Australia’s ‘Big Things’

Once again, Australia’s collection of ‘Big Things’ has attracted the attention of international journalists (Phil Mercer, Australia’s obsession with ‘big things’, BBC News, 20 June 2017).

If you want a more detailed take on this phenomenon, next week at the Society of Architectural Historians Australia & New Zealand annual conference (University of Canberra, 5-8 July), I’ll be presenting my paper, Australia’s BIG Dilemma: Regional/National Identities, Heritage Listing and Big Things.


For the record, I had put this paper together last year and it was under review in the early months of this year, so rather than jumping on BBC’s bandwagon, I was ahead of the game 😉

It will eventually be published as a double-blind peer-reviewed paper in conference proceedings, but in the mean-time, here’s a taste:

Super-sized structures that mimic or quote smaller ‘real world’ things have been a feature of our landscape for many centuries. Largely as a result of the introduction of the motorcar, a new phase of structures with amplified proportions swept North America from the 1920s: roadside cafes, service stations and hotels utilised what David Gebhard labelled ‘programatic architecture’ to capture the attention of passing motorists. This trend first appeared in Australia in the 1960s and peaked in popularity in the 1980s. Numerous ‘Big Things’ (to use the common Australian label) have been constructed in the past decade, such as the Big Golden Gumboot in Tully, QLD (2003), and thus the trend continues. Recent years have also seen the emergence of a ‘Big’ dilemma for local and State authorities, as Australia’s earliest Big Things start to decay, go bankrupt, or attract criticism for the outdated versions of Australian history and identity that they seemingly promote (as with the Big Prawn in Ballina [NSW}, the Big Lobster in Kingston [SA] and the Big Captain Cook in Cairns [QLD]). These roadside attractions have become significant landmarks with many layers of social, aesthetic and cultural importance at local and national levels, and their heritage value has begun to be acknowledged. In 2009 the Big Pineapple (Nambour, QLD) was inscribed on the Queensland Heritage Register, and as other landmarks have come under threat of closure or demolition, debate about the future of these structures has quickly followed. This paper will historicise Australia’s Big Things and consider the emerging heritage dilemma, and in doing so will reflect on the changing socio-political landscape that these architectural features occupy.