14/10/2010 - 00:00

The new face of Northbridge

14/10/2010 - 00:00


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Northbridge has long suffered an image problem, but with the help of government funding that is about to change with the Perth Cultural Centre at the forefront. Emily Morgan reports.

The new face of Northbridge

When considering the level of bureaucracy involved in making significant changes to public spaces in Perth, or any other city for that matter, the current developments taking place in Northbridge are somewhat exciting.

Walking from the Perth train station through the Cultural Centre to the city’s eclectic hub that is Northbridge, it is difficult not to notice the changes.

Among them are the revitalised landscape, development of the heritage buildings lining William street and the significant capital works of the State Theatre Centre.

The Cultural Centre is an 8.5 hectare area flanked by William, Beaufort, Aberdeen and Roe streets and encases the WA Museum, Art Gallery of WA, State Library and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and has recently had an $11 million facelift.

Planning Minister John Day is overseeing the site and says the Barnett government flagged the centre very early on as a priority for development.

“The whole cultural precinct was identified as an area of opportunity that had become run down substantially over the last 10 or 20 years,” he says.

“There were problems with people’s safety and it was just not nearly as attractive a place to visit as it could have been so we have had a particular focus and priority on upgrading the public space.”

So what exactly does $11 million buy these days?

Improving safety has been a priority, with better lighting and security guard presence while the aesthetics and appeal of the area has been tweaked with the introduction of more seating, the urban orchard that inhabits the rooftop of the Roe Street Citipark car park and the wetland landscaping adjacent to the art gallery.

It includes the $6 million restoration of 11 state owned heritage buildings on the eastern side of William Street and free WiFi for internet users within the cultural precinct.

And in case you’re wondering what the centre’s two fish bowl-like glass pods encasing sinks are, they will be leased to cafe and ice cream vendors and also fall into the $11 million budget.

Mr Day is positive about the changes already made to the precinct, particularly in relation to the greenery that is the urban orchard.

“That area was a dead space previously, but from my observations is now being pretty actively used,” he says.

As far as capital works go, $91 million has been spent on the new State Theatre Centre, which is due for completion next month and will officially open with a civic ceremony on January 27.

Construction of a new building for Central Institute of Technology is also under way (see page 15).

Mr Day says the museum is another major project currently in the approval process, with $8 million set aside for demolition of the Francis Street building.

The reinvigoration of Northbridge has come at a price, but it is public funding that Art Gallery of Western Australia director Stefano Carboni believes is paramount to the development of areas such as the Perth Cultural Centre, which leads to the cultural development of the city as a whole.

“If there is a perception that the government supports, at least at a basic level, the operations of the gallery, then it is going to be much easier to find additional corporate and private support,” Mr Carboni says.

“Fundraising is usually successful when there is a perception it is worthwhile. It is worthwhile because it is an institution that is going somewhere. If the perception is negative, then it is going to be difficult to fundraise for all these different things.”

Mr Day agrees that government support can play an important role in this regard.

“In terms of being able to attract additional philanthropic and corporate support, it is necessary to have an organisation, in this case the art gallery, having a certain critical mass and demonstration of support by the government to give the wider community the confidence for them to also contribute,” he says.

“That has been our aim, and I think we are showing our support, I would always like there to be more funding for arts activities.”

Removing stereotypes

Northbridge’s reputation as a dangerous, unruly place characterised by alcohol-induced antisocial behaviour has, to a certain extent, harmed its chances of fully developing its cultural and artistic heart.

The arts sector has had an image crisis of its own; instead of being known as an open, inclusive cultural offering it has traditionally been characterised by elitist events.

So how can these two stereotypes potentially balance each other out?

According to creative industry advocacy organisation FORM curator Elisha Buttler, opportunities abound for Northbridge.

“Northbridge is constantly portrayed as an unsafe place to go, the truth is at night it can be unsafe, but there are steps you can take to remedy that,” she says.

“Having a much longer social economy and commercial economy will by default mean there are more people in the streets doing things other than clubbing and drinking, and would provide safety in numbers.

“Until the cultural centre and integral parts of Northbridge are more fully activated, a lot of people won’t believe it will become a hub. But that is the way it is with any development, you have to see it to believe it.”

She says the key to making the Perth Cultural Centre really successful is how it feels overall and how the cultural institutions within it can be made to be more inclusive and inviting.

“It is about how the space feels on a human scale as much as it is about all the projects and events happening within it,” she says.

Ms Buttler says it is important for culture and the arts to be integrated into the fabric of Perth in terms of the development of new and existing commercial and retail spaces.

She is hopeful for the future of Northbridge, and believes “it has all the right ingredients to be a diverse, interesting, exciting social and creative hub”.

Ms Buttler says government funding is integral in broadening the scope of cultural activities thereby making the sector more inclusive.

“Socially, if you can take it outside the four gallery walls, it does have so much to offer the general community,” she says.



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