This year I travelled to Wimmera in Victoria for a family reunion. It’s wheat-belt country perched on tableland, with flat roads slicing through pale yellow wheat fields fringed by scraggy gums. My partner’s mum grew up on a homestead miles from the next farm, rode a horse to a school that’s no longer there, and the largest town in the area was Minyip.
Big farming businesses have replaced many of the local farms in the area and country towns like Minyip have become smaller ever since. There is still a football team at Minyip but the train no longer stops there, and many locals have moved to nearby Horsham for work or to retire. Minyip survives as a faded skeleton of a town that, before too long, could be a ghost town.
When I walked up the main street with my kids, I took notice of which buildings had survived – the historical society, the town hall (which is used occasionally), an IGA supermarket, a chemist, a hairdresser, a post office/newsagent and a pub. Half of the shops were abandoned, their rotten ceilings collapsed and old shelving units scattered across the floor. The shop fronts looked like temporary structures propped up for a film set.
I was reminded of the movie Blazing Saddles 1974, in which the citizens of the small town of Rock Ridge have only one night to save their town from a corrupt politician and his henchmen. The citizens do this by building an exact copy of their town in a nearby valley. They trick the posse of evildoers, who ride into the heart of the fake town before it explodes.
These images, one from real life and the other cinematic, were the starting points for ‘Ghost World’. I wanted to build a forgotten fantasy town for kids with a main street lined with shops, a bank and a museum. But unlike the familiar idea of a ghost town often played out in theme park ‘worlds’, the abandoned buildings in this town are more modern than older looking.
They relate to my ongoing interest in modern architecture as a high point of idealised design. As acts of architectural pilgrimage, I have travelled to Le Corbusier’s Housing Estate at Pessac, France (built in 1924); the Deutscher Werkbund exhibitions at Stuttgart, Germany; Arne Jacobsen’s seaside resort of Bellevue, Denmark (built during the 1930s); and the Case Study Houses spread out across Los Angeles.
The will to modernise that is changing Minyip is the same force that brought such modernist projects into existence and out again. When country towns are abandoned, they take on another quality. The patina of time gives them a sadness that I am drawn to. Much is written about their failures, which are easy to see, but I regard them differently. To me, they are fascinating experiments whose development still continues.
Callum Morton, 2010