Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
URBAN LIFE THE NEW PARRAMATTA
Parramatta could be a template for the city of tomorrow, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
One of post-modernism’s legacies to Western culture is the recognition that perceptions are easier to change than facts; that it’s easier to market than to make-over. Cities are not immune from this trend.
Glasgow did it, Bilbao did it, St Petersburg did it. And now Parramatta, along with every other provincial town in Christendom, wants to do it too.
This is understandable.
As Australia’s second-oldest downtown, younger than Sydney by just a few months, Parramatta is quite rightly determined to put itself back on the map.
All this activity, though, begs the obvious question. What makes a good city, really? What makes the kind of city that people flock to, not just for its spin, but for itself?
The answer is both simple and complex. People love cities they can picture. Call it vividness, intensity, energy or romance. Maybe authenticity, or sex appeal. Whatever you call it, Rome, Paris and Sydney have it. Baghdad, Trieste and Parramatta, at the moment, do not.
A crucial factor in generating this image is density, since density gives the friction needed for cultural sparking. Density as fire stick. But density is also the key to sustainability, and so becomes a point at which cultural and environmental imperatives, often seen as opposites, converge.
That’s not all. Not only do vital, intensive cities increase our chances of avoiding environmental and cultural catastrophe in the first place; as generators of
ideas, such cities also improve our chances of inventing our way out of such catastrophe, if and when it does happen.
All of which supports the city’s claim to be our grandest collective art form. More than mere habitat, the city is a critical tool for life’s essential task; extracting order from chaos. Extracting culture, if you like, from nature.
As philosopher Elisabeth Grosz argued in Sydney recently, “each life needs to cast out the chaos but extract from it what it needs … [we] divide and organise chaos according to a plane of coherence … shielding ourselves from chaos with habit, cliche and doxa”.
Chaos is threatening. At the same time, though, it is something we seem to need, both as defining “other” and as raw material. And this is where art comes in. Art allows us to taste chaos without dangerous immersion. In Grosz’s words, art “dips us into chaos in a controlled, temporary and ordering fashion”.
This is the transgressive nature of art; bridging the threshold between order and chaos, letting us cross safely. There is an essential naughtiness or disobedience, by which art refuses the bounds of politeness. Art is essentially indiscreet; wild in the pursuit of truth, profligate in its use.
This is also true of cities, which is why planning, so focused “orderly development”, is doomed to fail. Doomed to generate safe mediocrity rather than buzz; Canberra, rather than Rome or New York.
“The citizen’s job,” says John Ralston Saul, “is to be rude – to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt. Politics, philosophy, writing, the arts – none of these, and certainly not science and economics, can serve the common weal if swathed in politeness.”
Of course Ralston Saul isn’t necessarily up to speed on Australian standards of boorishness. He wasn’t thinking of the wide boys of the NSW right, for instance, and almost certainly wasn’t across what passes for parliamentary debate in this country. He meant boors such as Voltaire – cultivated, eloquent, sceptical boors. But he was right, all the same.
Cities need chaos as well as order, and the creative tension between. Too much chaos gives Athens or Kuala Lumpur or Mexico City; too much order results in sterility – such as Brasilia or Singapore. Chaos is the raw energy which cities must constantly, actively, convert into the light source – the lamp, if you like – of culture. In Rome, New York and Sydney you can feel it; feel the bubbling energy, the chaos under the surface, the hum. You can feel the fineness of civilisation’s membrane and the way its permeability makes culture. It is this, the particular manner of a city’s chaos-conversion, that draws us to the flame.
So, Parramatta as art form?
What the city is doing is great. Jobs, adaptive re-use, urban design, laneways, art; all good. But it’s not enough.
If I were King of Parra I’d lift the lid entirely (sharp intake of breath). Protect heritage – but only the really good stuff – and require all development to be absolutely 100 per cent green; autonomous
in water and electricity, zero emissions, clean materials, ubiquitous permaculture, organic gardening, stormwater recycling, bike racks, the lot. I’d ban cars, build trams, de-culvert the river and make natural ventilation mandatory. Within those constraints, people could build as tall, as dense and as wild as they could market.
The result? Suddenly, buildings would have Akubra roofs for shade and water, opening windows and rampant, relentless greenery. The streets, filled with cyclists and pedestrians, would blossom with shops, food halls and markets. And Parramatta would quickly become both a sumptuous and exciting habitat and a global exemplar of how to live intensively with nature, not against her.
Parramatta saved Sydney once, back when ignorance invited starvation in (see story opposite); maybe it can be our survival-beacon again. But that’s not all. Because the art of the future will be sourced, shaped and energised by necessity, we might even see Parramatta the poetic. There’s a vision to buy for.
THREE PHOTOS: Look to the future … Parramatta must take advantage of modern
architecture (left), the river (centre) and pedestrian access (right).
Photos: by Mark Donaldson