Is this Australia’s New Capital of Cool?

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Home brews, boutique ciders and a whole lot of new cool: “Brisneylander” John Birmingham shows us another side of this sleepy river city. 

There was something gothic about old Brisbane. A Northern Gothic. An aesthetic and a culture of rot and genesis, of strange contrary life bursting from the undergrowth. Old Brisbane was fantastically, famously corrupt. Things moved in the shadows. The steam-press heat discouraged enthusiasm for anything but slowing down and drinking beer. Lots and lots of beer, all of it brewed in one enormous red-brick factory that squatted on the western fringe of the city, thickening the air with the sickly sweet smell of burning malt.

It was a big country town. But it wasn’t that charming. Quirky, unexpected architectural delights were usually demolished for anonymous concrete towers. The city shut down at dusk. Dining out meant leaning that little bit further out of your window at the Macca’s drive-through. Unless it was a special occasion; then you were off to the pub for burned steak and freezer chips.

And then… something happened. In fact, a bunch of things happened. Politics, economics, demographics all changed and it was like a logjam suddenly broke under years of pressure. Everything surged.

You noticed it best if you had left, as so many did. For the longest time Brisbane lost its young people to brighter lights in bigger cities. It wasn’t just the pull of a job in London or living large on minimal bucks in Asia. The city drove away its best and brightest until they were drawn back by family and home – or, to be exact, homes, and the prospect of owning one as it became impossible in the global entrepot of Sydney or the old bluestone money pit of Melbourne.

An unexpected consequence for a place where nothing ever happened was that nothing happened to the huge number of rambling, run-down timber houses on stilts – colloquially known as Queenslanders – that sprawled across the ridges and hills of the inner city. In the early 1980s you couldn’t finance the renovation of an elegant but decaying Queenslander as bank managers, like developers, put their money into double-brick, aircon and new-build estates. But letting the city’s finest examples of colonial domestic architecture rot and slump under mango trees paid off when a generation who had loved them as students in share housing returned to them as young professionals. Families loved the space – and singles the proximity to the inner city. 

Stuart Vokes was a young architect in the early noughts and, like his contemporaries, he saw value in everything – regardless of brief or budget. “Probably because we were desperate for work,” he quips. “For me, the cultural revaluing of the city is what defines the past 10 to 15 years of influential property development and significant architecture in Brisbane. It was this act of valuing or ‘revaluing’ the settings and buildings of Brisbane that made us feel like we were part of the new generation of design practices engaged in ‘the Brisbane project’ that we see today.”

The project snuck up on us. An offbeat little suburban bar here, furnished with Mum’s brown couch and Uncle Mick’s banana lounge. A grandly redesigned museum or art gallery over there, pulling in door-buster exhibits from all over the world. Within a decade or so the transformation was irreversible and while the outlines of the old town could still be traced in those remnants that survived the wrecking balls of the ’80s, a wholly new and more exciting city had emerged in a maze of laneways and villages, even in avowedly commercial spaces like James Street’s market precinct, where Brisbane rediscovered a love of the old corner store.

Developments such as James Street, in Fortitude Valley, and its many imitators remind us, says Vokes, that “the fine urban grain of any vibrant city is made of small businesses and retail shops, offering locally made product and craft”. There is an authenticity in this sort of development that we instantly recognise. 

Example? South Brisbane’s Paladar Fumior Salon, purveyor of quality plantation coffee and merchant of the finest Cuban cigars. Paladar is a bright-red cantina that looks like it’s been dropped into South Brisbane from a dusty frontier town on the Texas-Mexico border of the 1880s – but a really cool, alternative 1880s, where comic-book artists duelled with rolled-up folios and hipsters threw back shots of espresso instead of lethal rotgut. It is one of hundreds of tiny arrivals on the scene of a city in the process of remaking itself.

I took my friend, Professor Paul Boylan, an American lawyer, when he was last out and we sipped powerful espresso on the roof, while denizens of the narrow back alleys went about their mysterious business below. The prof is a frequent visitor to “Brisneyland”, his favourite Australian city. He loves speeding up and down the river in the CityCats – “You can see the whole city from one of those boats and at a price that seems too low to pay for the experience” – and the farmers’ markets. They’re everywhere now but you can find their perfect expression at West End, where the sun dapples through massive old fig trees and you are beset at all times by the smell of coffee and kransky and the sugary baked goods of a dozen unidentifiable nationalities.

For me it’s food where the best work of the Brisbane project is done. Qantas magazine’s Queensland restaurant reviewer, Morag Kobez, agrees: “Brisbane has embraced quality casual food with gusto in favour of traditional fine dining. And the rise of small bars serving innovative food seems to know no bounds.”

I love those little bars as much as, if not more than, the fine diners. Both ends of the market have flourished as the city gave up the idea that eating out was only for special occasions and that every day could be special. “After years of playing catch-up with its southern cousins,” says Kobez, “the Brisbane dining scene has become comfortable in its own skin, forging its own unique approach to dining out.”

And I say, “Viva Brisvegas”.

 

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