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The Swan River has been flowing the same course for some sixty million years. The magnitude of this time scale is revealed by the way the river has carved the Perth Canyon – a gorge about the size of the Grand Canyon – into the edge of the continental shelf. This exhibition (and accompanying book) is concerned with the relationship of European Australian culture to this ancient river system. This historical narrative is viewed through the lens of schemes proposed for Perth’s foreshore, the city’s symbolic front garden.
The foreshore has been contentious since the first plan for Perth was drawn up, and has subsequently acted as a veritable sinkhole for proposals. Indeed, as a result of collating material for the book, I estimate more than 200 proposals have been made for the Perth foreshore since the first identified plan in 1833 – most of which were never built. The images in this exhibition visualise what these unbuilt schemes may have looked like today – if indeed they had been constructed.
The result is snapshots of how Perth may look in a succession of ‘alternate universes...’ Showing in the micro-cinema is a film that represents an attempt to document every scheme ever proposed for Perth foreshore, set to the music of rivers and waterfronts.
The legacy of all the schemes proposed for Perth’s foreshore, is that they provide a record of shifting perceptions of how Perth, in spatial and cultural terms, relates to the ancient Swan River. From the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century notion of the river as a blank space awaiting civic beautification and development, to the late twentieth-century idea of the city immersed in a riverine garden setting, to finally the early twenty-first-century vision of an urban embrace between the city and river. While these schemes, reflect our attempts to reshape the river in accordance with our symbolic, pragmatic or economic agendas, in this century the river by virtue of sea level rise, will reassert its ability to shape the city. Unless it can be barricaded, the majority of Perth’s foreshore will be ‘reclaimed’ by the river – it is within this chastening context that a new generation of schemes for Perth Water will need to be considered.