Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The organised, chaotic approach
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
A new blueprint for how Sydney should develop takes cues from a primitive organism, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
It used to bother me that Sydney, as an artefact, was such an ideas-free zone. I begged Santa and the tooth fairy to give some meaning to the place, some intentional symbolic content. I wished so hard that I spent years digging for the ideas I was sure were down there somewhere. But nothing came of my certainty except a lot of molehills, and not a nugget among them.
Why was I so determined? Not because I thought intellectual backbone would make Sydney a better city. A glance at Canberra, Adelaide or Washington will quash that theory. No, because being artefact, rather than accumulated accident, would make Sydney so much more interesting; more fun to explore, unpick, write about.
That was then, under the old, auteur view of city-making. Like the way Napoleon and Baron Haussmann carved the Paris boulevards to make shooting galleries for mob control. That’s an idea. (And who knows – perhaps Sydney could do with a few along those lines.) But that old fashioning thing is so, well, old-fashioned. Now there’s a new view, more suited to democratic Sydney: slime mould.
Slime mould is, arguably, the basis for our new, 380-page metropolitan plan, City of Cities: A Plan for Sydney’s Future (as if you might plan for something else). And slime mould, though it doesn’t actually figure in the plan, provides the perfect metaphor for a decision-averse government, since it involves action without volition. But is it actually new? Or just a new frame for the same old picture?
Slime mould, as explained by the web guru Steven Johnson in his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, is a primitive, amoeba-like organism blessed with neither brain nor command cells. It behaves sometimes as myriad autonomous individuals and other times by mysterious agreement as a single, slithering, purposeful creature. “Emergence”, then, is a kind of bottom-up organisation where the complexity and intelligence of the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts, and where the resulting macro-behaviour has a purpose not envisioned or instructed-for by any of the micro-parts.
As Johnson notes, eras tend to have dominant patterns or tropes: the early 20th century favoured “the exuberant anarchy of the explosion, while later decades lost themselves in the faceless regiment of the grid”. For us, he argues, the loose, leaderless web of emergence has become a guiding paradigm and a metaphor for observed phenomena from the human brain to the ant hill to the city.
Take ants. We think of ants as inherently hierarchical and constructive, like ourselves. In the film Antz we sympathise with Woody Allen’s Z character in his attempt to save the colony by mobilising its Queen-down command structure. In fact, though, as Johnson says, ant queens have the opposite of a command role, being forcibly secreted in a windowless birth chamber for the life of the colony. Ants communicate, largely by pheromone, but do not, it seems, command. There are no pacemaker ants, and if the structure is in fact a pyramid, its pointy end is down.
This idea is so counterintuitive for humans that we tend to discount it altogether. Another, closer-to-home example, though, is the web, as in world wide, which itself, according to Johnson, becomes an analogy for understanding the city from a non-hierarchical point of view.
“Up to now,” Johnson says, “the philosophers of emergence have struggled to interpret the world. But they are now starting to change it.” Johnson predicts a time when “our media experiences and political movements are shaped by bottom-up forces, not top-down ones”.
Is this wishful thinking? Is bottom-up organisation of cities (or, for that matter, politics) a possibility? And what might it mean?
Emergence in cities is exemplified by their natural tendency to cluster similar activities or persons into quarters or neighbourhoods – giving Istanbul one precinct where stallholders sell nothing but copper wire, another for the rug-sellers, and so on; making Paddington a centre of bookshops and making Woollahra “naturally” different from, say, Punchbowl. This tendency is not handed down by planners but arises from the unfettered movement of humans enacting a few simple rules of economy and taste.
And the suburban homogeneity that results has its defenders. As one Kellyville resident, Joe Pereira, wrote to the Herald in 2003: “Sneer through the steaming haze of your decaf soyaccino if you wish, but homogeneity brings a certain comfort, security and a sense of true community that other Sydneysiders can only dream about. Dare to be similar.”
Community cohesion, though, is inherently exclusionary: we are us only by virtue of excluding them. We talk multiculturalism, but can we do it? Do we, in fact, want to? Like, after all, attracts like. Sydney’s recent “race riots” make these questions of some urgency for Sydney. When does a community become a ghetto?
Suburban exclusionism is generally based on envy. As the British academic Richard Layard noted recently, social experiments consistently show that people prefer a scenario that gives them $50,000 a year, against a $25,000 average, to one where they get $100,000 a year, against a $200,000 average. We are, indeed, scarily hierarchical animals.
But we don’t want to see ourselves this way. So we invent theoretical stances designed to counteract the obvious on-the-ground facts. Stances such as post-suburbanism. Post-suburbanism, the latest thing among Sydney academics, is designed to sway the “discourse” towards cultural mix and equity of access, while leaving the facts unaffected. It’s exactly the kind of talk that swells the new Sydney plan to its 380 pages. City of Cities makes much of multi-centrism and of principles such as “fair access”, but puts only two “global centres” (Sydney and North Sydney) within the airport-to-Macquarie Park “global economic corridor”, leaving the rest in the provinces.
Post-suburbanism on the ground is a little different. It’s really what happens to sprawl after a few decades of car-worship. The exemplar is Orange County, California. American academics Rob Kling, Spencer Olin and Mark Poster describe it thus: “Today, the cities [of Orange County] appear to sprawl and merge into one another because they do not have distinctive architectures or clear separation zones at their peripheries. City boundaries are commonly marked only with a sign at some point along a street or a boulevard, rather than by changing spatial arrangements or architectures…
“The tallest buildings are now about 20 storeys high and are clustered in several diverse locations. The various shopping, civic, recreational, religious and cultural centres are usually miles apart and rarely traversable by a short walk. Eight-, 10-, even 12-lane freeways guide hundreds of thousands of motorists between these places without beginning or terminating at any of them … Further, many of the residential and commercial structures are implicitly designed to emphasise private domesticity and material consumption. As in many suburbs, the single family homes are usually designed so that they open into private patios rather than into the streets.”
Sounds like death, right? Like Springsteen’s 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On). But relax. It won’t happen. Sydney plans don’t. And if we have to have a plan, my vote goes to Paul Capsis as Herr Oberbaumeisterfuhrer in his show Boulevard Delirium, based on the platform of his refrain from the Opera House the other night: (con gusto) “I want you to put your chico in my roll, I want you to put your hills in my hoist, I want you to put your cross city in my tunnel…!”
Whaddya mean Sydney doesn’t have guiding ideas?
ILLUSTRATION: SIMON LETCH