Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Built world needs an obesity summit
The average NSW home has grown by a terrifying 60 per cent since 1985, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
See! I said the anti-ugly crusade would spread beyond architecture. Now do you believe me? This month obesity; next it’ll be baldness, scoliosis, halitosis and spots that take on moral dimensions. By election time the knock-kneed, hunch-backed, no-necked and hook-nosed will be pariahed along with the pot-bellied. Then we’ll all be one step from the ducking stool.
Actually, though, if governments were serious about beautifying the built world, they could do worse than run an obesity summit for architecture. And the same devastatingly simple aetiology would emerge. Buildings, like children, blow out from overfeeding.
The documentation exists. America is disappearing beneath a plague of giant McMansions, up to 2200 sq m a pop, and the same is happening here the average NSW home having grown, we’re told, by a terrifying 57 per cent between 1985 and 2000. Not just bigger, either, but glitzier, with the marble and gilt spa-ensuites, the studies and games rooms, the double garages now listed as expectables.
Gone are the days when pretence was vulgar and taste, not to say courtesy, involved a degree of understatement. Gone are the fibro, corrugated iron and softboard of gentler times. The humble shack is all but extinct, aggressively outmanoeuvred along our coastlines by vast budget-bloated glass-eyed dune-toppers.
Forget morality. Consider for a moment the aesthetic implications. It’s no accident that the prettiest parts of Sydney were built as modest workers’ housing. Paddington, Glebe, Balmain; their charm consists in their mix of individuality and conformism. Bite-size units joined in a coherent, cohesive order. And there’s a certain satisfaction to watching the barrister classes squeeze themselves into proletarian corsets, even if they have to buy two to get the fit.
But in the end, it’s about discipline. Historically, design discipline was inescapable, imposed willy-nilly by structure, material, budget and social more. Built opulence, saved for cathedrals, palaces and the like, acquired value by contrast; feast days in a frugal world. With external limits increasingly absent, however, and surfeit our standard disease, design must learn to restrain itself.
This is an altogether new deal. Discipline is not big in schools of architecture or schools generally, for that matter. Most architecture institutions still worship in the sandpit of creativity, where self-control is a mere impediment to the far higher goal of self-expression. Of course you could argue that we need bigger houses. Smaller families, yes, but still we require essential gob-stuffing elbow room for our bloated and screen-bound young.
Personally, though, I’m with American Beauty’s Lester Burnham on this. Most of our extra house room just accommodates extra stuff.
If governments really wanted to lift the game on urban architecture, they might look at compulsory budget cuts, rather than piddling about prescribing shapes and colours.
Drawing by Michael Fitzjames.