A sense of place

Property developer, urbanist and shopkeeper Linda Gregoriou cannot understand why you’d go for a Hamptons look if you don’t live in the Hamptons. Or why you’d have a formal parterre garden out the front of a simple worker’s cottage. She is obsessed with sense of place: with identifying and then respecting the unique set of qualities and characteristics that make a place what it is. It’s as if knowing where you are helps you know who you are.

‘What does it mean to be Australian? It’s a question I ask myself all the time,” said Gregoriou. And you can’t find the answer in chain stores that could be anywhere in the world.

Growing up in the beachside Melbourne suburb of Brighton with a Greek–Cypriot father and an Anglo mother descended from the well-known Western Australian Sharpe pastoral family, Linda has always known that being Australian could be many things.

Even though her mother’s family had been in Australia since 1840, she looked like a Cypriot and was ostracised by her Anglo peers, but also she didn’t identify with a lot of the migrant families around her because her father had moved to Australia to attend Melbourne University.

This sense of being an outsider has helped her to take note of the many facets of what it means to be Australian; to look for the set of circumstances that defines a place; to be open to the juxtapositions. 

She collected Aboriginal art seriously for 30 years, with annual lengthy stays at various art centres across Western Australia and the Northern Territory. This curiosity also influenced projects as diverse as working on the design masterplan for the Sydney Olympics (a job she took on as a 29-year-old); or creating the post-mining placemaking (an urbanist term to describe the reinvention of community spaces) strategy for Jabiru, the World Heritage listed town in Kakadu National Park, which will soon be handed back to its traditional owners. 

She’s taught urban design at university; she’s been an investment banker, a retailer (her now-closed Sydney store, Pure and General, was named ‘best store’ in Louis Vuitton’s Sydney City Guide) and the CEO of Retail for the National Trust of Australia, among many other executive and board roles.

Raw hardwood lines the walls in Linda Gregoriou's kitchen in her 1860s Georgian cottage in Windsor, a historic town 60 kilometres north-west of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River.

Today Linda, 55, is sitting on the grapevine-clad verandah of her 1860s Georgian cottage in Windsor, a historic town 60 kilometres north-west of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River surrounded by rich soil, farmland, bush and Sydney’s urban fringes. She has lovingly revitalised the two-bedroom cottage over the past three years, painting the tongue-and-groove walls, installing a bathroom, filling the walls with art and objects collected over many years from all over the world, but mainly Australia. She liberated the split-slab barn in the back garden from a huge Banksia rose that had almost entirely hidden the two-storey building. This is her weekender, her ‘room of one’s own’, her place to garden.

She’s feeling a bit fed up with the city, where sense of place feels somewhat dimmed. The big developments feel soulless to Linda and she says the real estate prices are ‘idiotic’.

‘From an urbanist perspective I’m finding Australian cities are becoming more homogenised. When I moved from Melbourne to Sydney 25 years ago, it was a delightful place with a lot of unique pockets and there was a very strong community feel in those different places. Now there is so much development, it’s like one big construction site. 

‘Often you have real estate agents dictating to developers the form and typology of the buildings. If it’s retail, often what you’re left with are really big, almost barn-like shops. That’s not what’s appealing about an area. You want little shops with distinct personalities. If I see that a popular chain store is going into a high street, I know that’s the death of that particular place.

‘The faster Australians realise that what people find appealing about this country is uniqueness and not homogeneity, they will do better with their tourism, they will do better with their retail, they will do better with their housing. You have to respect the sense of place. See it for what it is and look after it.’

Instead, Linda has her eye on regional Australia.  

‘I work with investment bankers and fund managers and I head up property and infrastructure for a boutique investment firm. We only invest in projects and businesses that have a cultural or social benefit, design excellence and a sustainable element. And predominantly we’re finding that in regional Australia. A lot of projects we’re looking at are regional.’

Linda cites the convergence of unaffordable city real estate prices, the homogenisation of city retail and the cultural blossoming of regional centres as the reason the regions are so appealing.

‘Regional Australia is being reinvented. We are one of the most highly urbanised nations in the world. Something like 85 per cent of the population is urbanised and much of that clings to the eastern seaboard. In the past 10 years, people—especially those in the 20- to 35-year-old demographic—have been moving back to regional areas and moving between regional places as well.

‘There’s been more out-migration from Melbourne and Sydney than there has been in-migration. And they are going to places like Newcastle, the Gold Coast, Geelong, Bendigo, Bathurst and Ballarat. This is the first time this has happened since these post-colonial cities were established.’

Linda says the cultural scene in these regional areas is exciting, so much so that ‘you almost question why you would even need to go into the city: for an airport, maybe?

‘Now we have an amazing opportunity for a lot of regional and rural places to get their retail going again. It’s actually a great time to start up a business. It sounds counterintuitive, given the economic climate, but I think it’s perfect. There are so many people who are making beautiful things and being very creative out in regional Australia: I say to them, go and open up a shop. Become a destination. Don’t try to be like anything else that’s out there. You have to have a point of difference.’

Back in Linda’s Colonial–Georgian cottage in Windsor, her obsession with sense of place is evident. The cottage is understated. The kitchen is dark with raw hardwood walls and a brick floor and simple pendant lights reused from the barn out the back.  Upstairs, nestled under the cottage roof, is a light-filled living room, painted white with splashes of pink in the soft furnishings. The house is filled with objects Linda has found, inherited, collected and commissioned over years.

‘It’s really important for me that it’s not pretentious. That it’s not styled, that it doesn’t look like the Hamptons or a little English Cotswold cottage. It’s actually Australian, and it’s filled with stuff from all over Australia. Every single thing here has a story.’

On the walls are Aboriginal weavings from Maningrida, Northern Territory, and works by Indigenous artists Barney Ellaga and Lorraine Connelly-Northey. There is modern Australian art by Dee Smart and Victoria Alexander (you can see her work on the opening page of this story), and an Ian Marr painting above the kitchen fireplace that was a gift from artist Luke Sciberras in exchange for a palm tree from Linda’s back garden.

She’s planted five shades of nasturtiums, foxgloves, hollyhocks and cineraria in the beds flanking the brick paths out the back, and nasturtiums and fragrant jasmine climb up the picket fence at the front.

‘Gardening is for me a meditative space and it’s about creating something that’s beautiful. You know, people go off and do meditation and yoga or whatever. This is actually about nurturing something. ’

And with that she goes to make a pot of tea in the dark kitchen, in the heart of this wonderful place that reflects Linda Gregoriou and her multifaceted Australian life. ■  @pureandgeneral

This story was first published in Galah issue 0X. To experience the stories in all their print glory, become a print subscriber here.

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