Walking around the University of Queensland campus about a year ago, I was struck by the beauty of James Birrell's architecture, but also the slightly disrespectful way in which the rampant sub-tropical foliage was engulfing it. The overall sensation was a delightfully heady fecundity, enveloping the gorgeous concrete structures in a deadly embrace of vines and roots. Yet also a vague sense that I'd seen this before somewhere. I hadn't, but I realised the overall campus reminded me of the 70s sci-fi movie 'Silent Running' – somewhat bizarrely, given the acres of clear blue sky above.
It wasn't just the specific forms of the campus architecture – as with most educational establishments, a mish-mash of styles reflecting different funding models and regimes, but featuring some fine brutalist-lite plastic and concrete cubes of the sixties and seventies.
It was also the sense of building structures as a colonising force; of growing things in defiance of the environment. In 'Silent Running', it's the surreal vision of gigantic hydroponic pods, lifted from Bucky's geodesic domes, attempting to literally grow life while suspended in life-less space.
At Brisbane's UQ campus, it was the beautifully manicured lawns and carved lakes, in a terrain increasingly scorched. Bamboo grows effortlessly, as do other local plants and trees, each adapted to their terrain. The sub-tropical foliage is clearly on top, in this slow, lazy struggle in the sun.
As with elsewhere in Brisbane - say the heavy-bricked Tudorbethan houses in New Farm's Abbott Street - an imported, imposed European sensibility always hangs a little askew here. The artificiality of a giant ornamental pool of water, carefully scooped out of sweeping lawns, in a city with an apparently permanent water shortage, is exaggerated by the sight of giant lizard, lying in the sun, perfectly still, delighting a small child. A turtle is equally static atop its manhole cover island. You half expect a couple of squat robots to come waddling round the corner, ready to trim the herbaceous borders.
As the science fiction visions swirled around my heat-stroked head, these bits of Brisbane appeared more and more like a colonisation - the 'tyranny of distance' common in both early notions of Australia and in the incomprehensible light-year expanses of space exploration. In the late-18th century London, Botany Bay may as well have been outer space.
I'm ever-conscious of writing about Australia from the slightly iffy perspective of an Englishman, as a foreigner, and here specifically as a non-Brisbanian. I'm also wary of the outsider's tendency to derive exotica from the everyday. But seeing Australia through these varying lenses led me to stop and think further about building, climate change and our response.
The architecture is often wonderful at the University of Queensland - again, particularly James Birrell's stuff - but is it now suited to its terrain and climate? Perhaps better suited than the hydroponic pods of 'Silent Running', which simply created a barrier to the external environment (though curiously reminiscent of Robert Hughes's fantastic phrase from 'The Fatal Shore': "the breaking open of a capsule ... the protective glass of distance broke".) But certainly not as well-suited as the effortlessly thrusting bamboo or wonderfully adaptive Queenslander vernacular housing seen elsewhere. (Which is another story.)
Ballard's 'The Drowned World' (1962) was another reference point constantly in mind - the giant ferns and submerged cities of that wonderful book were never far from my thoughts as I wandered around Brisbane's baked yet verdant streets.
Whilst Australia's terrain is often characterised by dry, ancient rock, Brisbane and the north are rather more lush, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the drowned world there. The water shortages and eight-year droughts are changing the habits of Brisbane's residents for sure; the gardening column in the local Courier Mail newspaper featured fervent debates about whether to alter planting patterns or just wait for the drought to break. But the mangroves, paperbarks and poincianas seem just fine in the heavy humid air. (Over-salination is another matter, however - see Jared Diamond's 'Collapse' for the sobering state of play, but also on Australia's possible way forward.) The half-submerged mangroves and plodding ibises of Queensland's coast particularly call to mind 'The Drowned World's' primeval flora and fauna:
"In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the sombre green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white-faced buildings of the twentieth century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time ..." ['The Drowned World', JG Ballard]
Australia seems poised at this junction right now, beginning to explore new and old ways of dealing with its water supply, from divining, to not-building dams - "a 20th-century response to 21st-century problems" - to finally recycling. Cosmos magazine covers this situation well, noting that Australia could usefully play the role of petri dish for the rest of the world:
"John Radcliffe, a commissioner for Australia's National Water Commission, describes Australia as "having the scope" to lead the world in water innovation. Because Australia is so dry, and its situation so dire, it could prove a harbinger of things to come globally." [Cosmos magazine]
The following photos are from an excellent slideshow courtesy of the 'Sydney Morning Herald', on the depleted, dam-created Lake Eucumbene, exposing the submerged Adaminaby township. Taken with Paul Sinclair's recent 'Age' article, it perhaps reinforces the folly of building dams in Australia.
These are certainly drought-created situations. But perhaps the learning we could derive predates drought altogether. The inherent unpredictability of the Australian climate - the El Niño Southern Oscillation which led to the pragmatic indigenous practice of building a nomadic culture (see Tim Flannery's 'The Future Eaters' for more) - may turn out to have been an inadvertent precursor for weather patterns elsewhere. A letter to 'The Economist' a while back claimed that agriculture uses 75% of Australia's water yet only contributes around 8% of the GDP. Perhaps this points to one of many imminent changes for Australia; changes that could actually be bent into progressive shapes. Allegedly the most urbanised nation on earth - aside from city states - only 16% (24,909 gigalitres) of Australia's water ends up in its cities. The Mary Valley controversy in Queensland, reported in excellent Aussie magazine The Monthly in September 2006, is a pointer of what will certainly be many disputes to follow between the country and the city over water supplies. The city is the only realistic future, I'm sure, but these transitions are painful, and swamping beautiful national parks that are homes to endangered species will be both unpopular and destructive. Yet if city life is endangered by irresponsible water usage, that's an order of magnitude worse. There's a spectacular Aussie version of 'Chinatown' or 'City of Quartz' to write here.
How to reconcile urban development with climate change? How to build a sub-tropical architecture that adapts to the environment? How to use dangerous environmental conditions to the benefit of a nation, a culture, a people? There are ways forward amidst all of these questions; there is learning from both the vernacular past and the imagined future of science fiction. From the past, richer ways of thinking about weather patterns, or of the environment holistically, or of building for sub-tropical environments (bit more later). And looking forward, perhaps we need imaginative, progressive visions of a future radically altered by climate change. In Wreck-Diving London, Geoff Manaugh binds Ballard's submerged London from 'The Drowned World' with Turner's wondrous hazy swirls of light and water - say, of previously submerged city, Venice. Manaugh indicates how imaginative writing and cut-and-paste imagery could form a useful, if playful, bricolage:
"Till, someday, a distant heir of J.M.W. Turner will return sunburnt from the tropics to find London an archipelago of failed sea walls and water-logged high-rises, the suburbs an intricate filigree of uninhabited canals, bonded warehousing forming atolls amidst sandbanks and deltas. Amidst new islands of former rooftops, he will rename the constellations to fit British geography as it used to be: Piccadilly Circus, King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, all burning above a city that quietly rushes with black waves."
Ballard's thesis in 'The Drowned World' concerned time itself rolling backwards: as environmental conditions began to resemble those of the Triassic era, so plant forms, animal life and ultimately human consciousness began to roll backwards too, our 'lizard brains' emerging from the deep sleep of the hypothalamus. As we begin to mentally mimic the stillness of a turtle on a manhole cover island in the burning sun, we'll need these skewed spurs and spikes to prick our thinking and find interesting ways out. Like Ballard's hero, head to the south, into the sun, to find the future. It's counter-intuitive, but it might just work.