Brisbane has been trying to make sense of its place in the world for decades. During this time, it took on the name Brisvegas – nobody is 100% sure when, or why – and it stuck, polarising audiences and providing the ambition, resilience and drive to transform its image.
As the city has grown up, it has been forced to consider its relationship with itself, Australia and the rest of the world. Regionally, Brisbane has reconnected with natural assets, embracing sub-tropical temperatures and tangled greenery while turning the city’s eyes toward the river. As a capital city, it’s started to conquer suburban sprawl with a renewed focus on infrastructure and inner city developments. As a ‘New World City’, the city’s chosen sobriquet, Brisbane is embracing a commitment to the knowledge economy and an alignment with Asia, both culturally and economically.
There’s a sense of optimism and a consistent drive for improvement in Brisbane, something that’s inherently part of being an underdog. The city learnt some hard lessons through an odd sequence of internationally significant events: as a wartime city in World War II, as the host to the World Expo in ’88, and during its moment on the world stage during the 2014 G20 Summit. Together these events played a role in shaping the city’s cultural puberty. Although this period can be remembered fondly, it was a confusing time for all involved. Today, as a globally relevant and uniquely Brisbane lifestyle emerges, that confusion has been replaced with confidence – a feat recognised by the likes of Monocle, who named Brisbane as one of their top 25 cities in 2018.
Bunker Coffee is a definitively local retail experience, growing to represent the changing face of Milton since 2010. As a destination for coffee connoisseurs and early commuters, this converted air raid shelter helped spur the regeneration of an industrial area surrounded by remnants of under-utilised business parks. Milton’s high-density transit-oriented developments and a blossoming high-street are now just steps away. Named for the 1940’s war bunker it inhabits, Bunker’s location below a typical Queenslander-style residence makes what could be a cold and austere environment feel welcoming and neighbourly. At just 15 sqm, Bunker provides a sliver of cool green relief proving that a touch of creativity can turn difficult spaces into innovative retail concepts.
Wests Rugby Club, Toowong
Wests Rugby Club has been at the centre of the Toowong community for seven decades, but a $13 million redevelopment in 2017 welcomed a new era for one of Brisbane’s oldest sporting communities. The redevelopment saw the club become a precinct, holding up a strong sense of community within Colosseum-like arches as it supports and develops rugby in Brisbane. Wests is the kind of club where junior and club level games are just as important as premierships. Great care has helped the rebranded club stay true to the site’s heritage assets while remaining connected with Memorial Park and the history the Wests have in the suburb. Today, Wests Rugby Club is unfolding as a third space for the city by providing a sense of belonging for all and bringing together allied health, retail and sports. All of this is done while confidently nurturing the Wests ethos for the future.
Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha
Australia’s largest sub-tropical botanic gardens are an ambitious project in sustainability spread over 56 hectares. Lovingly integrated into the hearts of locals since 1976, the gardens continue to form a symbiotic relationship with the city’s personality, growth and vision for the future. Brisbane Botanic Gardens’ sustainability credentials are largely the work of Ross McKinnon, the visionary curator that helmed the Mount Coot-tha site from day one until his retirement in 2014. Thanks to six large on-site lakes, the gardens have become the first capital city botanic garden to be 100% water self-sufficient.
The gardens are brought to life via a complex web of pathways, inviting discovery and reflection while forging a physical connection to the natural assets that have shaped Brisbane’s landscape. It has all the trappings one would expect of a city botanic garden (a fragrant garden, bamboo grove, arid zone, Japanese garden, tropical dome, rainforest, lakes, amphitheatre, planetarium, library, art gallery, restaurant, event space and even an outdoor kitchen for workshops and classes), but the beauty lies in subtle eccentricities, like the sculpture of Tsiolkovsky mesmerised by Brisbane’s idyllic sky.
Apartment, Brisbane CBD
For a fleeting second on entering Apartment you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Tokyo, but this is still Queen Street Mall. Brisbane’s premium streetwear boutique is tucked away above a ramen joint and shares the unsuspecting location with long-term neighbours and collaborators, Violent Green. The light-filled space thoughtfully curates international favourites like APC, Comme des Garçons PLAY and WTaps while still giving a subtle nod to the city that allowed it to flourish. Since 2006, Apartment’s founders – brothers Ben and Nick Chiu – have made their mark on Brisbane by blending art, music and food as they define their brand and their city. They are part of a new generation of creatives that celebrate Brisbane, doing their part to affect change and build community.
Fish Lane, South Brisbane
Over the past decade, Fish Lane has transformed from an easy to miss, haphazard thoroughfare into one of Brisbane’s newest culinary destinations, just minutes from Brisbane’s cultural precinct. However, unlike many contemporary activations of urban laneways, Fish Lane has evolved slowly and organically to create an eclectic and authentic character. A small cluster of local restaurateurs saw beauty, potential and opportunity within the disused industrial blocks, construction sites and overhead railway tracks that peppered the six-block laneway. One of the first venues to open and Brisbane’s first food incubator, Wandering Cooks catalysed the sustainable food culture within the precinct while providing a supportive platform for various food concepts to prosper economically, culturally and socially. From commercial kitchens to rotational food kiosks and community workshops, Wandering Cooks has been the lifeblood of a precinct that is quintessentially Brisbane.
QAGOMA at the Cultural Precinct, South Brisbane
Just a stone’s throw from Fish Lane, the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) have been pivotal in shaping Brisbane’s economic, social and cultural identity since the 1970s. As Brisbane continues to distance itself from Sydney and Melbourne, aligning more with Asia to become a ‘New World City’, this cultural precinct has never been more pertinent. Proudly positioned along the river, the two institutions sit like siblings – branded as one but distinct in appearance, personality and perspectives on art. Together QAG and GOMA work to engage the mindsets of visitors and residents while provoking questions about Queensland’s role within the Asia-Pacific region. The Asia Pacific Triennial celebrates Brisbane’s connection and relationship with the East, encourages discourse that challenges Eurocentric constructs within the art world and invites people to think about Brisbane as a rapidly evolving region.
The Calile Hotel, James Street Precinct
James Street is a landmark development for Brisbane and has already become ingrained in Australia’s urban vernacular. It has crafted a sophisticated urban narrative through its wild green spaces and leisurely retail culture to emerge as a proudly Brisbane precinct. The rise and evolution of James Street has been anything but conventional. A series of financial short-falls meant plans deviated from a singular shopping centre to a staged development approach, but this process allowed ideas to develop progressively and thoughtfully under the guide of local architects Richards & Spence.
Their latest contribution to the precinct, The Calile Hotel – a boutique hotel branded as ‘Australia’s first urban resort’ – is as welcoming to locals as it is to guests. The $100 million addition spared no cost. Marble interiors and geometric façades propped up against blue skies and floating palm trees convey a kind of ‘mellow brutalism’ that celebrates Queensland’s enviable climate.
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.
Shenaz Engineer is a Researcher & Strategist at Right Angle Studio. A Brisbane local, her innate curiosity and fascination for cities has seen her live across Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, Paris and now Sydney. With a background in both business and design, she continues to collaborate with curious minds from different industries across the world, and has received both national and international awards for her work. Fascinated by the intersection of culture, architecture, health and technology, she is passionate about creating inclusive cities and crafting places for people.
Samuel Davison is Editor at Right Angle Studio. He has written extensively on cities for a range of international publications. He also publishes This is the Same Ocean, an annual journal of photography. His photographic work has been shown around the world and he was the 2016 winner of the Independent Photography Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.