says:

    It is a great pity that the efforts Sunshine Coast hinterlanders have gone to over many years, upwards of 20 years, to develop intrinsic wealth through conservation and cultural pursuits, are bought and sold by exploiters time and time again and with the assistance of governments who, we are told, time and time again, govern for all of us!

    Noosa has been recognised by the UN as a place of great intrinsic wealth worth preserving. The northern half of the Blackall Range has been recognised by the State government as a place of great intrinsic wealth worth preserving.

    The frustration is that the contribution these places and their people have made and continue to make is seen to be ‘tradeable’.

    Take the views along the escarpments, for instance. Magnificent and Uplifting, to say the least.

    It is reasonable for people to think as they are part of the natural environment they are there for everyone to enjoy. Indeed that was recognised many years ago and rules were made about building along the escarpment so as not to block the views.

    However, still we see houses being built along the top of the escarpment – Why is one person allowed to sell and another allowed to buy an unparalleled panorama?

    I say it is immoral and unjust.

    So the terrible emptiness grows, the minority gain wealth at the expense of the majority.

    And this is one of the greatest democracies of the world?


  2. Emptiness is the flickering of pines, in straight lines; endless, even at 110km/hr. Climbers clamber across the face of the old man, while his mate labours in the distance, her green hump gravid with realtors. People in glasshouses…
    The wild horses are gone from the mountain, the nuts gone from the bauple forests.
    Mary, grab the baby, your river’s rising.


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