On a clear day, the land around Hobart seems to unfurl like a sheet from the top of Mount Wellington. It clenches and ruffles, creating ridgelines on which the city’s early residents staked their claim to land, before coming to rest on the banks of the River Derwent. From the base of the mountain, the city’s main arteries appear, lined by generously spaced houses – a cornerstone of the Tasmanian lifestyle and a driving factor in the city’s recent popularity. The locals are right: you’d be hard pushed to find another city in Australia where wallabies graze in your backyard just ten minutes from the office.
As you follow the peaks and troughs of Hobart’s inner suburbs towards the centre of town, the architecture gets older. Hobart is considered one of the best-preserved examples of a Georgian city in the world, and it’s thanks to a measured city council that many of its historic warehouses and sandstone buildings have been repurposed rather than razed.
Cast your eye to the harbour and the island state’s two major industries manifest themselves side by side through their means of distribution. A logging ship, heavily laden and bound for Asia, pulls out of the mouth of the Derwent as the Celebrity Solstice, a luxury cruise liner specialising in South Pacific tours, brings in upwards of 2,000 tourists to the city. It’s without a hint of irony that many of them are here to see Tasmania’s old growth forests.
This Hobart – the one you see from afar – has been a constant for decades, but on the street things are changing. There are new businesses, new life and new precincts. From the centre of town, gazing back at the outer reaches of the city you notice the mountainside is freshly scarred. Hobart is growing, and the areas once considered too steep, too troublesome to inhabit have been subdivided and cleared. The Tasmanian capital is in the midst of a population boom, and in less than half a decade has succumb to a desperate lack of affordable housing, severe road congestion and one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in Australia. It’s a confounding prospect straight off the bat – Hobart is the east coast’s least populated capital, petite even by Australian standards at just a quarter of a million residents. So why is it at a tipping point?
It would be irresponsible to write about Hobart’s current state without acknowledging the transformative narrative that David Walsh has been writing for his hometown for over a decade, but it’s lazy not to look further. Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) and its biannual festivals – Mona Foma and Dark Mofo – have introduced new audiences to the city, both permanent and transient, and have firmly planted Hobart on Australia’s cultural map. Inspired by the lifestyle and encouraged by the price of property, mainland Australians have – if you believe the rhetoric – had the blindfold pulled off by Walsh and they’re arriving in droves, buying up land and clogging up roads as they do.
This is simplifying Hobart’s growth to the extreme. Yes, Mona has boosted the city’s economy and it’s certainly an important attractor, but there are other important players in the business of Hobart. For the final piece in our City Business edition of the Urban Research Journal, Right Angle’s Managing Editor Samuel Davison went looking for the rest of the cast.
The row of 1830s Georgian warehouses that line the western bank of the harbour may have been carved by convict hands, but Greek hands are shaping their future. The Behrakis family, Greek immigrants who arrived in the city with only what they carried, opened the first of their now-famous Salamanca Fresh groceries at 41 Salamanca Place in 1981. In the decades since they have expanded their holdings to include nearly 100 metres in either direction. As the precinct grew in popularity, thanks largely to the adjacent Salamanca Arts Centre and the weekly Sunday market that takes over the precinct, the Behrakises were careful who they leased their spaces to. Over the years their curated tenant list has included some of the city’s most revered restaurateurs, publicans and retailers.
This year, Moss, a 41-room boutique hotel owned by the Behrakis Group, opened its doors at number 39, occupying the upper floors of the historic Whaler Hotel and extending next door over Salamanca Fresh. Its opening signals a shift in the local hotel market that responds to an oversaturation of Airbnbs across the city, and acknowledgement that for hotels to compete they need to break the mold. Moss is part of a new wave of hotels (that include Sydney’s Paramount House Hotel and The Calile in Brisbane) that see themselves as more of a concierge service than a traditional accommodation provider, and from the moment you step into its doors you feel like you’re somewhere special.
“We don’t have a reception counter and our office door is always open,” General Manager Rod Black explains. “We like the conversations that come from that.”
Black, who spent eight years at the Henry Jones Art Hotel before crossing the harbour, is no stranger to connecting visitors to local history and Tasmanian history. The hotel’s ties to the neighbourhood are so strong that he describes their operation as being “sustainable by default”.
“The gin we serve comes from Institut Polaire just down the road. This morning the owner carried in a box, so it was her breath rather than a truck that got it here.”
The Old Mercury Building & The Press Hall
Hobart has a knack for holding on to the past but even it couldn’t withstand the decline of the print media industry. On the corner of Argyle and Macquarie streets, the two buildings that housed the Mercury newspaper from 1930 until 2012 before it downsized have emerged as a hub for the city’s creative and culinary industries. Arts patron and gallerist Penny Clive purchased the buildings with her fund manager husband, Bruce Neill, and they swiftly assembled an all-star cast to convert the two buildings.
The larger of the two – now referred to as TOMB (The Old Mercury Building) – is HQ for the Mona team and Clive’s own Detached Cultural Organisation, which oversees a private collection of art that includes works by Patricia Piccinini, Chiharu Shiota and Mike Parr.
The Press Hall, around the corner on Argyle Street, has made wavesaround the country for its sixty-seat, two-hatted fine diner, Franklin. With a focus on indigenous ingredients and local produce, the restaurant is known for a menu that’s as brutal as its architecture – think raw wallaby and a vivacious, natural-leaning wine list that last year Gourmet Traveller declared the best in Australia. Local-favourites Pigeon Whole Bakers occupy the other half of the former printing press, all of which was restored and converted by Hobart’s own Core Collective Architects.
Significant acts of urban renewal often suffer from false starts, policy shifts and competing visions. Macquarie Point, a nine-hectare site adjacent to Hobart’s harbour and tucked behind the University of Tasmania’s School of the Arts, remains one of the State Government’s highest priority projects, which is why they are determined to get it right. Over the past decade a number of high profile plans have been tabled and then shelved, including a framework by John Wardle Architects, a Mona-led mixed-use vision and a recent proposal to build a 27,000-capacity stadium on the site.
The road to breaking ground is often long, but the Macquarie Point Development Corporation (MPDC) are ensuring that their journey will be a celebration of Tasmanian culture, through ventures like the Hobart Brewing Company and the 1500-capacity multi-purpose event space, The Goods Shed.
The latest addition to Macquarie Point’s pre-development phase is a five-year temporary space produced in collaboration by Core Collective Architects and Nayri Niara, an Aboriginal-owned and operated social enterprise. The LongHouse, a ‘communal creation hub’, houses the Core Collective studio as well as office space for start ups, a fitness studio and a highly flexible communal space, operated by Nayri Niara and capable of hosting workshops, performances and ceremonies. The corrugated perspex building is flanked by Australia’s largest edible precinct, headed by some of the ABC’s Gardening Australia team, that welcomes the public in to learn about sustainable gardening practices each weekend.
By setting the DNA of Macquarie Point early through initiatives like The LongHouse, MPDC are ensuring that the precinct feels authentic and a part of the city by the time the first shovel hits the soil.
In The Hanging Garden
DarkLab Media Manager Rebecca Fitzgibbon is overlooking the pitch-black interior of the Odeon Theatre as she explains that, “Leigh likes theatres, churches and cinemas.”
She’s referring to DarkLab Creative Director Leigh Carmichael, David Walsh’s right hand man and the figure largely considered responsible for Hobart’s winter arts festival, Dark Mofo. Over the years, Carmichael has been securing leases on sites all over town that can be converted into venues during the festival’s two-week program. In 2016, DarkLab entered into negotiations with property developer Riverlee in an effort to save the century-old Odeon, described in 1916 as the ‘finest building in Tasmania’. The talks were fruitful, sparking a relationship that led to Riverlee’s first development in Hobart (although they own 17 sites in the area) and DarkLab’s first permanent venues in the city.
In The Hanging Garden is the Hobart’s revitalised cultural precinct and occupies most of a city block. It’s anchored by the Odeon on Liverpool Street and Altar, a 400-capacity live venue and club, on Murray Street. The space between – a cavernous area hidden from the street by shopfronts – has been transformed into a multipurpose event space, shrouded by an 18-metre high pitched ceiling, known as The Cathedral.
Dark Mofo attendees were given a taste of the space at this year’s festival, before works commenced to turn it into a permanent entertainment precinct that can help inject some of the energy of the festival into the city year-round. Across the three spaces, In The Hanging Garden can accommodate up to 4,000 punters and encourages them to “break bread” by dining at one of the three kitchen operators on site: Oryza, La Sardina Loca and the 24/7 gourmet pie and coffee shop, Pilgrims Process.
In The Hanging Garden is the kind of dramatic venture that we’ve come to expect from Carmichael and his team, sure to draw attention from around the country, but by championing local operators and providing a platform for the creative industries to develop, it feels like local interests are front and centre here.
The University of Tasmania has been a contributor to vibrant urban life in Hobart for decades, with a presence at various harbourside locations. Earlier this year, the announcement that the university would move towards a “city-centric campus” was welcomed by Hobart’s Lord Mayor, Anna Reynolds, as a step in the right direction for the city.
UTAS’s recently completed 15-story student housing development on Elizabeth Street is evidence that the university’s presence in the city can have a positive impact on street trading, an increased body clock and a more sophisticated retail offer. The development, designed in partnership by Terroir and Fender Katsalidis, is the most obvious response to the affordable housing crisis in the city, and is paving the way for a string of medium density residential projects in the area, that include the Hobart iteration of The Commons from Small Giants.
It’s not just the university that’s changing the face of Elizabeth Street. The strip, increasingly referred to as Midtown by locals and traders, is the third focus on the City of Hobart’s Local Retail Precincts Plan, and by 2021 will feature improvements to pedestrian routes, new landscaping, public art and Smart Cities infrastructure. Midtown’s retail offer has become markedly more refined with the introduction of venues like Ettie’s, Sonny and Shambles Brewery, but it’s charm is retained in the presence of the old guard of retailers. Yes, Hobart is changing, but the hospitality and homliness that has long made people feel good in the city is being retained through service, product, design and experience as it grows.
About Study Tours
Study Tours are not intended to be city guides. Their purpose is to try and understand how different cities function, what kind of life they provide their inhabitants and what we might be able to learn from them. Think of them not as a comprehensive list of things to do but as a comment from a curious fly on the wall, delivered without an opinion of how the city ought to be better. All our Study Tours can be found here.
Samuel Davison is Managing Editor at Right Angle Studio. Alongside an extensive portfolio of writing on cities for a range of international publications, he publishes small press art and photography titles through his This is the Same Ocean and Herbs and Spices imprints. As a cultural programmer he has been responsible for art, music and film events in both Australia and Europe.
Tour photography by Adam Gibson.