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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Central Perth 1

First impressions of central Perth can leave you wondering why you came so far for so little. Walk west along St. George's Terrace on a Sunday morning and see if I'm wrong.

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This is the main drag (forget the double entendre). Or, in the immortal words of Victor Borge (you have to know the skit about the poor lady trying to sing Verdi), "Oh, God." That's a Hyatt Hotel on the left adjoining the Fortescue Center. Don't know that name? Gotta get with the program: this is Big Mining country, and Fortescue is the fourth biggest iron-ore producer on the planet. (I'm glad to see you're impressed.) The glassy Infinity Apartments, as well as the opposite One28, were developed by Finbar, one of Perth's major property developers.

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That's the Duxton Hotel on the left and the St. George apartments on the right. I'm reminded of D.C. with palms and no sirens. Maybe Perth isn't so bad, after all.

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So the first surveyor-general of Western Australia was Septimus Roe, 1797-1878. It was he who chose the site of Perth (and Fremantle) and also set aside the grand Kings Park. Not too bad for a white guy. And you ask why I burden you with this information? Simple: the concrete waffle in front of you is Septimus Roe Square, the splendid property of the Far East Organization of Singapore. Good thing Septimus isn't around to sue.

See the low, older building? That's the home of Cloonmore, a mining and energy consultant.

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Here's another relic of the lost world. It's Bishop Hale's School, established in 1858. Hale was the first bishop in Western Australia, and he bought this land and built this school on it with his own money. It later became a girls' school, then a government high school. But that's all in the 19th century; since then, it's housed many outfits.

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The Quest apartments demonstrate the contemporary belief that color means vibe.

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The building's lobby and reception are in the New Church, built in 1940 in a style called Inter-War Gothic--cognate with Gothic on the cheap. The congregation vanished, and so we should probably be grateful that somebody decided not to demolish the building. On the other hand, I'd be uneasy signing a lease inside an old church. Yes, it's desanctified and all that, but isn't it still a reminder of a world before money?

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Here's something we can perhaps respect. It's the Council House, designed by Jeffrey Howlett and Donald Bailey, and opened by the Queen in 1963. Ironically, it was almost knocked down in 1990 amid talk of creating a "heritage precinct." (When you hear the word "heritage," you know the UNESCO bureaucrats are very close. Time to run.) One critic, noting the T-shape sunshades, calls this building Perth's first example of "window walling." He goes further and calls it, a "very refined building which was seen as emblematic of the modern aspirations of the expanding city of Perth."

See Geoffrey London, A Short History of Perth Architecture, 2002.)

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Something newer still: the Perth Library, opened in 2016. Think there's not much room for books? My friend, you haven't been in a library lately. Fortunately for them, librarians aren't big on etymology.

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Inspired yet? That's the old Palace Hotel, once very grand but now a facade for BankWest. (Isn't that a great name? You can imagine the managing directors dreaming of the day when they run BankEast and BankNorth and maybe even BankWorld. It's great to dream, even if every dream includes a portmanteau.)

The Rio Tinto banner is surprisingly tacky. Compare it with the hugely understated Johannesburg headquarters of AngloAmerican--or, for that matter, with ExxonMobil's almost invisible headquarters in suburban Dallas.

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I know, you're thinking I've made a mistake and that this photo belongs in the set about Mussolini's Rome. But no, it's Western Australia's Parliament House, designed by E.H. Van Mens for the Public Works Department and completed in 1964. The late Richard Apperly describes it as a "classical breakfront arrangement, with monumental scale." No mention of Il Duce.

See Apperly's useful but taxonomically obsessive Identifying Australian Architecture, 1994.

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This is the Dumas House, completed in 1965 near Parliament House and intended for staff offices. The premier at the time, David Brand, said at its opening, "I believe history will look back on the 'sixties as one of the landmarks in the story of our State." That's probably true, but he couldn't quit while he was ahead and so proceeded to burble of "a new age of development--aided by science, aided by an unprecedented inflow of capital funds, aided by great enthusiasm for the harnessing of our enormous resources and spurred on by the enterprise of thousands of people." Better if he had just winked and said, "Boys, get on that ore."

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The view from the Parliament grounds back down the axis we've been following. The brick structure is all that's left of a big building knocked down for the freeway. (We'll look at the relic in the next set.) The tower on the left is 1990's QV.1, a tower whose enigmatic name alludes to the Latin Quo vadis. It's an awfully good question in this context, but the building's mega-managers, CB Richard Ellis, aren't any help. Instead, they've paid good money for a shameless mantra: "Love where you work." The building's tenants, including Chevron and BP, can't possibly take that guff seriously.

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Amazing how water and distance help. Anyway, here you see the big boys at play. It's a bit confusing, because the buildings they're in are called Central Park (1999) and Brookfield Place (2012). The miners have just coughed up big money for the right to brag.

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Abandon fresh air, all ye who enter. (You can imagine how I complain in new hotels.)

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The fine skateboard surface is the roof of the Perth Convention and Exhibition Center.

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Increase the distance, throw in a bit of lawn, and it gets even better. Good enough to fly all this way? Short answer: it doesn't look encouraging, but if we look around a bit more things will get better.


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