Splendid isolation | Monocle

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Population: 2.02 million in Greater Perth
Average maximum temperature in February: 31.6c
Average daily sunshine: 7.9 hours
Number of beaches: 19
State flower: red-and-green kangaroo paw

There is a famous Perth story about the night of 20 February 1962 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. In a gesture of solidarity, Perth’s streetlights were kept on all night, its residents adding to the illumination with their car and porch lights; it was a cheery wave from the world’s most isolated city to an astronaut spinning around the globe alone in the darkness.

The city’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed: “Just to my right I can see a big pattern of lights, apparently right on the coast,” says Glenn on the recording of the flight. “Roger,” comes back the reply from Nasa, “that is Perth and Rockingham that you are seeing.” “Roger,” says Glenn, “the lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on.” Henceforth Perth was known as the “City of Light”.

The place has changed beyond recognition in the past 50 years. In the early 1960s, when the state’s largest employer was the Swan Brewery, Perth – named after the distant Scottish city – was a suburban area of half a million. Today it is home to a population of nearly two million and is emerging from a decade-long iron ore boom that transformed the self-proclaimed “country town” into a modern city.

As close to Southeast Asia as it is to Sydney, Perth is the sunniest (often windiest) city in Australia and the metropolis with the fastest-growing population of twenty-somethings in the country. Despite being home to 10 per cent of the Australian population, it generates nearly half the country’s export earnings. While the rest of the world grappled with the global financial crisis, Perth was thriving, buoyed up on its spectacular reserves of oil, gas and minerals.

“It’s God’s Country,” says Nic Brunsdon, an architect from Melbourne who has made Perth his home since 2010. “If aliens put a pin in a map and chose the best place to live, they’d pick Perth: it has a great climate, it has money, it’s politically stable and it’s developed, but not too much.”

Perth is also a city of immense charm and stunning physical beauty, with open skies and bright, bright light. The stately Swan River – a place of huge significance to the Aboriginal population and the site of the first European settlement in 1829 – glides past the Central Business District and down to the laidback port of Fremantle. Dazzling white-sand beaches line the coast, many less than half an hour from the city centre, allowing Perth residents to begin and end their day with a dip in the ocean. As Brunsdon put it in a recent essay: “What an absolute fucking privilege.”

Old money – and not a little new wealth – resides in the leafy low-rise streets of the western suburbs such as Claremont, Cottesloe, Peppermint Grove and Mosman Park. These quiet enclaves account for some of the most expensive property in Australia. With its perfect beach, Cottesloe sustains six architectural practices. Mosman Park has its famous bowling club – “the club with the million-dollar view” – overlooking the Swan River.

The Coombe is an antipodean Amalfi, an exclusive pocket of real estate with properties hugging the riverside. This is a world of private schools, yacht clubs and graceful peppermint trees – and there isn’t a high-rise in sight. Contrary to images of cashed-up bogans in metallic towers, these moneyed suburbs are – for the most part anyway – discreet. And its residents want to keep it that way, hence they are fighting vertical development at every turn.

“People born and bred in Perth have grown up with an amazing quality of life,” says Marion Fulker, ceo of non-profit think-tank the Committee for Perth. “They don’t want that compromised.” Yet with the population predicted to hit 3.5 million by 2050, change is inevitable. When the mineral boom exploded, WA needed to import workers from interstate and overseas. Many of them were commuting to remote mine sites on a Fifo (fly-in, fly-out) basis and Perth became their new “home”. The city went into overdrive, growing at twice the national average.

With gangly limbs of growth splaying out in all directions, Perth is sometimes compared to a teenager in need of fattening up. Such is the craving for access to the beach that Greater Perth now snakes along the coast for 100km, exacerbating a car culture that was established when the last city tram was removed in 1958. Looking ahead, sustainability has to be factored into the equation. “‘Business as usual’ is the worst-case scenario for Perth,” says Fulker, who admits that not everyone thinks that Perth becoming a city of 3.5 million is a good thing. Social conservatism in some quarters can hold up change. “We take a pragmatic approach by saying, ‘Population growth is happening anyway so let’s plan for it’.”

The census in 2011 revealed that 40 per cent of Greater Perth’s population was born outside Australia. The city has been home to newcomers ever since that first wave of European settlement. There were the “Ten Pound Poms” – Brits on subsidised migration schemes – then communities of Greeks, Italians and Slavs. More recently Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Filipinos and many others have come; some to work, others, particularly those from Southeast Asia, to study.

The people who think about the future of Perth – led since 2007 by mayor Lisa Scaffidi – are working hard to reduce car dependency and bring life to the city centre: relaxing draconian licensing laws, opening up small lanes and running free buses in the cbd. Three major construction projects are underway: a 60,000-capacity stadium to open in 2018; Elizabeth Quay, a controversial (not least for its name) public-private project designed to reunite the city centre and the Swan River, which have long been separated by tall buildings and a road; and Perth City Link, a project first proposed more than a century ago, to sink the east-west Fremantle railway line and finally connect the once unloved neighbourhood of Northbridge with the business district.

Northbridge, an area of drained wetlands formerly best known for its “colourful” nightlife, has been rejuvenated in recent years. The Perth Cultural Centre is there; so too the new Alex Hotel, an imaginative small-scale hotel designed by architect Michael Patroni and his Fremantle studio Space Agency. There are new architectural projects all over the link development area around Perth Station, from the much-criticised, now embraced State Arena to the State Theatre designed by Fremantle-born Singapore-based architect Kerry Hill.

St George’s Terrace, which was the heart of Victorian Perth – and is still home to Government House, the Jacobean-style official residence of the Governor of Western Australia – is being made over. The handful of old buildings that survived early rounds of modernisation are being restored. The former home of local newspaper the West Australian has been converted into a busy bar and restaurant, The Print Hall.

Further along the road a late-19th century building that has been vacant for 20 years has been meticulously restored by Adrian Fini (fjm Property) and Kerry Hill to create a luxury hotel, called the Como Treasury. With its 48 rooms, spa, top-flight restaurants and craft-beer bar, the hotel is all set to lay down a new standard in Perth when it opens in September. It forms part of a revamped precinct that includes the city cathedral and Kerry Hill’s (yes, him again) cylindrical new state library, which is still under construction.

Brunsdon, who was awarded the National Emerging Architect Prize for 2015, got involved in thinking about the city after the publication of a report that revealed the quantity of underused property in central Perth. “I realised it was time to stop being a cynic from the sidelines,” he says. “You’ve got to curate the city you want to live in. I wanted to be part of the solution.” His Spacemarket project matches people and property and brings that much-needed density into the centre. “That’s the beauty of Perth: I can call the mayor directly here. People who are engaged in change are really supportive.” His Moana Chambers project on busy Hay Street brought life to a building whose period detail had been covered up with plasterboard and subsequently left empty for a decade. On a minimal budget he was able to turn a neglected floor into a gallery, balcony café and shared workspace.

Post-boom, it’s time for Perth to pause for breath. “We’ve been very single-focused in Western Australia,” says Lynda Dorrington, director of Form, a non-profit cultural organisation that has been working on creative and social projects around Perth for the past decade. ”We know how to extract oil and gas and minerals and we have had a strong focus on accruing personal wealth. When the sun is shining there’s little imperative to think about tomorrow or society as a whole. The big question is how to bring some balance to the communities we live in.” Now that the high-rolling years have passed, it’s time to take stock. “We’re getting the hard infrastructure in place – the link, the stadium, the city waterfront – but how do we nurture a more engaged and inclusive society?”

Form’s work is varied, ranging from collaborations with Aboriginal artists in regional communities right through to citywide projects. The latest will be the refurbishment of an old freight shed in Claremont, which will see it turned into a tailored space for artists and designers. Despite this activity, Dorrington would still like to see Perth make more of its multiculturalism and its location. “We need to appreciate that we are part of the wider Asian zone, not separate or removed from our nearest neighbours.”

Perth has a vibrant International Arts Festival and the even bigger Fringe World Festival takes over the city, with attendance figures in excess of 660,000 this year. It’s in the nature of Perth’s isolation that people have often made their own entertainment. That could be down at the beach or picnicking in Kings Park, a 4 sq km space on the western edge of the city centre that offers unbeatable views over the cbd with its towering headquarters of corporate giants such as bhp Billiton. Perth architecture is often overlooked but there are some terrific buildings. There is the work of Iwan Iwanoff, a Bulgarian émigré whose 150 projects (of which only 30 or so remain) deserve greater fame. His modernist houses sit perfectly on the city’s residential streets. In Mount Lawley, Paul and Jane Gray occupy a 1961 Iwanoff beauty. “I used to cycle past and think, ‘We’ll buy it when it comes up for sale’,” says Jane, and they finally did in 1989.

Harold Krantz and Robert Sheldon were a prolific architectural duo who built all over the city in the 1950s and 1960s. Their best-known work is the Mount Eliza Apartment building, which sits on a scenic point in front of Kings Park and is affectionately referred to by residentz as the Thermos Flask. Then there is Brian Klopper, the never-less-than-earthy Fremantle architect who is famous for being able to design a house and build it with his bare hands. One of his distinctive brick buildings in Fremantle has been turned into the Attic cafe and is well worth a visit.

In 2012, architect Carly Barrett started Open House Perth, an event originating in London that opens up private buildings and homes to the general public. “It was hard at first,” she says. “People were saying, ‘Why would anyone want to look at architecture in Perth on their weekends?’” The public proved them wrong. Of the 10 homes in last year’s event, three had almost 1,000 people visitors in a single day and one, the home of Perth architect Jonathan Lake, got more than 1,200. “Western Australia has the second-highest average house size in the country [245 sq m] after New South Wales [248 sq m] and yet Jonathan Lake’s house is only 170 sq m [on a 300 sq m block]. It demonstrates what can be done with a smaller footprint. It’s important to send the message that quality is better than quantity when it comes to space.”

Sustainability and locality are features of Perth’s newly burgeoning food scene, too. Western Australian wines – particularly from Margaret River – have been admired for years but its culinary culture lagged behind. Not so these days. Perth-born chef Hadleigh Troy who runs his highly rated restaurant Amusé with his wife Carolynne, says that the whole approach to food and local produce has changed. “Eight years ago if we asked producers even for dry-hung beef, they’d look at us like we had two heads.” Now diners and farmers get what he’s on about. “We have great producers here and we want to do them justice. It makes more sense anyway: it’s a long way to bring fresh produce.”

Good new restaurants have been opening all over the city, from Subiaco to Mount Lawley. “The shift has been massive,” he says. “Look at the restaurants on St George’s Terrace: suddenly a couple of thousand seats opened overnight.” It’s the same story with bars. “I can’t keep up with all the new places,” he says. “It’s gangbusters.”

Troy, like many of his Perth compatriots, spent several years away from the city, in the east of the country and in London, a rite of passage he highly recommends. Journeys are a feature of life in Perth, where people who live a stone’s throw from its pristine beaches drive hours to holiday on even quieter beaches or go out to Rottnest Island. But those who leave seeking adventure in their twenties tend to return, drawn back by the water, the light and the quality of life. Or as Troy puts it simply, “It’s home.”

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