Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Oh no, random thoughts pop into my holiday head
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I try, on holiday, not to think anything at all. Thinking is work and the whole point of a holiday is not to do it. I consider this a form of meditation, really.
Quite quickly, though – usually within 36 hours – not thinking starts to feel like work and as I bounce around in this hall of double negatives I lose vigilance and a thought slips in.
Anything can trigger it, but this time it was a shoe on the beach. It was one of those Vibram FiveFinger jobs that are suddenly fashionable. And although, like cheap Mercs and anything decent on Kindle, they don’t seem to be available here, this in itself lends a sort of rarity cachet, not to mention a frisson of colonial deprivation.
But the thought of which I speak wasn’t that. It was about discipline, and the difference between exoskeletons, internal skeletons and the complete absence of same. Bear with me.
Vibram describes its Italian-designed FiveFinger shoes as “barefoot performance footwear [on a] … radically new paradigm”. What new paradigm? The idea that barefoot is best for walking, running and mountaineering, and that quasi-barefoot is the best way to strengthen muscles, improve balance and agility (not to mention enjoyment) and encourage the foot to work as nature intended.
This directly contradicts the trainer-and-orthotics mentality that has become so much the norm, in which every fallen arch and pronating ankle is, from earliest youth, buttressed, splinted and compensated for by customised techno-padding.
And it was this thought that stuck its nose so rudely into my vacation vacuity; that these two contrasting approaches – call them the exoskeleton and endoskeleton views – characterise pretty much everything we do.
Panty girdles, for example. It is noticeable that the Bridget Jones-type Big Pants – aka granny girdles, aka supertight undies that, these days, can extend all the way down to your ankles – have made a big comeback, burgeoning in direct proportion to the ubiquitous chip-butty stomach.
We know that everything from lower back health to breathing, digestion, posture, continence and general visceral wellbeing relies on core muscle strength, and that muscle strength relies on exercise. It follows that faking it is counterproductive. And yet, never since the days of corset and crinoline has faking it been so popular.
Never mind the aesthetics of the faux, or what happens when Hugh Grant finally unwraps Renee Zellweger’s horrible, cellulitey truth. Never mind the own-goal of undermining your own best interests. What’s remarkable is how external-or-applied discipline can actually militate against the proper development of the internal sort.
The same tug-of-war between endo and exo typifies much of child-rearing. In piano practice, or algebra, or what used to be called deportment or, well, manners, you have two choices. You can apply backbone in the expectation that the kid will eventually and consequently grow some, or you can take the “naturist” view – the moral equivalent of the five-finger shoes – that applied discipline, by substituting for the internal sort, inhibits it.
Or take Google. It’s possible, as some argue, that new types of brain activity generate not only new neuronal pathways but also whole new modes of thought and cultural transmission (as did the printing press). But it is equally possible that outsourcing our minds and memories in this way just makes us more stupid.
The critical difference may lie in whether or not the internal muscle-building work goes on regardless.
In the case of tyranny, for instance, the cutting of the corset-strings can loose a lawless and bloody cataclysm, as in Zimbabwe, say, or Russia. But where the underground counterculture has worked to establish its own, occult discipline (as I suspect in Poland, or East Germany) the removal of tyranny proves positive.
In architecture, the removal of the modernist tyranny devolved into pink pomo flummery; architecture’s flesh without its bones. And to this day, four decades on, no one has a real solution; the architects’ best remedy so far is simple recidivism, hence the neo-modern boxes you see everywhere.
Some, though, are still flummering bravely (or hopelessly) on, and it’s this that brings me to that offence against God and good manners that the veteran New York columnist William Safire, who once wrote an entire column in monosyllables, memorably tagged blobitecture.
There are only a dozen or so examples in the world to date – most notably Future Systems’ Selfridges blob in Birmingham and Frank Gehry’s Experience Music blob
But Sydney has its own Gehry on way, in the UTS-commissioned Dr Chau Chak Wing business faculty building, Ultimo. Less blobitecture than slobitecture, the Chau Chak Wing wing sits within Gehry’s drunken-bloke tradition (see the Drunk Robot building at MIT, the Drunk House in Prague, etc).
Curiously, though, speaking of tyrannicides, the UTS building’s brown-paper-bag-after-a-karate-chop look reminded me immediately of Saddam being yanked like a reluctant shellfish from his bunker. Which turned out to be more apt than I thought since Gehry’s aim with the UTS building is clearly to emulate the look of a hot and dusty city after the Americans, or similar, have bombed the tripe out of it.
Yep. Forget that old nonsense of fitting a building to task or context. The future is closer than you might think to the Architects of Air Mirazozo inflatable at the Opera House, where you drift around like platelets in the spongiform brain of someone with mad cow disease.
Without a significant discipline, the architecture is air, the future flummery.