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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Jan-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 836

No beauty in bloat when the boom’s missing bang

Elizabeth Farrelly

It’s not a hair shirt thing. That’s what the meat-heads don’t get. To pay out the great frock-fest in the sky that is the New Year’s Eve fireworks display is not – not from me, anyway – a moralistic stance. It’s not saying that to blow up $5 million in coloured smoke that does nothing but pollute the air, bewilder the bats and dirty the harbour is wrong. Bah, humbug.

No, that’s not it at all. Sure, the waste argument is real. But this kind of occasional binge-waste is nothing compared with the waste of our everyday lives, and in planets as in bodies, it’s everyday stuff that kills. Plus, I love fireworks – the big-sky painting, the sound-wave pounding, the saltpetre smell of treason and plot. There is a primitive thrill to fireworks that is romantically irresistible.

No, the argument against bloat – in fireworks as in Christmas, stink-boats or McMansions – isn’t about too much, but too little. Not too much money spent, smoke made or fun had; too little content to animate it. Too low a significance-to-expenditure ratio; too little Jesus-to-Christmas, say, or sinew-to-fat.

This is mainly an aesthetic point, not a moral one. A point about vast expenditure of time, energy and money, with damn-all beauty – or meaning – to show for it. Sydney is a dab hand at this. It’s how we did the Olympics, and how we do most of our symbolic events. As though what moves us is not the meaning at all, but the object; not the direction but the sign.

Which would be fine, were it true. But the flat-out sales of happiness conferences, wellbeing guides and in-the-moment manuals suggests otherwise. Even there, though, it’s like we want the Buddhism without the Buddha. Just gimme the chill, OK, hold the religion.

The same with McMansions. As an occasional critic of McMansionism – OK, three times a week – I am sometimes accused of a moralising elitism. And, broadly, it is a tag I can live with. True, any thinking person would happily pay to avoid most elites, but to be elitist is simply to be human. It’s how we think, breathe and are. And to anyone who thinks elitism is un-Australian I answer, simply: sport.

But this particular argument is nothing to do with elitism. That’s the knee jerk that sees badmouthing house-bloat as badmouthing the downtrodden westie and his or her divine right to aspire. How huge houses came to be associated with any kind of underclass, and what that says about us, is a separate PhD topic. But puncturing house-bloat points no fingers west.

There are houses in the eastern suburbs, being built as we speak, where the owner demands 10 car spaces and 25 linear metres of wardrobe. Where not a car space nor a metre less will do. Where just switching the lights on is an exercise so technical they run courses in it, and where the house is so cool-to-frigid that parents and children rarely meet, their passing denoted by the swishing of doors.

Such houses, you might feel, are their own punishment, and a narrow welt of them along the eastern seaboard, however ugly, is not a huge problem. But what the silvertails do, the aspirationals will always copy. That’s what aspiration means. It’s that elitism gene at work, an effect that democracy only intensifies. And when this happens, forms an angry rash across most of the Cumberland Plain, then we do have a problem.

And yet it arises from a perfectly reasonable I-want-what-she’s-having impulse, directly comparable to China’s insistence on its right to copy our half-century of mindless consumption. Or like a younger royal emulating the promiscuity of an older sibling, notwithstanding the syphilis that resulted. As with any two kids of whom one leads and the other copies, blame is pointless and impossible; it’s the catastrophe at the end that counts.

In Los Angeles, queen city of bloat, and in a number of other US cities such as Boulder, Colorado (where average house sizes have ballooned to 630 square metres), house-limiting legislation is in the pipeline. In some places such as Teton County, Wyoming, the rules are not only in place but have been tested and upheld by the courts, despite Fifth Amendment compensation mutterings.

Limit mechanisms range from “cap-and-trade” schemes that make floor space transferable between sites, to plot-ratio, privacy, heritage and sustainability provisions; all the standard planner’s tools that are steadily being tossed out of NSW’s toolbox.

But the downside of regulation, even when it works, is its devolution into a joyless thou-shalt-notism that is guaranteed to make us dream McMansionism all the more intensely. This hits democracy at its weakest point: its helpless need to give the masses what they want.

So if there is an answer, which I doubt, it must lie first with the rich. With the slim chance that they can retro-fit some meaning onto their lives and discover that – in houses as in pyrotechnics – meaning is not a size thing; that true hedonism lies in the intimate and muscular connection between content and form.


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