We devoted three nights to get to know the centre of Perth, capital City of Western Australia. After travelling around the state for a month, we decided to lash out and spend some luxury time in Como, The Treasury Hotel, right in the historical centre of Perth. The basic skeleton of the hotel were buildings that were originally Government offices constructed in the late 19th century. If our hotel was the ‘sun’ image on the map to the right, it was from here that we followed a trail that took us around some of the historic buildings of colonial Perth as well as the modern facilities and public art of the centre of 21st century Perth. If you need assistance, this process can be done by booking an organised tour with the Perth City Visitor Kiosk (Tues, Thurs, Sat) or going online (https://visitperth.com/en/getting-around/walking-tours) and downloading one or more of their excellent guided walks.
Our first destination, St George’s Cathedral, could be reached by simply walking out the front door of our hotel. As would be expected, there were a couple of Anglican Churches built in Perth before this cathedral was started in 1879 and finished and opened in 1888. In the image below to the right of the cathedral is the Burt memorial Hall which was built by the first Chief Justice of Western Australia when his sons were killed in WW1. A much later addition to this ecclesiastical landscape is the huge white lance and pennant that stands on the corner of the site. It is called Ascalon, the legendary lance of St George who used it to slay the Dragon. It represents the triumph of good over evil and was created for this site in 2018.
Our next site was a simple walk across the road to Stirling Gardens. Prominently on the corner of the Gardens is a statue of Alexander Forrest (1849-1901), explorer, politician and investor, who was a significant figure in the exploration and opening up to European expansion of Western Australia.
Along the footpath of St George Terrace you could be forgiven for thinking that a mob of kangaroos had escaped into the inner city and taken over. One of these large kangaroos was gazing across the road, no doubt startled by the sight of the lance Escalon. One version of the reason behind this series of sculptures (1997) is that it is a celebration of the ‘Kangaroo’, “they bound through this highly structured modern urban space, like shadows from an ancient past, flashing across the inner eye; creating a startling visual counterpoint to their surroundings and an instant reminder that these magnificent creatures were migrating for millions of years through this area from the Swan River foreshore, up through the chain of lakes upon which the City was built less than 200 years ago” (Visit Perth Walking Guide). Another suggestion is that they represent the totem of “the Wadjuk Noongar as yonga or male kangaroo people.”
Escaping the Kangaroos, we wandered along the Terrace until we came to Government House on the right. There was no entry into this prestigious building or its beautiful gardens but it seemed to give off a vague similarity with the towers of the Tower of London. According to the plaque beside the gate, it had been built between 1859 and 1864, replacing an earlier Governor’s house built in the 1830s. One of the curious claims made by the plaque was that the Governor “saved considerable expense by employing convict labour wherever possible.” The Swan River Colony had started as a free settlement in 1829 but decided to import convicts as cheap labour for the 21 years between 1829-1850.
A little further along from Government House is the Perth Concert Hall. It was built in 1973 and according to ‘Heritage Perth “has long been considered to be a superb example of brutalist architecture, with its distinctive use of white off-form concrete.” I have never heard the expression “brutalist architecture” before but it is a phrase I am definitely going to use regularly in the future when commentating on concrete buildings.
Checking the map of our walk printed at the start of this article, it can be seen it was time to turn right at the next corner and head down to the banks of the Swan River. Our walk was along Riverside Drive towards the central ferry terminal area of the city where we could purchase tickets to take us to places like Rottnest Island or the Perth Zoo over the River. Our first destination was of course Barrack Square where one of Perth’s current top tourist attractions is situated, the Bell Tower. It has been claimed that it is one of the world’s largest musical instruments.
My first sight of the Bell Tower of Perth was one of immediate confusion. Was it a phone tower, a Perth equivalent of the Eiffel Tower or just an architect’s dream of a lookout tower for the Swan River. I had to look it up on my map to discover that it was a ‘Bell’ Tower or to give it it’s other name, the Swan Bell Tower. My next reaction was why did Perth decide it needed a bell tower on the shores of the Swan River, why not leave the bells in the church towers where they belong? But a bell tower it is, and the story of its creation is a long and at times controversial tale.
As a bell tower, it contains 18 ringing bells making it the second largest set of ringing bells in the world. Where things get curious is that 12 of these bells come from an ancient church in Trafalgar Square London, St Martin of the Fields, the Parish Church of Buckingham Palace. Church bells have probably had about 2000 years of purposeful use in summoning citizens to church. In the new millennium, this purpose is no longer as relevant, so it is not surprising that St Martins of the Fields decided their bells were too big for their tower and they needed to move them on. (There is not a lot of call for used church bells!) To cut the story short, they were negotiated as part of a 1988 Bicentennial ‘donation’ to Perth and the state politicians had to figure out what to do with them. They were too big for any church so the decision was made to build a non-religious bell tower on the site of Perth’s Barrack Square that was being redeveloped as a major Millennium project. The bells were put into storage waiting for a tower which, after much controversy and outcry, was finally opened in 1999. Today the 18 bells ring every Thursday and Sunday 12pm-1pm.
Perhaps the most curious summary of the impact of the bells on the city is from an ABC article in 2015 about the Swan Bell Tower…”It has taken Perth from being a campanological backwater to being of one the focal points for bell ringers in the world.” (To save most readers from reaching for a dictionary, ‘Campanology’ is the study of bells!)
One of the controversies of large redevelopments in the centre of a major city is the destruction involved of what was there before. Originally as part of the tiled area around the Bicentennial Bell Tower, a project had occurred to collect the signatures of the 1999 Year 12 students from all around Western Australia and inscribe them on the tiles around the tower. When the new Elizabeth Quay redevelopment next door to Barrack Square began, the signed tiles had to go and to sooth the criticism that followed, replicas of the tiles were attached to a huge sculpture of a signature ring and this was placed in the centre of Barrack Square nearby to their original location. On our stroll around Barrack Square, we came across the ring and decided it was a curious but cute sculpture involving young people in the public art of the area. As visitors, we had no idea at the time of the controversy that it represented.
Our trail took us along in front of the ferry terminal jetties to the edge of Elizabeth Quay, a small bay that was the focus of huge building developments when we visited in 2021. However, the first thing I noticed was a replica of the largest gold nugget ever discovered in Western Australia. Spotting it immediately took me back to my primary school days where I remembered we did a study of the history of the discovery of Gold in Australia. This nugget was called the ‘Golden Eagle’ and was dug up near Coolgardie WA in 1931. I am sure it is considered a symbol of the ever-expanding mining boom that was the history of Western Australia from then on.
From the Ferry Terminal area, we crossed over a small bridge leading to ‘The Island’, a beautiful oasis surrounded by water on the edge of the Swan River. It has a micro-brewery and a restaurant to attract the passing crowds and would be a very popular drinking spot for weekends.
Down on the edge of the island is a ‘Mary Poppins’ style statue of a civil rights and conservation activist, Bessie Rischbieth (1874-1967), who championed the preservation of the Swan River and Kings Park. She is most famous for her actions at the age of 90 when entering the Swan River to block the bulldozers ahead of the construction of the Narrows Bridge. Nearby this statue is a sculpture of a swan carrying her baby on her back, one of the many swan statues that we encountered in Perth.
To continue our walk around Elizabeth Quay, we left ‘The Island’ over the extraordinary curved Elizabeth Quay Pedestrian and Cyclist Bridge that weaved its way across to the next bank; a bridge sufficiently high to allow boats under it into the quay. I liked the description on the builders’ website that described it as follows… “The balustrade design follows the bridge deck curves in plan and also leans in and out vertically, twisting like a ribbon along the length of the bridge.”
On the other side of the bridge, its arms stretched out in welcome, is a sculpture titled ‘First Contact’, welcoming visitors to Elizabeth Quay. The cast, aluminium artwork is by Laurel Nannup and “represents the arrival of European settler ships to Perth, whom the local Nyoongar people believed to be their past ancestors returning from the sea.”
The redevelopment plan for Elizabeth Quay certainly contains plenty of high-rise buildings and two of them will make up the backdrop of the left-hand side of the quay as the visitor looks towards the City shoreline where another public art-piece, ‘Spanda’ stands. It is a series of expanding elliptical orbits, its ‘meaning’ explained by the artist Christian de Vietri here. “Spanda is a Sanskrit word that means ‘divine vibration’. The term is used to describe how consciousness moves in waves of contraction and expansion. The sculpture gives form to this primordial energy. My intention in making this sculpture is to express and facilitate oneness of the individual with the universal.”
Our walk towards a closer inspection of ‘Spanda’ took us past some gorgeous images of Western Australian flora and fauna. I could not decided whether they were permanent displays or coverings of the fences that surrounded the redevelopment sites.
As part of finishing off our walk around the facilities of Elizabeth Quay, we decided we would go and have a look at the Elizabeth Quay Train Station that was not far around the corner from the Quay. On the way we were able to take in ‘BHP Water Park’ that was built in the area on the left hand side of the Quay precinct. It is designed to be an “interactive water feature that uses jets and lighting to create fun and exciting water choreography.” On the bottom of this water park is a mosaic that represents Dreaming story of the creation of the Milky Way.
It was only a short walk back up the hill on Barracks St past the Supreme Court Gardens to our hotel. On the way, I noticed an art piece in the gardens that appeared to be just a series of old fashioned writing pen ‘nibs’ as seen in the image below left. On the Perth day when we went down river to check out Rottnest Island, we were late coming home with the same walk up the hill in the dark. The art work that I had noted previously obviously came into its own at night!