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Interview —

Three Birrarung projects Words by Piers Morgan with Maudie Palmer

If you were to take a boat trip from the upper reaches of the Birrarung (or Yarra River) along its meandering path out to its mouth in Port Phillip Bay, you would be able to visit a great deal of Victoria’s cultural and historical landmarks along the way, which demonstrate the river’s significance as a gathering place not only in recent history, but extending deep into Australia’s pre-European past. Of the numerous artworks and cultural institutions you visited on your boat ride, you would find that a significant number of them have been instituted, managed, or preserved by Maudie Palmer, from TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, right out to the Webb Bridge in Docklands. I sat down with Maudie to discuss her ongoing interest in the Birrarung. Driving along the CityLink through Burnley it’s easy to mistake Herring Island for simply the opposite bank. The only island in the Yarra River was created in 1928 when a flood diversion channel cut a shortcut through a bend in the river, and much of its landmass comes from silt dredged from the river as part of further flood mitigation efforts. It was taken over in the 1950s by the Scouts, but abandoned in the 1970s and left to the weeds. Restoration work began

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in the 1980s by the Friends of Herring Island, planting native bush and removing invasive species. The 1997 Melbourne Festival gave Palmer an opportunity to establish a sculpture park and gallery on the island. She comments, 'I was asked by Parks Victoria to provide something of interest at Herring Island that would inspire people to visit. I developed the idea for an environmental sculpture park, using materials like wood and stone, that would complement the landscape. My theory was that if the sculptures could only be seen isolated from each other, they would enhance the mysterious wildness of the island.' Gregory Burgess provided the design for the adaptation of the dilapidated old Scout hall into a permanent gallery, and artists Andy Goldsworthy, Julie Collins, John Davis, Ellen José, Jill Peck, John Gollings and Sam Slicer, Robert Jacks and Robert Bridgewater contributed site-specific sculptures for the Melbourne Festival from 1997 to 1999. It took 70-odd years for the island to be rehabilitated from an infrastructure afterthought and dumping ground, to a beautiful refuge for native plants, birds, art, and city-weary Melburnians. The

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gallery still holds regular events, the latest exhibition by contemporary artist Aaron C Carter, comprising watercolors and sculptures reflecting his impressions of the island. Further up the river in Eltham, along the stretch of river named Garambi Baan (or Laughing Waters), lie a series of houses designed by Alistair Knox set in landscapes by Gordon Ford. The houses are constructed in Knox’s typical manner of mudbrick taken from earth on site, as well as reclaimed timber from various sources. The buildings appear to be born from the land on which they sit, and their subdued tones blend into the rugged, natural style gardens that surround them. One of these houses, the Boomerang House, was never finished, and currently sits closed to the public. Palmer is currently working with a small group of individuals including architect Peter Elliott, curator Annette Warner and artists Eugene Howard and Jo Mott on a proposal to restore Boomerang House following Knox’s original design, and provide it as a space for artist-inresidence programs. This will build upon the work already undertaken by Residency Projects in the area. These houses built (in the beginning of the 1970s), on the bank of the river, a stone’s throw from the Wurundjeri people’s Birrarung Eel (Iuk) traps constructed thousands of years ago, have a powerful sense of belonging and of Australianness. Back downstream in Bulleen, right near the familiar site of Heide Museum of Modern Art (where Palmer was Inaugural Director), is the land where the proposed NorthEast Link tunnel will surface. This particular stretch of the Yarra is host to an unusually dense cluster of Melbourne’s architectural and cultural history. It is where the Wurrundjeri people first gathered at Bolin Bolin Billabong, it is where Banyule House (1849), the Viewbank Silos (cica 1930s) are sited, it is where the Australian impressionists (the Heidelberg School) painted and of course Heide I and II (circa 1880s and 1967, respectively)

Profile for Australian Institute of Architects

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Water and Waste

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Water and Waste

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