Ode to Colonnades

Noarlunga Centre – more commonly known as Colonnades – is a place that can only be etched in your memory if you’ve frequented it on a routine basis at some point in your life, or alternatively if something really horrible happened to you there. Thankfully, for me it’s a case of the former: I visited Noarlunga Centre a lot as a kid. If I hadn’t visited it before, it would just be another depressed suburban retail centre, dreamt up sometime in the mid-1970s and plonked in the middle of a paddock like a spacecraft touched by some of the more oppressive and crappy tendencies of late brutalist architecture. To further emphasise this observation, have a look at the aerial image of it a year after its first stage of construction in 1979.

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From the air it looks like some kind of consumerist utopian idyll. What you can’t see is the depressed socio-economic fog which would creep over the surrounding working class neighbourhoods through the 1980s and result in Noarlunga Centre becoming a punchline for issues relating to the welfare purgatory, hopelessness and occasional outbreaks of public violence. There was a time in the early 90s when you could seriously risk your neck by venturing through the underpass or bus exchange as the natural light gave way to a sparse network of dim electric light. There were a couple of occasions I walked through the railway terminal concourse after dark, past the unattended ticket booths and darkened stairways. At moments like this your heart rate escalates significantly, you quicken your pace and (if you’re a guy) your testicles feel like they’re attempting to retreat back into your body.

Colonnades: Builds Character & Survival Instincts.

One of the weirder developments that popped up near the complex was a Tiki hut-style waterslide complex called Splashdown. It was only a matter of time before stories of full-scale fistfights and razor blades jammed into the waterslide contributed to the business eventually going under. Oh well, the beach was just down the road.

So, Noarlunga Centre was a bit of a shithole in this respect and its reputation certainly preceded it. By the late 1980s local, state and federal government had a pretty good opportunity to properly address aspects of poverty, welfare subsistence and drug abuse in depressed communities, and the powers that be more or less reached the conclusion that it would just be too damn expensive, take a bit of constructive thought and – g-d forbid – require a good dose of empathy. What communities received instead (along with stigmatisation, community service and jail time) was the Orwellian gift of wall-to-wall CCTV. Granted CCTV is virtually everywhere today, but one of the unique things about Noarlunga Centre is that a casual walk will lead you through The Varied History Of CCTV – from c.1986 to the present. I really wish I’d taken some photos of this on my recent visit because it’s pretty interesting to play Guess The Year Of Installation: on the one hand, a vintage beige camera from the 80s creaks away with its grizzled eye adjacent to the hot young Millenial encased in a sleek black dome.

Along with the CCTV, a transfusion of capital found its way to Noarlunga Centre in the late 90s and the owners began to slather paint and panels over the original decaying concrete edifice. This trend appears to have continued up to the present day, but trace elements remain in plain sight – hence the collection of photos before you.

For me, Noarlunga Centre is a largely unwelcome place charged with fairly mundane memories – much like the phenomenom of ‘dead malls’ across the USA. Of course, Noarlunga Centre isn’t yet dead, but it shares similarities with the heyday of mall culture during the 1970s and 80s, and its ultimate decline due to online shopping. I doubt it’s a place that anyone (as an outsider) really wants to visit, but it’s interesting that such a place for me – in spite of its inherent crappiness – still possesses its own uniquely compelling allure.

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