Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Deal with our fear of heights
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Up or out. We often talk as though cities must do one or the other, but what typically happens is they do both, giving us a clutch of skyscrapers stranded in a puddle of sprawl. It’s like the smoking thing. People take up smoking to quit eating, then they take up eating to quit smoking, and they end up fat and dead.
Backtrack to a stage I’m sharing with the wonderful David Malouf, on the gritty question of whether buildings mould behaviour. We make them, then they make us, and all that. Malouf avers that childhood in a Queenslander made him (I dare to paraphrase) a more open, more casual, more communally minded human. Nicer, basically.
And I suddenly wonder if he’s right. I, too, have often suspected Queenslanders (and for that matter people from Perth, Adelaide and Hobart) are nicer than us Sydney types. I wonder briefly whether our crooked narrow streets leave us with crooked narrow minds, but decide it’s just as likely vice versa. Or maybe our streets and mindsets both flag some more sinister malaise.
Even if our spaces don’t shape us, though, cultures do develop spatial habits – which is why Fifth Avenue feels different from the Gulargambone high street – and we do read meaning into space, if not in any consistent or scientific way.
Like Malouf, I grew up in bungalow-land. Unlike him, though, I craved nothing so much as a two-storeyed house.
It wasn’t just that two storeys meant wealth, although there was a certain mystique in that. It was the adventure. Houses with stairs had attics and basements. They had turrets and pergolas and under-stairs and odd-shaped cupboards. They had secrets and suggestions. There was thrill in the vertical.
And perhaps this gave rise to my personal theory that while the horizontal is the social dimension – the dimension of community, friendship and justice (which is why the notoriously height-challenged Frank Lloyd Wright could pass off his six-foot-four ceilings as a gesture of “equality”) – the vertical is the dimension of mystery, plot and the struggle for truth. It’s the dimension – no pun intended – of story.
Malouf disagrees, and is well qualified to do so. But still I reckon a tale set in a bungalow must struggle not to be a sitcom. Drama demands gravity.
Guy Fawkes tucked his dynamite not beside Parliament House, but under. Quasimodo didn’t hang around the niches and side-aisles of Notre Dame, but in her peaky, pokey rafters. Robin Hood inhabited not the floor of Sherwood Forest, but the green-leaf canopy. Rapunzel was imprisoned not in a lounge room, but a tower.
We are ourselves vertical creatures; our humanity demands our opposition to gravity. The minute we went bipedal, with our eyes atop the mast, viewpoint became vantage-point and our bodies became watchtowers. Verticality signifies defiance.
Which is why I’m always surprised at Australia’s refusal of the third dimension.
Not that we don’t colonise. We do. You spread your towel on the sand, you’re claiming territory. But we seem reluctant to enter the third dimension. On the beach, which we glorify as “the great leveller”, it’s always noticeable how few shades and tarps dissent from the presiding horizontal.
In outback South Australia there’s a place, if that’s not too strong a word, called Waukaringa. Nothing is there but a ruin, a bullet-riddled truck, a few rusted grave-fences a kilometre away and an incessant, whining wind. But it’s one of the most moving places I’ve seen.
Stone walls up to a metre thick, a caved-in roof, great stone hearths, storage tanks dug metres below ground and verandahs wrapping the north-east corner; it’s not just a ruined building, but a ruined dream. A failed attempt to take root in the ruthless gibber plain. But most touching is the attempt – I imagine a German attempt, but who knows – to defy the horizon.
Admittedly, it’s a stretch from here to skyscrapers. But when you consider the dodge and feint of the anti-high-buildings lobby today, dragooning every kind of spurious argument to their cause, Australia’s dogged determination to spread her cities out, not up, looks a lot like capitulation.
Why shouldn’t there be 200-metre high towers at Circular Quay? Downtown in the nation’s only global city; could there be a more appropriate site? The only issue is the council’s hypocrisy in supporting – nay, conniving at – these towers while opposing similar heights 300 metres away at Barangaroo.
It’s as though we fear the third dimension. “Too big and too tall”, says the Architects Institute of the proposed Barangaroo hotel. A low building in the water would be just dandy, but a tall building is “completely unacceptable” (although the same institute happily gives awards to 66-storey buildings in Bangkok. That’s so different.)
It’s a repeat of the height-phobia that got towers banned from Sydney a century ago. “We do not want … American skyscrapers repeated here or … the harvest of disease they inevitably produce,” wrote John Sulman in The Daily Telegraph in December 1907. The NSW fire chief, Alfred Webb, reviled tall buildings for their “dampness … pestilential disease [and] … everything that is foul and immoral.” And why is height so heinous? Is this some tall poppy thing, this heightism? Are we going to ban tall people? Sure, a tall object makes a long shadow. But as Harry Seidler always argued, it’s a fast-moving shadow – unlike a squat, fat shadow. Plus it’s like saying a bus makes more pollution than a car. True, it does, but it also transports more people, so in terms of shadow-per-person, the tall building offends less than the bungalow.
A century back, of course, the real agenda was a suburban one. Better for everyone, it was thought – greener, sunnier, healthier. Now we’re paying for sprawl with climate change. And the best antidote is height. Today’s cities, like today’s children, should grow up, not out.
DRAWING: BY EDD ARAGON