Like many Aussie kids growing up in suburbia, Kim Walvisch wanted to escape as soon as she could. She didn’t care for the wide lawns, quarter-acre blocks and neat hedges of the suburban sprawl – she wanted the thrill of city life and the pubs, concrete and “real life” that came with it.
But like a lot of Aussie adults before her, as she got older she found herself creeping back towards the ’burbs until she was living only a couple of streets from her childhood home. And after hours spent walking her crying baby along idyllic suburban streets, she realised suburbia is pretty cool.
“When I was a teenager I thought the ’burbs were soulless and boring, but now I think the total opposite,” says Walvisch. “Our suburbs are full of beauty and weirdness and personality. I look for unique details in old houses – ornate chimneys, interesting stair rails, unusual letterboxes and fancy brickwork. I’m particularly fond of eccentric gardens. There’s so much to see if you open your eyes to the small things.”
As she started noticing these hidden oddities, she also saw that many of them were being lost, demolished in favour of apartment buildings and bland townhouses. So, she started photographing those distinctive design features that make Aussie suburbia so unique, racing to keep pace with gentrification.
“The whole idea of a single house on a big block is becoming extinct, and the newer buildings seem to lack the architectural details of older housing. I think it’s a terrible shame that so many gorgeous buildings aren’t being protected or saved. I believe we’ll be very regretful as a nation when our suburbs no longer have any character or style,” she says.
She created an Instagram account, @sublurb, where she uploaded the images of milk bars, koala-shaped hedges and Hills hoists she found on her travels. Those photos have now made their way into a book, The ’Burbs: A Visual Journey Through the Australian Suburbs.
“I’m desperately trying to create an archive of how our suburbs looked prior to all this development,” she says. “That being said, our suburbs still hold countless gems and even after walking certain streets many times over I can still stumble upon something ornate or unusual to photograph. I hope my photos will remind people how things looked when they were kids. They’re intentionally nostalgic.”
She’s travelled Australia, snapping pictures of things that were once exciting to the new middle class, but now just reminds former suburbia-dwellers of childhood boredom: old-school Holden Commodores parked in driveways, Telstra phone booths and green garden hoses snaking around front yards. Two of her favourite suburbs in the country to shoot in are classically suburban, and have so far managed to escape too much gentrification.
“[Sydney’s] Marrickville is probably an obvious choice,” she says. “It has leftovers from when it was mostly an immigrant suburb, plus I’m a fan of industrial areas, so there’s that too. [And] I love [Melbourne’s] Coburg; it’s still largely untouched by development. There are plenty of old-school houses and gardens. It’s multicultural. There is plenty of kitsch and endearing stuff to be found. It’s just a very down-to-earth suburb. [Melbourne’s] Sydney Road is also great for old shops and commercial buildings.”
Interestingly, her favourite snap – taken in Melbourne’s Hawthorn – is far from what you’d typically find in your average suburban front yard.
“It’s the shot of three really huge topiary heads. I first stumbled upon them years ago and couldn’t believe my eyes,” she says. “The heads are two storeys in height and so detailed. I think they’re supposed to resemble Easter Island statues. Apparently the guy who cuts them lives in the block of flats where they’re located. I love that this is just on a regular block and not some government-funded attraction. I think this shot captures the true weirdness and beauty of the ’burbs.”
The ’Burbs: A Visual Journey Through the Australian Suburbs by Kim Walvisch is published by Thames & Hudson and is $19.99. It’s available to buy here.