Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Turf’s up at Bondi
E. M. Farrelly
IN 1883, the Waverley Municipal Council would later declare, Bondi Beach was “mainly dreary sand hills”. Luckily, bettering nature was still within human power, and by 1929 the council’s beach improvement scheme had transformed Bondi, in the council’s own estimation, into “the finest and most up-to-date beach in Australia”.
Equipped now with palm courts and Turkish baths, a vast, arcaded Spanish-style pavilion, a kilometre of sea wall to separate nature from culture and “a sweeping marine drive whose surface is a delight to the most fastidious motorist”, Bondi-Playground-of-thePacific offered legendary aesthetic and health benefits, including the official surf lifesaving team whose “magnificent physique and voluntary spirit … is an everlasting source of wonder to visitors”.
The legendary Bondi tram had brought the suburb within the charmed “threepenny circle”, and by 1929 shiny Model T Fords also thronged the beachfront. Over the preceding decade, some 2,500 houses and 3,500 flats had been built in the municipality. The average density was now a staggering 23 persons per acre, many of them happily ensconced in Bondi’s new Med-style blocks with names like Monterey, Lurline and Shangri-La.
In the same 10 years, council’s income had more than doubled and land values had more than tripled, from ¤1.8 million to ¤6.8 million. “Surf bathing” was all the rage. On a decent day, some 50,000 people would crowd the sand. The council invested some of its new-found wealth in commissioning Robertson and Marks, architects for the Daily Telegraph (now Trust) building on King and Castlereagh, as well as Randwick racecourse and Sydney Boys’ High at Moore Park, to design a vast, beachfront pleasure palace. The new building, replacing Bondi’s existing Federation/gothic-style bathing pavilion, would be the largest of its kind in Australia, capable of accommodating at any one time 12,000 tram-borne hirers of the heavy woollen swimming costumes that were available for a small fee. Rendered brick and concrete and a glazed Cordoba-tile roof gave the outside and front-of-house a convincingly Spanish-eclectic feel, but the bulk of the change accommodation was in tin-roofed demountables sardined into the building’s vast courtyards.
A canvas-shaded balcony provided the perfect spot for promenade-viewing or pre-dinner champagne. The Palm Court offered “delicious refreshment from the nearby soda fountain, soothing cigarette smoke and interesting wireless programs …” and Turkish baths (segregated, to be sure) enhanced the sense of endless leisure.
By 1970, all this had changed. The beach was still popular but the Charleston era was long gone and with it much of Bondi’s easy charm. One Sydney guide book described Bondi as “an area of squat, ugly, sunburned red home units and a ghetto area for New Zealand school teachers and typists on a working holiday”.
Worst of all, perhaps, Bondi’s defining rim of Norfolk Island pines was gone, the great dark cones having succumbed one by one, we now surmise, to spray-borne surfactants from chemical-laden beach outfalls, which slowly stripped the trees of their natural resistance to salt. The council of the time ignored the beachfront but made bold with the pavilion, converting this former hedonists’ paradise to a much worthier existence as a community arts centre. Gone were the ballroom, the black-tie dining, the sunbaking terrace, steam-bathing and the soothing cigarette smoke. In their place appeared craft shops, creches, community murals and a home for fringe theatre. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. These were macrame’ times. Now, though, the pavilion needs doing again. The paint is peeling and the plaster cracking. Concrete is spalling from columns and tunnels. Lintels are deteriorating, brick piers cracking, moisture intruding. Stormwater outlets under the building have eroded foundational support, producing settlement cracks, and the famous arches are cracked, suffering still from the Newcastle earthquake. As Mayor Barbara Armitage puts it, this is one “genteel old lady who needs a bit of a dust-down and a fix-up”.
Dusting down, though, with this breed of dowager, doesn’t come cheap. Much less fixing up. Over the years, the pavilion has become established as the municipality’s main community centre, offering affordable space for dance groups, art shows, band practices, fringe cabaret, karate classes and child care, not to mention the Festival of the Winds and other annuals. It’s busy, but it’s not exactly profitable.
You’d have to say, too, that the old lady in retro-view would be unlikely to count the last 20 years as her proudest. Even the gelato bar that clung to life in the arcade gave way under the constant flea-market hum of assorted non-profit-making events as announced by a contagion of hand-scrawled posters that adorns each vertical surface. That’s fine, in its way. That’s the feel that community centres have. Not classy but comfortable, if you like that sort of thing. But is it appropriate here, in the pavilion? And what are the alternatives?
Obvious possibilities include conversion to food hall/restaurant/retail/convention centre and, alternatively, some attempted reversion to 1930s pleasure-house glam. In either case the profit would have to be sufficient to support a replacement community centre elsewhere, but there are obvious pitfalls, including serious competition/opposition from the Campbell Parade strip over the road, where restaurants multiply daily, opening and closing like flowers. Regarding the ’30s thing, consider Luna Park a cautionary tale in point.
Such difficulties may prove surmountable, but the question is academic, since the council is determined that, having been built by local money, the pavilion should remain in popular control, and it vigilantly opposes such wholesale profit-making options.
Bits and pieces of retail/commercial use are proposed, however, as in the very plausible scheme, now formally approved, by Howard Tanner architects. Working carefully within conservation guidelines, the scheme suggests a mixture of commercial and community uses, with identified points within the cavernous rear courts for future community or commercial enterprises, including a “major events facility” for weddings and the like.
The council’s leasing-brochure description of its constituency as an “upwardly mobile mix of professionals, artists and lovers of beach lifestyle who demand quality, value and atmosphere” evokes something quite different from the last 20 years: a community centre with style. Sounds oxymoronic perhaps, but can it be made to work? As usual, dollars decide. The Howard Tanner proposal runs quickly onto the fingers of two hands, counting in millions: council has one-and-a-bit million left to spend, after the recent $1.9 million sea-wall upgrade. This will buy a new sprung-floored performing arts space out back, a lift in the foyer and a new circulation gallery around the central atrium. The rest will have to wait for one of John Howard’s Federation grants, or for Olympic beach volleyball to hit. Well, would you hold your breath?
Nor is it just the pavilion. The same applies to the rest of Bondi. It’s ugly and dilapidated, but humans adore it, coach-swarming all the way from Tokyo. So, how tarted up is too tarted up? Is Bondi’s vitality jeopardised by smartness? How to lose the ugliness and keep that barefoot magic? Or is ugliness itself of the essence?
Braving this minefield, the council is in the throes of $7 million expenditure ($4 million council money, $3 million from the State) to upgrade Campbell Parade. For private property, a development control plan, currently in draft, will mandate height limits and pastel colours, a’ la 1930s Spanish Mission, Hollywood style.
But then there’s the public realm – the parade itself. As a design problem this is daunting at best – huge, high-profile, complex, political. Just as unsettling is the fact that the obvious remedy for Bondi’s chronic desolation – trees – is bound to back you right up against the View Problem.
Paul Knox, landscape architect, was briefed to develop the design from an initial community-produced diagram. For aesthetic as well as survival reasons, he was determined to Keep It Simple. This meant eschewing tricksy traffic-calming solutions in order to maintain the grand-scale clarity of the Bondi crescent with surf, beach, road and built form each describing a huge but slightly different arc. Knox’s answer is to widen footpaths, up to 11 metres in places; relocate parking from the median of Campbell Parade to the reorganised car park, and plant some 40-odd replacement Norfolks along the foreshore into a further harmonising arc.
There will be art, with works by established artists as well as smaller, community works. And there will be a central, ceremonial link to the beach opposite the currently rather sad end of the Roscoe Street mall. The obvious point for a second retail-beach connection, from the end of Beach Road into the back of the pavilion, is regrettably not exploited, but forms an entrance instead to the secondary coach and car parking system. (It is an article of faith with the council to sustain no net loss of parking, in the name of accessibility.)
All this seems reasonable, although simpler still would be better. I’m all for pleasing the locals, upwardly mobile or otherwise, but it’s hard to accept that Bondi, bronzed icon of Aussie beach culture, is really enhance able by coloured concrete footpaths and community mosaics. If it were my money I’d skip the traffic calming blisters, and the art, and put it all into getting the trees up and running ASAP. A great sweep of Norfolks, holding the place in place.
As for the pavilion, good luck to them. But I reckon a little class would go a long, long way on the dowager just now.
Two illus: ‘Genteel old lady’ …
Above, Bondi pavilion as it is today and, below, as it appeared in a famous 1929 poster by Percy Trompf.
Main photograph by BEN RUSHTON