Territories of Difference


Australia’s self-identity remains persistently centred on being White and Western, with, as Ghassan Hage has put it, a consequent governmental sense of belonging over its territory,[1] but this has always been a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the nation’s dominant culture rather than reality.

Arrival and Distribution

The influx of refugees from the Vietnamese/American War from the mid 1970s not only created new Australian communities of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao and other origins, but also led to a range of changes to the built environments of Australia’s suburbs. Retail precincts near their areas of residential settlement provide the most visible examples of these changes, but industrial areas have also been altered. The factories, processing plants, workshops and warehouses, constructed or adapted to house industries developed for and by these new communities have become numerous, important but under-recognised elements of the contemporary Australian landscape. The industrial areas of Melbourne’s suburb of Springvale, near the former location of Enterprise Migrant Hostel, provide examples of this landscape.

Auto repair workshop, Springvale, Victoria. Photo: David Beynon

Industrious Settlement

Through their entrepreneurial abilities, and the need for products and services that were previously unavailable or unknown in Australia, many new communities have succeeded in transforming local manufacturing, commercial and retail landscapes. Retail/commercial places denote particular social/cultural identities, and their spatial occupation is important. First, they demarcate territory within a broader Australian/Western conception of land ownership (notwithstanding the unceded indigenous territorial sovereignty of that same land). Second, commercial and industrial precincts are places of economic and cultural production, not just for specific communities, but for Australia overall.

Food products import/export business, Springvale, Victoria. Photo: David Beynon

Different Different but Same

The actual architecture of industrial areas isn’t particularly expressive or variable, no matter who is occupying it, but signs of who is inhabiting local spaces signifies bodily differences that do matter. Every culture has its own genealogies of practice – identified by particular products and practices that as types are not so dissimilar to those of others (shops, stalls, manufacturing enterprises, etc.) but are given their identity first by specific histories and memories and translations and second by their adaptation to found conditions. The businesses set up by new Australian communities of whatever origin might involve new industries, such as the manufacture or importation of specific food products but they also provide developments to existing ones, such as legal and accounting services or auto repairs and tyre fitters that communicate in particular languages.

Tyre fitting workshop, Springvale, Victoria. Photo: David Beynon

Messy suburbs

This arrival and adaptation to new territories (sometimes adapting buildings that are pre-existing, sometimes constructing anew in pre-existing spaces and zones) is important here as it geographically marks out identity. In this way territories of difference are created, particular locations that not only become identified as different from what surrounds them, but also are different from the places of emigration and previous settlement. This difference is not singular but multiple, diasporic, transnational, cosmopolitan. This difference is not designed for aesthetic pleasure. It is pragmatic, ordinary, even messy.

Community association, Springvale, Victoria. Photo: David Beynon

Affordance and Belonging

Mess is usually assumed to be negative but when Jeffrey Hou and Manish Chalana talk about messy urbanism they are being positive, seeing apparent mess as both a provocation of and resistance to the persistent, institutional, and cultural biases that continue to exist in societies.[2] As evidence of this, it is around the seemingly ordinary environments of warehouses and small factories that communal, cultural and religious places can often be found. It may be, of course that this locating is a function of the low esteem in which commercial/industrial landscapes are held by existing populations and consequently the lack of planning and heritage controls. However, the overall effect is that new industries generate the economic advancement of new communities, affording people the means and the space to  adapt or construct other buildings they need and investing new territories with a sense of belonging.

Daoist temple and cabinetmaking workshop, Springvale, Victoria. Photo: David Beynon


[1] Ghassan Hage (1998). White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a multicultural society. Annandale NSW, Pluto Press.

[2] Jeffrey Hou and Manish Chalana (2016) ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City’, in Chalana M. and Hou, J. [Eds.] Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia, Hong Kong, HKU Press.


This research is part of an Australian Research Council funded project ‘Architecture and Industry: The migrant contribution to nation-building’.

David Beynon

Author: David Beynon

DAVID BEYNON is an Associate Professor in Architecture at the University of Tasmania. His research involves investigating the social, cultural and compositional dimensions of architecture, and adaptations of architectural content and meaning in relation to urban renewal, migration and cultural change. His current work includes investigations into the multicultural manifestations of contemporary architecture, the historiographic implications of digitally reconstructing ancient temples, and the creative possibilities for architecture in connecting industrial and post-industrial built environments.

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