Gippslandia #4 - Publishers Comment - Tilt Slab

Death by tilt slab.

Let me begin by painting a scenario that many of you may be familiar with from your travels…

You’re standing in a grass field surrounded by people who are very much like you. It’s warm. Around you are lots of khaki cargo shorts, backpacks and foreign accents. The air’s fragrant and the atmosphere almost carnival-like. With a gawky smile on your face, you stare at your friend and wait with one arm raised in the air – as if pushing an invisible object. You’re feeling pretty damn clever about yourself right now. This is a moment you want to remember. With stars in your eyes, you’re already counting the Instalikes you’re bound to receive. Your friend is doing their best ‘crab-walk’ dance, hastily moving side-to-side as they position their lens to get the best vantage point of you, the star, seemingly pushing over the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “Say, ‘Pizza!’”. Click. With that, the world’s best visual trickery has been achieved – mission accomplished!

The ‘Wonders Of The World’ website claims that the total of camera-toting multi-pocketed idiots (myself included) to visit this world-renowned engineering mishap is no less than one million people per year. One whole million! Google ‘Tourism in Australia’ and you’ll see our whole nation only attracts 7.4 million in its entirety. One million visitors per annum to Pisa equates to 2,700 people per day. Imagine what 2,700 extra people pouring into one of our humble Gippsland towns would mean for the local restaurants, hotels and shops: that’s a lot of latte’s and smashed avo.

By most people’s reports, Pisa isn’t much of a city. Ask almost anyone that’s visited and they’ll likely report that, as beautiful as the tower is, the town is a letdown. Whether you agree or not, when on the short drive between Pisa and rival-city Livorno, it’s hard to miss the endless line of call-girls along the edge of army barracks, waiting their turn in front crumbling walls grafitti’d passionately by the rival Livornese, ‘Pisa Merda’ – loose translation: ‘Shitsville’. Yet, no one has anyone ever received a postcard or tagged an Insta post with, ‘Greetings from the Leaning Tower of Shitsville’.

The fabled bell tower has played a role so far beyond its original intention that people from all over the globe continue flocking to see it. As long as it remains standing, no matter how average Pisa may or may not be, the visitors will come, awkwardly raise their arms and pretend to push the tower over in a dorky photo. They’ll then beam their photo around the world demonstrating that they too have achieved the dream: tower seen, photo taken and now their bucket list is one item shorter, and this dear reader, is the power of architecture.

Philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message”. When considering landmark architecture, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the photo can possibly transcend the landmark itself (definitely outshines the town that houses it). It makes no difference whether Pisa is Shitsville or not – the tower pulls in so much tourist cachet that its reputation and ‘brand’, is globally indestructible.

Pisa is an example of why Gippsland needs to understand the importance that landmark architecture plays in defining a town. A regular reader of my column will know that I like to sport a quote, so let me hammer home my point by citing one of modern history’s greatest statesmen, Winston Churchill, who remarked, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” — So, are we good, bad or ugly?

Let’s shift our focus to the buildings that shape Gippsland. Searching for images of my hometown Traralgon on Google returns shots of our beautiful post-office and courthouse without fail. For anyone beyond Traralgon, an image of the post office is practically synonymous with the town. For Warragul, it’s the triangular public space featuring the War Memorial and maybe even the Courthouse or Art Centre; for Sale, it’s Lake Guthridge, the clock tower or Criterion Hotel; Wonthaggi has the precinct around the historic whale-jawbones; and once you’ve seen the beautiful Art Deco pub at Fish Creek, it’s difficult to forget. Moe, a town unfairly dealt a reputation by outsiders, has made a bold step toward modernity with its stunning library – a major, recognisable architectural feature in a place where there wasn’t one. In nearby Yarragon, it’s the allure of the angled verandahs that draws people in. Where there’s charm or character, there are tourists, and with that comes opportunity.

These aforementioned Gippsland gems are our ‘Leaning Tower’ equivalents – buildings that define us, as suggested by Churchill. For every new building that goes up, we are saying something about ourselves which won’t easily be undone. For Traralgon, so much of our identity is centred on the post office precinct, yet it’s a rare original building that’s been left standing in the town. This lack of older buildings is concern often shared by locals. If only we’d protected our heritage, similar to Beechworth, Daylesford, or even Walhalla or Omeo? What then for towns with an absence of heritage?

Whether we like it or not, our architecture, shopfronts, retail fit-outs, street adornment and landscaping (heck, even the volume of hoon vehicles we endure) are all visual cues that speak of our ability to sustain a strong economy, but to whom are they speaking? Let’s explore.

Every visiting Minister from Melbourne or Canberra is considering whether our towns are appropriate for major investment; every young professional returning home at Christmas is wondering if they can get enough fulfilment out of a regional lifestyle should they choose to move home again; every visiting friend from interstate is wondering why the hell you’d live here, and questioning whether they could; every professional working locally on secondment is questioning if they’ll enjoy their tenure; every entrepreneur and business owner is looking for a new place to holiday and they may also be seeking a new location for their next industry-leading business — just flick back a few pages, did you see the notice from St. Ali in this edition? Modern tourism doesn’t end with ‘grey nomads’, vanilla slice and frothy cappuccinos. Surely it’s time that Economic Development and Town Planning take Tourism and Marketing out to lunch and appreciate their common aims.

Architects, designers, builders and planners are the tailors of our civic image. We should demand they dress us up in damn fine clothing because every pair of visiting eyes is subconsciously assessing and comparing us to other regional areas. Our towns are constantly on show and our local councillors and politicians should put endless pressure on improving the standards of architectural quality of their projects, regardless if it’s an interior, exterior, entire building or landscape. Step one, is lifting the common understanding of what is good, and what is not.

Modern realities have led to an increase in prefabricated construction techniques. While tilt slab technology provides an opportunity to quickly achieve built environments, the risk we face with every tilt slab left unadorned or facade ill-considered is that we blight our towns with banality. The short-term gain of low-cost construction brings the long-term pain of undesirable property and, generally, a dullness and predictability to our streets that no one wants to inhabit. It’s a tough conundrum for our local developers and town planners who do so much to drive our local economy.

Only a short drive west, there are close to four million Victorians participating in a design-led movement that has provided amazing results for councils, investors, professionals, students, workers, parents, and kids alike. World-class standards in design, architecture and planning have contributed massively towards Melbourne’s much-lauded, ‘World’s Most Liveable City’ title and this is no rarity – winning the award seven years running is not a fluke.

We, Gippsland, are completely mad if we don’t look for opportunities to leverage our close proximity to this leading city. Our state capital stands as a global beacon of creativity and inspiration, a city many admire as a leader in innovation, thought, lifestyle, and architecture. How long does it take for those ideas to ripple out of the metropolitan zone and travel down the highway? It’s hard to admit, but Geelong, Bendigo, and Ballarat all seemed to jump on the wave a touch quicker. Our limitation is most likely our hesitation and reluctance to spend (or, for some, ‘gamble’) a little extra for the possibility of an even greater return.

The architectural landscape in Melbourne should provide us with inspiration on how to do it right, and the trust and faith that design-led investment is not just worth it, but critical to our future success (are you going to argue with The Economist?). If we can harness the learnings of our urban neighbours and ensure outcomes that are relevant and suitable in our regional context, we can position Gippsland as one of Australia’s most exciting regions. This issue of Gippslandia reveals that the signs really are bright.

Gippslanders everywhere are craving the aesthetic charm of a well-designed space, place, object or even brand. A grassroots push for design excellence is emerging. Local makers across Gippsland are crafting beautiful, well-made objects (have you seen Yinnar General store?). Cafes and restaurants are investing in attractive interiors to provide customers with the best possible dining environment. These trends are starting to influence our retail spaces too. Many builders are following suit at the domestic level and the market seems to be responding positively. The RACV Resort at Inverloch leads the way as a hospitality benchmark for the region as a modern, contemporary, spacious, well executed and exquisitely landscaped outfit. Government investment also evidently appears strong, as outlined earlier in this issue. $70 million plus in capital support for a major local cultural institutions is big — we eagerly wait to see what comes of the projects announced by the State Government, utilising the Latrobe Valley Authority funds, as part of the transition of Hazelwood.

As the Internet-age matures, we’re collectively beginning to breathe a sigh of boredom over YouTube videos of cats and are instead choosing to scour Instagram for #interiors and then stashing them away on Pinterest, where the link to the ‘10 Minimalist Living Rooms to Make You Swoon’ sucks us in… Now. Where the hell was I? It’s hard to ignore and the joy of well-designed things is hard to ignore too.

This design-led movement isn’t limited to design-nerds or stay-at-home mums. Try stepping into an IKEA — you should count the 20-something males furrowing their brows as they choose between the SVALNÄS series or the BESTÅ system. Watch them grab hotdogs and pear juice by the tray-full while they wander off to ponder.

A cultural shift based on improved design is upon us. While we’re seeing affordable, replica design and homeware on sale to the masses in ALDI and Kmart, the big-ticket opportunity is urban architecture that draws the attention of a crowd. At the base level, it says so much about us: quality architecture is sophisticated, intelligent, attractive, inspiring, surprising and very shareable on social media.

While we reflect on this, I wonder how many readers have (while reading this article) taken a timeout to thumb through Instagram, and maybe liked half a dozen snaps? In fact, I wonder how many photos of landmarks with @FriendImJealousOf #travelling #OS got the thumbs-up posing in front of say, the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, Burj Khalifa, Machu Picchu, Empire State Building, Colosseum, Great Wall of China, MONA Hobart, or any other incredible landmark that draws people in from around the world to admire, snap, share, and remember as somewhere awesome.

Architecture as destination? 2700 visitors per day to Shitsville, whoops I mean Pisa, is proof that it’s worth it.

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