Is Alain de Botton right: is Brisbane ugly?

During his visit earlier this month, philosopher Alain de Botton antagonised the Brisbane media by citing the city as tangible proof of his argument that ugliness isn't relative, it's absolute

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

View from Cafe Ruby, Paddington

I admit I don’t view Alain de Botton in quite the same way after reading The Finkler Question as I used to, but I was still taken aback by his recent harsh criticism of Brisbane’s appearance.

The ugly

Writing on his blog, The Philosopher’s Mail, he offers Brisbane as proof of his philosophical proposition that beauty is absolute. Brisbane, he says, is “ugly” and “a mess”.

While most people find the centre of Paris wonderful and others will delight in the winding streets of Siena, no one on the planet responds deeply to the brutal cross city expressway and chunky stained brown office blocks of (Brisbane).

He says the reason modern Brisbane comes to look the way it does is because:

People who have no interest whatsoever in making any city even remotely beautiful or dignified can get away with some truly terrible construction projects free of any fear of being criticised.

My purpose isn’t to take on arguably the world’s best known living philosopher on the grand theme of whether or not taste is relative (maybe another time!). Rather, it’s to point out he got Brisbane badly wrong; there’re many positive aspects to this sub tropical capital that Mr de Botton evidently didn’t notice.

I think modern Brisbane is a beautiful and delightful city. Indeed, I think it’s a gem that for better or worse still remains largely undiscovered by the rest of the nation and, indeed, the world.

I didn’t always have that view. I live in Melbourne but I grew up in Brisbane (1). Like generations before and after me, I couldn’t wait to leave once I graduated; so this is not a blind home town defence.

The bad

Of course Brisbane has its ugly bits. There are ugly sides to every city in the world, even Paris once you get beyond the central areas that draw in the tourists.

Many of Brisbane’s office buildings are just plain awful. And virtually every renowned international planner or architect who’s visited Brisbane in the last 50 years has criticised the city for turning its back on the river. Like Mr de Botton, they’re scathing about that gigantic, over-scaled Riverside Expressway (opened 1975).

And once you get beyond the inner core of largely pre-war suburbs – essentially the circa 20 km radius governed by the City of Brisbane – there’s a sameness to the urban landscape in many parts of the metropolitan area.

And the good

Yet having said that, we tend to remember cities by their assets and Brisbane’s got plenty that Mr de Botton probably didn’t see.

There’s Southbank, which I think of as ‘the people’s five star hotel’; huge urban parks like Mt Coot-tha less than 20 minutes from the CBD; its own regional modern architectural style; that deep, wide brown river looping it’s away across the city; the view of the CBD from the Storey Bridge; the majestic Mt Glorious within an hour of the city centre; the walkable Grey Street precinct; and much more.

That’s not the main game though. Brisbane’s got something else – three big assets that in combination give the city a special character all its own.

The first is the many intact old weatherboard houses built in the Qld sub tropical vernacular (3). The second is Brisbane’s hills, big ones and little ones offering ever-changing vistas and depths of perspective. And the third is all that fecund sub-tropical foliage in streets, parks and yards tying it all together.

I’ll leave it to the likes of David Malouf and Matthew Condon to evoke in words how these assets interact to give the city its distinct personality. I’ll note that there aren’t many other cities of this size in the world that look a lot like the inner suburbs of Brisbane. I hesitate to claim its unique (I haven’t travelled enough) but it’s certainly unusual.

The big picture

Brisbane has historically deferred to the nearby Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast when it came to attractiveness, but now it’s time to recognise and celebrate the city’s special urban character. It’s an asset that might even be parleyed into creating a distinctive image for the city, perhaps even something analogous to what Portland, Oregon has managed to fashion for itself.

It’s very, very easy to create a list of any city’s bad points but it’s much harder to see the good ones. In my view Alain de Botton missed the big picture of Brisbane. For their part, Brisbane’s policy-makers need to recognise what they’ve got and think about how to nurture it.

Note: here’re some images of contemporary commercial and mid-rise developments in Brisbane taken by Canadian urbanist Gordon Price in 2012: here, here, here, here, here, here.

Update: Does Betteridge’s law apply to this article? Yes!!

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  1. In fact I’m convinced Matthew Condon used my childhood experiences of Brisbane as the model for his wonderful book, Brisbane.
  2. They’re mainly in the older areas within 10-15 km of the CBD.
  3. And while there’re way too many examples of crass redevelopment projects, Brisbane has a remarkably high proportion of brilliantly designed new developments that fit with their surroundings without being too cute. Many Brisbane architects seem to have empathy.
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