Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Design fails to think outside the square
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Near where I live is an uber-chic window display of square toilets. The blurb cites the old Bauhaus line “less is more”, but it’s a sunny morning and I’m feeling good so I take this less as a user’s instruction and more as a general welcome to the square-ended among us to test whether form does follow function, and how meekly.
But that’s design for you, and since it’s Architecture Week design is very much on the agenda.
We might work better, square-bottomed; certainly it would make for closer stacking in buses and trains.
This time-honoured designer’s ploy – when in doubt, redesign the client – reminds me of the chap I once met who was bent on reworking the boiled egg into a continuous, yolk-centred tube that could be endlessly sliced without those annoying all-white ends. Good idea, I thought. Pity the hen.
As it happens, though, the bottom I find myself following up the train-station stairs isn’t remotely square. It is, in fact, distinctly apple-cheeked and seems to wink at me as it goes. The explanation takes me a few seconds to grasp; fashion has now shoved the jeans pocket so far down the buttock, so far into the re-entrant crease, that it is unable to pocket anything and – being in this case of double welt design – actually opens and closes expressively with every step.
Design, designed, designer. Have you noticed that “designer”, once a noun, is now an adjective? It translates, roughly, as “all form no content” or “really really pretentious and silly” or just “downright unusable” – as in designer specs, winking designer jeans, square designer toilet. Only on the rarest (and most rarefied) occasions is the word “designer” used to mean “supremely well suited to purpose”.
So it is with all this in mind that I listen, later that day, to Richard Leplastrier describe the house as an “outer garment” for life, a husk of which human lives are the kernel. It seems apt to wonder: does this garment fit us better or worse as time goes by?
Much has been written, lately, about the idea of home. Sadly, most of it is drivel. “Home” seems to provide a licence to sequester in black ink nostalgic gas that would normally dissipate harmlessly at one or other dinner party. And much of the non-drivel, such as Bill Bryson’s At Home: a short history of private life, isn’t actually about home at all, but really just another excuse for a fascinating jag through social history.
Which is to say, neither genre deals with home now. This is a shame, because now is the interesting bit on the home front, with evidence as to “fit” going both ways. On the one hand, it’s like how Levis accommodated the obesity era by simply calling what was size 14, size 10. We bewail the “housing affordability” crisis, forgetting that what we now call “house” has four times the space per person of 50 years ago.
So, yes, perhaps the way our homes (already world’s biggest) are blowing out in direct proportion to our waistlines (world’s fastest-growing) could mean that, indeed, there is fit.
But does it? Is there? Australia’s long obsession with the house means that most of us spend most of our lives paying for one. It also means an inordinate part of the evening news is absorbed by property prices, construction figures and interest rates, and that most architects design nothing else.
So we should be good at it by now. We should know how to tweak the levers of planning and economy to produce the mix and spread and society we want. We should routinely produce houses we absolutely love, and in which we are absolutely, reliably, at home.
Far from it. Australians sell up and move on every seven years on average, which suggests we’re as ill-at-ease in our houses as we are in our continent. Hardly surprising when you look at them. Anyone who still believes that old furphy about suburbia being the built form of individual freedom and creativity should have a quick squiz at the Museum of Sydney’s terrifying Boomburbs show.
Roof after vast tiled roof, pool after vast turquoise pool, these houses are as individualistic as the eyes-right goose-steppers of the Korean People’s Army.
So unless, as a people, we are inordinately uniform, which I don’t for a minute believe, these great, bloated figure-hiding houses of ours are not, repeat not, about fit.
What they are about is money. The fit, if it exists, is not to human lives, but to market values. The typical Aussie house now substitutes resale for personal value, quantity for quality, look for feel.
Yet feel – what Martin Heidegger called dasein, or being there – does matter.
For years, architects have nurtured their lonely belief that quality of space and play of light were genuine life issues. Now a neuro-immunologist, Dr Esther Sternberg, who appeared recently on Natasha Mitchell’s excellent ABC radio program All in the Mind, agrees. The “place” effect is real. Good places make you feel better, think better, be better.
Sternberg, initially sceptical, became convinced by personal trauma that place affects the emotions, and emotions affect the immune system. Now she works to establish what she calls the “science of place”.
So far, admittedly, there’s not a lot to show, beyond the demonstration that people heal faster near pleasing views of landscape.
This is not new; consider the spas and sanitariums of old. But perhaps in the future, architecture will be taught in the lab, not the studio, with houses customised to your DNA profile and changing round you as you grow; perfect fit, cradle to grave, with daffy square toilets strictly for those early pretentious years.
DRAWING: BY EDD ARAGON