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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 23-Jul-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 745

A fast city that’s warm and fuzzy


Here’s what I think: men do stupid things fast, women do stupid things slowly.

It’s an opinion formed slowly over years of watching people drive. But I suspect it holds more generally. As to cause, my working etiology is this. Testosterone makes you overestimate your talents and capacities, while oestrogen does the opposite, turning confidence into rust.

This is why men think they’re really clever and women are being unfairly critical (when they’re just being honest). More interesting, though, is the velocity difference and I use the word advisedly, since the male tendency to speed is emphatically out-there directional whereas the female tendency to slowness is local and multi-stranded or, in male-speak, “woolly”.

This, too, is biomorphic in origin, since sperm must squirt and triathletically swim, while the egg stands and waits, wiping its hands on its apron. These are hormonally determined. But they are not in themselves determining. Nature may incline us this way or that, but free will is free will.

The velocity difference shapes our cultural inclinations and our spaces and cities. We don’t usually see spaces as gendered. At most, we regard the (busy, warm, talky) kitchen as female and the shed (apart and underfurnished) as male. By and large, spaces are shared and categorised by quality or use, not gender. Most writing on gender and space will bring you out in a hot rash. Either it’s defensive “reclaim the night” stuff or it’s that impenetrable academese.

But you don’t dump the creed because you can’t stomach the congregation. And since our cities are fictions, or mindsets made manifest, it’s reasonable to suppose that gender, and velocity, might come into it.

Modernism stood heroically astride two core ideas; the universal male and the concept of space as infinite, abstract and uniform; a plain plane. This is no accident. Nor is it accidental that post-modernism, counterposing particular “place” to modernism’s generic “space”, has produced in Western culture a strong feminine shift; what you might call gyno-tropism.

Modernism favoured the fast. From the Futurists on, it adored what Marinetti called “a new beauty: the beauty of speed”; lubricating the home with convenience gadgets and replacing the street, made sluggish by plurality, with motorways that flowed fast and free as iodised salt.

Where streets had emphasised being there, motorways gave laser-focus to getting there. Where streets were walled, decorated, activity-lined and stitched by crossroads into the fabric of civic life, the motorway, often quite literally elevated over everyday busy-ness, was as abstract, linear and uninterruptible as a male train of thought, or a Mondrian painting.

Le Corbusier’s “il faut tuer la rue” (“we must kill the street”) was as much a declaration of male superiority, therefore, as it was transport dictum. The rolling stone, he may as well have said, gathers no moss. So it may surprise no one to postulate that urbs feminatus, were it to exist, would closely resemble the city of postmodern theory.

The feminine city would be a city of villages, networked and picturesque, replete with public squares and bustling, articulate, furnished high-streets; where public transport, especially of the loop or shuttle variety, took priority over the private, linear sort and where even important buildings were treated not as monuments apart but as constituents within a living fabric. A city of residences and heritage, traffic jams and coffee-shops, valuing the being-there over the getting-there.

A city, that is, not unlike Clover’s City of Villages proffered, as happens, by our first elected female Lord Mayor. Already, you may have noticed, Sydney city is already more centred, street-active, domestic, conservation-minded, art-oriented and jam-packed with talk-spaces. More feminine.

Of course you can’t generalise from anecdote, and postmodern urbanism, like most isms, has had mainly male protagonists, from 19th century medievalist Camillo (“a square should be a room”) Sitte to the chimney-potted and lace-curtained New Urbanism of Peter Katz, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

You may also have noticed, however, that the council spends $1m of its environmental rates levy on graffiti removal. That consultation has become a talkfest without results. And that the long fought-for laneway bars are drowning under residents’ complaints. This is the downside of fem-urbanism; a tendency to tidy-mindedness, circularity and wowserism, the buttons and epaulets of stasis.

But perhaps and here’s the upside the city, having evolved through brutal modernism and gluggy postmodernism, is approaching its glorious collaborative apotheosis, where we can have the thrill of speed without its harshness and the buzz of being-there without its smugness.



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