Bland buildings are horrible things. The world is full of them. They say ‘this’ll do’ rather than ‘this will make you feel good.’ They make you think that no one cares and you feel cheated, disrespected even. I don’t want prettiness but I do want thoughtful. I was thinking this on a recent trip to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, or the Top End as it is commonly called.
Darwin sits on a bay that opens out into the Timor and Arafura Seas, both of which lap the shores of Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea so you’d think you might get at least a whiff of Asian influence. Nope. Its weather is wild, swinging between the extremes of desiccation and deluge. On Christmas Day 1974 the city was virtually blown off the map by Cyclone Tracy. It means that it was rebuilt quickly and in the style of the times and that means a lot of bland. There are some exceptions – a huge yellow wall, a Niemeyer-esque cathedral from the late 1950s that survived and the later Parliament House are fine (or at least the latter’s exterior – the interior is disappointing bland). From the 1980s onwards, a band of architects called Troppo has built some lovely buildings that are light and interesting and climate-responsive. But the rest…
Australia’s cities can often feel rather characterless. When I first arrived in Sydney in 1996, I was struck by its blandness. Sure, the Opera House and its setting is spectacular but much of the rest is dull stuff and often downright ugly, even when placed in stunning locations. It makes it a perfect place for filming – The Matrix used it as as a backdrop for a generic ‘modern city’ because it doesn’t have a specific character of its own. Throw a quick glance over photos of Melbourne and Sydney and Perth and you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart if they didn’t show their prime landmarks. That lack of identity is something that I’ve always found dispiriting.
What Australia has is nature, and that is where it really excels. After all, would we still call Sydney a beautiful city if it didn’t have its harbour?
And so, when I moved on from Darwin to Kakadu National Park, my senses began to come alive again. Driving the long and dusty road I felt something a little like culture shock. The landscape reminded me of the southern states of India – that bouldery scrub, the huge sky. I was staying in Jabiru, a mining town and the hub for the Aboriginal communities there as well as tourism. It’s another ‘this’ll do’ place, with basic buildings that do all that is required of them and nothing more. Well, there’s a large hotel shaped like a crocodile but as the Lonely Planet guide points out, it’s a rather redundant gesture given that you can only tell what it is from the air. Its interiors are bland. Of course.
The land, though. That’s what grabs you. And it reminds me that this is what I love about Australia. In Kakadu there were huge skies full of Whistling Kites and birdsong in the day, darkened by endless squadrons of fruit bats at dusk and swirled with the magical Milky Way at night. That’s what this country does so well. Kakadu does wildlife on an operatic scale – dancing brolgas, elegant in grey, and Jabirus, stalking the billabongs so seriously with their bright coral-pink legs, and Azure Kingfishers flashing blue on the riverbanks, and Bee Eaters swooping in shimmering emerald. Endless birds.
And endless crocodiles. When you see them skulking in the muddy waters of the Alligator River, or lounging in the sun, mouths open to cool their brains, it’s hard not to feel the predictable fear (“There’s a crocodile just THERE!!!”). But you feel also the wonder at these amazing creatures and how they have evolved, or at least survived. It’s their land more than mine.
And then the rocks, some so ancient that they were formed before oxygen filled the atmosphere, and many painted by the various communities for tens of thousands of years. You can visit the ‘art galleries’ as they call them.
I was never particularly drawn to that style of painting but being there, seeing the figures outlined on the rock faces in ochres and hematite, I felt the vibration of their importance. The ones that tourists can access are like parables, stories that tell people of the importance of Law, the rules of life that have governed Aboriginal society for millennia.
I found the site at Burrunggui the most moving. The huge rock form was mis-named by the early white settlers and called Nourlangie after a nearby formation. It has an almost magnetic pull and I couldn’t keep my eyes off it, especially when viewing it over Anbangbang billabong (the music in those names – Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe wrote a beautiful piece called Nourlangie that evokes its sounds). It has caves and overhangs, many of them painted, and views towards the ridges of nearby Arnhem Land across a green landscape that fills with water in the wet season.
Most Westerners think of only two seasons up there – the wet and the dry – but the local Bininj people describe six seasons –
Wurreng – cold weather (mid-June to mid-August)
Gurrung – hot season, dry weather (mid-August to early October)
Gunumeleng -pre-monsoon storms season (October to end December)
Gudjewg – monsoon season (January to early March)
Banggerreng – knock’em down storms (early March to end April)
Yegge – cooler season, still humid (May to mid-June)
The local language is so descriptive – no sense at all of ‘this’ll do” there. It was Gurrung when I was there so the days were around 32ºC, with coolish nights of 16ºC.
Okay, I was a tourist and a European one at that, dipping my toes into a new place, and barely scraping the surface of its long history. Of course I brought with me a heap of Western cultural expectations. But I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the place and to feel so nourished. It reminded me of what has always pulled me back to Australia when my mind flies off to France and elsewhere, to the safety of Western culture and my prim ideas of what constitutes good taste and bad design and how to behave. I may be overly critical of Australia’s cities but in its landscape, I feel like a tiny part of something huge that is sometimes overwhelming and always powerful.
And that is anything but bland.