Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

greenhouse by joost

On Saturday, we went to Greenhouse by Joost. It’s a pop-up bar right on Sydney Harbour, at Campbells Cove in The Rocks.

What the heck is a pop-up bar? That’s what I asked my wife when she suggested we go. Apparently it’s a new trend of temporary drinking establishments, the latest hottest thing in our fly-by-night global economy. Constructed with temporary (or reusable) materials, shaped any which way their creators see fit, they spring out of nowhere in hip and convenient locations and stick around for a couple of months or even just a couple of weeks. The owners are thus freed of many of the hassles and overhead of running a business. The point is to make a splash, make some cash, and then fold up and go on to the next thing.

The concept might be familiar to you – temporary venues are now a common sight at arts festivals and in urban parks during the summer. Many of them are sponsored by large corporations. If you’re familiar with the the Beck’s Festival Bar here in Sydney, or the Spiegel Tent in any number of major cities, you get the idea. They can be quite well-appointed, and feel more permanent than they are. My colleagues from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival will probably never forget the impossibly lavish Festival Tent at Emirates Palace.

Greenhouse by Joost is both pop-up business and green art project. It was designed by Joost Bakker, a Dutch-Australian artist, painter, florist and entrepreneur. He built his first Greenhouse in Melbourne in 2006, and since then has done a few of them around Oz. There’s a permanent one in Perth. The one here in Sydney (which is a restaurant as well as a bar) will be up until the end of this month.

The Greenhouse is built entirely of recycled and recyclable materials, it’s carbon neutral, and it’s waste free. But you probably could have guessed all that. The concept of sustainability is becoming a common one. Which is a good thing.

The place feels nice – it’s colorful and inviting; the exterior walls are a vertical strawberry garden. Inside, it’s clean and well-lit. The windows facing the Harbour are huge. As is often the case when green materials are put to good use in building, it’s attractive, with lots of interesting shapes and rough textures in the design. There’s bold visual art and text everywhere you look.

The roof is a great space. The deck is made of unfinished wood. There’s more color, more art, another bar. Most strikingly, there’s a long, long container garden planted with basil and parsley that runs around the whole thing. (The herbs are used in the kitchen. I read that other vegetables are grown there too, but I didn’t see them.) And you simply can’t beat the temporary world-class view. It was unseasonably chilly and wet on Saturday, and we had the roof largely to ourselves. I’m sure it would be hard to find a seat up there in nice weather. We chatted, enjoyed the drizzle, and watched a massive cruise ship depart Circular Quay.

I didn’t eat the food, so I can’t comment on that. I did drink a good amount of ale, and that’s my one complaint: the beers were $10 each. I guess it’s all to support the cause.

Here’s the review in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Notes on the sustainable restrooms: The toilet and sink are designed to work together – to save water I think. When you wash your hands after using the toilet, it flushes. But this backfired when I stepped into the restroom at one point just to wash my hands – I ended up flushing the toilet too, and thus wasting water. Also, the men’s toilet I used did not have a light. I guess this saves a bit of electricity, but using a toilet in the dark is not a practice I’d want to sustain for very long.



Last weekend my wife and I visited Adelaide for the Adelaide Film Festival. Amo was on business; I was tagging along. Neither of us had ever been there.

I liked the place much more than I thought I would. I knew little going in: I knew it would feel a lot smaller than Sydney; I had an inkling of a decent arts and music scene; I’d heard about the heat. And a friend said that the huntsmen (large, creepy, dismayingly common spiders) are even bigger and that they jump. Bigger? How much bigger? Like the size of a dinner plate. You gotta be kidding. Even the biggest Amazonian bird spiders are only about the size of a dinner plate. Surely you mean something more like a saucer or a – Wait, did you say they jump? Jump?

It’s a wonder I got on the plane. Anyway, staying in a high-rise hotel, going to movies and wandering around the city center kept me out of the way of any really extravagantly huge spiders, or you would have already heard about it. But there were, oddly enough, lots of crickets and grasshoppers.

Yes, the citizens of Adelaide must have done something to mildly offend the Lord, because there was a harmless but puzzling plague of crickets and grasshoppers going on that weekend – the little buggers had taken over the town, hopping and flying everywhere, swarming around the streetlamps, getting in everyone’s hair – you’d look down and there was one on your shirt or in your beer, bodies piling up in the gutters, in hotel lobbies, in taco stands. The crickets freaked some people out, I think, because they are dark little things with long antennae and tend to look a little more unsavory than they really are. In said taco stand, there was a handwritten sign taped to the counter:

They are crickets. They are NOT cockroaches. They won’t harm you.

Maybe they came for the festival too?

OK, zero expectations, but it wasn’t a few minutes before I was really enjoying Adelaide. For one thing, I liked the layout. It’s very contained, sensible, and attractive, with wide streets forming a perfectly square grid that is, amazingly, completely encircled by a wide swath of green parkland. (Here’s an aerial view.) There are more parks within the grid too. Lots of green. Adelaide is also very pedestrian friendly. There are lots of bike lanes, trams and a number of pedestrianized streets. Rundle Street, one of the main drags in the CBD, becomes for several blocks a long pedestrianized plaza and shopping village, paved with cobblestones and featuring an attractive old arcade, hundreds of shops and sidewalk cafés. Street performers and salesmen with microphones harangue the crowd in every direction. It’s a fantastic place to be on a summer’s evening.

The buildings are attractive, too – a mix of well-preserved 19th century façades and silly but fun hypermodern stuff. For many of these reasons – the parks, the bike lanes, the trams, the old buildings, the street art, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Portland, Oregon. Even the vista out of town reminded me of the west coast – surrounding hills visible down wide, straight avenues. (Of course if it was Oregon, those hills would be a lot bigger. The hills outside of Adelaide are maybe like El Paso’s.)

The Portland analogy only continued the more I walked around and the more cafés, cool shops, record stores and great street art I saw. Clearly the scene punches above its weight. There were two major festivals on last week – the Adelaide Fringe was in full swing too – so of course that colored my outlook. Natives say Adelaide shuts down and gets pretty boring in the offseason. I don’t doubt it. Still, if it’s capable of all of this, it’s got a lot working. On Friday night I did little else but stroll around, enjoying the balmy air, wandering into shops if I felt like it, grabbing a falafel (it was surpsingly good), and sitting and having a couple of beers at a randomly selected pub. I wanted to try the local brew; come to find out the local brew in Adelaide is Coopers – already my favorite Aussie beer and fairly ubiquitous everywhere you go. But I wasn’t complaining.

The other thing about Adelaide is how incredibly friendly the people are. Everyone – cabdrivers, clerks, the terrific box office manager at the Film Festival, who acted like our personal concierge. It was nice, but kind of eerie. Sometimes people would just start having conversations with us, and I think we were taken aback. I hate to feel like such a hardened city type. And I don’t think I’d ever thought of Sydney as being particularly unfriendly. Quite the opposite – I’ve always found Sydneysiders warm and inviting, especially coming from New York. It’s one of the reasons I migrated here. But visiting a smaller place reminded me it’s all about perspective. And it’s true that most Aussies think of Sydney as the big, bad city.

Besides Portland, the other place Adelaide made me think of is, strangely enough, Abu Dhabi, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two years. That one is harder to explain – it’s mostly an impression. But it has to do with the wide streets, the uniformly medium-sized buildings, the gleaming postmodern architecture, the perfect grid, all of it bathed in sunshine under perfect blue skies. The comparisons mostly end there – Abu Dhabi’s about as unhip and pedestrian unfriendly as you get. But the impression stayed with me.

So there we are. A weird cross between Portland and Abu Dhabi, in South Australia. Maybe I’ve just been around too much lately – kind of losing a grip on where I am.

This feeling hit me really hard when on Saturday morning we visited the Adelaide Central Market – surely the jewel in Adelaide’s crown, and one of the nicest places I’ve been in Australia. It’s a huge indoor facility that’s exactly like a souk or a bazaar in the Middle East – a bustling maze of stalls filled with produce, meat, seafood, bread and gourmet foods side-by-side with more cafés. We sat at one of these and had coffee and baguettes.

The Central Market was built in the 1860s, and it has a real old-world quality, with lavish architechtural details and decorative tiles, and especially with all of the Italian and Greek purveyors of gourmet cheese, oil, wine and vinegar and sweets. And indeed, I felt nothing so much like I was back in Istanbul (where Amo and I went on vacation last November). Tiles, olive oil, coffee, wait – where am I? Oh, I’m in Australia. It was quite a perceptual slip.

We couldn’t help but think about how Sydney doesn’t have anything like the Central Market, and how much nicer it would be if it did. The thought is a little depressing. But overall, it was a real joy to find a town in my adopted country that is not merely a smaller and less hip and less convenient version of the big city, but is in fact lively and happening and very civilized in its own way. That’s one thing about travel: if you really give a place a chance, you’ll often find that the local flavor overrules all that’s generic and tired about globalization. I definitely look forward to being back in Adelaide.

lindfield rocks

My great downfall is that I can’t blog about just one thing. If you’re one of the seven or eight people who read this page with any regularity, you know this. One week it’s something about surfing. Then I’m going on about current events. Then it’s a review of a falafel joint. I have too many interests.

But if I was the type to focus on only one subject, one thing to blog about, I might make this a page about Lindfield, my neighborhood.

If you don’t know Sydney, trust me on this one: Lindfield is epically suburban and boring. But this is not a dis. Lindfieldites (I don’t know if that’s what they’ve been called previously, but I’m unilaterally declaring it the official demonym starting now) are proud of their boredom. It’s why anyone lives here. It’s safe and green and friendly and really nice – as boring as you wanna be.

But still, I think if someone blogged about this place and did it well, it’d be really interesting. It’d be like a document of suburban life in Australia – a multidisciplinary study involving anthropology, zoology, history, architecture. It could cover the the animals and birdlife native to the area – everything from parrots and wild turkeys to the world’s deadliest spider – the history of the Pacific Highway (one of the oldest roads in Australia – it runs right past our place), the independent bookshop down the street, the behavior of the kids on the train platform, the simmering controversy about high-rise development. It could include more abstract and moody pieces: snapshots of random things that define life here, from the little lizards that constantly scurry underfoot to the twisted piece of wire I saw in the street yesterday that looked like contemporary art.

I’ve already done some of this: I’ve written about our organic garden, and posted video of the local bat colony. But in general I’m not really thinking of imposing such a limit on myself – I’d only get frustrated after a while and be tempted to cover the book about Dubai I just read or my favorite Mexican restaurant in Byron Bay. And I’d get – well, bored. But if I was going to blog about this area in earnest, I’d start with Lindfield Rocks, which has become one of my favorite places to be.

When I call Lindfield “suburban,” I mean by Australian standards. Most Americans who live in metropolitan areas would be impressed by how wild this place is. We’re a ten-minute walk from Garigal National Park, a huge reserve that stretches for miles along Middle Harbour. When you’re inside this reserve – a thickly wooded range of hills and valleys bisected by the Middle River and featuring lots of hiking trails and huge picnic areas – you would never know you were still in greater Sydney, the most populous area of the continent. In most places you can’t see any development or hear traffic at all. You can hike all day, clamber up and down the hills and dells, get lost in the woods, commune with the kookaburras and goannas, blur your eyes and imagine what life was like here before 1788. It truly lives up to its billing as a national park. We’re 10 minutes’ drive in the other direction from the equally sizeable Lane Cove National Park. And there are smaller parks and reserves all over the place. There’s so much nature here I don’t know what to do with it. This is one of the reasons I migrated here.

Lindfield Rocks is at the edge of Garigal, along Two Creeks Track, a hiking trail that runs from our neighborhood to Middle Harbour, some 10 kilometers away. It’s not far from the intersection of two major roads, tucked away down a slope behind a tennis court, hidden in plain sight as it were. I can walk there in 15 minutes – and I often do. Being there always chills me out, makes me feel good about where I’m living.

I first heard of Lindfield Rocks from a friend, a fellow American living here in Sydney who’s an avid rock climber. It’s cherished in the rock climbing community as one of the oldest bouldering sites in Australia. Bouldering basically means climbing rock walls that are relatively low to the ground – so that if you fell you might not die instantly. It’s a kind of freestyle climbing, usually done without a lot of safety gear – as a workout, or just for the sheer pleasure.

I don’t know anything about rock climbing. It’s a pretty involved sport, with its own funky subculture, and lingo as impenetrable as that used by sailors. (Multi-pitching, atomic belay, panic bear, beta flash.) I respect and admire climbers – but I’m not great with heights, so I don’t think I’ll be scaling a cliff at any point. Lindfield Rocks, however, looks pretty manageable to me, and I kind of want to give this bouldering thing a go. I often see climbers at it when I walk down to the rocks, especially on a nice day. They seem to come from all over. It’s probably the only thing in Lindfield that brings outsiders here on a regular basis – the suburb’s greatest distinction, and I wonder how many of the residents know about it. (It’s also just about the only way you’d ever see a beard in this neighborhood.)

I like seeing the climbers when I go there, but I don’t really like to stand around and hawk them while they do their thing, and in general I prefer it when I find that I’m the only one there.

You walk through the woods behind the tennis court, descending the slope on a dirt path, right through a number of big round weathered sandstone rocks, harbingers of what’s down the hill. It’s already much quieter than it is back there on the road, the sound of everything absorbed by the pine needles, the air close. You can hear the sound of the traffic on Eastern Arterial Road, but can’t see it. It sounds strangely pleasant and natural, as if a fast-flowing river lay over there down the hill.

You reach the edge of a shelf, and there’s a staircase cut right into the rock, like something out of Tolkien. It’s the kind of man-made but faintly mysterious detail you find all over these national parks. And at the bottom of the staircase, you realize you’re here – these are the famous rocks suddenly looming right in front of you. A great blunt mass of sandstone, burnished and mottled by millenia of exposure, up to 25 or 30 feet tall in places, stretching away for a hundred yards or more into the woods. There’s a wide flat area at the base where you’re standing; beyond it the hill continues sloping down to the unseen road below.

The thing that strikes you about the rock face is its perfection. It’s perfect for climbing, no doubt – with cracks and rills and folds and other subtle and weird features that only rock climbers have names for running up its surface – but you don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate it. Sydney sandstone comes in many colors and erodes into the craziest forms and shapes – it’s a constant source of wonder no matter where you go in the region – but there’s something in particular about this outcropping. You just want to stare at it. I’m not sure how to explain it. Even with all the flaws it’s so remarkably uniform and vertical for sandstone; as if its changeable nature were suspended for a moment in time, like the parting of the Red Sea. The word wall is right: it really does look like a fortification, a fortress.

Up close, there are a million details. Colors and textures that are different everywhere you look, that seem to change from one day to the next; walking along the wall is like watching a stream constantly change shape and hue as it reflects sunlight. You really understand why rock climbers get so into it – the desire to just be close to and touch this rock, understand the way it flows.

It’s one of those places where nature rises up, reaches out to amaze, makes you stand still and stare, even in a place as prosaic as Lindfield. It seems like it’s… communicating something. I’ve heard the same thing about Uluru. Not that I’m comparing the two.

But though Lindfield Rocks inspires awe, and something a little deeper and harder to quantify, it’s not really a heavy feeling – it’s not ominous, like something’s out to get you, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Maybe because the most genteel of suburbs is just around the corner, it feels like a benign place. And it’s so perfectly, so hilariously realized as a thing for people to climb on, or to just look at and enjoy, that it seems like it was done on purpose. Out of friendliness. Despite the sheer weight and dark mass of the thing in front of you, there’s a lightheartedness that bubbles up when you take it in.

It always makes me think of Andy Goldsworthy, the artist who creates surreal and sublime works using only the materials from nature that he can improvise on the spot. His pieces – weird leaf sculptures, capricious rock formations – always look like they might have been left behind by the most primitive humans, or better yet, like they might have just happened by themselves. Many times his pieces are designed to collapse or decay in interesting and beautiful ways – the way a limestone rock does, over vast stretches of time. “Process and decay are implicit.” Part of the point is to make us see the art that’s all around us in nature in the first place – the beauty in all the process and decay. And after a while, it might make you fleetingly wonder why we bother with art at all.

When I visited Istanbul last year I was amazed by a couple of artifacts that were built in remote antiquity, including an Egyptian obelisk brought to Constantinople by the Byzantines that was carved over 3000 years ago. But I wonder if I should be so impressed with bits of granite or marble fashioned by puny men, when Lindfield Rocks has been here for ages and ages longer, and is just as beautiful and – dare I say – artistic. When the Garigal who lent this park its name arrived here 40,000 years ago this wall was already very, very old. Sitting here all this time, waiting for people to come along and make use of it. I wish I could know what the Garigal thought of it. I imagine they liked being here too.

Note: I looked, and could not find a good, comprehensive page about Lindfield Rocks from a rock climber’s perspective, with history, anecdotes, and notes about the various routes (or whateveryacall’em). There are a few pages that are part of larger climbing or travel sites, but all of them are pretty dry and scanty and leave a lot to be desired. Surely there’s gotta be a few rock climbers out there who are also bloggers or web designers? Let’s get to it guys – this place deserves a nice online tribute.