Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Our cities reveal the ugly side of democracy
By Elizabeth Farrelly
In the absence of a decent despot, perhaps ‘slow architecture’ can save the day.
BE CAREFUL WHAT you want, as the saying goes, for you will almost certainly get it. And here’s the mystery. If democracy gives us what we want, why is so much of its product, especially its built product, what we don’t want? If we’re living in democracy’s built form, why is so much of it so destructive, so costly and so damn ugly? Was some kind of Mephistophelean trade-off undertaken by our ancestors back in the 18th century somewhere, where we exchanged an ugly physical reality for a fairer, more beautiful moral system? Or is there some other dynamic at work here? Canadian film-maker James Kunstler describes suburbia as “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has seen”. Taking this thought even further: Is sprawl the greatest, most widespread and most destructive example of miswanting in history?
Sure, we want the suburban dream. Birdsong outside the bedroom window, sunshine on the breakfast table, grass where the kids play ball. But do we want the suburban fact?
Paris, London, Rome. The world’s most ancient and beautiful cities remain global tourist magnets although we know that they are beautiful only in their centres. Out there, where the masses live, are the concentric rings of increasing ugliness that calibrate the city’s growth, revealing rising intensities of consumer ostentation just as the annular rings on a tree record ramping levels of carbon dioxide.
These, the dream’s side-effects, are what we didn’t bargain for and almost certainly don’t want, jointly or severally; the traffic jams and the water shortages, the poisonous air and the childhood asthma, the obesity, the neuroses, the depression. We didn’t want the cookie-cutter houses; didn’t ask for the cold gaiety of the mall, the snaking, roaring motorways or the sad, grey flannel of a suburban Sunday afternoon.
Suburbia is not democracy’s only built product. The flipside of the suburban dream is the high-rise city centre, the concrete jungle, which for most people is even less loveable. Why, then, given our unprecedented wealth, technology and individual power, as well as our near-universal admiration of old cities, do we seem incapable of producing living places that we actually like? And why, further, was virtually every building, village, town or city that we admire produced by oligarchic or tyrannical systems that we revile? This is modernism’s enduring mystery.
And yet so strong is our desire to believe that an honourable process will give an admirable product, it is a question we are reluctant to ask, much less answer. Just as we want to believe that good buildings improve behaviour, we want to think that ugliness results from insufficient consultation and that public engagement will necessarily, therefore, improve the product.
In fact, as it turns out, public participation is as likely to militate against good architecture and beautiful cities as against bad or ugly ones; to enhance mediocrity at the expense of both extremes. The reason for this goes back to questions of art, control and authorship.
Participation can be expected, if anything, to fit a building more finely to its users. This may do nothing for its qualities as architecture, however. Just as a building may suit its users perfectly and still be a dog, it may also be noticeably inconvenient and still a work of genius.
These days, beauty, or at least non-ugliness, is more generally expected from architecture than from art. An ugly painting or performance work is de rigueur but an ugly downtown tower or university library provokes cries of rage. That this is only to be expected, considering the building’s effect and endurance, only makes it the more surprising that no one seems to have any idea of how, reliably, to achieve beauty in architecture.
But the expectation remains, so strongly that our great and glorious leaders from time to time take it upon themselves to deliver. This is not new. It is, after all, the central and sustaining delusion of people in power that they are, in fact, in power. And you can understand the urge, the tear-welling frustration for any politician with eyes, stuck in the limo in the suburban traffic, forcibly confronting the sheer horror of modern urban reality. You can understand, too, that the politician’s patent failure to shift the system to something more honourable should eventually manifest as a desire to change the way reality looks.
Who has not looked aghast on some gargantuan ugliness emerging from a construction site and wondered, who on earth let that happen? Can’t such monstrosities be stopped? It’s a nice thought, but how might the law be drafted? All buildings to be beautiful henceforth? If beauty is so elusive, so personal, so indefinable, how can you legislate for it? Proponents of aesthetic control usually argue that it’s not about hard-and-fast rules: that the controls are designed as a loose sieve, filtering out the worst while leaving the best unfettered. The fact is, though, that such controls usually inhibit both extremes, the good and the bad, favouring only a generalised mediocrity.
Pattern books can work. In general they work where there is an educated client class, a coherent social philosophy and no mucking about with committees. The earliest pattern book of which evidence remains was a rather dull work by the Roman architect Vitruvius in the 1st century, designed to convey the classical canons to the ordinary Roman builder. A clutch of Renaissance theorists followed, but the pattern-book genre really came into its own in the building boom that followed the Great Fire of London, where it gave the craftsman-builder a crucial leg-up. From there, the pattern book spread to Sydney, adapting itself through successive printings and copyings to generate the classic Sydney terrace house with its distinctive cast-iron lacework balcony.
Pretty, yes. But as an idea, the pattern book could hardly be less democratic. In standardising detail, material and composition, it gains in taste what it sacrifices in democracy’s dearest qualities: ingenuity, individuality and creative freedom.
Which takes us to the bigger issues: democracy, taste, free will and the nature of judgment. Why is most contemporary building so wretchedly hideous compared not only with the Versailles and Taj Mahals of the ancients but with ordinary Greek fishing villages and Sicilian hill towns? How is it that those old-time peasants, impoverished, ignorant and oppressed as they were, produced beauty while we produce trash? What’s going on?
Freedom, in a word. We take freedom, especially freedom of choice, as both an unmixed good and a God-given right. Perhaps, morally, it is. But the freedoms of democracy have done less than nothing for architecture and town-making. From Mykonos to Paris, beautiful, traditional towns – beautiful enough still to draw tourists centuries later – were produced under conditions that we would consider intolerably oppressive, with little or no personal choice on the part of builder, architect or user as to material, style, colour or decoration. Beauty arose not despite the oppression but because of it.
Traditional cities owe their beauty to the combined corsets of ignorance, poverty and social rigidity, material deprivation and technological constraint. Conversely, the visual cacophony of our latterday ‘burb is a direct result of capitalist democracy, as the crummy modern outskirts of all those picturesque medieval Euro-towns attest. Pattern books – or canons of beauty – can work but only in homogeneous and oppressable societies without opinion, freedom or democracy.
Postmodernism, which in urbanist mode pretends to have the answers to this dilemma, has in fact exacerbated it by consistently elevating the personal and particular over the universal and transcendent. Then again, perhaps postmodernism is simply democracy’s logical extension, even its decadent endgame. It’s a small step, over a few centuries, from allowing everyone their own vote to allowing everyone their own truth. To everyone thinking their truth is as valid as any other. Perhaps democracy has always carried the seeds of its own destruction.
The sad and prickly truth is that cities cannot be effectively planned, much less made beautiful, by democratic government. It’s not just that bureaucrats are dullards, though this is certainly part of it. And it’s not just the mediocrity of committees, though this too is a problem. It’s systemic. Democracy makes effective planning impossible – a mercy for which, were it not for the looming environmental crisis, we should probably offer a heartfelt prayer of thanks.
So what, if anything, can be done?
One possibility is “slow architecture”, the urban equivalent of slow food. Similar in some ways to the “New Urbanism” ideas promoted by American architect Andres Duany and others, slow architecture doesn’t necessarily produce beauty but it does help impart an organic (rather than stylistic) coherence to a place. More significantly, since to build slow is usually to build for endurance, slow architecture reintroduces time into the built environment, a sense of eternity. And this – since it is a basic rule of thumb that good buildings can be fast or cheap, but not both – allows buildings to be affordable without being tacky. Slow architecture’s first thoroughgoing manifestation in Australia is the new town of Tullimbar, in the Southern Highlands of NSW.
Tullimbar is the brainchild of Neville Fredericks, a sheep farmer turned developer who became dissatisfied with the way his conventional subdivision projects became dreary reality with the inevitable installation of project homes.
Fredericks’s solution is to build “a country village that works”. It’s intelligent, thoughtful and revolutionary. He and his daughter and general manager, Jennifer Macquarie, made a point of studying traditional local towns such as Bega, Berry, Berrima and Thirroul and interrogating the world’s leading new-urbanist thinkers, then emulating their principles (such as slowness, street address, scale and density) but not their forms.
Fredericks has had to fight for his experiment – against retailers who want to build hyper-marts (he insists on small non-chain-stores); against the council, which wanted native street trees; and against locals, who wanted sprawl. And the first results are now visible. It’s not breathtaking architecture but it is welcoming, villagey, leafy, affordable and dense. It’s not autonomous, in energy or water, but it is carefully oriented, insulated and massed to minimise waste.
Fredericks aims to have higher-than-project-home quality, plus greater environmental sensitivity, for about half the cost of a typical architect-designed house within – and this is the main point – a fine-grained, slow-grown, village-scale country town. It’s rather an aristocratic approach, admittedly. Slow architecture depends on land ownership, cultivation and a degree of altruism, all in the same hands. A bit of a stretch for your standard developer.
What, you might ask, about government? Isn’t altruism what we have government for? If Fredericks can do it, why can’t the state? Or the feds? Would it work? Well, maybe. In the US, growth-management legislation designed to protect heritage and environment by limiting sprawl has been adopted over 20 years by 13 states including Washington, Texas, Florida and California. There is no similar legislation in Australia and, as things stand, no prospect of same.
Why not? Partly because of government reluctance to intervene in the sacred forces of the market, and partly because, although Australians tend to think of America as the source of all things trashy, it also has a number of structural civilising devices (such as a meaningful constitution) that Australia lacks. In particular, Australia has no equivalent of either the “third sector” or “direct democracy”.
The third or not-for-profit sector in the US acts as a well-developed musculature around the body politic, generating vocal lobby groups on the sprawl issue such as Active Living by Design, devoted to promoting healthy cities, and Smart Growth America, a coalition of 100-odd environmental, urbanist and anti-sprawl bodies.
Direct democracy is the initiative process whereby support from as few as 10 per cent of voters qualifies an issue for public ballot. This, says Berkeley planning professor John Landis, is “how most public policy decisions are made in the States”. In Australia, by contrast, although professional concern is probably as high, the electorate is almost entirely locked out of urban planning issues. Consultation is usually a farce, since there is no requirement for open reporting, let alone action on results, and politicians rely on the voters’ hip-pocket nerve to ensure that planning issues never get to the top of the list.
At the same time, and largely for the same reason, most land releases fall to the huge tract-developers, which on the whole are publicly listed companies with a single bottom-line culture. Troubled residents can stand for council and fight every tree-lopping and road-widening through the grassroots democratic process. Or they can do what 80 per cent of Noosa-newcomers from Sydney and Melbourne reportedly do within two years of downshifting there: move back. Either way, it’s exhausting and dispiriting.
The solution, as with so many cultural difficulties, lies in our preparedness to rise above narrow self-interest and become involved in culture-making at a broader, more communal, more altruistic level. Admittedly, many factors, including democracy and human nature itself, work against us here. Climate change, on the other hand, looks like giving us a shove in that direction that we cannot refuse.
This is an edited extract from Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland (New South, $29.95), out now.
DRAWING: Illustration: Simon Letch