Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
No sand in my beachside mansion
From Ballina to Bega, barefoot building is on the way out, laments Elizabeth Farrelly.
I’ve been keeping a list of the English language’s sins of omission: words it ought to provide and, to my knowledge, doesn’t.
The list itself eludes me now that I want it – and that’s one of them, the way things are under your feet until needed, then summarily vanish.
Curious thing is, all the other listees turned out to be reflexive ironies in the same way – such as, from memory, the way the observer’s presence alters the thing observed; the way capitalism embraces and digests its own subversives; the way you destroy what you love best just by being there, loving it. And the way we consistently attempt escape by replicating the situation from which we flee. Women marry clones of the fathers they hate. Housewives tidy before the cleaner comes. Holidaymakers pursue authentic wilderness experiences by faithfully reproducing the fully kerbed, fully channelled, supermarket-accessible, hot-and-cold-running suburbs they’ve left behind.
Summer makes this especially obvious as we strap on our wheels and head en masse to the edge of the continent. Head, that is, from whatever part of the periphery we normally inhabit to whatever other part of it we regard as proper escape material. Of course, there are those who live in the centre – though fewer and fewer, as the state of the Great Australian Small Town attests. And there are those who escape to the centre – though not, on the whole, in summer. Broadly speaking, however, Australia’s littoral edge is overwhelmingly and increasingly the human’s locus of preference.
Beach culture, as Craig McGregor has argued, now occupies the Australian psyche’s utopia-spot once reserved for the bush. Why? Partly for practical reasons, like coolness and fertility (its, not ours); as McGregor notes, it’s danged hard extracting a living from all that wide brown land. Partly, though, it’s edge itself. Edge attracts us. Edge as threshold; edge as point of maximum change; edge as symbol of non-commitment, perhaps, for a still-reluctant culture.
The irony is that by flocking to the edge, we dull it.
And dull it further still – deliberately and systematically – by the manner of our flocking. So that our luscious coastal fringes, preserved until now(ish) by neglect (notwithstanding the occasional, glaringly Gold Coast-like exception), are changing before our eyes. Changing down.
Gone is the humble shack, icon of understatement, the casual, casuarina-shrouded, plain-brown-wrapper not-architecture of time past; gone the flies, the long-drop, the outdoor shower, the sand inside and out.
Not before time, you might say. But the replacement is far worse. Because from Ballina to Bega, from Esperance to Mandurah, from Rosebud to the Eyre Peninsula, new and planned coastal developments put one thing beyond doubt: today’s holiday home – be it house, unit, condo or time share – is fully ostentationed-up.
Away, it pouts, with that old modesty bosh. Forget that we’re-grubby-we’re-on holiday twaddle. High-rise or low, urban or sub-, perma-res or holiday town, the contemporary coastline is upbeat, in-yer-face, look-at-moi land.
Complete with agapanthused lawns (daren’t interrupt the views), bronzed aluminium and mock-Tudor garaging, it’s the Mod Con to end all mod cons. As tin roofs yield to tiles, dunnies to ensuites and verandas to online games rooms, each sojourner can rest assured that no effort has been spared – no swamp undrained, no blowie unsquashed – in releasing homo sapiens from the need to touch nature at all.
The reason is obvious: it’s a comfort thing. Humans are comfort-seeking creatures. And what could be wrong with that, especially on holiday?
Well, nothing really, except it doesn’t work. The human urge to plastinate experience – deleting all danger and discomfort to form a shrink-wrapped, fully processed pre-package – is strong, dating from our evolutionary prehistory, when its fulfilment was out of the question. Now, though, it makes a prime example of our brain evolving less quickly than our culture. Today, with the fully plastinated life virtually achievable, the urge has become counterproductive, driving us to continue cocooning ourselves against the very authenticity – even discomfort, even hardship – we crave.
Post-genomic society gives such questions a new urgency. As the British philosopher David Pearce argues, suffering of any kind will soon be a lifestyle choice. “Aversive experience,” Pearce says, “is a sinister anachronism in the age of post-genomic medicine. We will soon have to decide if we should inflict suffering on ourselves or on others.” Including, for example, our children.
Already, though, we see this same plastination urge throughout our nanny society: the denial of death and disease, the extreme aversion to risk, the rejection of melancholy and despair as respectable emotional states. It comes through in Sydney’s new Norman Foster-designed Lumiere tower, a “vertical village” in which you can live, work, shop, swim and, if need be, die without once having to touch real ground or breathe real air. We see it in the Edna-esque domestication of the workplace, making offices resemble the Home, dahling. We see it in the attempt to domesticate God, by removing everything strange, difficult, mysterious, intimidating or awe-inspiring from the physical church experience.
To some extent this is simply the flipside of utopianism. Just as belief in body perfectability generates the cosmetic-surgery tragics that assail us from the covers of women’s magazines, belief in the perfectability of human life – so much the uber-principle of late-American capitalism – leads us to syntheticise our lives to a degree that would bore a slow loris to death. Which is why extreme sports and designer boot-camps have evolved hand-in-hand with the nanny state. Find that edge.
So now, having done our utmost to tame our ordinary lives, we turn our domesticating attentions upon that last refuge of our untame selves, the beach.
The beach, we habitually assume, is our great melting pot, Australia’s prime contribution to moral culture.
Isobel Crombie’s book on early Max Dupain, however, reveals the dark eugenic underpinnings of beach-and-body worship in inter-war Australia. It wasn’t just Dupain; eugenics was briefly but intensely popular throughout the West, until Adolf made it such a bad look.
And while the urge to plastinate the beach may be less sinister in its methodology, the utopian impulse is the same, bent now upon a eugenics of beachside building.
The result is that the suburban blight we try so hard (and pay so much) to escape is gradually claiming our edge-lands as well. From the charming estuarine shackery at Milang on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, under threat for ostensibly environmental reasons but really for violating the town’s increasingly middle-class self-image, to Byron Bay, now suffering a particularly nasty form of death by eco-resortism, the thing is proving contagious. Bundeena, Catherine Hill Bay, Tweed Heads, Casuarina Beach. Wherever you look, barefoot building is on the way out.
The answer? Perhaps there isn’t one. Perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway, since architecture is almost certainly more symptom than cause.
Still, if I were king, I’d be tempted to fiddle the rules – requiring all beach architecture to be white weatherboard, for example, just to see. Then again, you can’t enforce modesty where none exists.
Perhaps instead, when I find that list, I’ll just add one more thing: the way so many rules in life try to make things better, and actually make them worse.
PHOTO: Byron Bay … suffering a nasty form of death by eco-resortism. Photo: Rob Homer.