Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Feeling fluffy about the future
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is a freelance architecture writer and a former manager, special projects, for the City of Sydney.
Our urban fantasies might be tempting but they remain as far-fetched as ever, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Just when you thought we were done with scientistic futures that blithely ignore human nature, up pops another. As though, despite the evidence, we still secretly hanker after psyches that evolve apace with machines.
Call them FLUFs (Far-fetched if Likable Urban Futures). A classic mid-century fallacy of this kind was the idea that pedestrians would suddenly transfer affections to the elevated concrete walkway. Only it quickly became obvious that regular on-foot humans would sooner jaywalk a 10-lane freeway than rise off the face of the planet.
The dominant contemporary FLUF, which has appeared regularly in print over the past 30 years, warmed the citizens of Adelaide at the weekend during the City as a Stage think-fest, a lead-up event to next year’s Adelaide Arts Festival. This FLUF is the idea that, because of the supposedly changing nature of work, by 2020 (it used to be 2000) nobody will actually go to work any more. We will all sit screen-side in a corner of the bedroom or local cafe, emailing, onlining, downloading and Internetting our collective way to a sense of social cohesion. Cities, if they exist at all, will be small, localised and principally about leisure: not cities at all, in other words, but villages.
Nice idea, perhaps. But as anyone who has actually tried it will confirm, working from the bedroom, the beach or the trans-Siberian railway can fall short of expectations. Humans are herd animals and there’s no substitute for proximity when it comes to eyeballing a client, pleading for a raise or clinching a deal.
So say we’re stuck with cities. What will they be like? Are we in for a Bladerunner future, where an increasingly glamorous aristo-class reclines atop a vast prole-tariat whose members slug it out in the dirty and disenfranchised bilge waters of life below decks? One of the many metaphors for cities proffered by the international experts gathered in Adelaide evoked just such a Titanic image, complete with distracted pilot and impending iceberg. Other metaphors included city-as-metabolism (ingestion, digestion, excretion), city-as-symphony (complex interwoven themes and voices), city-as-rainforest ecosystem (unstable congregation of interdependent specialisms) and city-as-party.
The city-as-party image was the subject, indeed, of the closing keynote speech by Professor Jan Gehl from Copenhagen. Gehl supported his analogy with a range of enchanting slides showing the ogling, flirting, chatting, dancing and downright seduction generated by well-designed street furniture in Portland, Copenhagen, Melbourne and other pedestrian-conscious cities.
The argument was essentially that it’s all about factors like a sense of welcome, providing enough seats, refreshment and entertainment, and getting the lighting right.
Well that’s dandy, as far as it goes. And very happy the citizens of Adelaide were to hear it. But the fact is, shifting the deckchairs won’t melt Adelaide’s iceberg. Nor Sydney’s, for that matter. For most cities the real issues are the big structural ones. Like transport, development control and sustainability (who will clean the air, the water, the earth?). Should planners be able to determine where people live and work? Is local democracy in Australia up to it? If the city is small, as in Sydney, how to prevent dominance by special interest groups, whether the lunatic fringe or the big end of town? If the boundaries expand, as Frank Sartor is advocating, what’s to stop the city’s lifeblood draining to the suburbs as it did for the first 150 years?
One of the few to argue for holistic, long-term city-strategy development was, perhaps surprisingly, Peter Verwer, the CEO of the Property Council of Australia, a private lobby group for the rights of urban property owners. Pre-emptively declaring his role as envoy from the dark side while quoting Lenin, Marx and essayist P.J. O’Rourke (“Why do some places prosper and thrive, while other places just suck?”), Verwer took a view both longer and broader than the usual profits-now approach, defending the triple bottom line (including social capital and sustainability), the importance of our powers of forgetfulness in creativity, and the joys of accident and invention in cities.
Verwer talked of “infrastructure obesity”, arguing that “we could wear our cities more lightly”, describing cities as incubators where opportunity, optimism and meaning were essential ingredients. He argued, too, for a new civic model, or structure. Much of the rest was predictable: squashy Tim Costello yearning for old-style parish-pump community (where you exchanged pleasantries with the garage attendant ) and scary British feminist Beatrix Campbell reminding him that old-style community wasn’t necessarily so great for the women and children. By far the most exhilarating talk, though, came from opera impresario and ex-enfant terrible Peter Sellars, the director of the next year’s festival. With the looks and mannerisms of an escaped Muppet, Sellars delivered an unscripted exhortation on the city as a reservoir of “moral force” defined as that which “empowers you to do something extraordinary rather than something expedient”.
Sellars implored his audience to “get the fact that the whole world is not just a big shopping mall” and that “people bled and died so that you can have your choice of cappuccino or latte”. Citing Florence, Italy, as well as Florence, Arizona, he insisted that “stones speak”, waxing passionate on the value of art and architecture as sources of inspiration and of “moral courage, so that you’re not going through life as your own private problem”.
Assuring his audience that cities are about “taking on complexity and diversity”, he chided them, too, for Adelaide’s residual Cal-vinism, arguing “there should be more pleasure, and more pleasure in pleasure. It’s fun and it’s the only thing that makes money.” Only afterwards do you wonder whether it was for real or maybe just another little piece of FLUF.
Illus: Richard Francis-Jones outside the Eastern Avenue complex, which he designed, at Sydney University.
Photo: Penny Bradfield