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Leigh Tabrett response to Platform Paper 44

As someone who was responsible for several years for the oversight and servicing of one of the precincts mentioned in the paper, I have always had some questions about our enthusiasm for lumping cultural institutions together.  So I really welcomed this paper—it hints at questions which go deep into our view of culture.  While it’s a lively polemic, and I don’t disagree with the recommendations, I’m not sure it really gets to the heart of the issue.

The paper certainly lays bare some of the language and arguments used in government to argue for or justify investment in creating cultural precincts. This, of course, is the writing intended to create a case for investment, and it appropriates the dominant language (economic benefit, tourism, creative industry) which authors think will convince a government of its value. This is hardly ever language about benefits to art and culture.  There is no surprise in any of this, although it’s fun to take a swipe at it. I just would have liked a deeper analysis: what about the role of architects and planners? What did governments who sponsor such developments think has actually happened? What does the public think? What have the people who live and work in such precincts  experienced?

Where the paper does look at outcomes in terms of actual artistic collaboration and cross-fertilisation, you might be excused for thinking that the examples have been chosen to support the author’s prior view that there is no evidence of any benefit.  A deeper inquiry might have found a more mixed, and more positive, record – certainly in the Brisbane example.  I’m thinking here of the collaboration  which produced a major cross-precinct series of events and exhibitions, recognising the unique cultural heritage and contemporary culture of the peoples of the Torres Strait – more than a year and a half of scholarship, and an extensive and significant outcome in the event, and in the archives created, as well as for the people of Queensland and the TSI. I could also cite long-standing partnerships between teaching institutions and cultural partners. People do get to have coffee together—that’s the point!

The other thing missing for me is a deeper exploration of how cultural precincts reflect and possibly shape our perceptions of the place of culture in our lives.

Flying from Charles De Gaulle to Singapore on an A380 a couple of years ago, I was struck by an interesting fact: the iconic airport buildings of Charles de Gaulle airport cannot cope with aircraft payloads of five hundred people. The passengers on my flight queued continuously for nearly three hours to get on that plane—we were exhausted before we set off. When we landed in Singapore, we were delighted to be somewhere that could cope with our influx—spacious, efficient, modern—we were hardly a ripple on the calm and highly polished surface of Singapore Airport. But will we all be holidaying in Singapore, rather than Paris, next year?

This is what’s possible in the new world, and it’s what modern urban planning and architecture produce: efficient fit-for-purpose spaces which have enough parking, can deal with crowds quickly and safely, and are supported by dedicated infrastructure and services. For sheer operational and public convenience, you just can’t beat them.  Think Convention Centre…

Co-location of big public facilities is terrifically convenient and efficient – shared  infrastructure and services are a huge benefit.  People who like to put order into urban design and development—architects and planners—and people who like “big icons”—politicians and tourism promoters and marketers—certainly seem to love these solutions, and the truth is,  the capacity to plan rationally is one of the benefits of living in the new world, as anyone who has been in central London traffic in the last twenty years knows.

But in spite of all the contemporary planning imperatives that push us towards these solutions,  and all the economic –speak about tourism destinations and industry clusters, it has always seemed to me that corralling culture in one specific, identifiable bit of a city has some particular disadvantages. It structures our encounters with culture in a particular way – as something we have to go to, outside our daily round, and with a certain amount of convention and intention, to experience.  In Paris, you round a corner, and pretty much without warning, there is the Pompidou Centre, or the Musee de Cluny – with the life of Paris rubbing up against it as a normal part of its business. You can go for a coffee, take in a gallery or two of something extraordinary, and be on your way, enriched, uplifted, challenged : somehow culture is much less special and separate, and more just part of the everyday fabric of the city and its people. With cultural icons dispersed across the city, chance encounters are more than possible – it’s one of the reasons we seek out these cities, and find them such a rich experience.

So how do Australians experience culture? What of all the people who never go near Southbank? In Australia, these are pretty much middle class white venues offering appropriate cultural experiences to middle class white audiences  - is there some connection here