2012 Parker Fellow

October 13, 2012  |  Comments Off on 2012 Parker Fellow  |  by ross  |  News, Scholars

Our 2012 Parker Fellow is Matthew Kelly. His award was announced at the Twelfth Annual Architects Foundation Dinner at Isabellas Restaurant held at Newcastle University on Saturday evening, 29th March.  Also announced was the winner of the Col Madigan Commendation Award , Hannah Cheetham, a second year student.

Twelfth Annual Dinner

July 22, 2012  |  Comments Off on Twelfth Annual Dinner  |  by ross  |  News

The Architecture Foundation invites all architecture graduates from and beyond the University of Newcastle to attend the Foundation’s 2012 dinner and awards evening on Saturday 29 September 2012 from 6.30pm.

The event will be held at Isabellas Restaurant, the original staff club on the campus of the University of Newcastle.  Guest speaker will be Leone Lorrimer, the new CEO of Suters Architects who has recently retuned from Abu Dhabi having worked with Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel.  Her topic – Sandhills, the Abu Dhabi experience . . .

The 2011 Parker Fellow, Natalie Scott, will speak about her travels through South America, in particular Brazil and the city of Curitiba which, at the hands of its previous mayor and architect Jaime Lerner, has grown from a post-industrial wasteland to a dynamic and much-loved metropolis.  The 2011 Commendation recipient, Aariel Pazar, will present his experiences at the Julian Ashton Art School having received the Col Madigan Commendation for 2011.

The event will announce the 2012 recipients of the Parker Fellowship in Architecture.

To download a Dinner Acceptance form:  CLICK HERE


Contact: Ross Cox: 02 4969 4514     Bob Donaldson: 02 4969 5508

Mail: PO Box 2348 Dangar  NSW 2309

Email: trustees@thearchitecturefoundation.org.au  

Web: www.thearchitecturefoundation.org.au

Natalie writes – 3

July 20, 2012  |  Comments Off on Natalie writes – 3  |  by ross  |  News, Scholars

Exerpt from a recent email to Bob Donaldson: ..I’ve just returned to Curitiba after spending a couple of weeks in Campinas, the city I did exchange to in 2008. This was a really interesting and not to mention fun fortnight catching up with friends and host families I hadn’t seen in 4 years. I really loved seeing my host city again after 4 years and I’ve noticed a few subtle changes that have really changed the city!! Interestingly enough one major problem the city is facing is car congestion!
Curitiba is in the depths of winter at the moment with most days being around 6-14 degrees and quite windy! Although the locals surprisingly enough are pretty acclimatized so it doesn’t stop the city from being full of people all day!
My journal is full to the brim of writing and ideas and coupons and drawings, so I’ve got a lot to show everyone when I get back. I’m quietly proud of My journal because it really shows exactly what I’ve been doing all the good and bad days, the boring bits, people I have met and places I have seen. It’s something that I enjoy flipping back through and remembering how all the different places and things have affected me from start to finish.
I’ve made quite a few good connections in Curitiba and its really helped to open doors and show me things I wouldn’t have noticed or been able to see. I’m still hoping to meet with Jaime Lerner for more than a couple of seconds like I have previously but to be honest I’m not going to be surprised if I don’t get to because as I’ve been watching on Facebook he travels around the world as governor of the state! But i will hopefully get the chance to get inside his architecture office which will be great!!!
Im working on a bit of a video presentation for the dinner hopefully I can give everyone a bit of an idea of what I’ve been doing over here.

Natalie writes – 2

April 30, 2012  |  Comments Off on Natalie writes – 2  |  by ross  |  News, Scholars

Hello Bob and everyone else in TAF.

Firstly I hope winter has come early there and I hope I miss all the cold weather!
Well, I’m not sure if you have been reading my blog but I am having a really great time. I’ve been travelling now for about 6 weeks and I feel like my whole perspective has changed as cheesy as that sounds!
I’ve been to Brazil before but I never saw it through the eyes of someone who had any knowledge of Architecture.
The cities I’ve visited in South America have taught me more about what it is to be a city then Newcastle or Sydney ever could have. I’m not sure whether it is South America or whether it is the strong European influence but these cities (most of them) just breathe life and chaos and excitement. Sydney feels like a stifling concrete jungle compared to the wide avenues of Buenos Aires and the parks here! So many squares and parks its really so nice to see.

I’m not really sure whether I am doing the right thing. I’m writing a lot. I have a diary that is already half full. And taking photos and filming things. I’ve been drawing although not enough! But sometimes the things I learn are hard to capture in a picture or a note. Sometimes they arent that tangible and sometimes its just a feeling. a little AHA! moment every now and then.

I’ve briefly met Jaime Lerner and I’m desperately hoping to get into his office and meet him. I have been collecting a lot of information and texts about Curitiba and the Urban Design things they are doing here. It is getting cold here but its still manageable. The Brazilians I have met around the place are probably some of the most friendly and easy going people I’ve ever met. They are so patient and willing to chat and help you find where u need to go. I also get the feeling that people that live in Curitiba usually dont leave it. Brazilians travel around the country wuite a bit for work and love but I dont think I’ve met anyone who has said ‘oh yes i lived there once it was ok’. Most of them end up returning years later.

I’m halfway through my first semester of my Masters degree but I’m only doing the research course by distance. Which is actually great at keeping me focused and thinking about architecture. I’m focusing my interests on Urban Design and cycling so I’m trying to dig up as much info on that as I can right now. Curitiba has some pretty well funded cycling initiatives underway at the moment.

Anyway, i think thats about enough from me for now. I hope that I have been a good representative for the TAF. I think I have been a good representative for myself and as an Australian.

I hope everyone is well on that side of the world. I wish I could go to the promotion of the Fellowship at uni to tell them all try! Its amazing to think that this time a year ago I was in their position!

Tchau ate logo!


Natalie writes

March 29, 2012  |  Comments Off on Natalie writes  |  by ross  |  News, Scholars

Natalie Scott, 2011 Parker Fellow writes: 7 March 2012- I fly to South America in a little over a week which is quite exciting! I’ve had about 5 different vaccinations over the past month so I’m well prepared!

I plan on taking my time getting to Curitiba. I will be flying into Buenos Aires and exploring it for a week.

I will then be hopping up to Uruguay and spending a week in Montevideo.

From here I’ll be flying up to Brasilia and hope to see just about every monolithic monument that is on offer!

I am planning on staying at Brasilia Palace Hotel which was designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

From Brasilia I’ll be flying down to Curitiba and have planned to stay at an Eco hostel just outside the city which im very much looking forward to.

I have made plans to meet with bicycle groups and local government members, some architects and a Rotary club (Rotary usually has the powerful people in the know in Brazil).

I am still trying to arrange a meeting with Jaime Lerner the past mayor of Curitiba.

Im also getting up to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for a couple of weeks to experience the big raging cities!

I have started a blog for my travels which I hope the Foundation, friends and fanily will all have a look at at some point.

It is a tumblr blog which people can find at archinat.tumblr.com

I do also have the Instagram App and a few other nifty things that will help me capture moments.

Hope to hear from you soon.


2011 Parker Fellow

September 29, 2011  |  Comments Off on 2011 Parker Fellow  |  by ross  |  News

The 2011 Parker Fellow Natalie Scott and Commendation Awardee Aariel Pazar were announced at the Annual Dinner of The Architects Foundation on 24th September at Isabellas Restaurant on the Callaghan Campus of the University of Newcastle.

Rebecca writes from India & Europe

July 30, 2011  |  Comments Off on Rebecca writes from India & Europe  |  by ross  |  Scholars

I’m writing from Delhi where it’s my last day in India (30th June). It’s hard to believe that this part of my trip is almost over – when I started, a month in Japan, and two each in China and India seemed like an eternity. I still remember about two weeks into Japan, where I didn’t quite think I would be able to get there.
Since I wrote last it’s been quite an adventure.

I initially stayed with others from the NGO in a beautiful house in the old town. To get to the house I would walk up the main bazaar to a mosque, turning up into an alley that meandered up the hill to the castle. The alley marked the start of the old town so was lined in either side by traditional Ladakhi houses. The first 50m was shops – a butchers, where if I was lucky, on my morning walks I would confronted by decapitated cow heads poking out of the bins on the street. I would also walk past my milkman, who would make yogurt and cheese daily after he got his milk in the morning, and various cloth makers/dyers and then my tailor. The tailor was quite popular as my clothes had started to wear out a little by this point…

Past the shops was a tap – there are only a few taps in the old town although we were very lucky to have one in our basement. The water runs for a few hours during the day when everyone fills up their buckets and bottles and carries them back home. After the tap, I walk a little further up the hill and come to a stupa, which neighbor’s our house. Walking around the corner to our house, I would pass another neighbor’s cow pen, and generally a few stray cows before making it to the door.

The first level of the house is rarely used by Ladakhi families. It was traditionally used for housing animals in the winter, and I believe for growing food, although I could never figure out how this worked. It also has rooms for waste as Ladakhi people use a composting toilet which is emptied only once a year. The second and third levels are generally a winter and summer level (with a kitchen in each). The lower has few windows and is very internalised so keeps warmer in winter, whilst the upper has many more windows, and often a sunroom or a courtyard. Roke Bano – the house I was staying in, basically followed this pattern, although we used the winter kitchen and kept the summer kitchen as a bedroom (where I stayed for some of my time). My favorite part about the house was the roof; we were just high enough that after climbing up there I could sit and look out over the roofs of the other houses to the Stok range in the Background.

I didn’t stay in the house in Leh although its beauty kept me there for the 2 ½ weeks. There was an issue with a cat, and the cat started vomiting, and food cloths were used for cleaning involving the cat, and I became a little too worried about what would become of my health!  I then moved to a guest house in Sankar which was a gorgeous little semi-rural area up the Valley from the Leh city centre. To get up here I would walk up behind the mosque, and through the bakers’ area where you could get fresh chapati and tea bread. Then up a little bit further to the rural areas, where a paved path walled with mud bricks on both sides, followed one of the many water channels up the hill. I would turn when I got a to a prayer wheel, and wander a little bit further before entering the gate to the house. The fields here were small and terraced as they flowed down the hill and would surround each house – with the entire property bordered by these brick walls. Far from being overbearing, the paths created by these walls would widen and narrow, tended to include the water stream, and often passed patches of trees. They were also quite short before they might break into a road or a less secluded house. The water channels themselves were ingenious – there’s no plumbing, and in the rural areas the water channels criss-cross fields and run by the houses. There’s a main channel that always flows, and each family may have many of their own which run from it, which they either block with material and stones, or release when needed. The family we stayed with in Stok had one running past the house that flowed into a small pipe at one point, which allowed them to do their washing in the creek.

The second project I worked on was measuring up another house, this time in the old town. There’s an old lady who lives just up the path from us and tends to sit outside her house in the afternoons in the sun. She lives by herself, and has become very worried about the cracks in her walls and the way her floor slopes, so working with Arian we measured up her house, recorded the damage, drew everything up and came up with a plan to fix the damage.

I’ll try and be a little briefer in describing between then and now. I should probably add that this second part is written from London, about two weeks after the first. (14th July)

I had a couple of days left in the region before my bus was booked to Manali (the main road route out of Ladakh). There are some beautiful lakes in the region, and so I went overnight to visit Pangong Lake, which is on the border with China. I stayed in a semi homestay-style, with the most interesting part being the tent that the owners used. I think many of the people of that region lead semi-nomadic lives, and have the most incredible ability to made a circular almost teepee style tent seem homely.

Leaving Ladakh I had the most stunningly beautiful and terrifyingly horrible bus trip of my life. Between three landslides and a crazy driver careening around mountainside corners in the dark, I have never been more grateful to get off a form of transport in my life. However being in the desolate landscape of 3500m, it was the most beautiful thing to slowly find ourselves back in grass, trees and waterfalls and forest. After 22 hours we finally arrived in Manali, which my transit point and few days to recoup before moving on to Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh.
I had a couple of days In Chandigarh, finding it both a beautiful and bizarre place. One of the most bizarre Indian experiences I have had was going through the confused and overly bureaucratic process of getting into the secretariat, only for the rooftop army men to offer me their machine guns to pose for photos. The city itself was interesting to explore although I haven’t quite been able to form an opinion. I never felt entirely at ease wandering around Indian cities (Ladakh was an exception) and this was the same in Chandigarh. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think about why – maybe the lack of women walking around, the strong class distinctions, the rubbish, the way you feel very much like an outsider. I was sure it has something to do with the built environment too, but how I don’t know.

From Chandigarh I went through Delhi to Neemrana which is a small village with a beautiful fort-palace you can stay at. This was my end to India and it was simply amazing. The Palace was beautiful, a bit labyrinthine such that I never understood how the building worked as a whole.  The highlight of Neemrana was the jeweler down the road – he hijacked us on our way in and took us around the town, and to the stepwell on the outskirts of town. I hadn’t heard of India’s stepwells before researching India for my travels. They are numerous in Rajasthan and the one in Neemrana is like an inverted arcaded building that descends in nine narrowing levels into the ground until one reaches the well at the bottom. The top level is one room deep, and was used by traders for accommodation as they travelled through the area.

Now it just sits unassumingly in ruins, in a beautiful contrast to the immaculately restored forts and palaces I more often came across.

The jeweler then said we could come to his place for dinner, and I finally found myself in an Indian house (that wasn’t a friend’s apartment). His house followed the principles that Maldev had told me – very little heavy furniture, and no such thing as a bedroom. There was a bed, which differing members of the family would sleep on at any given night, otherwise there were two couches. The house had 6 rooms set around a central “lounge room” – a kitchen, bathroom, and the room with the bed. The remaining three rooms of the house were used as shop fronts and a prayer room. Privacy just wasn’t a concept, or the idea that any member of the family needed their own individual space.  Dinner was lovely as well, and we got to sit and look through all their wedding photos, complete with horses and headdress.

From Neemrana I travelled back to Delhi, and flew into London. I’ve been a little bit quiet here and am having a much needed rest and reflect. I did go to Oxford where I met a very kind man called Mike, who works for Kevin McCloud’s Hab Oakus. I was doing a little research a while ago when I came across their work, which is along the lines of what I would love to find myself doing. Mike took an hour to sit with me on the way to a meeting, chatting to me about who Hab Oakus is, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. They’ve just finished the first project in the last few days, meaning its testing time for them, and a very interesting time for me to be able to learn about them!  (www.haboakus.co.uk)

To finish this email, I´m writing from Innsbruck and it’s about 2 weeks later from when I just wrote (28/07). I don´t have too much time with the computer, so I’ll be a little more brief!

After leaving London I flew from Manchester to Zurich, to begin the hunt for Peter Zumthor´s buildings. What I had planned to be a slow meander through Graubünden was very much hastened by the welcome appearance of a friend who also wanted to see these buildings, but on a much tighter timeframe. We travelled to mountainous Chur, where we visited all of his buildings in the region, including the Therme Vals which was incredible to see in real life and left me utterly in love (and very relaxed). I then travelled by myself to Dornbirn, to see the Zumtobel Lichforum, and was spoilt by being put up in a luxurious hotel for the night. I was given an AMAZING tour of the light forum (I had absolutely no idea how technical and advanced lighting is, nor how much they can mess with it and perception!) after which my guide helped me with some buildings to see in the area and gave me a gift of a book on the Kunsthaus Bregenz, and also the architecture in the area.

I went on to Lindau for a couple of days which is on Lake Constance and about 8km into Germany. It´s right near Bregenz where I wanted to visit Zumthor`s Kunsthaus Bregenz. This was a building I spent a lot of time looking at last year and was absolutely fascinated to see in real life. It’s undeniably beautiful, and was a great way to finish off my time looking at Zumthor’s work. I have absolutely no idea how to piece together my thoughts on his work – the buildings are simply amazing in their materiality, but very austere in terms of their relation to public space and there was something I found a little disconcerting about being near some of them. I’m going to think about this a little more and try and piece together my thoughts before I say any more.

I have finally decided what to do with my extra time I allowed in Europe! Tomorrow I get a train down to Venice, after which I plan to spend three weeks in Italy, followed by two in Spain before I fly back home on the 8th of September!

Sacha writes from LA…

June 22, 2011  |  Comments Off on Sacha writes from LA…  |  by ross  |  News

This week was a busy and crazy week in Santa Monica and Los Angeles. Very unfortunately highway 1 (the beautiful scenic route along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles) is partly closed due to a landslide where part of the highway is now in the Pacific Ocean! So we took two days to travel along highway 101 (a more generic highway – but also offered some wonderful views of the farming planes and mountain ranges). We stayed the night at a small coastal town called San Simeon, and also visited Hearst Castle (thanks to Andrew for the great advice to check it out – and next time you are here you should also make the effort, it is quite spectacular!) Even the setting of the Castle is beautiful, atop a huge mountain looking back over San Simeon and out to the ocean.
From Santa Monica, we got our first experience of a Gehry building – the Gehry Residence. I was quite delighted to experience it in reality and very happy that this was my first impression of Gehry – his simple, experimental beginnings before the dazzling (literally) Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was beautiful to see and sketch in real life – and looked so much more lovely and refined than the images you see of a crazy house, designed by a delusional man with material like corrugated iron and chain mesh. The setting was also perfect – in a middle class, quite neighbourhood, with beautiful manicured lawns, large shady street trees and a cool ocean breeze. A lovely gentleman out walking his dog asked us if we would like our picture taken. He then informed us that Gehry had bought the block next door, where we had noticed a large, layered timber fence. He said that Gehry had plans for landscaping and a garden in that block.
We did so much more in Santa Monica that I would love to tell you about, but im afraid this email could easily turn into the thesis! We saw Gehry’s Chiat Day Building, Edgemar Place and the Venice Beach house. Also unfortunately Santa Monica Place designed by Gehry has been demolished and a new shopping centre built. We still checked it out and it was a beautiful indoor/outdoor shopping plaza, which they have so many of in America (from what we have seen so far anyway). Its a great way to shop, weaving in and out of shops, under awnings and between trees, rather than being inside a big Westfield or Stockland shopping centre box!
Anyway – some more good news and a little bad news. The bad news is that i was unsuccessful in gaining access to Gehrys office. They now have very strict policy in place where only clients and contractors are allowed entry into the building. Obviously they are a busy firm and can not make exceptions for one student from Australia – otherwise they would have to let everyone in. Gehry is very big here – just like one of the stars. There are several architects and architecture schools influenced in one way or another by his work. I had trouble even gaining access through the contact I had made with Edwin Chan and Larry Tighe, both partners at the office.
On the brightside, I was very fortunate to make contact with an architect from a suburb called Thousand Oaks, outside of LA. Francisco Behr was extremely kind and very generous with his time, knowledge of the city and fuel in his car! Francisco is a director at BehrBrowers Architecture (http://www.behrbrowers.com) and we were very lucky to have him pick us up from our hotel in Santa Monica and show us something special in Culver City. He took us to a site where a developer had given Eric Owen Moss free reign to experiment with his design theory, materials and ideas in one place. There are about half a dozen projects designed by Moss in the one location. Mostly offices but they can range to something as static as a stair that one can climb up….then back down. He is heavily into the deconstructivist theory, similar to Gehry – but on the one hand Gehrys architecture is VERY intuitive and comes from the heart, where as Moss’s theory is applied and calculated and comes from the brain. Both very intriguing and fanciful architecture! and its all so exciting!!
Then Francisco took us for a drive and tour around downtown LA, than dropped us at the Getty Centre. Also another fantastic site which I could talk about for hours!! The next day Francisco again picked us up and took us out to Anaheim (the location of Disneyland). Here there are two works by Gehry, the Mighty Ducks Practice Ice Rink and the Disneyland Administration building. After that Francisco also took us to a few other special sites – the most special being SCI-Arch, on of the many Los Angeles Schools of Architecture. It was amazing to see this, and so special to gain access through Francisco. The school is located in an old and very long warehouse building and Thom Mayne is an associate professor there. There school is also very deconstructivist and influenced by Gehry, Moss and Mayne. The school was fantastic – they had awesome large scale models built from timber, styrofoam and perspex. They are really encouraged with hands on model making and actually building small scale projects throughout the city. They have very impressive workshop facilities also from a cnc router, laser cutter and a crazy robot computer cutting multi-arm router device!
Anyway, please see my facebook page for some images, ive only uploaded a very select sample as I have about 12 gig worth of photos already! As I mentioned – I could go on for days and i would be here all night!
Love from Los Angeles,

Rebecca Evans reports from Suzhou and Xian

April 17, 2011  |  Comments Off on Rebecca Evans reports from Suzhou and Xian  |  by ross  |  Scholars

Here’s a little more of what’s been going on in China.

Since I last wrote I have had a very busy month. I wish I could draw you a map but I haven’t yet got scanning sorted and things tend to take a very very very long time over here. I’m writing from Xian, which is about a 2 1/2 hour plane flight west, and a little North of Shanghai. Its where the terracotta warriors are.

As you may know, I left Japan early March to begin part two of my adventure – China!

I flew to Hong Kong where I had one night on my own, which was a little shock to the system. I had a perception of Hong Kong as a very Western city – which I believe it is – but just not where I was staying.  I had expected the order of Japan, and not the (utterly fascinating) crazy clutter of Fortress Hill.
I had a night here, and then moved into my hotel where I was to begin my tour. Somewhere in December I realised that rocking up in China by myself was a little beyond anything I though I could deal with, so I decided to do an Intrepid tour to give me more of a gentle introduction.
With the tour I went to Yangshuo, Yicheng, up the Yangtze River through Chonqing to Chengdu and spend two days in Hangzhou before arriving in Shanghai. I had a few days in Shanghai by myself before I went to Suzhou, where I spent about a week.


Drawing is essentially impossible. The moment I sit down to draw something ends up happening. Just up the alley from my hostel in Suzhou I came across three men in a corner where the alley widened. Like many people in these back streets in China, the man was operating a small business. He had a small machine in front of him, and an assortment of parts spread out on a sheet beside him. He was a fixit man of some sort, what exactly I wasn’t quite sure. He was sitting on a stool, chatting with two other men, the walls behind his were the beautiful whitewashed walls common throughout this patch of town, and I was hoping to draw them.

I was particularly conspicuous, as I had only alley between us and hoped to sit on the garden bed of a house opposite. I tried to mime and draw that I wanted to sit and draw. This failed rather disastrously, so I ran back to the hostel for a little translation help.

One of the girls wrote down the following for me in Chinese.


I am an architecture student from Australian. I am in China to learn about Chinese buildings and pratice my drawing. Is it ok for me to draw you?”

Now I’m not sure how that translated in Chinese, but I went back to the men, fairly confident that this was all going to go to plan.

Instead one of the men grabbed me, and motioned for me to follow him up the street a little. We walked into a doorway, through a little courtyard, up a tunnel, and into a larger courtyard. The house we were in must have been once the domain of a wealthy family, now used by many poorer families each in a different corner. He motioned for me to turn around the way we had come, and I found I was facing one of the most beautifully intricate gates I had seen, and entirely not what I was expecting. I had no time to draw, but he motioned that I could take a picture.

We left quick quickly, and he took me further up the street and into a second dark and non-descript doorway. I had been wondering for a while what happened up these doorways and perhaps from the delicate roof tiles on the street front, I should have realised there was something special. The laneways are lined by whitewashed buildings with dark tile roofs. The buildings are one or two stories at the street, but the streets widen and narrow, opening up into small squares where there are food stalls, people sitting, cleaning and people fixing all manner of things (where I found these men). Most of the doorways on the street open into a kitchen or a lounge room from which people spill out and give me a little glimmer of life behind, but I have never know at all how any of it works. I think some are single family homes, and others are like the one that I was taken into.

It was obviously once a very grand courtyard complex. Despite the washing hanging, wiring and just stuff, the interior courtyard windows were made from stunningly intricate timberwork. The plan worked in that we would walk between two dwellings/side rooms, and into a large open courtyard, entering through one of the stone gates. I think there were three courtyards in total. I couldn’t figure out where or how everyone lived, but there were rooms built into the courtyard, and from the windows into the courtyard were hanging all manor of things. I’m guessing the complex was shared by a number of different families, or perhaps an extended family? With each living in a corner or makeshift room within the courtyard. I was completely taken aback by the beauty of the buildings, the timberwork and the gates, as well as the way that it was occupied. I had no way of understanding what on earth was going on, and desperately wish that there was some way of asking the most simple questions.

The man gave me about 5 minutes to stare in wonderment at this building, not at all comprehending just how on earth I had managed to be allowed in, before he ushered me out, said dzaijen! And made his way back up the street. Leaving me without a drawing, but completely and utterly dumbstruck and more excited about what I’d seen than anything I ever could have drawn.


Xian made its way onto the Itinerary as I have a very old friend who is studying here and it seemed like an excellent opportunity to explore (what I’m calling) a big dirty city. As we only fleetingly went through Yichang, Chonqing and Chengdu I never had the chance to learn about what makes them up.

From what I’ve seen of Xian it covers everything, from the very wealthy to the very poor. My taxi from the airport was a 50km drive through a barren, grey, flat landscape. This is often punctuated by the ridiculously tall skeletons of new apartment blocks that are being built EVERYWHERE. But seem to be in the middle of no where. China really is one big construction site.

Xian is an ancient capital and the city centre is bounded by a city wall. Within the wall the buildings tend to be a lower height and are this vibrant mix between super modern and slick gucci stores, to streets lined by hole-in-the-wall shops and street vendors.

I stayed at the university for a while, which has a street coming up to it where there are street vendors, mobile phone shops, western cafes, fruit markets. Bikes everywhere. People everywhere. And dirt everywhere. There’s a lot of pollution, so we never get to see the sun, and there’s so much dirt and dust that everything’s covered in a layer of grime. But it just works. And no matter where you go, there’s people all over the street – either selling things from shop fronts, or bicycles, or carts. Or a sheet on the ground. And then there’s people buying and eating and walking and sitting. Su Da Lu (the uni street) is a little most western feeling in that there’s less people sitting on those tiny little stools in front of their shops and houses, and the shops are more internally contained rather than spilling onto the street. Still, the first person you see upon leaving the university gate is Chinese man asleep on the back of his three wheeled cart/pushbike.

From the university you can walk up the road, across a main road, follow that for a few hundred metres and turn up an alley. (its actually more of 20m wide brick/ very dirty road, that narrows as it leaves the main road). From this alley come all sort of young-middle aged people, well dressed and off to work. The alley itself is lined with food outlets selling noodles and steam buns, some have little tables and stools to sit at, others give you your food in a small plastic bag. The buildings are all apartments of some type (old ones) and a few stories tall, varying between 3-5, in a big, growing, jumbled mess. Everything is covered in dirt. As you walk further up, it suddenly opens up into a type of square. There’s tables, and chairs, and maybe 5 vendors selling breads, and buns and other breakfast foods. There’s a roof, made from bits and pieces of everything, somehow supported up in the sky.

This is how I am coming to understand China. Lots of dirt, but brilliant texture and things squeezed in everywhere. And everything happens on the street. Even in the higher density areas (Barring the massive new developments of apartments that I haven’t really looked at) almost everything on ground level is a shop front. And the shop fronts spill onto the road so that the people in them become part of the street. And with the people walking and sitting and drinking tea, there’s just people and stuff everywhere.

I’m in Xian for a couple more days, and then I head to Pingyao, and Beijing. I had hoped to leave earlier, but getting a sleeper train ticket turned out to be somewhat of a debacle and for a 10hr overnight trip I thought I might prefer a sleeper rather than a hard seat. Further, whilst I have only had great experiences of Chinese people, I was a little worried about the safety of my bags in the hard seat class and I would quite desperately like to arrive in Pingyao with all my belongings.

At the moment I’m staying about 1km from the centre of Xian, in hostel that was voted one of the 10 most beautiful in the world. All the rooms open into courtyards, it’s absolutely stunning and must have once been quite a decadent building. And it costs me $7 a night for a bed.  

Heading east towards the city wall, it becomes progressively poorer and the buildings more ramshackle. I find these areas more interesting so thought I might bike up this afternoon to do some drawing.

I haven’t been on my own in a while, and I’d forgotten how differently people react. Being western you’re fairly conspicuous, which is made all the worse when with friends, and people seem fairly defensive. On my own I move a lot slower, and make sure to say “Ni Hao’ to anyone that stares at me, which very rarely fails to pull a grin, or at least a bemused smile on the most suspicious and defensive of faces.

I never would have though it, but drawing is perhaps the only way to people watch, and actually engage with what’s going on. But in a way that people seem to appreciate rather than resent. I carry a plastic bag with me so that I can sit in the gutter and start drawing what’s across the road.

I think it took all of 2 minutes before someone was behind me having a look and after that it was a continuous stream of onlookers many who try and talk to be in completely incomprehensible mandarin. (I WISH I could speak the language). Now that I have the translation of what I’m doing written down I show that to people which tends to get some sort of approval and everyone looks around at each other saying “Au da li ya” whilst nodding. When one person comes up, it tends to mean more do and there was a couple of times today where I drew quite a crowd.

Across the road from me was an elderly couple sitting against the building perimeter wall, under an umbrella sorting their fresh produce for sale, behind them was a complex of 5 story buildings, with bits and pieces jutting out everywhere. The buildings were offset to create a triangular courtyard in the front, which was fronted by a row of 3 shops. This being a pattern that was repeated all up the street.

Next to the elderly couple but across the entrance to the apartments were the shops – the nearest a butchers, with a man on the street hacking into animal carcasses with an axe. It’s Saturday, so there were children everywhere, and like anywhere in China there were people sitting and chatting all over the street.

After sitting there about 20minutes I heard a noise, and suddenly realised there was a boy hiding behind the tree just to the left of me. Kids think I’m hilarious and they were playing games seeing who would get closer to me before running off. His sister joined in, and ended up getting pushed into me a number of times before darting back across the road. Mum came over to have a chat and after reading my little blurb wandered back to outside the butchers shop. The kids were getting pretty brave now, so I gave them some pencils and paper and after drawing them a few things (butterflies, dogs, flowers) they sat there and begin drawing. This got mum back, and then pretty much everyone walking down the street huddled around us in a circle, watching me and these kids. All murmuring to each other in Chinese, although again all I could pick up was the Au da li ya. It completely made my day.

The streets where I was are incredible. I think it’s a very poor part of town from the jumbled mess of apartments and the dirt and dust that’s everywhere. I’m guessing the houses are very small. But the streets are wide, the footpaths huge, and so the footpaths just become this huge communal lounge room where people conduct their workings and family lives. There’s kids in the street and people sitting on their tiny stools all over the place. Its brilliant as it means that although I can’t go into people’s homes, there’s this whole aspect of their lives I become privy to. And the drawings (although I don’t ever actually get to do them) give me an excuse to plonk myself down on a random street and start watching/engaging with what’s going on, and no one ever seems to mind!

I’m currently in Pingyao which is a city described as the best preserved Ming dynasty city in China. I’m trying to work up the courage to visit Qikou, which is an English free cave based village a 4 hour bus ride away and a very long way from my comfort zone. Then on Friday I get an overnight train to Beijing for a week after which my China journey ends. As you may have gathered, I am having the most amazing time, so thankyou very much.

Rebecca Evans reports from Suzhou, China

March 26, 2011  |  Comments Off on Rebecca Evans reports from Suzhou, China  |  by ross  |  Scholars

Subject: A day in Suzhou

Hi all,

I’ve been a little out of touch, but have had the most amazing day and feel like I need to share it with someone.

I’ve started running in the mornings (I’ve been enjoying the food a bit too much, and can’t quite afford new clothes…!) so jumped up this morning and ran up a little alley, down beside the river for a while and back up the city streets. I’m staying in Suzhou, which is a very old city between Shanghai and Nanjing. It’s an old water town, so the city centre is bounded on 4 sides by rivers, and has canals running all through it. It’s an incredible city, an absolute tapestry of restored old buildings, decrepit run-down alleys, the most beautiful tree lined canals, utter chaos and dirt and grime, modern buildings, ugly apartments and glammer.

But to my day, I came back to my hostel for breakfast, which has this fairly large courtyard in the middle, where I sat and ate my porridge – it’s only just coming out of winter here and so I haven’t really seen the sun for 6 weeks, except for the last two days, which have just been heaven.

Coming to Suzhou I met a lovely girl at the train station. I had to get a bus, but i didn’t know which one, and there were buses EVERYWHERE, but no maps, English, or information centre. Ester walked me all over the place to find my mystery bus. It turns out today was her 21st birthday – she studies in Shanghai, and came to Suzhou by herself as a statement of independence and adulthood. But she was all alone, so after breakfast I called her, and we went out for coffee and cake to celebrate! and then went our separate ways, but with a promise to meet in Shanghai before I fly to Xian on Wednesday.

But my bike got a flat tire. And I was on my own, probably four km away from my hostel. I found a bike shop, but they wanted to charge me 28 yuan to fix it ($4, but more than the cost of dinner with beer!!!!). An older man in a uniform send me up to a laneway, and I found another man on the side of the road, complete with an assortment of tools/hardware. And he fixed it for 3 yuan, or about 50cents!! Which isn’t much of a story, except the entire event happened in Mandarin, in the midst of utter chaos, and I was a little excited to figure out how to get my bike fixed on my own.

I spent the better part of a few hours riding around the city. It’s a city of 5 million, including the outlying areas and is full of so many contrasts I can’t begin to get my head around it. There’s streets lined by hardware shops – for kilometres – swarming in an obscene number of people, bicycles, cars, and buses. Then right behind these there’s tiny little alleyways, with pockets of sunshine always lined by elderly people and their young grandchildren. And then bounding the city centre is your standard modern concrete Chinese city.

Although up in the north-eastern corner there’s a meticulously restored street of old buildings, but it’s full of so many tourists (Chinese) and shops my patience lasted all of about 5 minutes. My favourite places are the market streets, and small alleyways. They’re utter chaos, but because of the river and canal system, I can never get to lost. And there aren’t so many western tourists in Suzhou, so many people walk past and say “Hallo!!” which is quite lovely. And brings me to my final story, and absolute favourite place.

There’s a canal in the west of the city where the buildings have also been restored, and is the art centre of Suzhou. For some reason it is not as popular with tourists (relatively speaking…..). I also sat here yesterday to draw, just on the wall that is the side of the canal – and the moment I sit to draw I become THE tourist attraction. Everyone takes photos, stops to talk, watch, encourage, and pop in their two cents. It’s normally in Mandarin, but we all smile and chat through some sort of body language.

One of the guys from my hostel walked past, we had a broken conversation, he left, and very soon came back and presented me with a rice pudding. I then became the focus of a photographer (I think I should be getting the photos!) and an older man from across the canal. In broken English, he convinced me to come across for tea, and I VERY warily wandered across the bridge and into a tea house. It crossed my mind he could be dangerous, a disastrous rip-off con man, or a very kind man wanting to share a little of China with me. In the end I figured there was always a canal to jump into – which would make a fairly decent scene and someone would have to come to my rescue.

Instead I sat and was given tea and sweets on the side of the canal, while we watched people walking up the other side. One of the men was in the Peking Opera in his youth, was eventually convinced to sing, and together they sang Chinese songs for me. As I left, they gave me a photo of the teahouse in the winter with the snow, and said I should come back tomorrow. And no, they didn’t charge me.

This doesn’t quite cover the day (we still have the girl throwing herself into the canal, and chucking a tantrum. Me finally getting my head around numbers, how to buy fruit, and riding a bike on Chinese roads. Dinner! with a Dutch girl, and a 13 yr old translator sent in after a call from mum. And then all the different streets, which I couldn’t describe if I wrote for two hours.) Along with new emails from people from the Australian China Youth Association – young people in Xian and Beijing with an interest in Australia/China relationships – saying they will meet me in both places and show me some architectural gems!

And finally a call from my Australian friend in Xian, saying her university holidays are when I planned on visiting her. They’re thinking about going travelling somewhere – maybe Inner Mongolia, maybe near the Tibetan border, they don’t really know. But does that sound ok to me? They’ll do all the planning and they’re all on budgets so it will be cheap. So I also have a mystery Chinese holiday being planned for me!

So this was most of my day. Absolutely brilliant and amazing don’t even begin to cover it. And I have until Tuesday left in this city! (the plan is to stop and relax for a while – I’ve been doing a lot of moving about, and craving a little bit of stability). I’ll write up some more of the last month over the next week or so to let you know a bit more what I’ve been up to.

Thankyou all for making this happen.