Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Zen and the art of gloss maintenance
Social problems are not solved with bulldozers, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
There is a kind of reverse entropy in the textural life of cities today, a relentless drift from authentic to synthetic, from down and dirty to schmick and span, from wholegrain to lip gloss.
Paris to Singapore, Kings Cross to Green Square. From wabi sabi, that is, to lifestyle.
Wabi sabi? Sounds like some icy-looking green paste that shoots fire from your nostrils while you are eating sushi. In fact, it’s a concept from 16th-century Japanese aesthetics, peripherally associated with Zen Buddhism, that celebrates the humble, the worn, the ambiguous, the shadowy and the derelict. Some say it’s the next big thing in Western misappropriation of Eastern ideas. Next after feng shui, that is.
In tourism, wabi sabi translates into something like “authenticity” or “local colour” How ironic, then, that we traverse the globe in search of local colour but when it comes to our own, our knee-jerk reach is for the bulldozer.
Nothing new in the bulldozer mentality, of course. The ’60s attack on Woolloomooloo was driven by the same mixed motives – expand the CBD, maximise yield and “clean up” (the houses of) the poor. That plan, like Bob Carr’s Redfern-Waterloo proposal, would have doubled resident numbers and added 35,000 workers.
It didn’t happen, but that’s not the point. The question is why we persist in this city-cleansing thing, as if there’s a refresh button somewhere to make it all innocent again. As if, in reborn houses on newly paved streets, people will drop their bad habits and behave. Like nice folks.
The ‘Loo might have escaped the sanitising, but we’ve done the Cross and next in the cleansing line is the ‘Fern. It’s understandable. Look at the lingo. Once “sore-talk” moves in – once we habitually hear “running sore” for The Block and “eyesore” for Waterloo – we know demolition will soon seem the only, the-once-and-for-all final solution.
And at first glance it’s a tempting idea. A glance, though, is about the length of its shelf life. Slum-clearance is the proper name for this demolition reflex, and now, quite as much as a century ago, it flags a deep mis-take.
As the City of Sydney historian, Dr Shirley Fitzgerald, puts it: “The idea that poor environments generated poverty, immorality and human misery justified the removal of housing which offended bourgeois notions of what a prosperous city should look like … [ignoring the fact] that poverty was endemic, and that demolishing substandard housing in one place would only encourage its emergence somewhere else.”
This is axiomatic. The surprise is that we still need to say it. All together now: you don’t solve social problems with bulldozers.
But surely, you argue, something needs to be done? Surely we can’t just let the drug-taking and the violence continue unchecked? Surely, with things this desperate, this ugly, police powers are necessary? Surely market forces offer the best hose pressure? Surely whatever-it-takes is what it takes?
Well, yes and no. A number of confusions are operating here: conflating ethics and aesthetics, cause and effect. And a number of answers are begging to be made.
You don’t stop people peddling drugs, getting drunk or beating women by giving them nice houses to do it in. Redfern’s terraces are no different, physically (excepting a little dereliction) from those of Woollahra and Paddington. Waterloo’s towers are hardly distinguishable from those of Blues Point or even Green Square, now that architecture’s gone so retro. (Woollahra and Paddo were saved by the ’60s heritage push, and Blues Point by the property sacrament. But just try taking the bulldozer to any ugly North Shore tower today, however saggy in the slabs. You’ll need more than a disapplied Heritage Act in your barrel, I wager.)
No, the difference between Redfern and cleansville is not hardware but wetware. Same old stuff: education, wealth, ethnicity, access. We want elegant environments to generate elegant behaviour, just like we want the beautiful princess to be good, and the ugly sisters bad. But the evidence is not with us. The causality is, if anything, the other way around. Social problems have social causes; it’s the behaviour that generates the slum.
But cities, like ogres, have layers. And underlying all this hoo-ha is a classic big-city dynamic: small knot of intractable social difficulty (the urban poor) in direct path of great globalising juggernaut (city of mammon). The city must expand, since that is what cities, like economies, do. Can’t go east, can’t go west; won’t go north (need-to-eyeball syndrome). South is it.
The Government – any government – has two choices. Let rip (terribly sorry, love to help but – shrug – market forces, can’t argue with them, what can I do?). Or get creative, subtle even, in defence of all the small, endangered, wabi-sabi uses that enrich city centres the world over but cannot defend themselves against the tearing land-value impact of heritage-free, high-rise zoning. The Carr Government’s Redfern-Waterloo Authority is the first masquerading as the second. Let-rip dressed as sensitive social engineering.
The irony is, of course, that the let-rip option doesn’t require government – except Thomas Paine’s “best government … which governs least”. Indeed, the only good reason to involve government in city-making is to protect the wabi sabi from the juggernaut. Otherwise, you just change the zoning and stand clear.
Which is more or less what is proposed for Redfern-Waterloo. The Carr Government calls it thinking outside the square. Herd mentality calls it getting the job done, alpha male stuff, grunt. In planning terms, though, it’s child’s play. The much harder, subtler thing is to nurture the undergrowth, sustain the diversity, feed the scuttlers and the squawkers – and still grow a canopy forest.
So, what will happen? Under the proposals, Redfern-Waterloo will be the next Green Square, only higher, smoother, shinier. Why? The new Redfern-Waterloo Authority must overdevelop in order to fund itself, but tower buildings are like eucalypts; impressive in themselves but death to all other species – except banks and chain stores.
Yes, yes. Honest attempts will be made to redo the Block as indigenous housing, and they’ll fail, as paternalism always fails, leaving a sanitised facade of urban black culture as designer remnant. The public housing will be apologetically forced out to Woop Woop, great regret but the dollars are irresistible – five out there for one here. Ditto heritage, leaving only a plaque or two to mark, so sadly, its passing. And with it all, baby-in-bathwater, will go some of the city’s last pockets of wabi sabi, plus the eccentrics, creatives and dysfunctionals (spot the difference) that shelter in its folds, starved out as they have been from Glebe Point, Surry Hills, Woolloomooloo and the Cross.
Wabi sabi is dangerous, of course. Sen no Rikyu, the subversive tea master who took the idea to its 16th-century apotheosis, was forced, like Socrates, into ritual suicide at almost 70. No less now. To modernism’s slick, synthetic monotheism, wabi sabi opposes the unpretentious, the overlooked, the contradictory. To modernism’s unwavering forward faith, wabi sabi answers, all progress is illusory. Subversive? Sure. Then again maybe, when everything we add seems to diminish rather than enhance Sydney’s inherent beauty, it’s time to wonder whether Onward Christian Soldiers is the only tune. Time to nurture wabi sabi, in the very tyre tracks of mammon.
PHOTO: ‘Fern garden … Redfern Oval and surrounds are next in line for cleansing, starving out its eccentrics, creatives and dysfunctionals. Photo: Nick Moir