There’s a glitzy city in the north where it’s summer all year round, but does Brisbane shine as much as it could? Brendan Shanahan takes a look. Photographs by Trevor Templeman. Brisbane is Australia’s third city.

Of course, there are worse things than third place – last, for instance. Nevertheless, no-one really wants third. Sure, your Olympic karate bronze will go straight to the poolroom, but how long can you expect to dine out on tales of standing on the low dais, clutching a bunch of dried flowers while listening to the Japanese national anthem?

A sporting analogy is probably unfair when comparing cities. Cities aren’t in a race and bigger is not necessarily better. Novosibirsk, Nanchong or Izmir might pale when compared to St Petersburg, Shanghai and Istanbul, but Chicago, Esfahan and Munich can make an argument for being more appealing than their more famous siblings. Try comparing them to Brisbane, however, and I think we start to see the problem.

Third cities do have one inherent advantage – they have to try harder. And Brisbane is trying very hard. In the last decade it has probably done more than any other Australian city to change its image – from stagnant redneck backwater to Berlin by the mangroves. Well, that’s the idea.

Arguably, Brisbane’s biggest and smartest move in the last decade has been the creation of GoMA, the Gallery of Modern Art, which now crowns the Southbank arts precinct at its northern end.

Whoever invented GoMA was obviously terribly clever. With the sort of money that American museums find down the back of the couch, Brisbane has created the only institution of its sort in the region – or indeed anywhere. In the process it has also accumulated a world-class collection of what has since become some of the most expensive contemporary art in the world. Bizarrely, it has done all this while still being incredibly popular. People still hiss and spit at Blue Poles almost 40 years on, but give them a plastic Mao and it seems they just can’t get enough.

For such a major new institution the GoMA building is relatively unassuming. On the one hand, you can admire Brisbane for resisting the temptation to indulge in the now-ubiquitous “landmark”, a monument designed by some megabucks architect, plonked down in the middle of some unremarkable city in the middle of nowhere – usually the Persian Gulf or the former Soviet Union – the citizens reassured that it’s only a matter of time before the tourists start pouring in, while the architect runs off to cash his mega-cheque before the crazy sheik or general decides he wants to build a sand island in the shape of Lady Gaga.

On the other hand, modest doesn’t necessarily equal serious, and it’s tempting to wonder why Brisbane hasn’t built something truly kick-arse on its river.
Despite its big-city pretensions – all the bragging about overtaking Melbourne’s population in 30 years, etc – there remains to Brisbane a certain suburban dreariness. Sometimes you just want to slap the place and tell it to grow a pair.

GoMA might not be the most inspired building in the world, but the revitalised Southbank has been an astonishing, unqualified success. Compared to the tatty ’80s party frock that is Sydney’s Darling Harbour or the self-conscious, windswept artiness of Melbourne’s Federation Square (interestingly, those two precincts seem to embody the worst qualities of each city), Brisbane’s Southbank is a delight. In fact, it is probably the best public space built in Australia since men stopped wearing top hats.

Part of the credit for this is due to the fact that Brisbane, unlike Perth or even Melbourne, has embraced its river with exuberance. When it first opened, the fake beach with its trucked- in sand and “cleanest beach” awards was the subject of much sniggering. Now, even the most jaded cynics have discovered you don’t need real waves for real fun. Furthermore, the CityCat is now the second-best public transport journey in Australia (after the Manly ferry) and to spend a lazy Sunday in a canoe paddling among the mangroves is to experience, if only briefly, a prehistoric reverie in the shadow of skyscrapers.

As the number of building sites can attest, Southbank is an ongoing project and there are some problems: between it and the restaurant precinct of nearby West End is an eerie no-man’s land. The floods inundated GoMA, destroyed the marvellous River Walk on the north bank and proved that Mother Nature can’t be relied upon to be merely scenic; and the Queensland Museum is dingy, bordering on surreal. While one can appreciate the displays of dinosaur skeletons and aeroplanes, it is difficult to picture the child who ever pressed his nose in excitement against the dusty display cases full of cracked toby jugs and platypus ashtrays.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to criticise such a successful experiment, and similar attempts to revitalise Brisbane’s public spaces are happening throughout the city. Chinatown has had a desperately needed makeover, Reddacliff Place is a laudable, if somewhat sterile attempt to regenerate a dead link in the city, and the waterfront walk by the Kangaroo Point cliffs recalls some of the most soothing stretches of Sydney Harbour.

Then again, Eagle Street Pier looks like Pixie Skase’s pool gazebo, Post Office Square is budget brutalism and King George Square redevelopment, after being community-consulted, impact-assessed, harm-minimised, funding-slashed, disabled-accessed and diversity-policied into oblivion, is now a grey Sahara of paving stones overlooked by a Colorbond patio and some park benches. Arguably, it’s an improvement on what was there; then again, a petting zoo might have been an improvement on what was there and would have been, unarguably, an infinitely more imaginative solution.

It’s hardly the kind of bold vision that built, for instance, the Opera House; and if Brisbane wants to be taken seriously – wants to be more than just third – then it has to start taking more chances.

Brisbane, as one is continually reminded by locals, has come a long way. It’s true, but is it far enough for people to bother getting on a plane for a holiday? A Tourism Queensland campaign in 2010, aimed at enticing hen’s parties – yes, really – using the slogan “Brisbane: What are you up for?” wasn’t nearly as tacky as the local press made out, but if you actually asked yourself that question, what would your response be? Honestly, other than GoMA, what is there to do in Brisbane that can’t be done in other capitals, often better?

It’s not that there’s anything especially wrong with Brisbane. It has a tidy, compact CBD, it has lush botanical gardens, and even the much-maligned public transport is not really that bad, at least to a Sydneysider. But if we accept that no-one is going to travel for a fake beach, no matter how pleasant, then Brisbane faces a dilemma.

Brisbane is Australia’s only (almost) tropical city of any size – in some ways it has more in common with Singapore than it does Sydney. As such it has the opportunity to create something totally new. The sauna of summer might be unbearable for many, and this year’s floods were an uncomfortable reminder that beneath the heart of the city lurks a primordial swamp, just waiting to reclaim it, but this only adds to its sultry, vaguely antebellum charm.

Yet Brisbane fails to capitalise on its uniqueness. Queensland architecture is at the vanguard of a new Australian design aesthetic, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the predictable new developments. The museum scene has blossomed, but where are the visual poets of this booming city? Brisbane’s band scene shames Sydney’s, but the Fortitude Valley nightlife district, despite glitzy new super-clubs, is still the rowdy chunder pit of yore.

Of course, a rowdy chunder pit is often preferable to a super-club, but Brisbane by night is where the city’s thin veneer of civilisation is stripped away to reveal the inner bogan. Consider Brisbane women – and here I hesitate for fear of potentially fatal retribution but in my opinion, they’re the worst dressed in the country. After a few nights on the town, there seems no other reasonable conclusion; science or art have yet to produce lycra too sheer, hair too crimped and lace tops too cheap to be worn at 3am in the Valley. It’s like everyone just looted a shop called Slutty Year 10 Disco.

Of course, if you tell someone in Brisbane this, they say the same thing: “What do you expect if you go to the Valley?” The problem is that sophisticated Brisbane – arty and cultured Brisbane, almost unique in Australia for the seriousness with which it takes its self-appointed role as the finger in the dyke of the city’s basest redneck instincts – is nowhere near as sophisticated as it likes to imagine. First witness for the prosecution: the food.

Food in Brisbane is not merely diabolical but, considering the quality, expensive. Of course the city has the usual outposts of high-end gourmet dining, few of which are either bad or overpriced. But at the middle and low end – where most people eat – the quality-to-price ratio is totally inverted.

A typical story: one Saturday night at the Powerhouse, an arts centre in a converted power station in the gentrified suburb of New Farm, we stop at the bar by the river. For two beers – the dreaded “schmiddies” – we pay an eye-watering $18. Conscious of the fact that this is more expensive than Sydney’s Opera Bar, where one is compensated by views of the world’s greatest harbour rather than a muddy river by night, we march off in search of dinner. Little do we realise, however, that the only people looking for food at 9.30pm in Brisbane have, apparently, recently risen from the grave. After being turned away by three restaurants, we eventually settle on an Italian place that, although overpriced, looks decent and has the advantage of wanting our money.

With a bottle of wine, a two-course dinner is $220. This for the kind of food you get at one of those “fancy” RSL steakhouses with a basket of parmesan twists on the table.
We would have put this down to bad luck, but the examples go on. At an upmarket café in fashionable Paddington, my $19 breakfast is accompanied by three slices of floppy white toast. An unremarkable bowl of Vietnamese noodles in West End leaves a bad taste at almost double Sydney prices. At a café in the city I am given mushrooms on toast that are literally that: no salt, pepper… nothing, unless you count the water seeping into the toast.

Of course, none of this would bother me if Brisbane weren’t trying to convince us that it has changed. Ironically, the daggy parochialism that the city is so desperately trying to shake off is, in some ways, the best thing about it. The Brisbane of jacarandas, XXXX, Ekka, tumbledown pubs and daylight saving fading the curtains might almost seem romantic to the casual visitor. (Possibly less so for those who can remember the dismal conformism of the Joh era.)

Brisbane is still the kind of town where the man next to you at the hotel check-in is not wearing a shirt (unexpectedly, he also asks for The Australian to be delivered), where the council has a special rubbish collection for excess garden mangoes, and the uptight Sydneysider, accustomed to bracing himself at the merest glance from a stranger, is shocked to discover that the teenager approaching him in the singlet and stubbies is genuinely asking for the time, and not about to gouge his eyes out while in the grips of ice-induced psychosis.

Nevertheless, for all its big talk about its uniquely Queensland atmosphere – and the concomitant whining about the “southern invasion” inflating prices etc – Brisbane still doesn’t feel especially distinctive.

Here’s a simple test: close your eyes and think of Brisbane. If you’re not Queensland literate you probably imagined Joh and Flo, a football team, a Queenslander house and maybe a jacaranda. (I also thought of the Go-Betweens, the Expo 88 Platypus and, for some weird reason, Lleyton Hewitt – he just seems like he should be from Brisbane.) It’s not that this is fair or that Brisbane doesn’t have more to offer, but I have more associations with Darwin – and I’ve never been there.

Institutions like GoMA do more than bring tourists to Brisbane; they create a much-needed sense of place. Brisbane is a work in progress, but where it’s going isn’t entirely clear. Maybe that’s what makes it interesting. Until then, the city needs to start thinking harder about what it is. All that glisters might not be gold – but it’s better than bronze.

CALLING ALL BRISBANE LOVERS!
Do you agree with Brendan or think he’s being too harsh? What do you love about the city and what would you recommend readers see when they’re next in town? Send your comments to editor@australiantraveller.com

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