Can Perth Buy Culture?

Published 12 May 2023

Written By Joel Benichou

Can Perth Buy Culture? Developing the City’s Cultural Value through Architecture

Perth from Kings Park, 1985 - State Library of Western Australia

In 2008, I wrote an essay on the topic of Culture and the value great architecture can present a growing city. At that time, Perth was in the midst of an economic boom. The city was flush with cash, and there was a sense of optimism about the future. However, despite the boundless potential and confidence, Perth was still lacking a strong cultural identity. Perth was often derided as being a "cultural desert," and there was a growing sense that the city needed to do something to build its cultural image and retain the creative workers that were flocking to the Eastern states.

Although some of the commentary has dated, the topic of culture and our city is still as relevant today as it was in 2008. My passion for this topic has only grown since then and the discussion is needed now more than ever. Considered and deliberate architecture is becoming increasingly important as cities around the world compete for talent, investment, and tourists. Perth has made some significant headway since 2008, but a lot more needs to be done to transform our city int a vibrant and culturally rich global destination.

Freeway interchange from the MLC Building, 1986 - State Library of Western Australia


The economic boom that Perth is experiencing sees the city in a pivotal stage of its history. It is at a point in its development where it can make a decided choice to investing in creasing its cultural value. The ideas and implications surrounding architecture and culture in ‘booming’ cities are tremendous. In a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, can Perth effectively buy culture through investing in dynamic and innovative architecture?

Years of cultural complacency and bureaucratic restrictions has seen Perth acquire a ‘Dullsville’ label. That is, despite Perth’s stunning natural environment, the city lacks vitality and innovation in its architecture. It is not a ‘vibrant’ and ‘energetic’ city and its failure to attract and retain talented professionals is symptomatic of this (Florida 2002, p749). In view of the possibilities that are generated through a ‘booming’ economy, how can Perth receive the cultural makeover it desperately needs? Looking towards other cultural capitals such as Melbourne and Bilbao can help Perth select a developmental path that is viable for its context. Perth must consider how iconic buildings can boost its cultural image. Why should Perth invest in such a change?

There are inherent economic and social benefits attached to developing a city’s cultural value. By creating a city that is a exciting and vibrant place to live, Perth’s prosperity will continue post‐boom. Talented professionals will be attracted to move to and remain in Perth because of the cultural value the city has to offer. Their contribution to progressive ways of thinking will ultimately, help maintain the city’s cultural relevance on a global scale. When Perth’s natural resource boom ends the city will look towards its human resources.

Photo by Tibor Janas

Can Perth Buy Culture?

Developing the City’s Cultural Value through Architecture.

The ideas and implications surrounding architecture and culture in booming cities are tremendous. The economic boom that Perth is experiencing sees the city in a pivotal stage of its history. This essay investigates, whether Perth, in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, can effectively buy culture through investing in dynamic and innovative architecture. In effect, it assumes that the city, at present, lacks a vibrant and exciting culture. It also supposes that a close relationship exists between architecture, the built environment and the production of culture. These ideas will be closely interrogated, throughout this paper, as will ideas surrounding the developmental path Perth should select to increase its cultural value. Looking towards other cultural capitals such as Melbourne and Bilbao can help determine whether iconic buildings can work to boost a city’s cultural image. Finally, the ways in which developing Perth’s cultural value can contribute to the process of “future‐proofing” the city will be examined.

The central focus of this essay is whether Perth can buy culture through investing in architecture. In order to address this question, it is necessary to first define the terms, “culture” and “architecture,” and examine their relationship with one another.“ Culture is the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations” (Merriam‐Webster’s Online Dictionary). The production of culture, therefore, is not an instant process. Instead, it is the product of groups and individuals meaningfully interacting with each other and their environments over time (Roseberry 1989 p.42).

According to this definition, architecture (and on a larger level, the built environment) has a symbiotic relationship with culture (Benjamin 2003). This is because the role of architects is to produce environments in which there are “…participants in their work” (Bates in FORM b, p31). Architects must consider the needs of groups and individuals that will use the spaces they create and how this interaction will facilitate and generate beliefs, behaviour and learning. Architects must also have knowledge of how their attitudes and values, inevitably ingrained in the building, will shape the users’ experience. It can, therefore, be concluded that the reciprocation of experience between architects and users is a crucial element of cultural production (FORMb,p31). The short answer to whether Perth can buy culture through architecture is, yes. The longer answer will be discussed throughout this essay, in the arguments surrounding Perth’s future below.

In addition to the definitions offered above, the notion of “cultural value” and how it relates to the Perth context is significant in the dialogue concerning Perth’s future.

Cultural value (extended from the above definition) refers to the importance or worth that is placed on the ways in which a society critically engages with their environment and subsequently grows with their changing contexts. From an architectural perspective, cultural value relates to how the built environment nurtures the process of engagement and growth. This essay assumes that Perth’s cultural value is low. There are a number of factors that work to support this assumption. To begin with, one of the first words that come to mind for many of Perth’s citizens when asked to describe the city is “Dullsville” (Irving 2007, p14). This is attributable to the “…lifeless streets in the CBD after the city workers have bolted for the suburbs…the lack of connection between the river and pleasant shady green places in which to linger, and the hard‐edged ugliness of some inner‐city spaces.” (FORM d, p7)Secondly, architectural blunders such as the Bell Tower and the Convention Centre serve as constant reminders of Perth’s inability to take risks to create exciting and innovative architecture (Taylor 2008, p22). Certainly, these criticisms about Perth deal directly with the built environment. “The beauty of King’s Park, the beaches, the Swan River and the quality of crystal clear light are unquestionable...” (Maher in Form b, 21).

Perhaps, one of Perth’s biggest shortcomings is the fact that the paradox of the built and natural environments has not been interrogated closely enough (this will be discussed in greater detail below). Instead, the city has made excuses, claiming that it is difficult for architecture to compete with fundamentals like a “…a beautiful climate, a wonderful river, a great beach, a good lifestyle” (Hook in Form b, p26). But this is a complacent way of thinking and leads to uninspired architecture. Significantly, it does not contribute to increasing Perth’s cultural value as the possibilities for change and progress are silenced (Landry2007, p3). Perth’s low cultural value, therefore, can be linked back to the process of cultural production. The notion of culture is not fixed, “…rather it is a process in a constant state of flux and adaptation to new contexts, demands, and needs” (Definitions of culture). For a city’s cultural value to increase, it must respond to the economic and social conditions of the time. Architecture can facilitate this through producing spaces where society’s attitudes and values can develop and change through the interaction and participation they have with their environment.

Disappointingly, over the last two decades, Perth’s architectural response to changing conditions in society has been to remain inert. The outlook for Perth, however, is not bleak. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The notion that Perth’s natural beauty will compensate for “the clunky, heavy, ‘blob’ style buildings” that are seen in its Central Business District (CBD ) (Landry 2007, p35), is quickly becoming outdated. “Western Australia is the powerhouse of the nation’s economy” (Carpenter in Form d, p9). The huge revenue that the government generates through the mining industry can largely be invested in developing the built environment.

Moreover, as a result of the economic boom, Perth’s population is steadily increasing and so is their expectation of what the city should offer them (Maher in FORM b, p21). Perth is starting to actively distance itself from the “Dullsville” label, and a psychological shift is occurring in society through the engagement in debate about architecture, culture and Perth’s future.

The people of Perth are providing sanction for their city to take action and change (London in Taylor 2008, p22). Evidence of this includes the frequency of feature articles that are published in Perth newspapers (see Broadfield 2006, Irving 2007 & Taylor 2008) and the FORM publications (see FORM a,b,c&d) that strive to harness and develop the city’s creative capital. The choices that are made in Perth regarding the built environment will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the city’s culture in future generations. That is, the way in which a community’s members interact with its constructed spaces, will contribute to the production of culture. Therefore, the built environment of a city should not only reflect the attitudes and values of its people, but also challenge its residents and visitors to think critically and deeply about the society in which they live. Moreover, because of the crucial role it can play in cultural production, the built environment should not, simply, be a result of external factors. That is, “[t]he built environment in Perth and WA is seen as a consequence of activity. It’s not seen as an item within itself” (Hook inFORMb,p26). Therefore, the city needs to think of ways in which architecture and other aspects of the built environment can have greater control over its manifestations to encourage people to take an active role in the culture they create.

While the psychological shift concerning the city’s future is occurring in Perth’s psyche, there are still other barriers that affect Perth’s cultural development. Frustrating limitations and restrictions are imposed through council regulations and government legislation (Landry in FORM d, p21). The interests of developers also contribute to the inhibition that exists in Perth’s built environment. Far too frequently, the quality of design and subsequently, the building’s and architect’s integrity are compromised for financial reasons (Broadfield2006,p11). Perth’s Convention Centre is a perfect example of this. “..[T]he design was chosen on the basis of what would give developers the best business deal, not the best architecture” (Iredale in Taylor 2008, p22). As a result it has become one of Perth’s “universally hated” buildings (Taylor 2008, p22). Similarly, “[t]he Bell Tower…[i]s the great symbol of Perth timidity. Too small to be truly remarkable and too big to blend into the landscape…it represents the Perth desire to keep everyone happy. The result is decidedly mediocre” (Taylor 2008, p22) For Perth’s built environment to reap the rewards (both financial and intrinsic) that good architecture can offer, the integrity of design over possible financial “shortcuts” must to be valued (AdaminBroadfield2006,p11). In other words, “the focus needs to shift to what can be achieved and how, rather than what cannot be achieved and why.” (Landry in FORM d, p21)

Hay Street Mall ,1985 - City of Perth Cultural Heritage Collection

Provided that progress can be made on a bureaucratic level, there are a range of areas that Perth can consider developing to receive the makeover in its built environment that it desperately needs. Celebrating the natural wonders that Perth has to offer, presents itself as an obvious starting point. “…[W]e must respect…and take great care of these [natural] assets... but with respect and sensitivity, the city and metropolitan areas must change…” (Maher in Form d, p21). According to Charles Landry, aspects of Perth that should take priority in its development, include both the city’s connection with the water and the Northbridge Link (Landry in Form a, p5). In terms of the former, the city could be developed so its centre had a closer relationship with the water: this could involve extending the CBD to both North and South of the river locations (Maher in Form a, p13). In addition, “…a ring of mixed use urban development could [work to] extend and consolidate the current centre” (Maher in Form a, p13). By giving people the spaces and infrastructure to interact with the natural environment they so highly value, the culture of the city would begin to transform. Greater ease and access to the foreshore could even transform it to become an “urban gathering place” (Coletta in Irving, 2007 p15) for “festival and events engaging the river” (Landry in Form a, p13). Moreover, the paradox of the built and natural environments would be addressed, delivering a more satisfying and relevant outcome than the current situation that exists in Perth at present.

In terms of the Northbridge Link, the public spaces that could potentially be created through the project’s completion could also work to serve as urban gathering places. These urban spaces are critical to the production of culture as they “…create more room for user participation…[and] generate authentic space” (Cho in FORM b, p42). The design of the link has the capacity to reflect the needs of the people who will use that space and encourage them to interact with their environment in a meaningful way. Problematically, the current plans for the link does not value the inclusion of public green spaces, in the area that will be available for development once the rail line has been sunk (McCormick in FORM a, p22). Hopefully, this is an issue that can be resolved, rather than an example of Perth continuing “the 1980s approach to site development, potential maximisation” (McCormick in FORM c, p17). “There is a once‐in‐a‐lifetime opportunity to ensure that the Northbridge Link creates a legacy with style, verve and generosity” (Landry in FORM a, p5). It would be wise for Perth to act on this.

Looking towards other cultural capitals such as Bilbao and Melbourne can also help Perth select a developmental path that is viable for its context. Both cities are famous for iconic pieces of architecture that have served to shape their cultural value. The Guggenheim Museum, in Bilbao worked to turn around a flailing economy (Broadfield 2006, p11) Its cutting‐edge design by famed architect Frank Gehry, draws a pilgrimage of art and architecture enthusiasts yearly and has subsequently led Bilbao “into massive new infrastructure and redevelopment with a strong emphasis on design” (Broadfield 2006, p11) Similarly, Melbourne’s Federation Square has transformed Melbourne into, arguably, “the most vibrant city in Australia” (FORM a, p9). It interesting to note, however, that neither Melbourne nor Bilbao possess the splendour in their natural environments that Perth does. Hook argues that “[i]f you try to put Federation Square or anything like it in Perth, it would fail dismally…” (Hook in FORM b, p26). He states that Perth’s connection with the water, particularly the ocean, is so strong that the design of any urban (opposed to suburban) gathering place, like Federation Square would be unsuccessful because people in Perth “don’t know how to gather in an urban context” (Hook in FORM b, p26). While Hook makes a valid comment about Perth’s relationship with the beach, architecture’s role in society is finding the balance between reflecting society’s attitudes, values and behaviours in buildings and encouraging people to step outside their “comfort zone” and adopt new and meaningful ways of thinking and behaving. The acceptance of urban gathering places is, therefore, a cultural aspect of society that architects can nurture and develop.

Whether iconic buildings should be nurtured and developed in the same vein is debatable. Culture evolves and develops as a result of investment in innovative and dynamic architecture. Culture, however, cannot instantaneously be created by building an iconic building. This is because the production of culture is a gradual process. Modes of thinking and ways of learning develop as groups and individuals interact with their environment and pass their experiences and information on over generations. London argues that taking a more holistic view and making less reactive decisions is a more effective way to boost a city’s cultural value: “Some… take the views that architectural icons are needed in the city…I don’t associate ‘innovative’ with ‘iconic’ and would rather pursue the broad ambition of raising the overall quality than the iconic” (London in FORM b, p55). McCormick agrees with London’s thoughts and has criticised the measures that the West Australian Government has taken in prioritising the building of the Perth Arena over the Northbridge Link (McCormick in FORM a, pp22‐23). He argues that not only is the site for the Perth Arena problematic, in that it would restrict future development of the Northbridge Link project, but that its developers have referred to it as Perth’s answer to the Guggenheim or Federation Square (McCormick in FORM a, pp24). The problem is that Perth Arena is essentially an entertainment centre, not a museum or a cultural and civic space that accommodates cultural production on a day to day basis (McCormick in FORM a, pp24). An entertainment centre is, instead, an outdated concept that has already been proved to fail to draw crowds in Perth (McCormick in FORM a, pp22). Iconic architecture, therefore, is problematic because it is “celebrity architecture” (Jenks 2005, p7). As with other celebrities, these celebrity buildings can become eternalised in history forever, or experience their 15 minutes of fame and disappear from the world’s view with a huge debt to negotiate.

Regardless of the developmental path that Perth chooses to take, it must be recognised that there are long‐term economic and social benefits attached to developing a city’s cultural value. As “…talented individuals appear to be attracted more by cultural amenities rather than by recreational amenities or climate” creating a city that is an “energetic” and “vibrant” place to live will help the city to retain “talented” individuals (Florida 2002, p749). A city’s talented (individuals that are tertiary educated) human resources’ contribution to progressive ways of thinking will ultimately, help maintain the city’s cultural relevance on a global scale. This is exactly why Perth needs to act immediately to “future‐proof” the city (Irving 2007, p13). At present, statistics indicate that “Perth isn’t fostering, retaining or attracting talent” (FORM 2008, p22). The reality of these statistics is frightening. Coupled with the financial benefits Perth is accruing through the boom, there is a strong sense of responsibility that the city should be doing more to secure its future (Dorrington in FORM c, p7). “Great cities exude a sense of generosity and a spirit of giving something back” (Landry & Pachter 2001, p5). The process of developing Perth’s cultural value should encapsulate improving areas associated with health, education, the environment and the socially disadvantaged (London in Form a, p13). After all, after a city’s economic boom comes to an end it will look towards its human resources.

This essay has interrogated the notion of whether Perth can buy culture by investing in dynamic and innovative architecture. Firstly, the terms culture and architecture were defined and it was noted that they had an interdependent relationship with one another. The production of culture was recognised as a constant and gradual process that could be fostered and nurtured by experiences groups and individuals had with the built environment. Perth’s current cultural identity was examined and it was concluded that despite its stunning natural environment, the city had a low cultural value. The fact that the last two decades, had seen Perth become architecturally moribund was criticised but how the city was now taking measures to develop its architecture and built environment to increase its cultural value was recognised. Enablers of this change included a shift in the Perth psyche, as well as financial factors, namely the economic boom the city was experiencing. Next, the possibilities for Perth’s built environment were considered. The development of the foreshore to create greater engagement with the city and river were raised, as were the possibilities generated through the completion of the Northbridge Link. Cultural capitals such as Melbourne and Bilbao were considered to determine a developmental path that was viable for the Perth context. Whether iconic buildings can boost a city’s cultural image was debated, taking the examples, Federation Square, the Guggenheim and Perth Arena as case studies. Finally, the responsibility that Perth had to its citizens, to “future proof” the city, post boom was discussed.


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