Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Hurry up and slow down
Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald.
IF YOU don’t naturally see “slow” as a compliment, think again. As the slow revolution spreads, from food to lifestyle to architecture to cities, slow praise must come, though perhaps not quickly. The slow movement, founded 20 years ago by the Italian gourmand Carlo Petrini, started as a foodie fightback. Since then, it has acquired a chic eco-edge, taking in farmers’ markets, biodiversity and the entire downshifting thing.
Designed by and for webheads and cell-phoneys, however, the movement is no anti-tech Luddism. “Put simply,” says slowlondon’s website, “slow is balance.”
This doesn’t mean it’s easy, as anyone who has tried to train a modern attention-deficit mind-set around, say, the unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame can testify. Victor Hugo’s loving, three-page description of the cathedral’s stone buttressing may be a peerless soporific, but it’s hard to shake that old just-cut-to-the-chase-Victor reflex. So what can the slow movement offer architecture, and are we, in acceleration-addicted Sydney, up to it?
Cathedrals such as Notre Dame are an extreme example. Built over decades and even centuries, the Gothic cathedral underlines the most glaring single difference between what Alain de Botton (or the Prince of Wales, for that matter) does and does not like in architecture – namely, speed.
For most of us, fast, mass architecture is (broadly speaking) ugly, while slow, organically grown architecture looks picturesque or even beautiful. We loathe concrete jungle and new estate alike. We love Tuscan hill towns, Celtic fishing villages and untouched Kentish hamlets. But is it slowness that generates (what we see as) beauty? Or does our nostalgia for apparently slower times erupt as aesthetic experience?
In NSW, we may never know. Melbourne is to host its second slow conference in August. Sydney, however, where fast-buck speculation has always been the official sport, is proving slow on the slow movement, especially in architecture. Possible reasons include our speculation habit, our reflex acceptance of money as manifest success and the fact that most development companies, being publicly listed, are helplessly in the thrall of the bottom line.
An exception is Tullimbar Village. At present under construction in the Illawarra, between the lovely Macquarie Pass National Park and unlovely Albion Park, Tullimbar is the brainchild of Neville Fredericks, a sheep farmer turned developer. Fredericks, who was the client for one of the first houses to make our only Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Glenn Murcutt, a household name, became dissatisfied with the dreary sameness of conventional subdivisions and decided to build “a country village that works”.
Fredericks, a seventh-generation Jamberoo-ite, remembers stopping on the way home from school to chat with old people on front verandas. His blurb quotes an African proverb: “It takes a whole village to bring up a child.” Based on “new urbanist” principles as promoted by the American architect Andres Duany and others, but also on traditional local towns such as Bega, Berry, Berrima and Thirroul, it is all pitched roofs, market squares and village greens.
The aim is for higher-than-project-home quality and increased eco-sensitivity, for about half the cost of a typical architect-designed house and within a fine-grained, slow-grown, village-scale country town. Call it nostalgic, even twee, but it’s also intelligent, thoughtful and, above all, slow. This is the key: no off-the-plan sales. Streets, landscaping and town centre will be in place first.
To Sydney ears, all this may sound stupid. Why settle for slow money instead of fast? In fact, it’s revolutionary. With increased densities, reduced car use, small local shops and pretty streets, Tullimbar is a bold experiment, made possible by the fact that Fredericks’s company, Miltonbrook, is family-owned (his daughter, Jennifer Macquarie, is general manager) and therefore free to interpret “profit motive” its own way.
And it’s an experiment for which Fredericks has had to fight – against retailers who wanted hypermarts instead of small street shops; against the council, which wanted native street trees when Fredericks wanted natives in the surrounding landscape but deciduous trees for winter sun in the streets; and locals who wanted sprawl, sprawl and more sprawl.
Is slow beautiful? Come September, when the first section is completed, we can see, or buy, for ourselves. The slowest job in architecture today, though, must belong to Dr Jordi Bonet, who is in charge of the work to complete Antonio Gaudi’s vast Sagrada Familia temple in Barcelona. Gaudi was Sagrada architect from 1883 until his death in 1926, 80 years ago. After 43 years on the job, only the nativity (eastern) facade was complete.
Bonet’s architect-father, Luis, worked with Gaudi. Jordi first visited the site at age seven, first worked there as a student in 1941 and will work there till he dies. For 27 years Bonet and Mark Burry, Innovation Professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, have been decoding Gaudi’s remaining models, smashed during the Spanish Civil War, and building the emergent design. They’re spending EUR1.5 million ($2.5 million) a month, but still the 10,000-capacity church is only half complete, with two or three decades at least left to run.
Bonet is a Catalan. His face, a refined Picasso, radiates old time. Slow isn’t in it. For Bonet, slow would seem a passing fad; architecture is a forever kind of thing. “We build for many centuries. Not for a hundred years but for a thousand years.”
Eighty years ago, the Sagrada Familia’s architect, Gaudi, was killed by a fast-moving tram; the main threat now to the temple’s next thousand years is a tunnel, proposed by the Spanish Government, to pass within metres of the foundations of Gaudi’s nativity facade. What will run in the tunnel? Why, that arch enemy of slow, the European very-fast train.
PHOTO: Photo: AP/Jan Koller