So, a bit about InPlace: InPlace is a not-for-profit arts and cultural organisation I founded in 2019 with the purposes of fostering arts and culture, and caring for, preserving and protecting Australian heritage, through artist-in-residence programs. InPlace's major project over the past couple of years has been the establishment of the new Garambi Baanj Cultural Precinct, which InPlace operates in partnership with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation and Parks Victoria. This is a flexible residency program for artists of all disciplines, from musicians and painters to dancers and filmmakers. The program currently provides live-in residencies in the historic buildings we have restored, embedded within the Laughing Waters conservation zone.
How did you come to find River Bend and Birrarung House as residency spaces?
Having grown up in the area, I was always aware of the rich arts and cultural histories of the region, with notable Australian artists, architects and filmmakers having lived and worked in the area. I knew of the architectural, social and cultural significance of the Laughing Waters buildings and when I heard they had been abandoned for many years already, and were in a state of disrepair, I thought it was an incredible opportunity to establish a nationally significant cultural precinct, and save these important buildings. After a protracted planning process InPlace was successful in securing leases from the Victorian Government and we have now had the program in operation for over a year.
I believe River Bend was in quite a state of disrepair when you first took on this project. Can you talk us through the immense task of restoring it, and what was involved?
Yes, that's right, River Bend was in a terrible state as the building had been abandoned for many years and vandalised badly. There was considerable damage, everything from fallen trees shattering the Oregon fascia, a rusted through roof, asbestos and interior flooding due to no external drainage. The first thing to do was to replace the roof and begin proper drainage works. It was then a process of clarifying InPlace's intended use of this building within the precinct context and plan sensitive alterations to accommodate this. This included upgrading the very sad, tired kitchen, to better accommodate InPlace events, as well as opening it up to the rest of the house by removing walls, installing a new ensuite, alongside full re-plumbing, re-wiring and having proper insulation installed. We also commenced re-indigenising the landscape and have subsequently planted thousands of endemic plants and undertaken considerable weed removal.
How did the history of these spaces inform the restoration?
Honouring Knox's uncomplicated design of River Bend House and deploying a light touch was central to the restoration. Essentially, the building is a curved rectangle, situated beautifully cut into rock on the side of a hill looking down an escarpment toward a dramatic bend in the Birrarung. This means that from one corner of the house views are upstream, with the river glassy calm, and from the other you look directly downstream towards white water and rapids. It was the significance and history of this storied cultural landscape that I wanted to ensure was elevated in every decision I made in the restoration of the building itself – a key emphasis in the work of Knox anyway of course: harmonious living within the natural world. Views were preserved and enhanced wherever possible, so that wherever you are in the house you are connected to this 10,000+ year old river. Removing one wall for example created a line of sight straight through the house, ensuring one gets a sense of the sweeping expanse of the river's valley as soon as you enter the house.
Growing up in Warrandyte yourself, what impact has this area had on you personally?
One of the main privileges of growing up around here was living within the natural landscape, with access to significant surrounding bushland and the Birrarung. This engendered a profound respect for the natural world and a desire to contribute to its restoration, and in turn to provide greater access for more people to experience and inhabit places of significance, such as Garambi Baanj, in respectful ways. Through this work at Garambi Baanj I now also have a greater appreciation of the significant planning decisions of the past and how visionary they really were. Laughing Waters is protected today thanks to the acquisition of private properties along the Birrarung in the 1960 and '70s, including along Laughing Waters Road, to preserve invaluable riparian habitats. This was conducted by the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, however it was essentially an extension of former Victorian Premier Sir Rupert (Dick) Hamer AC’s vision for the establishment of ‘Green Wedges’ — the ‘Lungs of Melbourne’ — following both sides of Melbourne’s waterways and ultimately comprising six new parks spanning over 5000 hectares. I hope we start to see more of this sort of vision into the future!
What is your vision for the Garambi Baanj / Laughing Waters Cultural Precinct?
The vision for the precinct is that it grows into a nationally significant place, recognised for the rare confluence of cultural, architectural, social and environmental significance here. Places like this have been under sustained threat and we are fortunate that this place has been left relatively undisturbed, as its significance will only continue to grow. In the coming year InPlace will take on operation of every state-owned building in the whole of Laughing Waters, and I am incredibly excited by this expansion and what it means for the support we can offer artists and access to Garambi Baanj for Wurundjeri. InPlace will also be re-building another significant Alistair Knox building, the 'Boomerang' or 'Banana House' — the former home of Feminist photographer Sue Ford and acclaimed landscape designer Gordon Ford — establishing post production facilities for film, as well as sound recording studios.
What is your favourite area of River Bend House to spend time in?
I love sitting on the front terrace at River Bend House, looking down the escarpment to the river as it flows through the valley at Garambi Baanj, on its journey to the bay (Naarm). The river's valley is full of birds, especially at this time of year, and I love watching them from here. An Azure Kingfisher landed in a tree above me recently, and there are regularly Wedge Tailed Eagles flying low over the house. There's a chatter of choughs who roam the bush here, often making their way past the house, and there are frequently migratory birds and lots of waterbirds that fly up and down the river, using it as their flight path.
Describe the feeling of being at River Bend House and what it means to you.
I love spending time here because it feels like you could be hours from a city in the middle of the bush, and yet you're only half an hour from Melbourne's CBD. It feels like dropping into a parallel world here. Many artists have recently started describing Garambi Baanj as a healing place, and the sense of this is especially present at River Bend House. It's an incredibly significant place and I am so fortunate to have been able to save it, ensuring it is here for future generations, and importantly, able to support cultural and creative practices into the future.