Living with the city

14 February 2012
 Ken Taylor. Photo by Tegan Dolstra.

Ken Taylor. Photo by Tegan Dolstra.

The quiet personalities of our cities are in danger of being buried under the noise of the concrete jungle, writes TEGAN DOLSTRA.

Do you have a special place that you associate with your identity? It might be your home town, the field where you won the grand final, the place you went to school or the lookout where you had your first kiss.

Once you start to think about it, you’ll find you have a wonderfully varied jigsaw of places that are part of you. No matter how insignificant - the place where your shopping bag split or your shoe once fell off while crossing the road - it is human nature to form attachments to physical spaces.

The technical term for such places is ’cultural landscapes’. And they are all around us.

But as our cities erupt in jagged skyscrapers, the subtle personalities of our cities are in danger of fading away. 

Emeritus Professor Ken Taylor of the ANU Research School of Humanities and the Arts is fascinated by the idea of cultural landscapes. 

"Human attachment to places is very important for everyone, no matter which culture you’re from," he says. "It’s an inherent part of one of our deepest needs: a sense of belonging, a sense of having roots.

"It’s not just the physical idea of place; it’s the meaning and history of places and the relationship between people and places."

Although attachment to place is inherent in human nature, there are distinct differences in the way different cultures relate to landscapes, Taylor says.

"In Western cultures, we have this idea of ’wilderness’; we see nature as something separate from us - remote places, or pristine landscapes where people shouldn’t go.

"But most indigenous people throughout the world have a very spiritual relationship with nature; there is no dichotomy between culture and nature; people are part of nature, not separate from it."

Nowhere is it more obvious that people are part of the landscape than in cities. Think the chaos of the streets of rush hour New York or Tokyo.

While Taylor acknowledges that "cities have got to change; they can’t stay static", he is worried we are taking our urban cultural landscapes for granted and are in danger of losing them.

In the 19th century, the Thai royal family bequeathed some land in Bangkok’s Old City for low rent houses to be built for the poor.

"It was a social experiment," Taylor explains. "Shophouses - a business area downstairs and living space on top - were built near the Grand Palace for the working class."

A few years ago, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority announced plans to demolish these shophouses. It wanted to replace them with a park, which it thought would be more attractive to tourists.

"They were regarded as just ordinary buildings of no architectural significance," Taylor says. "But tourists don’t visit Bangkok just to visit the Grand Palace and the parks, they come to enjoy the vibrant life of the streets: to browse the stalls and bargain for goods."

A couple of decades ago the demolition would have gone ahead, Taylor says. But in 2005, during a conference in Venice, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proposed the idea of urban cultural landscape conservation - looking at heritage not just in terms of buildings, but places where people live and work and carry on their lives.

"Conservation of cities used to be focused on architecturally important buildings, famous because they belonged to royal families or were built by eminent architects.

"But since 2005 - as Richard Engelhardt, formally of UNESCO Bangkok, described it so eloquently - we’ve seen a move from ’princes, priests and politicians, to people’."

When members of UNESCO pointed out the cultural significance of the Old City shophouses, the demolition plan was discarded and the buildings are now part of an urban cultural heritage area.

But other cities seem to be slower in realising the value of urban cultural landscapes. Taylor believes even Canberra - renowned for being the city in the landscape - is experiencing a ’greying’.

"What concerns me is not that Canberra is changing, but that there doesn’t seem to be a plan for keeping a green setting for these new developments. The amount of garden space is reducing because blocks are getting smaller and, in Civic, the buildings are rising.

"I think it’s a real pity that no one has thought to incorporate what is known as ’cones of view’ - viewpoints through the city centre to the magnificent amphitheatre of the surrounding hills. I think we are losing that sense of landscape setting that Canberra is famous for."

But there are still plenty of Canberra spaces where Mother Nature holds her head high - among them, one of Taylor’s favourite places.

"The view from my office window is one that fascinates me every day. On the one hand, a mixture of introduced trees in a lawn setting against the lovely National Film and Sound Archive building; on the other, big old eucalypts, with no shrubs beneath, but just native grass, the result of millennia of Aboriginal fire management.

"When I gaze out my window, I know it’s possible to find ways of balancing the new with the old, and valuing both."



 
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