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smh opinion to 2011

Leave behind the retail maze, zen is just a single path away

<em>Illustration: John Shakespeare</em>
Illustration: John Shakespeare

The gluttony games. It’s hard to believe that, having survived Extreme Christmas, people immediately, and without coercion, re-enter the retail ruckus. It’d take more than 20 per cent off lingerie and white goods to force me back into the Boxing Day fight-cage. Queensberry Rules be damned. I’d want spurs. Electric teeth. Revolving elbow-knives.

Shopping is hard work; sometimes fun but always knackering. Christmas shopping in particular leaves you wrung out, not because of its physical demands but because of the constant decision-state required.

Will great uncle Zanzibar like those particular sock stripes, or that particular snuff (movie)? What is there to which cousin Grace will give houseroom that won’t cost more to airmail than the entire relationship is worth? And in any case will it arrive in time?

No doubt this is why we do it. Christmas is a kind of test. Like the Thunderdome, just surviving it bestows a sense of achievement; a renewal that sweeps you over the threshold into the New Year. We fight and struggle for more choice in our lives. Inexplicably we even argue for e-democracy, where we’d all be required to participate intelligently in every significant decision of state. (Gad, sir!)

Yet this – this yearning for control, this relentless decision-greed – is what leaves modern humanity so stressed out.

For with every decision comes responsibility. Even if it’s only responsibility to yourself (to ensure you’re not imbibing long-chain polymers in your water or giving yourself nano-cancer with your sunscreen), the constant need to make potentially life-death decisions with inadequate information is ceaseless. This can leave you – or at least me – feeling weirdly cirrus up there in the stratosphere; thin, wispy and dangerously blurred. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the inverse also holds; that deprivation of choice can be a meditation.

I’ve never been a meditation person – which is odd, because I’m an obvious case for treatment.

But to my mind transcendental meditation, is the sole reason (apart from his beautiful hands) for Clint Eastwood’s screen-idol superiority over more worldly heroes like John Wayne or Gary Cooper. Indeed, I’d say it was transcendental meditation – and Ennio Morricone’s theme tune – that made The Good, the Bad and the Ugly one of the best films of all time.

But, envy it as I may, I cannot seem to stay still long enough to meditate. And if I do, I’m emitting zeds before I get close to nothing frame-of-mind. Vacuity remains an impossible, enviable grail. (I’m thinking cranial irrigation? Lobotomy?)

I make do. Swimming is good. Walking too offers a good mix of mental emetic and neuronal lullaby; a sense of stillness without the fact, which may be why I was intrigued enough recently to walk my first labyrinth.

Labyrinths, for the first time since the 13th century, are big. In California people build their own and walk them daily. The labyrinth is the new pool – although without the pool-man and attendant possibilities. (Perhaps the labyrinth comes with its own hedge-man? Drystone-waller? Topiarist? I do love a good peacock.)

But labyrinthing (needs a good verb – Ed) is serious women’s business. Sally Quinn, columnist for The Washington Post, has a labyrinth, a concrete ground-pattern in the woods. She walks it regularly and swears that doing so has changed not just her life but also that of her son, who had severe learning difficulties.

Here in Australia, Labyrinth Link Australia lists 82 labyrinths, 29 of them in Victoria. Most are private, though often rentable, with the rest mainly owned by churches and community groups. Many, like the one I walked in Mosman the other day, are replicas of the best-known labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral. All are used for therapy, focus, inspiration, relaxation and contemplation.

But a labyrinth is a maze, right? Somewhere between the minotaur’s prison and Harry Potter’s enchanted maze, designed to bewitch and befuddle. What’s so relaxing about that?

Well nothing. Wrong. A labyrinth is not a maze. The dictionary makes them synonyms but the terms as used are almost direct opposites. Where a labyrinth is unicursal (or single-pathed), a maze is multicursal. This small difference is a game-changer, because it’s about choice – and its absence.

A maze, being multi-pathed, is a series of decision-points, any one of which could result in terminal confusion. A maze is therefore a struggle, a puzzle, a test. A labyrinth, having only one path, requires no decisions, so its complications become instead a sort of dance, engendering a curious feeling of trust.

Emily Simpson is the proponent of Sydney’s first public labyrinth, recently approved near the Willow Pond in Centennial Park. As she puts it, the maze is an intellectual exercise while the labyrinth is a spiritual one.

This all sounds terribly new agey, not least because it’s actually old-age, bronze age to be precise. Appearing across ancient Peru, Crete, Troy and Jericho, the labyrinth is said to have been used by old Norse-folk to propitiate good harvest and by Hindu midwives to relax the birth canal.

But the labyrinth, converted up by the Romans into something that looks disturbingly like a brain diagram, flowered in the churches and cathedrals of 12th-14th century Europe. No one is sure just how they were used. Some engravings look more like part of a social ritual, with people running the labyrinth even during services. One description from Auxerre tells of a game that involved pre-vespers dancing and ball-throwing among the clergy, through the 15th and 16th centuries (until the practice was outlawed in 1538).

More curious is whether, and how, labyrinths work as meditative tools. A walk has three stages; the walk in (purgation or release), the still centre (illumination or receiving) and the walk out (union or returning).

As a card-carrying sceptic, I’m hardly the ideal subject for this experiment. Yet despite this, and 30 or so other humans, I did experience a delicious, timeless trance and a lingering wellbeing.

And there’s this. As trances go, labyrinth-walking is significantly more fun, and significantly less expensive, than the retail-hypnosis induced by your local Westfield. New Year’s resolution: reduce over-choice. Shop less, meditate more.

Emily Simpson will run monthly labyrinth walks at Mosman Art Gallery from February 5.


Hovering helicopters make the teacups rattle … parents, please take note

The soft-roader in front sports one of those ridiculous ”baby on board” signs that makes you want to shove its exhaust pipe up its rear-vision mirror. (Like, sure, I was going to rear-end you, but since you have a BABY on board I’ll save my murderous impulses for the next person.)

The young mother – a blonde, but I’m saying nothing – hops out and barks that I’ll need to park elsewhere: she has a baby on board and a stroller to extract. Together, it seems, these ordinary little facts constitute an inalienable right to two full inner-city parking spaces.

You’ve heard of eating for two; this is parking – living, breathing, scheming – for two.

I should have stood firm, explained something about the Christmas spirit, about donkeys and mangers, and the dignity of humility; about how graspingness on your infant’s behalf is no less ugly – and perhaps even uglier – than the standard sort.

Were I Moir, I’d likely have whisked up a rear-view cartoon showing Mary on a donkey, blue-clad and star-watched, with a big yellow diamond on her back. Baby on board. But motherhood is so, well, beyond criticism.

In Mary’s time, motherhood no doubt needed a leg up. (Mothering God, especially, would be no small ask; the blogosphere resounds with debate about whether she smacked.)

Even when I first did it, motherhood meant moving to second class. I recall thinking the phrase “falling pregnant” must have had literal roots. But now, with pregnancy so fashionable even men brag about it, and with young women replete with entitlement as well as offspring, does motherhood really need more privilege?

Are children really the most valuable humans? Does their newness entitle their maternal courtiers to sweep us aside like peasants? Or is propagation already special enough? It’s not like humans are endangered.

Joseph Epstein famously coined the term kindergarchy – rule by children. Kindergarchy doesn’t just foreground the formerly seen-and-not-heard, but lavishes upon them adult expense, anxiety and attention in ways and quantities unprecedented.

I chanced upon a young woman in the park, standing hands to ears while her toddler screamed relentlessly from the bushes. “She wants me to carry her,” the woman apologised. “I know it seems mean,” she added, “but my physiotherapist told me not to.”

“Good for you,” I said, but as I strolled off she was offering the bush-beastie treats if it would only walk.

In what world is it ”mean” not to wreck your back by carrying a child the size of a small mastiff?

Answer: in a kindergarchy. A world devoted to sustaining childhood as a perfect bubble, without negative emotion. A world where all decisions – where to holiday, what to watch, who to befriend, how to live – are taken for and often by the kids. Where adults avoid doing bad things such as divorce, booze, adventure or (God forbid) swearing – not because they’re necessarily wrong in themselves, but because nothing must threaten the kiddies’ bubble.

Many parents devote their entire lives to this saccharine pretence. Why? Because they’re terrified that if they do not – if for one minute they allow the realities of pain or mess or despair to impinge on their children’s delicate consciousness – said kids will be terribly and irrevocably damaged; they’ll start throwing up, shooting up or sticking up.

In the London riots, as hordes of kids in need of a good bottom-smacking were joyously filching stuff from shops just because they could, people blamed disadvantage.

Penny Red blogged: “People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night.”

But now it seems the opposite is true. Many of the rioters, like football hooligans a generation earlier, were educated, middle-class and loved. They took plasma tellies because they wanted them, they felt entitled, they were there. Far from rioting from too little self-esteem, they were rioting from too much.

Parents overstuff their children’s self-esteem along with their Christmas stockings. But unearned self-esteem is every bit as dangerous as excess calories. Kids of the self-esteem generation, now adult, are so fragile they’re known by US college deans as “teacups”. Feeling every sadness as insanity, they fill psychiatrists’ waiting rooms.

The psychologist Wendy Mogel says “well-intentioned parents have been metabolising their anxiety for them their entire childhoods, so they [cannot] deal with it when they grow up”. The irony is that the caring, open-ended parenting designed to help them avoid the shrink, takes your kids there.

But just how kind is it to rear your child as a dauphin?

Certainly, there’s an element of selflessness, driven partly by behaviourist terror. To believe that you shape your child entirely makes you entirely – ludicrously – responsible. The schizophrenogenic, criminogenic, general-screw-up-ogenic mothers are contemporary versions of the old witch-hunt, whereby women bear the world’s guilt.

It’s Philip Larkin’s rule: “They f–k you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do.”

But there’s also the fact that most helicopter parenting is about the parent, not the child. It’s the parent’s decision to over-service. The parent’s need for perfection. The parent’s view of child as masterpiece. Perhaps we need to accept Larkin’s rule – or Voltaire’s: ”The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

I don’t know whether Mary ever smacked God’s bottom, but I bet she didn’t self-flagellate over how he turned out.


Saving the sculpture by the sea

  • Comments 119
  • Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist
Illustration: Edd Aragon

We always knew it was going to be expensive. Love is a costly business (trust me, I know). But a billion dollars? An entire hospital’s-worth? Three times undergrounding the Cahill Expressway? How much, exactly, do we love the Sydney Opera House?

Two years ago, the Auditor-General advised Parliament that ”critical problems with the [opera theatre’s] stage machinery be addressed and consideration given to other operational shortcomings”. He envisaged a three-year project including structural works and ”complete renewal” of the opera theatre.

Now, he says, the project must also remedy ”flawed acoustics, limited accessibility, limited seating and restricted spaces”, not to mention OH&S. (I tell you, they’ll decide those lovely granite stairs are a trip hazard and nose them in fluoro pink.)

All up, it’s costed at a staggering $1.1 billion over nine years, starting in 2014. The auditor dourly notes that this trifle, this bagatelle, will be entirely extra, since ”no internal funding is available”. The Opera House is already publicly funded, and runs at something of a loss. That’s love for you.

So what do we get for our money? No one knows. Architects have been beavering away on it for more than a decade, yet, insists the trust, there’s nothing to see.

Sure, there’s the $70 million of toilets, lifts and smokers’ shelters. There’s also $152 million of vehicle access improvements, currently under way. But on the billion bucks’-worth? Nada.

It’s like the ultimate in online shopping – never mind the quality, the fabric, the fit. Just sign here.

Remember the big palaver back in 2001 when Bob Carr ”brought Utzon back”? Not much came of it. Utzon steadfastly refused to set foot in the country that had reviled him. One got the sense the great Dane was almost enjoying his pique, with eminences bearing their suits to his Majorcan door, vying for hugs and photo ops.

The typical photos of that time show this or that architect or pollie snapped looking soulful and yet intimate with the master against a backdrop of casually intellectual-looking books and a chink of sea view. Greatness by association.

Utzon did, though, put his name to a set of vague ”guidelines” for the Opera House’s future, couched in loose and poetic terms such as ”the feeling of liberation from everyday life”.

There was also a handy set of quotes, much trotted-out by the trust and others, which include, for example, this: ”As time passes and needs change, it is natural to modify the building to suit the needs and technique of the day.” – Joern Utzon, 2000.

Which makes it sound inevitable that, after 40 years, a building of this kind will need some 50 times its initial cost spent on basic upkeep.

This is a bit sly. Partly because buildings such as the Taj Mahal or the Hagia Sophia don’t demand that sort of twice-a-century expenditure. But also because most of the big-ticket items, issues so desperate that without address (it is threatened) the opera theatre will close, are not new.

The rules of acoustics do not change. An opera theatre’s need for a fly tower or orchestra pit is not some 21st-century whim. They’re not things that can be put down to wear and tear, changing fashion or structural hubris.

These issues relate directly to the original design. They were surely things Utzon (or in the case of the acoustics, Peter Hall) should have known and resolved at the time. Then again – and this is the catch – had they been resolved at the time, we would not have the Opera House as we know it.

It’s all about the form-function relationship. We talk habitually about the Opera House’s ”shells”. Beautiful things; lovely in Utzon’s competition-winning scheme and lovelier still – nobler, as well as sprightlier – as amended to be parts of a sphere. Those shells put Sydney on the map.

Technically, though, they’re not shells at all. This is key. Under gravity, a shell structure – like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Saarinen’s TWA terminal or an emu egg – contains its own forces.

By contrast the Opera House ”shells” are really arches, or vaults, generating huge outward thrust. More like Notre Dame, say, minus the buttressing. To stay up, they must therefore have their feet bound by a massive underground tie-beam, which is what precludes the orchestra pit.

Similarly the much-needed fly tower, which at anything like normal size would soar through the roof. Unless, of course, the entire theatre were to be dropped several metres down, in which case problem A, above.

Essentially the shells, lovely as they are, are unsuited to the task. Suited to the site, yes. Suited to harbour and headland. Suited also to Sydney’s then-nascent idea of itself as a joyful little thing on a blessed – as opposed to fatal – shore.

Utzon often claimed to be working as a sculptor does, and it shows. As a work of sculpture, the Opera House is unsurpassed. Indeed it was probably at its best during the construction phase, when you could actually sense those ribs soaring above.

But architecture has a more adult, more compromised, role. Architecture must work. Its task is to resolve the visual and practical issues into a whole. Success in this is what takes architecture above the picture-postcard to something truly transformative. And it’s this from which Utzon’s Opera House resiles.

Certainly you could argue that it is this yawning gap between talk and truth that makes the Opera House so intensely Sydney. You could see it as Utzon’s little joke, his way of having the last laugh on Sydney – much as Leonardo had the last laugh on the church by secreting rude and heretical symbolism within apparently devotional works.

But the question remains. How much for love? Do we sign the blank cheque? Or do we allow the building its shortcomings, burn out the interiors and build a proper Opera House somewhere else – at Paul Keating’s Barangaroo, perhaps?

Dr Elizabeth Farrelly will participate with Nick Greiner, city planner Graham Jahn and Professor Stuart White in the Sir Jack Zunz Lecture at the Opera House tonight, titled Do Great Buildings Make Great Cities?



Labelling stance hard to swallow

Illustration: Edd Aragon

Call me simple, but I see only one reason to have government. It’s to make decisions that we as individuals cannot make and the private sector will not; decisions that shape the future to the long-term and collective good.

It might be Woop Woop Council whipper-snippering seven storeys from the latest reconstituted throw-up monstrosity that would otherwise block the last remaining sunlight to the last remaining tree in the public square.

Or some (hypothetical) state government installing a tunnel, say, that doesn’t screw the entire city traffic system to send profits that way and still require a hundred-mill bailout.

Or it might be Julia Gillard’s right-minded call on the mad squabble over the Australia Network to give the rights in perpetuity to Aunty. What was Rudd thinking? Murdoch does Australia? If we’re to have a world media face, clearly the ABC should be it.

Government is really a gardening job, pruning the intemperate growth spurts of those who’d build the world to fit those who must both inhabit and sustain it. This sculptural goodness is government’s only exciting part. The rest is just gossip and horse-trading.

Yet it’s something we often forget. Especially in Australia, where we take for granted that the ”gummint”, moronic or malevolent or both, wants to do us in.

Governments themselves often forget it, mistaking a ragbag balancing of competing private birds’ nests – bit of string here, bit of wool there – for the universal good. They are especially thus inclined when they’ve taken business, once their subject (in the Elizabethan sense), into the bedroom. When tycoons are no longer their barons, but their priests.

It was in the 1980s that governments and universities started in with that whining ”business is so much more efficient than we are” talk. Suddenly they took to hiring private sector hardheads and couching everything in terms of service providers, profit centres and KPIs. As though government were a science that could be measured, ticked off and quality assured. This application of an economic model to a moral problem was just dumb – the wrong tool for the job.

This is the hole down which food labelling has now fallen. Labelling is more than traffic lights: fat, sugar, salt. In many ways those are the least ominous and best-served aspects of food labelling. If you want to avoid them completely, you can. Not so nanoparticles, GM or BPA, all of which could be in your baby’s banana custard and you’d never know.

You won’t know because the government doesn’t think you need to. Trust Nanny.

Last January’s Blewett report, Labelling Logic, recommended that “all ingredients . . . processed by new technologies . . . be required to be labelled for 30 years” after entering the human food chain.

This was hardly radical. On novel DNA, Blewett recommended only ”detectable” amounts for labelling. Also that any ”adventitious” genetically modified event – that is, finding ostensibly accidental GM in food – trigger ”monitoring and testing of that food or ingredient”.

Yet the Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, did not agree.

Roxon responded: ”There is already a process in place to ensure that new technologies are safe.” That the status quo on GM should remain, ”including the exemption for flavours and the threshold for unintentional presence” although these standards could be referred for ”advice” to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which already set them.

Roxon exempted restaurants and ”food service outlets” from declaring GM content, period. She said ”testing or monitoring” after adventitious detection would be ”difficult to justify with no breach of the code and no evidence of such”. Then again, you won’t find much evidence if you’re not actually looking.

Blewett tagged nano stuff in food ”a matter of urgency” but Roxon went all vague in response, suggesting FSANZ ”leverage off” existing standards. And on defining terms such as ”free range”, much relied on by the careful consumer, Roxon left this to industry ”self-regulation”.

Self-regulation? In an industry known to label 20 per cent more eggs free range than are actually laid? An industry fighting to define ”free range” as up to 20,000 chickens per hectare, when the Greens’ Truth in Labelling (Free-range Eggs) Bill, recently watered down by Labor and passed by the Legislative Council, imposes a 1500 maximum, and many animal groups recommend 1000? An industry where chickens are routinely de-beaked to prevent crowding-generated cannibalism and where, says Animals Australia, 33,000 male hatchlings are gassed or ground up alive each day?

Essentially, the government’s take on what passes your lips, and mine, is ”trust us”. But can we?

BPA (Bisphenol A) is a known endocrine disrupter contained in, and known to leach out of, many baby bottles, dental fillings, food packagings and can linings. Many countries ban it. Not Australia.

Choice recently tested 38 well-known canned foods, of which 35 came up BPA-positive. You know all those baked bean and sweetcorn cans with white linings? It’s probably BPA. But BPA doesn’t even figure in the food labelling debate, and Australia doesn’t specify a safe limit. As to GM, remember that trial GM wheat crop destroyed by Greenpeace in July over contamination concerns? Wonder this: why the decision to trial GM was made by the CSIRO when Doug Rathbone and John Stocker, two heavies from Monsanto’s main distributor, Nufarm, were on its board. Come to that, why were they on the board at all?

It’s that old trust thing again. We have government – dammit, we pay them, heaps – to be our champions. But it’s hard for them to be that when they’re taking from the other side as well.

Look. I don’t care what you eat. I’m not here to tell you BPA makes you fat and infertile, or nano-foods will worm into your liver and lungs. I just thought you might like to know what’s going down. Or not.




Grubby hub could yet be urban butterfly

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist


<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>
Illustration: Edd Aragon

Australians don’t really get cities. We may be the world’s most highly urbanised country but in some far pasture of our collective mind, we still think the best human is a distant one, a red ute-shaped cloud at the far end of a dirt road. Our national mythology still has corks around its hat.

That’s not how we live, of course not. Dust and flies aren’t what we signed up for. But our wilderness dreaming means that our best-known spatial poets – our Murcutts and Leplastriers – are still purveyors of Thoreau’s man-alone vision.

This puts a kind of hypocrisy at the core of our nationhood; unable either to love our cities or tolerate our wilderness, we huddle in suburbia’s whitebread ambivalence, complaining at noise, neighbours and development – reminders of our failure to be either noble or savage.

It’s why Australians have no word besides ”suburb” for ”the area where I live”. It’s why our development controls are still designed to prevent ”overlooking”, as though the world will end if we can see each others’ nighties or barbecues. It’s why even those city-dwellers driving our much-vaunted urban renaissance begin to whinge, from their smart city flat, about noise from the pub opposite. Now that downtown is a place to live, we even describe it as a suburb, not as precinct, borough or neighbourhood. What suburb are you in – ”city”?

This will change, because it must. To sustain nature we have to learn to keep out of it. But that’s the negative. To enjoy the process, and to succeed in it, we must make the city an object of desire. As Euripides famously said, ”to be born in a famous town is the first requisite of happiness”. Famous, he meant, for its loveliness.

Imagine, therefore, the case-study city. A city that, taken as an exemplar of the West’s urban ills, could change the course of urban design the way that California’s mid-century case-study houses – commissioned by Art and Architecture magazine from the young Eames, Neutra, Koenig and Ellwood – changed our idea of modern living.

You could do worse, for such a case-study town, than Parramatta, which this month celebrated its Foundation Day: 213 years since Phillip and his chaps made camp at the point where the river-water became fresh.

Certainly, Parramatta seems an unlikely urban model, having in the past half-dozen decades committed pretty much every form of self-abuse. But this is precisely what would make it worthwhile.

Admittedly, there’s an age issue. The gorgeousness of cities is largely their accreted story. In London you can taste the grit of Boswell and Johnson. Paris is palpably haunted by all that Verlaine-Rimbaud left-bankery, all that absinthe-soaked and hashish-smoked Picasso, Stein and Hemingway. And Vienna is sustained by the thrilling tension between the lederhosen brigade and the eyes-wide-shut Tatlinism of Coop Himmelblau and friends.

But Parramatta is as old as any Australian city and older than most. It had grand beginnings and nobler pretensions than Sydney’s. When it was barely three, Watkin Tench wrote of it: ”In a colony which contains only a few hundred hovels, built of twigs and mud, we feel consequential enough to talk of a treasury, an admiralty, a public library, and many other edifices which are to form a magnificent square. The great road . . . is nearly finished, and a very noble one it is . . .”

And it’s not just age. It’s also attitude. In Manhattan, from the back of their apartments and brownstones, entire city blocks can watch each other deal coke, write bad novels, play flute, water geraniums and practise downward-facing dog. Yet the sky does not fall. It is possible to live and breathe and be productive with strangers in your cone of vision.

Possible at least in New Amsterdam. But here in New Holland, beauty is still nature – flowers, animals and landscape, some mix of Margaret Olley, John Olsen and Dame Edna. This half-baked pastoralism has thrown our cities to the dogs. Over the past half-century Parramatta has done it all; demolition, road-widening, laneway loss, heritage destruction, mirror glass, windswept plazas, river-culverting, sculpture-strewing, out-of-town black-box retail, rampant mallisation.

The grid, that sweet-as-a-nut expression of equality, liberty and fraternity, was coarsened by a thuggish one-way system that speeds traffic, bamboozles visitors and increases driving distances.

Allowing the Westfield, vast and breathtakingly bleak, to settle out-of-town killed the David Jones, then sucked the remaining life from Church Street’s once-vivid retail spine, spiralling it into two-dollar land.

For years there was active laneway destruction, and the construction of as many in-town car spaces as there are jobs. The river, which should be urban and intensively encrusted with activity, transport and delight, was ignored.

But what if Steve Jobs had turned his design-mind from phones and computers so sexy we want a new one every five minutes to cities? What would make an example of Parramatta as Australia’s first iCity?

Luckily, Parramatta has good bones. An elegant grid, half-a-dozen blocks each way, nests between two arteries – river and rail – with a high street linking the two. It’s a built diagram of access, choice and desire.

And at last it also has some excellent staff and strong urban intentions. These include proposals to eject the car parks, redeveloping with high-intensity mixed use; encourage light rail and bike-share; reclaim the riverbanks for urban activity and encourage high-intensity, low-carbon mixed-use on three major development sites coming up.

After that they could de-mall and declutter Church Street to make a proper central square; rediscover the river’s transport potential (even if it means dredging), line it with activity from cafes to farmers’ markets and incentivise intense, zero-carbon mixed-use in the grid.

Underpinning all this is the universal rule for a lovable town: to embrace the city as a made object, not a found one, and keep electing councillors who will champion the craft over the graft. Is that so hard?


We need to talk about culling, too

News of a brat gene will surprise few parents: not me, probably not you, certainly not Eva Khatchadourian who, in We Need to Talk About Kevin, gives birth to the devil.

The gene, identified by Arizona scientists and catchily named SLC6A4, is thought to encourage ”non-compliant” behaviour and I, for one, am persuaded. In fact I reckon I’ve got one. At least one. Perhaps even two, if you can imagine a brat gene being recessive.

But, contrarian as I am, I’m a mild and harmless case. I’m Johnson’s no more tears baby shampoo compared with the two children adopted almost 20 years ago by a friend of a friend, call her Judith, now in her 60s. Hers were the last two from parents whose other 10 had been forcibly removed and she got them young – six months and 24 months.

Illustration: Ed Aragon
Illustration: Edd Aragon

In parenting terms, Judith did everything right – love, education, authority. Yet now, in their late teens, the kids lie, cheat and steal, even from her. They are consistently mean, ungiving and unhelpful towards the woman who sacrificed so much for them. What does it signify if not what our Victorian forebears would have called ”bad seed”?

This, of course, is what Sandra Auchterlonie meant by the ”evil Milat gene” that killed her grandson David on his 17th birthday, a year ago last weekend. It sounds like the ranting of grief. And true, the unnamed Milat relative could have been influenced by family as much as genes.

But it’s possible. If there’s a brat gene, there could easily be a mass-murderer gene. And if such a gene were identified, what would we do about it? Would we scan for it in the womb? Cull the embryo? Would there be a rush back to eugenics?

This is an idea we resist, for obvious reasons. If we’re culling this gene, what about that one? But this repugnance makes us resist, perhaps wrongly, the very idea of genetic links to personality.

We have no difficulty seeing such links in other species. No problem linking genes to temperament in horses or dogs. No issue understanding that a pitbull will likely have a different personality from a golden retriever. No demurral from breeding selectively this way or that.

But humans we regard as special. And it’s those who most vehemently oppose eugenics, the left, who also most vehemently insist that humans are just another animal species. Indeed, this is the most fascinating thing about the otherwise exhausted nature-nurture argument: how politicised it has become, and why.

The left, to have any agenda at all, must believe humans are not only redeemable but essentially born equal. Born blank. Feminism, multiculturalism and all other forms of equalism are similarly tied to the essential equality of genders, races (and even species), making nurture everything. The right, by contrast, is wedded to a natural hierarchy; a God-given pecking order that, even without aristocratic overlay, has us sorted from birth.

Me, I’m a quid each way. I’m not naturally a grey-scale person, being more inclined to contrast than nuance. (Could this be the aesthetic phenotype of that brat gene?) But on nature-nurture I’m definitely both. And increasingly, it seems, science is with me. Even those Arizona scientists found that one effect of the brat gene was to increase the child’s vulnerability to bad parenting. Bad mothering, to be precise.

This obviously raises the question: how would they know that? How does anyone know what the kid would have been like with good parenting? And further, how do they define good parenting, if not by the behaviour that results?

(”Good” mothering, in case you’re wondering, was assessed annually by observers during three-minute play and puzzle periods on criteria including sensitivity, intrusiveness and maternal warmth. Nothing like an observation room to bring out maternal warmth.)

Still, it seems intuitively right that both nature and nurture are implicated. The gene gives a tendency that environment either dampens or amplifies. But what is the balance, and what are the implications for changing – OK, improving – human behaviour?

This is the subtext to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Billed as psycho-horror, the gory story of a teenage teen-killer, it is really a disquisition on responsibility, truth and genetics. In Lionel Shriver’s novel, Eva tells her story in a series of letters to her dead husband. She has no reason to lie or even gloss. It is the story of how the child, Kevin, gradually destroys everything she has ever valued; wealth, work, reputation, family and love.

She had been ambivalent about the pregnancy, unmoved by the birth and depressed after. These things do not usually produce bloodbaths. She cannot tell how much of her own view is subjective – how much of her revulsion is from the baby’s glinting evil – and nor can we. The book could read as a study in the impossibility of manufacturing love at will, and of child-rearing without it.

No doubt Eva contributes something – coldness, distance – to the terrible denouement. Certainly she feels culpable and spends her subsequent years seeking punishment. But the driving evil is clearly Kevin’s.

Even as a newborn he hates her, hates everyone, hates being in the world, and his crimes – the blinding of his six-year-old sister is hardest to read – are a finely tuned revenge on his mother for bringing him into it.

The book leaves you in no doubt that Eva, had she been prophetic, would have aborted him. But would we, as a society? Should we?

”You know me, you know my family . . . I did what they do. At one stage the axe got stuck, so I had to kick the back of his head to get it loose.” Like Kevin, the anonymous Milat murderer recalls an unpalatable truth: some people are, simply, evil.

But you tell me. If this were shown to be genetic, if ”bad seed” were once again a thinkable thought, would we kill, cull, imprison, medicate or genetically engineer (as the bioethicist Julian Savulescu recommends) to pre-empt it? Or would the presumption of innocence so lost be too much to pay for the lives so saved?

And there’s this: who decides? Certainly I’d fight to keep my brat gene from the serried ranks of teachers and bosses who would have plucked it from me.


Cleaning is not greening, and can leave you browned off

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We talk as though clean and green are synonyms. But are they? In my neck of the woods they don’t sweep parks any more, they blow the bejesus out of them with those high-pitched, two-stroke backpack flammenwerfer thingos. It’s the officially sanctioned air version of hosing the concrete. (Alas, my neighbours do that, too. Perhaps they figure it’s only fair; I water my garden, they their cement).

Last week, the same week the City of Sydney declared itself carbon-neutral (Australia’s first, rah rah), I’m wafting home through the local green handkerchief. I’m ruminating deeply after many minutes of struggling to defend humanity against the 12-year-old’s eloquent spite.

It can be hard to explain exactly why humans are worth the bother. I believe I argued that it wouldn’t necessarily solve the planet’s problem simply to exterminate the species, or even the civilised end of it. (OK, maybe I lied.) Also, that said tween should put the noble-savage thing on hold, at least until she’s read Rousseau.

And suddenly, there on the path are these fluoro chaps poking their long-nose armaments through the undergrowth with a ferocity usually reserved for GIs hunting small, frightened people in grenade-packed pyjamas. Freaked the poodle right out, I can tell you.

Here in downtown Redfern we generally welcome blow-ins from the ‘burbs. We get excited when kookaburras from Artarmon settle in our treetops. Bluetongues, barristers, failures of every stripe – all welcome. But a breeding pair of leaf blowers?

Doubtless they’ll say the blowers were electric (though I’d have sworn I detected that distinctive two-stroke tang, so different from napalm in the morning, and yet not) and powered, or at least offset, by any number of Western Plains wind farms.

Yet it makes me wonder – although we presume ”clean” and ”green” are kissing cousins, there is in fact a good deal of schoolyard biffo.

Of course, in part, there’s laziness at issue. The leaf blower, like any convenience gadget, substitutes horsepower for manpower, candle grease for elbow grease.

There are also socio-political issues. Leaf-sweeping is servile, even demeaning, and could easily result in disc damage, nerve strain, workers’ compo.

What could be more obvious, then, than to deploy planetary resources, saving one’s own bodily renewables and blowing the little rotters to a spot from which they’ll blow right back again in five minutes? Then after work, feeling under-exercised, hop in the car and head to the gym to suck more amps through a system designed precisely to replicate the work you spend your day avoiding?

Of course, laziness can also take a pro-green direction. Consider the old ditty ”if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”. Once a boy-child’s excuse for not flushing, it is now the proud eco-motto of everyone from Ken Livingstone to Cameron Diaz. (Diaz later narrowed her support to when you’d been drinking mainly water or – OMG! – coffee, in which case – eeeuw! – flush!)

Same with the once-a-week-shower lobby. My London landlady, years ago, never bathed and hadn’t in 30 years washed her hair (which was Harbour Bridge grey and to the waist). Her boyfriend was 20 years younger but, otherwise, ditto. Yet I now see that what I derided as residual Elizabethan filthery may in fact have been eco-prescience. (I plead befuddlement on grounds of smell.) For indeed, wherever you look, in every cranny of your day, cleaning is not green, but brown.

Take the washing of strawberries or lettuce, the two most chemical-intensive foods outside McDonald’s. True, in desert circumstances, you can wash them in a cupful. But for the drying, sans desert wind, you need a tea towel, paper towel or one of those whizzer things.

The whizzer is fun but ineffectual, leaving the lettuce thoroughly damp (and therefore un-sandwich-plausible) and the berry altogether discombobulated. The tea-towel option invites a two-way transfer – germs to food and juice to fabric – necessitating further washing, possibly even soaking, with more chemicals, electricity and water, sending carbon into the air and chemicals (plus displaced strawberry juice) to sea.

By far the most efficient drying uses paper towel or tissue. But this will further shred your eco-conscience, expending diesel, chemicals and energy to convert native forest to landfill via a brief, strawberry-drying zenith.

I detail all this to show how easily eco-neurosis can set in, progressing quickly to eco-paralysis and logically – without wanting to sound like a scriptwriter from Spooks – to the 12-year-old’s endpoint of total eco-extinction.

Or take wiping down the bench, a thrice-daily activity at least in most houses and offices, which implies chemicals, plastic bottles, manufacturing processes and transport kilometres – more if you count rubber gloves and sponge.

It also needs water, hot ideally, so there’s carbon in the heating and wastage in the running to warm. (True, a responsible person would save this in a bucket for the brown flush.) And it’s not just water for the cleaning itself, but also for rinsing and for flushing the bits of old beansprout down the tube.

At which point it transpires that The Lorax is not Dr Seuss’s only eco-allegory. Remember The Cat in the Hat Comes Back? It’s a tale of filth in which, despite the children’s best efforts, the pink bath-ring gunk does not disappear but simply shifts to dress to shoes to rug to bed to snow and then wider snow.

Dirt, like energy, can be neither created nor destroyed, only transformed and shifted.

What we call dirt – dust, cat hair, E. coli – is really just stuff in the wrong place. What we call cleaning is really just relocation, a process that, at best, concentrates ”dirt” in some designated spot and, at worst, just tips it out from the private sanctum into the commons of air or sea or street.

And in the end it is inescapable that every single act – eating, cleaning, even breathing – just makes the eco-burden heavier.

Small wonder, then – with apologies to Kenneth Grahame – that she suddenly flings down her brush on the floor, says ”Bother!” and ”O blow!” and also ”Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolts out of the house without even waiting to put on her coat (or possibly gunbelt).

Theories go from bard to worse – ultimately the play’s the thing

<em>Illustration:</em> Edd Aragon
Illustration: Edd Aragon

”Was Shakespeare a fraud?” the ads scream. But what could that possibly mean, Shakespeare a fraud? We have the plays, right? The flower of the language, pressed for all time between the pages of our minds. So does it matter who wrote them? Surely the real fraud question relates not to the bard, but to the film.

Of course, were Shakespeare a modern, this would be a massive intellectual property stoush. Furniture giant Herman Miller can sue Aussie repro-design guru Matt Blatt over the Eames lounge chair – and win – not because Blatt’s chair is a copy, not even because it’s a bad copy. Quite the reverse. It’s a very good copy, perhaps even a perfect copy. And that’s the problem, since it goes for a third of the price.

The question is, as Shakespeare noted, what’s in a name? The Herman Miller can call itself ”Eames Chair” while the Blatt version must be prefixed ”replica”. Why? Not because they’re different objects, but simply because one owns the legal right to the name. In each case, though, what you get is still, for my (admittedly meagre) money, the best chair ever designed.

It’s the champagne argument, really. Is the chair less desirable, less stylish, less sublimely comfortable for being tagged ”replica”? Is the cuvee less luscious for hailing from Tassie or the Napa Valley, not Champagne? Is Lear less thrilling if it turns out to have been penned by Shakespeare’s landlady’s bedbug? No, no and, I think, no.

But the name William Shakespeare isn’t exactly appellation controlee. I could change mine to it though, sadly, I still wouldn’t be writing Shakespeare.

There are two issues here. One is authorial: does the artwork stand alone, as the structuralists would have it, sinking or swimming by its own waterwings? Or must we now, in our post-truth, post-Warhol world, interpret every work in the light of the lives, loves and lasciviousness of its author?

If the latter, is it because our celebrity obsession makes us more interested in the person than the work? Or is it, rather, that we no longer trust our own minds and senses to know what is good? Have we outsourced even this last fibre of consumer muscle to the great PR machine in the sky?

The other question is the broader relationship between truth and art. Art is by nature a fiction, an artefact. But for many people art, and in particular film, is the closest they’ll ever come to history, philosophy or literature. So what responsibility does art have, if any, to ”truth”?

Anonymous scriptwriter John Orloff considers his film ”a Shakespearean drama in itself”.

He also considers it ”unbelievably historically accurate”.

Wrong, on both counts.

In fact if any of Shakespeare’s scripts were one 10th as lame as most of those about him – including Anonymous and Shakespeare in Love – we wouldn’t be having this discussion. They could have burnt to ash in that Globe fire and, frankly, we wouldn’t give a damn. We only care because of the genius.

But how much do we care? Personally, I don’t. The man we call Shakespeare could be Marlowe, Bacon or, as Anonymous avers, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. He could be my befogged and inebriate neighbour. For me – though I’d happily palm the sonnets off to some lesser bard – the plays, simply, are. Exeunt.

Yet every three or four years, the Shakespeare mystery resurfaces. Australian film-maker Mike Rubbo, whose 2002 award-winning doco Much Ado About Something argued the Marlowe case, insists that knowing who wrote Shakespeare will enrich our own creative processes.

I’m not convinced. Certainly a deep and iterative reading of the works will richly furnish your mental mansion with a fine quilting of Elizabethan politics, manners, astrology, theology, philosophy, fashion and wit. But am I improved if I study Marlowe’s (or Bacon or de Vere’s) creative process? Meh. Keep it.

Thing is, there’s no positive evidence for any candidates, including Shakespeare himself.

As Anonymous director Roland Emmerich tirelessly opines, Shakespeare’s parents and children were known illiterates; he was neither travelled nor well-educated. Yet the plays evince a knowledge so broad and intimate as to have become playful; a kind of knowledge never common, especially in Elizabethan England.

Which brings us to the second point; the truth-value of the movie as a whole.

So devoted is Emmerich to his cause that he has deformed his entire portrait of the times to give his theory legs.

So says James Shapiro, English professor and Shakespeare scholar from Columbia University, for whom the film is ”flippant” and ”ridiculous”, a revisionist fantasy based on the nutty theories of J. William Looney, an early 20th-century cultist, feudalist and luddite.

”An Elizabethan England that never had a standing army is recast as a police state,’ he writes, ”the Tower of London serving as a kind of Stalinist prison where dramatists go to betray each other and . . . soldiers hunting for seditious writing don’t hesitate to set a public playhouse on fire. There’s no room for civil liberties . . . no courts, civic authorities, preachers, privy council or Parliament.”

Anonymous fiddles the timing to make spurious biographical links between de Vere and the plays. Thus Polonius appears as a caricature of de Vere’s enemy William Cecil, although – oops! – Cecil was already dead when Hamlet first played.

And Richard III is Robert Cecil – he wasn’t – to present the play as provocation for the failed 1601 Essex uprising, which it wasn’t.

Yet, although Emmerich’s story requires a conspiracy of massive proportions, there is doubt.

Both Shapiro and Hilary Mantel, author of the brilliant Wolf Hall, dismiss the education question as ”the argument from snobbery” but would Shakespeare, our Shakespeare, have failed to teach his children to read?

Far scarier, though, is the historical fraud. It seems Emmerich, determined to correct a small untruth, has created a larger and more dangerous one.

Admittedly, Shakespeare’s own versions of history could be a tad approximate, but I’m with young Prince Edward; methinks the truth should live from age to age, retailed to posterity.

Take me to the tower!


One Moore job to seal the legacy

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>
Illustration: Edd Aragon

My father, his father and proud eons of bog-Irish fathers before them believed fiercely in the great divide between women’s work and the other sort. I don’t recall the phrase ”men’s work” figuring too heavily.

Women’s work, though, was clear. It covered everything routine, repetitive and mind-numbing, everything that didn’t actually get you anywhere – feeding, weeding, sewing, hoeing, scrubbing, tubbing, bubbing.

Men got to do adventurous, limit-testing stuff. Stalking wild boar, caulking ships, walking on the moon. (For a positivist intellectual, my father was noticeably primal in his choice of metaphor. But I digress.)

The implication was that men designed the world, made it, polished it to a fine sheen, then passed it back to women for the box-ticking and paperwork. In contemporary politics, this translates as an expectation that men do the vision thing while women focus on management and social policy. Nice and mothery.

But Sydney’s past two decades belies it. I wish my Guinness-sozzled forebears could see how the lord mayor, Clover Moore, ably assisted by Monica Barone, chief executive, has thrust right through the “there, there” phase of her early tenure to stalk and caulk the city decisively according to her vision.

It’s quite a vision, Sydney 2030; clean, green and gorgeous. But, of course – call us cynical – we world-weary Sydneysiders expected it, like most visions, to prove largely hallucinatory, barely worth the recycled paper of its printing.

Au contraire, m’dear. Clover is nobody’s puppet, and she is making it happen.

In 20 years, Sydney has enjoyed three lord mayors; Frank Sartor for 12, Lucy Turnbull for one, Clover Moore for seven. Leaving aside the usual stuff about personality and management style (or its absence), and given that a year is too short for anything more than sandbagging, how, in legacy terms, do Sartor and Moore compare?

Sartor made a point of cultivating an image as a just do it kinda guy. His new memoir, The Fog on the Hill, says “I was lord mayor . . . during the successful Sydney Olympics”, as though there was even a single venue in his territory.

He claims “dozens” of major projects. There’s even the odd well-lunched journo to support the claim. But, when you actually count, the significant ones are few. There’s Customs House; the gloomy underground pool at Cook and Phillip Park (hostile square above); the Angel Place Recital Hall; the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool refurb; Martin Place; horrid little Wynyard Park; community centres in Ultimo and The Rocks; and the granite footpaths on George.

Most of these were conceived in the first of Sartor’s three mayoral terms. After that, in true Olympic fashion, his priorities drifted to flowers, parties and other ephemerals; in particular the massive NYE fireworks blowout that, even now, he singles out for self-praise.

“A complex interaction of the two levels of government and various authorities,” is how he puts it, but “partay partay parTAY!” might be just as accurate.

Looking back, you’d wonder whether that gentle segue into sound and sparks wasn’t a harbinger of Sartor’s own imminent slippage into the NSW Labor partay, which gradually perfected this art of sending millions of dollars up in smoke.

Clover has had twice the budget, but spread over four times the area, and little more than half the time. Yet already she has outbuilt Sartor and outdesigned him, too.

Clover’s works include several world-class buildings. Harry Seidler’s Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre, one of Sydney’s finest rooms (notwithstanding change areas forcing you to rub bottoms with your neighbour, giving a new slant to community relations).

FJMT’s Surry Hills Library, over which this column has slobbered shamelessly on earlier occasions. TZG’s enchanting Paddington Reservoir Gardens, which so impressed the New York City urban designer Jeff Shumaker he couldn’t stop telling Phillip Adams about it.

There’s also BVN’s very fine work at Redfern Park (which Labor wanted to hand to Souths for commercial development); Lacoste+Stevenson’s new Rushcutters Bay grandstand and kiosk; Hill Thalis’s lovely Pirrama Park in Pyrmont; and the remarkable makeover of Prince Alfred Park at Central, with its earth-sheltered pool by Rachel Neeson and the late, greatly talented Nick Murcutt.

It’s all, bit by bit, enriching our urban world. There’s also the Burton Street Tabernacle, about to become the new Tabernacle Theatre, and any number of parks throughout Glebe, Pyrmont, Surry Hills, Rosebery, Elizabeth Bay and St Peters.

Add to this the cycleways, which are both brilliant to use and graphically pleasing, and you have quite a legacy. Naturally, each election, her majority increases. Not bad, for a girl.

Ironically, this very success could prove Clover’s undoing.

Barry O’Farrell has vowed to legislate so that she and others can’t “double dip”. The city, though, is a special case. Clover’s duties as lord mayor and MP for Sydney make a natural (and traditional) fit. And, although O’Farrell whinges when Clover takes a few days off, she has introduced no fewer than 12 private member’s bills – most of them successful – in 23 years.

And all that without party dollars, votes or back-up. However you cut it, Clover is just very good at staying on track and getting stuff done.

So, having done all the easy stuff, what should Clover do next? My view is this. There’s one glaring move that would do more to transform Sydney’s next century than any other single project. It’s huge, it’s daring – and any European city with this opportunity would have done it decades back.

It’s this. Build over the tracks behind Central. All the way from Redfern Station to about Rutland Street, you could heal the great wound. Not only would this ease the appalling uptown traffic glut, it’d let us expand the park, connect the streets (stroll from Bourke Street Bakery to the White Rabbit in a few pleasant minutes) and still leave a development site twice the size of Broadway’s Central Park.

See it as high density, ultra chic, fine grained, high design, zero carbon and autonomous in energy, water and waste. The difficulty, which is considerable, is less technical than political. That demands serious leadership; serious moral bacon. If anyone in this town can bring it home, it’s that chick Clover.

When art had its eyes wide open

Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape (1923).Click for more photos

Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape (1923).

When was the last time you were really moved by art? I mean blow-your-socks-off, these-guys-have-gazed-into-the-void-and-survived-type moved? For me it was on my third visit to the Art Gallery of NSW’s unbelievable show The Mad Square.

Shows beat books as art venues because of the room thing. The dynamic created by hanging a bunch of paintings in a room is often less predictable (and therefore more exciting) than the same exercise with a bunch of humans.

This is no longer art as satire, social indictment or revelation. It’s a smokescreen for a self-serving, intellectually vacant and morally abdicant curatariat.

Sidney Nolan makes rooms full of eyes. Caravaggio offers rooms like spiked velvet. Impressionists fill rooms with a dappled and dancing light. The Mad Square’s rooms lead you into hell, hold you down and tickle you until your tears curdle into laughter.

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>
Illustration: Edd Aragon

Does the gallery even know what it’s holding here? The show’s subtitle, Modernity in German Art 1910-1937, implies a brief flowering in some sodden corner of old Europe. The gallery’s own advertising dwells heavily on words such as ”edgy” and ”provocative”, suggesting a display of faux-punk handbags or framed French knickers. The truly shocking.

But The Mad Square is more than that. Much more. It’s about seeing. Really – frankly, fearlessly – seeing.

When Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz and the others enlisted for the Great War in 1914 they must have felt peeled, dragged from Plato’s cave into the burning light. The soft stare of Dix’s one-eyed Skin Graft soldier, nose agape and teeth protruding from his cheek, tells you he has seen. He’s living, in his striped pyjamas, with the mute despair of not just how he looks, but what he knows.

The Mad Square offers an orderly stroll through the first, pivotal half of history’s most bizarre and compelling century, the 20th, centring on what must be that period’s most bizarre and compelling node, Berlin.

Even the ante-room knocks you off your smug art-goer’s perch with images such as Ludwig Meidner’s prophetic Apocalyptic Landscape. A couple of decades later it’d classify as ”post-holocaust” but, in 1913, holocausts were still imaginary.

In the second room, Beckmann, Grosz and Dix ruthlessly skin the bourgeoisie, revealing not just the battlefield horrors of this aristocrats’ tiff, this war that should never have been fought, but also what it taught them about drawing-room liaisons of good and evil and about how cultivation masks, but is also prey to, iniquity.

It happened that at the same time as the show opened I tangled with two other tales of the period, both with the same distinctive flavour of intense glamour undermined and underpinned by extreme violence.

The two tales are the 1972 film Cabaret, drawn from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, which for some reason I felt recently compelled to dust off for the children, and the Australian writer Anna Funder’s remarkable first novel, All That I Am.

The film has that unforgettable sequence, intercutting the Liza Minnelli/Joel Gray routine with the savage street beatings of Jews, while All That I Am, following the lives of four radical creatives in 1930s Berlin, begins with the making of love and mojitos as Hitler takes power and ends with the Nazi murder of two women in central London, 1935.

The common thread is the vividness of the mask; the way surface both presents and betrays reality.

As early as 1933, Joseph Roth noted that, ”the terrible march of the mechanised orangutans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia, and nitroglycerine, with gas masks and airplanes . . . [means] the European mind is capitulating”.

Ninety years on, as Europe teeters once more on the edge of hyperinflation and catastrophic unemployment, they could be painting us. Ninety years on, Funder’s book draws heavily, but quite by chance, on many images in the show. The dreadfully damaged soldiers, the bejewelled transvestites, the urgent street graffiti and John Heartfield’s blood-spattered caricature of Goring the butcher, from the Workers’ Illustrated Paper, 1933.

As she wrote, says Funder, she had many of these images pinned up to stare at and through, into the world she was recreating. Raoul Hausmann’s oblique photo of his lover, Hannah Hoch, provided inspiration for Funder’s central character, the charismatic writer, intellectual and activist, Dr Dora Fabian.

I’ve always loved Dada. But I hadn’t known a lot about Hoch, who was unquestionably the wittiest, wickedest and most inventive collagist of this supremely macho lot. Hausmann, to whom history has been kinder, refused to marry her (in part because he was married to someone else) but still pressured her to eschew her art and find a job to support his.

Hoch’s images mix the loving and the cruel, the funny and the devastating, the intimate and the political in a way that weeps and guffaws at once, and we are richer for it.

So how does all this compare with our art, now? Well, compassion is back. Next year’s Sydney Biennale, ickily titled All Our Relations, focuses on ”inclusionary art practices of generative thinking, such as collaboration, conversation and compassion”.

”Drawing on the possibility of the present,” say its curators, ”the biennale will emerge from . . . a renewed attention to how things connect, how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit.”

The possibility of the present? Attention to how things connect? Is that like bullets and skin? Or like tea and scones?

This is no longer art as satire, social indictment or revelation. It’s a smokescreen for a self-serving, intellectually vacant and morally abdicant curatariat.

It’s not that we don’t have issues. Imagine what Beckmann and Dix could do with Europe self-immolating over money and race. With bank bailouts as houses and jobs go down the toilet. With children overboard.

Now, as Roth noted in 1933, ”the European mind is capitulating . . . out of weakness . . . sloth . . . apathy . . . lack of imagination.” We, however, preferring an optimism blinder than any of Dix’s war-wounded, daren’t look. So our art no longer serves truth but bullshit.

Elizabeth Farrelly will deliver a free talk on Wednesday about ”Modern architecture: the seductive paradox” as part of The Mad Square series at the Art Gallery of NSW.’

Bali skirts the fine line between selling body and soul

We decide over lunch that she’s almost certainly a Bulgarian hooker, this girl with the blonde mullet, the full-body tan and the iPod tucked fetchingly into her G-string. With the dreamy-jerky movements of a Sim she dances alone at the centre of the beach-shack restaurant, directing her Mona Lisa smile at the dreadlocked Aussie surfers.

As her toasted pelvis rotates mesmerically, two things strike me. First, that she gives new meaning to the term Bali belly. Second, that as livings go, Bulgarian hooker probably still beats 50-kilogram top-of-the-head load-bearer for $2 a day, like the mother of the taxi driver who brought us to this out-of-the-way Balinese beach.

Bali is something I never thought I’d do, largely because of its Gold-Coast-with-grass-huts rep and a personal aversion to holidaying with the home crowd. Paint me snobbish. Certainly we avoided Kuta, arak, pushy street hawkers (even those not dangling dodgy baggies) and anything behind plate glass. We also – speaking of Bali belly – avoided the local water, although without total success.

But the true snob wouldn’t even have been there. The true snob insists Bali was ”ruined” back in Donald Friend’s days and hasn’t been back. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a lively and intricate culture ticking away, just under the resort layer. (Easily our best meal, for example, was a paper cone of fresh pandan buttons with coconut and palm syrup from Ubud market.)

Travelling in the Third World, if we’re still allowed to call it that, always mixes the guilty delights of feeling suddenly rich (when you know you’re nothing of the sort) with the tempting rationale that just being there helps spread the love.

The man who rakes Jimbaran Beach each sunrise, before the hotels peg out their deckchairs, does it with a rope-led water buffalo and two semi-feral mutts. But when the sun rises and the fat white people switch from air-conditioned lounging to the sun-drenched sort, the slender brown people depart, Cinderella-like, to the unclean, unswept end of the beach. It’s not that Balinese people don’t use the beach, they take the grubby end.

Perhaps this is OK. Western tourists will lie only on clean beaches. And where tourists won’t lie, they won’t spend. So if you want their cash, you do what it takes. That’s capitalism’s core deal.

And there are clear economic benefits. People who live in Bali’s still largely untouristed north say there are no jobs, young people leave the minute they finish school and even their parents must commute south for work.

But how must they feel, as they’re shuffled off their own beaches? Locals are increasingly conscious that their children, with little or no hope of owning even a modest house on their own island, will probably end up as tenants and servants to people who can blow more on a holiday than many Balinese will ever earn. Not so different from Aboriginal people here, perhaps. Except that, for the Balinese, there’s a major political complication. Without tourism, Hindu Bali would be just another penniless province of Muslim Indonesia, increasingly vulnerable to the predations of an unsympathetic government.

Bali’s magnetism is neither nature nor culture alone, but the magical interplay of both. Yet can either survive 2.5 million tourists a year? Or will it all soon look like Kuta? Already Bali has 50,000 hotel rooms. That much of this development is beautiful is thanks largely to a loose 1970s collaboration between Friend, the Jakartan filmmaker Wija Waworuntu, the Sydney architect Peter Muller and the larger-than-life Sri Lankan architect-barrister Geoffrey Bawa.

Between them, inspired by local palaces, they cooked up ”Bali style”, now a sort of global soft porn for design heads. You know the look. Dark satiny timber, broad eaves, simple planes, glancing daylight, walled courts, infinity pools, gauzy hangings, luscious views and frangipani evenings strewn with tiny lights. Far grander than Bali-colloquial, Bali style has shades of Japanese serenity, Polynesian sensuality and cool Moorish seclusion. It does for Bali architecture what Paul Simon did for Zulu music; enriching and teasing it open for Western tastes without diminishing its power.

But this very lusciousness, with its enormous drawing power, is part of the problem. Already, while tourists pad around endless azure pools on emerald lawns fringed with luxuriant tropical planting, Bali beyond the touro-strip is parched and brown.

Locals say it hasn’t rained for a year. The lovely golden cattle sit emaciated on picked-bare dirt. Groundwater is depleted, rivers dry or polluted, and lakes seven metres down. Water comes by tanker over roads that are more pothole than asphalt, and then by head – yet the big hotels strenuously oppose any increase in the water tax.

For the moment, Bali continues to rotate its pelvis and smile seductively at its fat white guests. But does it, in quiet moments, wonder at what point hospitality becomes prostitution?


Natural causes: going green after death shows faith in future

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"God or no, death remains staunchly unavoidable and, as our numbers swell, increasingly competitive."
“God or no, death remains staunchly unavoidable and, as our numbers swell, increasingly competitive.” Photo: Virginia Star

As a child, I took an unhealthy interest in Bosch – not the power-tool people but Jeroen Anthonissen van Aken, aka Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th-century painter of hellish torment and excruciation. In rapt wonderment, I’d gaze at the diverse tortures Bosch’s bird-beaked and moth-winged monsters inflict in perpetuity on their naked human victims; the piercings and burnings, the stretchings and flayings, the machines.

Rapt wonderment wasn’t quite the desired response, of course. More your abject terror followed by cowed and tractable piety. But you couldn’t be cowed if you didn’t believe, and what stood between me and belief was the ontology of the thing.

How could the soul live forever? Even allowing for the artistic convention of showing the soul as a tiny human, what could it possibly mean to say I’ll see you in hell, or in heaven? How would you even recognise your arch enemy without their identifying flesh, or indeed yours? How would they fit punishment to crime? Would our souls wear toe tags? Barcodes? Microchips?

The more we understand the electrochemical interdependency of mind and body, the less plausible seems any immortality of a personal kind. I know what you’re going to say. Afterlife is a faith thing and mystery is part of the deal, part of the test. So making sense is one obligation immortality doesn’t have. Still, I like my tenets of faith to be at least conceivable.

Bosch’s audience were prepared ground, of course – prepared by centuries of plague, a vengeful theology and the Ars moriendi, or The Art of Dying Well, a document designed to stand in for a plague-decimated priesthood.

The Ars moriendi, first drafted around 1415, was so widely translated, rewritten and republished over the next century as to constitute its own literary genre – a popularity due not least to the constant reminders from life, the church and painters like Bosch, of just how bad deaths could be and, scarier still, what could follow.

For the fear was never just of death. We moderns may see death as a mere finger-snap between being and nothingness but for the medievals, and most of history, the manner and manners of death signified deeply. Whether you resisted death’s temptations (including impatience), whether you repented wholeheartedly and whether you observed the proper death protocols, could determine who got your soul and what they did to it.

It’s weird, the immortality game. For one thing, it’s the cultures that believe most strongly in the soul everlasting that are also most vehement about the fate of the vacated corpse. Such cultures oppose organ donation, refuse cremation, demand burial sites with views and send trinkets, while feckless seculars like me, who don’t have eternity as a fallback, go ”fine, use my eyes. Whatever”.

Matt Smith, lead embalmer for Frigid Fluid Co, stars in a short YouTube video, Become a Better Embalmer, that plays to the apparently widespread desire to make the perfect corpse. Mr Smith advises filling every tube and capillary with silicone. It’s not biodegradable, but that’s the point. It lasts and lasts.

Weirder still is the faux-science of cryonics. Sure, there’s a grisly charm about all those rich wrinklies getting themselves deep frozen in the hope of Rip van Winkling a few lifetimes further on. Even if you could avoid the cell breakdown that starts within a few seconds of death, do we really believe the mind inheres somehow in the body?

To achieve ”biostasis”, Alcor Life Extension Foundation replaces half your cell water with antifreeze and drops you to minus 120° C where ”biological time stops”. Six-generations hence, the cryo-monitor perhaps flips the switch or – anticipating an army of thawing ancients with the freeze-dried consistency of 10-year frozen ling fillets – perhaps pockets the dosh and be damned.

And the science? In answer to concern about the soul during cryo-suspension,’s Dr Carl Wieland says resuscitating a frozen stiff is as plausible as ”unscrambling an omelet after it’s been fried”.

God or no, death remains staunchly unavoidable and, as our numbers swell, increasingly competitive. In Beijing, the China Daily reports, half square-metre grave plots start at $10,000 – twice the per-square-metre cost of an apartment. In Shanghai, they bury people seven or eight deep, on a limited 20-year lease (with the dead, after that time, being publicly listed as defaulters). And still demand outstrips supply.

But the footprint issue isn’t just spatial. There’s the chemistry to consider. Pretty soon we’ll be buying carbon credits, just for the pleasure of going up in smoke. In Australia, as baby boomers hit the downhill run, the funeral business nears the billion-dollar mark. Increasingly, to die well is to die green. People are being buried boxless, unembalmed, unmarked and standing up, like so many terracotta warriors.

My death of choice would involve fast cars and ecstatic drugs. Nothing intubated, unless it’s the gas in the Aston. And after? Well there’s Eternal Reefs who, for a large sum of money, will mix you with cement, mould you into a synthetic reef and drop you into the Gulf of Mexico as play equipment for seafood. There’s bio-cremation, which chemically cooks you until you’re safe to release into the soil. And there’s Byron Bay’s Zenith Virago, who will help you into an at-home death and a designated green-cemetery burial.

But I keep coming back to Bosch, and his successors in surrealism, the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robots, or EATRs. These long-range endurance war-bots, rumoured to be in development by US black ops, make drone warfare look like kindergarten. Having killed, they eat the evidence and use it as fuel.

That has to be an idea with green potential. I mean, if it eats, it poos, right? Maybe Barack Obama’s EATRs could be repurposed to munch us up and spit us out as a kind of dynamic lifter. That, surely, would be to die well.



In a vegetarian’s world, no one can hear a carrot scream

"Or is what we're objecting to here the very arrogance of presuming human life to be more important than the animal's?"

In what world could vegetarianism possibly be a dangerous idea? Except perhaps in a world run by vegetables. (And what would you call that? Hortocracy? Florigarchy? Vegetariat?)

At this weekend’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, the Eating Animals author, Jonathan Safran Foer, insists vegetarianism is socially, physically and culturally threatening. That people get ”heated” discussing it betrays, he says, a subliminal acknowledgment that ”something really big is going on”. Then again, I’ve seen people get heated over the size of their desk, the brand of their eyelash glue, the possibility of germs on Mars.

But the implication is that animal-eating differs from all other activities, in particular other eating-type activities; different not just nutritionally and environmentally, but morally.

Which is probably the real reason why people get hot under the collar talking to vegos; the air of assumed superiority – or the carnivore’s assumption of the herbivore’s assumed superiority – from the not-eating of meat.

Is there a clear moral gradient here? Because if it’s a bandwagon, especially a moral one, I’d like to be on it. But the arguments are pretty murky, and not helped by the intensity of surrounding passions. Foer became politicised, he tells us, by a visit to an industrialised turkey farm, crowded, filthy, disease-ridden. Such farms are certainly cruel, and I accept that most of us – our consciousness only slightly raised – would cease eating meat produced that way.

But to say cruelty is wrong is not the same as saying meat-eating is wrong, unless killing is itself wrong. So are we saying meat-eating is inherently cruel? Is it intrinsically wrong to end an animal’s life to support our own? Or is it the manner and means of death that counts?

If, for example, we were only to eat happy, healthy, humanely killed free-range poultry, would that be acceptable? And would it be OK if we routinely ensured our pigs were killed with respect and gratitude, as with Sioux hunters and their buffalo?

Many people argue we wouldn’t eat meat if we saw it produced. But sending a kid to live on a Tuscan pig farm or indeed a Bringelly chook factory where death and cruelty are the norm might either put the child off meat forever or harden the child’s heart, underlining pain and suffering as a normal part of life.

Perhaps we could apply the fishing principle, where it’s OK to kill what you need to stay alive, but no more.

Do we actually need meat to live wholly and healthily? The science is not clear – some medics and nutritionists argue meat is essential, especially to growing brains. Others say no. But would it change the morality? Is it more moral to kill if you need to, to stay alive? Is it different if we eat less meat, which would clearly be better in health and environmental terms, and might end the necessity for battery farms.

Or is what we’re objecting to here the very arrogance of presuming human life to be more important than the animal’s? After all, we have to eat something. And who’s to say carrots don’t feel pain when mercilessly chopped, diced or julienned? Why is it not arrogant and unfeeling to boil a beetroot? And what about insects? Hipster cafes in Soho and Santa Monica serve tempura cicadas, centipede sushi and crunchy tick sorbet with the implication that they’re not really animals, so it’s not really meat.

Not only do insects have a ”global wet biomass” far outweighing humanity’s, they’re also way down the food chain. As foodstuffs, therefore, they’re embodied efficiency; vastly less wasteful of energy, water, food, soil and space than your standard hamburger patty.

Morally speaking, though, that’s all beside the point. The suggestion, across most of the sudden global rash of books on the subject, is we shouldn’t eat animals because they’re nice. And why are they nice? Because they’re like us; the animals to which we are most attached are those most similar to ourselves. Warm-blooded, fur-skinned, big-eyed and emotionally expressive.

You don’t hear the same lobbyists for bacterial rights or even fish. Isn’t the moral push for vegetarianism still anthropocentric, still just a form of speciesism? And doesn’t this make it, at best, inconsistent? On the one hand, we’re told we shouldn’t eat animals because they’re just like us – animals. On the other hand, we’re still special. There’s no push to stop lions or grisly bears or currawongs or even Chihuahuas eating meat. Just humans, because, well, we’re moral. Unlike them, we are capable of good.

I’m fine with vegetarianism. Do it as a health kick, an environmental gesture, a weight loss gig. Just don’t pretend it’s a moral stance, OK?



Victims need art like a hole in the head

Architect Shigeru Ban.Architect Shigeru Ban.

After every earthquake or other disaster, so it seems, up pops architect Shigeru Ban, offering his paper houses and cardboard cathedrals and attracting a minor torrent of attention. (That he is now designing a thicket of paper trees outside the Powerhouse Museum should maybe make us worry. What does he know about our faultline that we don’t?)

Ban is not alone. It’s a veritable global phenomenon, this rushing of the world’s architects like so many half-baked platelets to the site of the latest catastrophe.

I’ve lately been exchanging bile on this subject with a friend, a Tokyo architecture professor who, having seen off earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, is having a harder time surviving the avalanche of well-meant, if simultaneously self-serving, condescension.

A typical snippet went like this:

Tokyo: ”Hopefully I’m not being too negatively cynical . . . but will any of the designs actually be useful?”

Sydney: ”Cynical? I call it intelligent . . . If there were more such cynicism in the world there might be less crap and hypocrisy.”

Tokyo: ”If you’re wondering just how f’kin mean-spirited I can get, I’ll show you.”

Of course, there are good things done by architects in dire situations. Shelter is architecture’s ur-business, and organisations such as Paul Pholeros’s Healthabitat, Anna Rubbo’s Global Studio, Andrea Nield’s Emergency Architects Australia and Architects Without Frontiers all do sterling work.

But disaster is also, undeniably, in vogue. So an examination of motives makes fascinating reading.

As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote recently: ”There are [architects] who invest time and talent willingly for art or a cause, and others who are equally willing to build hell for the devil himself should the opportunity arise.” What she did not say is that these can be the same people at the same time.

This ambiguity is built-in. Architects are usually decent types who often feel a bit of a karma deficit, resulting from long-term enslavement to myopic developers. Many, therefore, have a kitset house idea flat-packed away in some dusty mental corner, waiting for socialism to get chic again.

Now, with the mid-century prefab look pioneered by Prouve, Eames and Ellwood finally a la mode, the step to emergency shelter is small. And who could be more building-needy than earthquake victims?

Shigeru Ban has achieved global celebrity out of humanitarian modesty itself. Kobe, Turkey, Sri Lanka, China – Ban is always there and he always gets his gig. Christchurch’s 700-seat Shigeru Ban-designed cardboard cathedral is expected to be completed by February. Ban told the people ”you need to build a new Christchurch, not just bring back the previous one”.

Never mind the logic of taking a useful and durable building material (wood) and applying vast amounts of energy and water to render it vastly less durable and useful as cardboard. Ban is proof that, in architecture, nothing succeeds like a gimmick.

It is not that he exploits disasters for personal gain but that his work is sometimes entirely inappropriate in the circumstances. So while the urge to help may be real, it’s definitely worth being cynical. Worth wondering whether architects, who so readily abandon utility in the interests of ”design”, are the best people to shelter distraught humanity.

The recent Emergency Shelter Exhibition at Customs House was organised by Japanese architect Jun Sakaguchi with – no doubt – the highest possible motives. Yet the proposals ranged from the daft to the downright fatuous.

Lanterns were big. Japan, lanterns – get it? The Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA), usually conspicuous for its thoughtful intelligence, produced digital origami, a ”new take on the paper lantern”.

A layered plywood amoeba, stylishly edged in LAVA’s trademark lime green, it was designed more for media attention than for tedious practicalities like blocking water, wind or rats.

Described by its architects as ”an inhabited . . . water molecule, referencing the Japanese metabolist movement’s idea of prefabricated capsules as living space” it ”plays with ideas of prefabrication” and ”can be shipped as a flat pack, cut out of local plywood, or dropped off by helicopter”. The interior can then be ”carved out of wood, cardboard, newspapers or other locally available materials”.

”Local plywood? Cut by local CNC routers?” Professor Tokyo exploded. ”Newspaper? Does it rain in disaster areas?”

LAVA’s Chris Bosse, pressed on this, comes clean. The computer-cut layering isn’t really part of it. Nor is the lime green. Nor, actually, is the LED lighting. In fact, the model isn’t really like the proposal, at all.

”My initial response,” he says, ”was to buy an IKEA tent for $20 . . . but then we didn’t see how that contributes to the world’s design response.”

Had he done that, we might have had a proper discussion, instead of a flatulent PR flurry. But it wouldn’t have got LAVA front-covered by a dozen different design mags. He can hardly be blamed for doing what the media demands.

One local firm of architects also had a little lantern moment, offering homeless Japanese a collection of translucent white Tardises with walls created by the people of Sydney out of ”ema” or Japanese prayer tablets, to show that ”we are here for them”. Crikey. Is that what worries people as the road opens up in front of them, their babies get doused with radiation and they find cows rotting in trees – that we are here for them?

There are effective responses but, predictably, they miss the limelight, mainly because they’re getting on and doing it, such as Tony Clark’s prizewinning backpack bed.

Such as DV. Rogers’s Disastr Hotel, which at least uses its ply to shed water. Or ShelterBox, whose waterproof boxes hold a tent, water purifiers, stoves, tools, blankets and toys. This year, 107,470 ShelterBoxes have gone out across four continents. Have you heard of them? No.

My Tokyo friend wonders whether it’s too jaundiced to ”expect architects who do good to behave more like [the media-shy] Paul Pholeros than Donald Trump”.

But what we should wonder is how it came to this. Why a sensible, cheap, targeted solution is not a ”design response” yet an airhead object that barely considers the issues garners global attention. Definitely time to get cynical.

Deafened by roar of the crowd

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<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>Illustration: Edd Aragon

Last week – Ground Zero week – a reader sent me a compliment of sorts, saying that a recent column had been the first of mine that he’d ”been able to read right through”.

The assumption is that a good column tells people what they want to hear. As though reading were an appetite and the task of the writer (or painter or filmmaker) is simply to fill each person’s bowl as required – no less, no more, and definitely nothing unsolicited.

This is the reigning dogma of our time, the idea that what we want – popularity – should determine what is written, played, shown, made, believed and taught. It infects not just entertainment, food and fashion, where it belongs, but also consumerism, planning and politics, where it half-belongs, and education, art, literature, science and theology, where it is entirely out of place.

”If you want to make money,” one well-known publisher habitually advises, ”go with crime or cooking. Nothing else sells.” And if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t get published. This is the market model of life, which views the world as one big service industry. It’s now clear that market-mindedness doesn’t even run markets very well, yet increasingly we let it determine what art is shown and what cars are made, what shape our cities and our politics take, what our children are taught in school and what beliefs govern our future.

When democracy colours our entire worldview, it becomes what John Stuart Mill called the ”tyranny of the majority”. Obama calls it ”the race to the bottom”. Either way, it is both dangerous and wrong.

It’s wrong because of mis-wanting; because we do not reliably want what is good, individually, collectively, or over time. We do not reliably want broccoli instead of cheesecake, or genius instead of pap.

Perhaps it has always been thus. Look at Mozart. Nietzsche. Modigliani. Genius has always starved in a garret while pop-culture danced in the beer halls. But the various paternalistic regimes of history – monarchy, empire, oligarchy – offered, for all their obvious faults, a top-down cultural balance for all that burgeoning bottom-upness.

They treasured what is necessary to sustain a non-popularity system, namely judgment. (This is about where my sage correspondent bows out.)

Now, as even the ABC disappears beneath an avalanche of silly panel shows and documentaries geared to a mental age of four, almost nothing remains but the popular. Mechanisms that should guarantee diversity – multiculturalism, globalism, the blogosphere – only grind the puree to an ever-finer, ever-greyer sludge.

Not that grey sludge is what we want. Grey sludge is simply the result of countless individual graspings for countless high-chroma baubles.

No doubt every artist struggles with the tension between the ”push” of what she or he wants to say, and the ”pull” of what people want to hear. A balance must be struck. Err too much one way, and you’ll make money but add nothing to people’s existing mental furniture. Too much the other way and you go obscurely down the toilet – integrity intact, but still adding nothing.

Some, such as Stephen King or Ken Done, naturally locate well towards the populism end and get rich without significant compromise. Others, such as Shakespeare or, perhaps, J.K. Rowling, are popular as well as brilliant (though I suspect even Shakespeare, writing now, would go unpublished). But thousands of wonderful books never hit the shelves and brilliant painters die in obscurity.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter. It’s unfair, but no more so than scarlet fever or battery hens or offshore processing or a thousand other things.

And certainly there are times when it seems appropriate to apply democracy even to an art object. Michael Arad’s September 11 memorial, Reflecting Absence, whose square waterfalls suggest the twin towers’ water-filled footprints, would seem such a one. The Metropolis magazine critic Philip Nobel slated it as ”deeply compromised, existentially confused and flawed by bad taste”.

What drew Nobel’s ire? Not just the cliched title or interminably politicised process but the very concept, which in a wonderful concatenation of adverbs he described as ”a hastily repurposed, politically tainted, commercially endorsed, creatively mundane architectural idea”.

Audacious and eloquent, but is he right? And, if so, what’s wrong with that? Weren’t compromised, confused, political and commercial Manhattan’s driving adjectives from the start? And if it’s those kitschy, bas-relief bronze firefighters he’s calling bad taste, well, yep; like our own Bali memorial at Coogee. But if bottom-upness is appropriate anywhere, surely it’s in these public monuments, the brass bands of the sculpture world.

But I’m less comfortable with crowd-pleasing in education. Less comfortable with maths that puts games in place of algebra and English that studies Disney instead of Dickens; with university as service provider and student as customer, forcing the academic – like the Coen Brothers’ Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man – to court his students’ approval and pass those he knows should fail. I have some sympathy with China’s tiger mothers, who know things only become fun when you get good at them; until then, someone has to do the pushing, because it won’t be the kid.

I’m seriously uncomfortable with parents tinkering with the curriculum and with planning academics, who know better, defending sprawl because ”people like it”.

Where market-mindedness is dodgiest, though, is in science. Science, surely, is a truth-based discipline. For science – especially climate science – to be seen as something you can buy into or out of, like football or unionism, is seriously dangerous.

It turns out Zhou Enlai’s famous quip, ”it is too soon to say” was about the Cultural Revolution, not the French one. Yet I prefer the original. On democracy, the jury is still out.

But know this. The push and the pull are the twin towers of a thriving culture. If either collapses, you end with nothing but a watery hole in the ground.

World-class cities are built from good ideas

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>.Illustration: Edd Aragon.

”Australians who think the carbon tax is asking them to live without the creature comforts should come and look at this building,” Julia Gillard said, opening Sydney’s newest and greenest office tower, 1 Bligh, last week.

And for a minute, despite the glam – the 18-carat harbour glitter, the cocktail dresses, the fireworks – I felt a reckless optimism that Sydney was at last coming of age. Or perhaps it is a delayed effect of September 11; not an end to towers, but a shift of emphasis from quantity to quality.

They prove that good ideas, followed through, make good buildings, and good buildings make money. They also make good cities.

Either way, 1 Bligh, conspicuous not for its height but its confidence, nestles comfortably among a gaggle of Sydney towers that are undeniably world-class. Easily visible through 1 Bligh’s ultra-clear, curving glass skin are a Norman Foster (one of two), a Richard Rogers (still emerging), two Denton Corker Marshalls and four Harry Seidlers – two of them classics – and a Renzo Piano.

To say nothing of the Jean Nouvel, the third Foster and the Frank Gehry all still in utero, as it were, at the other end of town.

What sets these buildings apart – what makes them world-class – is that they’re about something. Ideas. They prove that good ideas, followed through, make good buildings, and good buildings make money. They also make good cities.

This sounds easy but isn’t, because the city-building process is so long and convoluted and the forces of compromise so pervasive and multi-pronged. Generally, in Sydney, it’s the forces of compromise that have won.

So my optimism sprang from the microscopic yet tantalising possibility that our esteemed development fraternity is at last beginning to value ideas. Been a long time coming.

Politicians too, or so it would seem. Barry O’Farrell may be, even now, ripping every last shred of ingenuity from Barangaroo, but it’s not every tower that gets its cord cut by the PM. Admittedly, Gillard is expected to take space in 1 Bligh, moving her Sydney offices from Phillip Street, and to this end had crawled all over the building, even on to its glass roof. But that wasn’t the reason for her midwifery.

Gillard’s decision to preside at this particular birth sprang, she said, from her “responsibility to help people understand how we are going to live differently in the future”. This building matters because its shaping idea is one whose time has come.

Skyscrapers are always about power, but 1 Bligh offers a slightly different, 21st century take on this paradigm, acknowledging that power is never outright, but always a balance; that the oppressor is always oppressed; and that long-term survival requires our investment in the enlightened form of self-interest.

Where the classic, last-century skyscraper – Australia Square, for example – focused on dominating and perfecting nature (guzzling energy and water in order to protect ourselves from her whims), 1 Bligh takes a more collaborative approach: real air, chilled beams, solar panels, water recycling, sewage mining, trigeneration. Tony Gulliver, from DEXUS Property, recalls it as love at first sight. The minute Gulliver saw the gleaming elliptical model emerge from its box, he knew it was the one.

He also says, with discernible glee, “Do you know how many city planning rules this building breaks?”

Graham Jahn, now the city’s director of planning but then chair of the selection panel, is more circumspect, emphasising the sheer smarts shown by the Ingenhoven-Architectus tower. Smart buildings so seldom are.

Most buildings tagged ”intelligent” turn out to have the IQ of wilted broccoli, and personality to match. But 1 Bligh is different. For a start, the real air and ultra-clear glass give a sense of environmental connectivity almost unheard of in a commercial tower.

Fresh air is delivered throughout via a full-height, curved-glass chimney that rises dramatically, neck-crickingly, from the foyer, exploiting the stack effect to cool open balconies and bridges on every level.

This is unusual enough, but the building’s most ingenious trait is also its most obvious; its elliptical plan.

Christoph Ingenhoven explains this as primarily a civic response. The site sits on the bend of Bent Street, at the meeting of two non-parallel street grids whose clash forms the shadowy remnant that is Farrer Place.

The city planning rules (which I helped frame, sometime last millennium) required a street-hugging podium with retail frontages and set-backs above. The idea was to re-assert the traditional Sydney street, as defined by those much-loved sandstone buildings, such as the Lands and Education departments, on to which 1 Bligh so happily looks.

But Ingenhoven-Architectus totally ignored this – as had both Piano and Seidler, but with better reason. Ingenhoven’s site really was special and his ellipse offered genuine benefits.

First, while aligning with neither grid, the ellipse actually resolves the clash by leaving a north-sloping triangular plaza at the front.

Flanked by a grand, curving, six-metre stair so sun-drenched it tempts even suits to sit and linger, this doubles the effective size and amenity of Farrer Place in a way that architects dream of but seldom achieve.

“For me,” Ingenhoven says, standing in the foyer, “this is what the building is about. It’s like a stage set. The building is in the city, and the city is in the building.”

The ellipse has other virtues. It preserves neighbours’ views, minimising objections. It increases volume-to-surface-area ratio, minimising heat transfer and energy use. It decreases wind turbulence, reducing lateral loads, column size and cost while increasing openness. And, as Ingenhoven notes, it shoves floor space “up into the dollars”.

Of course, an all-glass skin – even a double skin ventilated at each floor like this one – would normally be a heat-gain catastrophe, requiring massive, energy-sucking aircon.

Here, though, the ventilated cavity also contains automatic, view-preserving louvres that mean the sun never hits the inner skin, so that high-efficiency, chilled-beam air-cooling is adequate for much of the floor plate.

Regarding 1 Bligh, Gillard is on the money. It’s green, lovely to behold and a joy to be in. Green seduction made manifest. Surrender to the inevitable.

Keeping quiet allows intolerance to thrive

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>.Illustration: Edd Aragon.

I was shocked to attend my first bar mitzvah in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and find the room formally segregated by gender, with potted monstera thicket between. Many of the Jewish women around me were also surprised but, finding the service mainly in Hebrew and directed male-wards, settled down with a collective shrug to chatter through till food time.

Trivial, perhaps. But what if we were black and white instead of male and female? Then we’d protest, right? We’d stand and shout apartheid, yelling that segregation was not just illegal but wrong. For segregation is never just separation. It’s always about power. Yet somehow when it’s gender not colour, and there are religious and cultural differences, we look politely away.

This is what the London anti-sharia campaigner Maryam Namazie, speaking in Sydney last week, calls gender apartheid. She also calls it cultural relativism; one standard for us, another for them. I’d call it moral relativism, but call it what you will, it is profoundly dangerous to a free and fair society.

As a character in Lloyd Newson’s Can We Talk about This?, at the Opera House last weekend, notes: “the trouble with us in the west is that . . . we succumb to a pious paralysis where we can’t even say that we’re superior to the Taliban”.

Namazie says it’s worse than mere cowardice. The thinking classes’ timid silence on Islamism cedes the critical ground to the far right, allowing Islamists to cry Islamophobia and render themselves immune.

I’d forgotten the bar mitzvah incident until hearing a similar tale about UWS Islamic Awareness Week last year. Atheist Foundation members, invited to debate the existence of God with the Muslim Students Association, found the room segregated, men left, women right.

Ian Bryce, from the Secular Party of Australia, recalls also a ”couples” space in the centre, and jests that a gay couple from their number should have sat there. It would have been a brave move. An ex-Muslim, Hossain Salahuddin, remembers the audience as “very hostile . . . pretty nasty”. A heckler shouting, “Islam will conquer the world”, was cheered and a couple of the looser canons were ejected. The atheists were later escorted by security not just from the room but also from the campus.

This is Australia; an Australian university, for godsake, where Bryce – famous for his 2008 fake popemobile – once taught aerospace engineering. Yet we say nothing. Our desperation to avoid intolerance allows intolerance to thrive. Our determination not to offend means we tolerate the thoroughly offensive.

Of course it was silly to debate God. Faith and reason are oil and water; immiscible, if not incompatible. But God per se – Allah or Yahweh or Jesus – is not the problem. The problem arises when God becomes law.

The west’s separation of Church and state is something to cherish. Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, distinguishing the earthly rule of law from the heavenly rule of grace, began the end of the inquisition. Thank God for it.

Namazie’s point is that Islam is still in its inquisition phase; namely, Islamism, the domineering, world-conquering version of the religion. Namazie, an atheist ex-Muslim, argues forcefully that moderate Islam as a religion is acceptable but that it must, for all our sakes, be reined in, as Christianity was, to prevent Islamism conquering all. Religion may be allowed into our lives, but not our laws.

But, Namazie notes, the Christian Reformation was propelled by relentless critique from Europe’s intellectuals. On Islam, by contrast, the intellectual communities in both the post-modern west and the pre-modern east, hold back.

We, here, do not see Islamism as a genuine threat – the numbers are small and our constitution, such as it is, forbids the Commonwealth “establishing any religion or imposing any religious observance”. Also, we don’t talk about it. We self-censor.

But there are calls for sharia in Australia, and stridently unself-censoring they are, too. Ibrahim Siddiq-Conlon, a UTS-trained architect, born Shannon Conlon, a fundamentalist Christian in Adelaide, formed Sharia4Australia last year. “I hate democracy with a pure hate . . .” he says. “One day Australia will be ruled by sharia, no doubt.”

In particular, the push is for sharia courts, which will establish – as they have in Britain – sharia pockets within society. They’re not voluntary pockets, especially not for women. As Namazie says, “the first victims of Islamism are Muslims” – often those fleeing here to escape sharia.

More than 85 sharia courts operate in Britain. Because they come under the Arbitration Act and deal with “domestic” issues – marriage, divorce, custody, domestic violence, rape, adultery, veiling – they’re seen as trivial, no real threat to law.

And because Muslims are seen as a ”them”, the sharia lobbyists can co-opt rights language to insist that ”we” respect ”their” cultural values – such as the right to veil women. For some, the right to honour killings, gay hangings, rape within marriage.

Islamic jurisprudence traditionally treats women’s testimony as half a man’s because “a woman may forget or get confused”. It regards rape within marriage as impossible, because “sex is part of marriage”, Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, the president of Britain’s Islamic Sharia Council, says. It regards gender segregation as standard. And it regards mild criticism as an offence.

A month ago, yellow street signs appeared across the London boroughs of Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Newham declaring each a “Sharia controlled zone: Islamic rules enforced; no music or concerts, no alcohol, etc.” The preacher Abu Izzadeen – formerly Trevor Brooks, electrician – said: “Women should have to cover up . . . thieves should have their hands cut off.” As to stoning adulterers, he added: “One day we hope it will happen.”

A British scientist and imam, Usama Hasan, interviewed for Newson’s play, received death threats for suggesting that evolution might be compatible with the Koran.

This stuff is not tolerable. To tolerate it is not pluralism but hypocrisy. Silence does not asphyxiate it, but lets it grow unchecked. Rape does not become consensual, adultery does not become a crime because the woman is Muslim. If the west means anything, it means universal rights. Anything less is a betrayal of the millions whom the Christian inquisition tortured and burned. Our martyrs.




Let’s shoot straight on gay marriage

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>.Illustration: Edd Aragon.

Have I told you how much I love Penny Wong? Not like that, obviously. Never met the woman. In fact, my one attempt to interview her, back when I had her tagged as the first female prime minister, met with rebuff, rebuff and more rebuff from her staunch staff stockade. But I love her anyway because she strikes me as really bright, really principled and really straight. Not hetero-straight, clearly. Look-you-straight-in-the-eye straight. Straight-shooter straight. Straight, straight.

This alone stands out in a country typically led by blindfold guppies. But I love her even more for being a Malaysian-born Chinese lesbian mother-to-be, proving against the odds that unorthodoxy can still rise to the top here, and for no other reason than outright merit. Verily, it makes me proud to be Australian.

So the ruckus over Wong’s baby, and the responsibilities heaped upon its unborn head – from the London riots to the Marriage Equality Bill – make me mad. There is a righteous tub-thumping here, an emergent irrationality that should worry us all.

First, the commentator Miranda Devine linked the Wong-Allouache pregnancy to fatherless families and the ”Hobbesian chaos the children of the underclasses have been born into for the last 50 years”. Then, within hours, the truly absurd American Rebecca Hagelin stood in Parliament House insisting that same-sex marriage was a betrayal of God and a war on humanity.

We must resist ”efforts to destroy the sacred institution of marriage”, Hagelin told the Marriage Day crowd that included the independent MP Bob Katter. ”We must commit ourselves to educate and hold back the forces of darkness that try to abolish this earthly union that is designed by the Creator to demonstrate his eternal love for us.”

So, how will this doom be delivered? What exactly are these forces of darkness? Why, same-sex union, of course, which is clearly, brick by brick and soul by soul, out to destroy our homes, our cities and our virtue.

”It won’t stop at homosexual marriage,” Hagelin ranted. ”Look for polygamy and marriage between adults and children to be legalised. There is no greater dream for a paedophile than to be able to legally acclaim a child as his lover.”

Why wasn’t she booed off the stage for this ugly prattle? Why wasn’t she ridiculed across the front pages for suggesting that homosexuality and paedophilia are faces of the same coin? Why wasn’t she derided as a Christian for insisting that officialising any declaration of undying love could be a force of darkness? And how does she get away with presenting the gay marriage push as an attempt to abolish straight marriage?

Hagelin finished with classic Billy Graham-type exhortations to ”commit with me to this battle for God’s best today . . . to testify that God’s design for marriage is perfect, to show that marriage under any other definition is a lie . . . Will you . . . stand for marriage?”

And there you have it. It’s all there in a couple of sentences: the presumption of personal access to God’s will, the vilification of any other take on that and the arrogated right to impose that judgment not just on your own life, but universally.

It’s an elision to do any dictator proud. The logic goes like this: I’m right. Not just right for me, but right, period. You are therefore wrong, period. So you must do what I believe to be right, because anything else amounts to an attack by you on my command of divine truth, and therefore on God.

This is ducking-stool type thinking. White-pointy-hood-type thinking. Taliban thinking. Being ineradicably certain of its own divinity, it is unopposable and extremely dangerous.

Never mind that we don’t yet have a demographic breakdown on the London rioters, or that same-sex marriage is not actually legal in Britain, or that legalising gay marriage is unlikely to increase the incidence of fatherless families, or that fatherlessness by itself has never been shown to cause ”Hobbesian chaos”.

Never mind that Spain has legal same-sex marriage, and no such riots. Never mind that polygamy was standard Old Testament practice, that the church is demonstrably rife with paedophilia or that Jesus had two fathers. Never mind the sheer illogic of arguing that straight people must be married in order to nurture children but gay people, even when procreating, must not.

In my next life I want to be smug. I want to be one of those people who is so sure of their own superiority and beliefs that they feel duty-bound to impose them on everyone else.

Okay. So I’m scarred in this respect. When I was 15 my entire class – a bright lot, the top class at a terribly respectable girls’ grammar – converted to Jesus freakery. One day they were people you could at least argue with. The next they were popping off to prayer meetings every five minutes and treating all dissent with the stonewall condescension of the chosen.

You could argue with them all day or week. You could be reasoned, calm and right – yet the response was unchanging; a pitying superiority based on divine access and an unassailable sense of right.

For me, the question is this. Why do people feel this need to run my life, as well as theirs? Why do they feel dissent as a form of attack? The answer is not God, per se, or even belief. It’s this sense of chosenness.

It seems reasonable to me to fight for the right to run your life your way; to marry and procreate and worship by your own lights. But it is entirely unreasonable, absent some genuine threat to social order, to force these values on others.

And it’s this presumption of divine access in order to enforce uniformity – this sense of entitlement – that is the real link to the London rioters, and the real threat to civilised life, depending as it does on the wilful abandonment of reason and merit for the hate-filled, know-nothing demagoguery of the mob.

This is why I love Penny Wong.

Carbon tax takes wrong side of track

Thursday, August 18.Thursday, August 18.

In a way, it’s all transport. From the movement of ions across cell membranes and the painting of toenails, to the trucking of freesias into global cities and the chucking of chimps into orbit, it’s all moving stuff from one place to another. A to B and back again, as Andy Warhol so neatly had it.

In Australia, especially, because we do so much of this, you’d think we’d be really good at it. You’d think we’d have this transport thing right down, finer than angels’ wings.

But quantity, sadly, is not quality. For most of us, transport is glaze-over territory, hyper-technical, the last bastion of the expert. Yet we walk away at our peril, for it’s this abdication that has produced a transport system – if system’s not too strong a word – that is far from our finest moment.

Lance Hockridge’s excellent speech to the National Press Club last week highlighted a few of the stupidities, most glaringly the fact that, while cars and trucks will be exempt from the carbon tax, trains will not.

Over a year, noted Hockridge, one commuter train is the carbon-reduction equivalent of 320 hectares of freshly planted trees. One Melbourne-Sydney goods train equals 600 hectares, or “the same as a household going without electricity for 46 years”.

Rail emits 40 per cent less carbon per passenger kilometre than road, yet if you expect a carbon tax to encourage such eco-mindedness, think again. This is populism at its most base. If there are no mums and dads screaming for it, the government doesn’t give a damn.

But it’s even worse than that, for the carbon tax doesn’t just not incentivise rail, it actively penalises it. This is on top of the $1.9 billion subsidy Sydney’s road network received from the state alone in 2008-09. Triple whammy.

And we watch and shrug, as if it’s perfectly standard for governments to act against their own rhetoric. As if hypocrisy is precisely what we elect them for. As if all that matters to us is the price at the pump.

I know, you’re hanging out for the techno-fix, the hydrogen-powered car that, notwithstanding the first law of thermodynamics, will let us have our cake and eat it. But even that magic bullet will clog roads, devour fertile land and generate the brash centrifugal dispersion of car-based culture. It’ll still kill.

Hockridge, a former BHP executive and now chief executive of Queensland Rail who chairs the Australasian Railway Association, quoted a recent Deloitte/Access Economics report that puts the cost of the 30,000 annual road injuries at $35 billion.

On this basis, a single passenger train reduces accident costs by an amount that would fund 505 hospital beds, even as it reduces demand for those beds.

And there’s the small issue of fuel. Trains, like cars and trucks, can run on electricity, which can be renewably generated. On the whole, however, they don’t, and it’s not. Only one-sixth of our rail energy is electric. The rest is diesel, as are roughly a third of all Australia’s road transport calories.

True, diesel is the surprise darling of the thinking classes, which is why all the latest small eurocars that used to sound like sewing machines now grumble along like so many disconsolate troglodytes.

Even filtered, however, diesel is still pretty dodgy on the particulate front, and the ”new diesel” chic has been blamed for the mass extinction of the London sparrow, while if it’s biodiesel (which is meant to burn more cleanly) it probably comes from palm oil and kills orang-utans as well. So no, diesel is no panacea.

And so to cycling. Cadel Evans might have returned to rapturous applause but out there at the coalface of Sydney’s roads, it’s still war.

Be as polite as you like, hug the bike lanes, brave the car doors, but motorists still try and run you off the road, buses still blast you with their horns, pedestrians still try to push you off into oncoming traffic and – as happened to me recently – security goons still leave filthy notes for locking your bike outside their six-green-star building.

It’s amazing how cross motorists get sitting behind a bike for a minute or two, when they’ll sit behind other cars – which clog the road much more effectively – for uncomplaining hours. Congestion costs Australia $15 billion a year.

Cycling, though, reduces not only congestion, but also the vast health costs of diabesity and depression. The government could probably buy every one of us a Trek Yoshotimo Nara, instead of subsidising petrol, and still be ahead.

You’d think it could stretch to bike share. Barclays Bicycle Hire in London – aka Boris’s Bikes – is now a year old. With 6 million journeys in that time, only 200 of the 6000 bikes have fallen to vandalism and there have been no serious injuries, or none reported.

Again, it’s an easy and intelligent system. I’ve done it – a card in the slot and away you go. Sure, Sydney would need to tweak its helmet laws and the bikes lose money – £10 million last year. But that’s called subsidy. Along with hypocrisy, it’s what we have government for.

There’s also the demand side of transport and the inescapable fact that global transport use is breathtakingly, and increasingly, wasteful. You can buy New Zealand butter in London more cheaply than the local stuff; America routinely exports 330,000 tonnes of potatoes, and imports 370,000 tonnes. And so on.

This constant global cross-gartering of pointless travel is, in the cliche, low-hanging fruit. But given that Sydney’s been trying to get an oyster card for 20 years, and failed, I’m not expecting it for eating any time soon.



Designers’ Great Task is to green our cities

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon<\em)Illustration: Edd Aragon.

I’ve been asking my shrink why I’m so wary of writing again about Barangaroo. He blames the splatter-pattern vitriol that results. As if.

No, my real problem, I’ve decided, is with a name so ugly I can barely bring myself to let it on the page. BarangaROO. Bottom-heavy and air-headed, like a hollow-point bullet, it blows such a hole in a sentence there’s nothing but soft tissue and verb endings from here to breakfast.

So I’m digging deep, because there are bigger things at stake than mere aesthetics. The future of the species, for one.

There’s an aesthetic aspect to Barangaroo (see what I mean, there goes the sentence), although with each passing day this seems less of an issue.

Indeed, if you graphed the scheme’s blood-oxygen levels over time, they’d show a steady descent, with the occasional stockmarket freefall, all the way from that first, joyous little package that, with Martha Schwartz and the rest, first kicked its way into life back in 2007. And now the forces of dullness gather to saw off its last bit of feist, the hotel.

Reviled as a ”hotel in the harbour” it was really just a decorative re-shaping of the already synthetic shoreline, a rococo sandbag against the flooding boredom. But that was its big sin. Shamelessly aggressive – individualist, thrusting, erectile – it was, OMG, male.

Steadily, just as naughty-boyness is being tut-tutted out of our primary schools, that original lively scheme has been herded, squashed, cheap- ened, detextured and deflavoured by committees, politicians, developers, protesters and tut-tutters of every stripe. Each cut has made it worse. Dull, duller, dullest.

Not that I care. Do what you like with your rotten city. It’s the world I care about. And that’s just it, really. The desperate, global need for a light on the urban hill.

Humans have been building cities for 10,000 years, give or take. And evolutionists tell us that for the last few millennia, at least, we’ve been getting smarter. But if that’s true, why are our cities getting worse?

And why are they getting worse – uglier, clumsier, cruder – just when our survival depends on their improvement?

How is city form a survival issue? It’s like this. Since an increasing majority of us now live in cities, and cities (as opposed, for example, to sprawl) are far and away the most energy, land, material and water-efficient living systems so far invented, and democracy makes this a matter of choice, cities need to be attractive. They need to be objects of desire.

This is what I call green seduction, which should be, henceforth, The Great Task of architects, urbanists and designers the world over. The professions should devote themselves to using every potion, spell and enchantment at their disposal to seduce us into living more gently on the planet.

So, indeed, should the Greens. Maybe when they grow out of just being against things and start looking for something to be for, they’ll understand that the emerald city, far from being the enemy, is the biggest gift they could give humanity.

Of which Barangaroo – damn, that word again – should be an exemplar. It’s one of the biggest and most gloriously sited urban schemes in the world at the moment. Are we seriously going to let it devolve into a clump of lowest-common-denominator office towers with a faux-natural front yard?

For some reason we think it’s just fine that governments behave exactly like cretinous developers, only with the enormous fat stores of all that lovely crown land to rampage through at will.

Of course governments value only the dollar. Of course they should cram as much as possible onto the site, as cheaply as possible, in order to squeeze as many dollars out the top as possible. Of course design flair is out of the question. Of course mediocrity is the core Australian value. We like things really, really, really boring. Obviously.

Ask Simon Mordant, the chairman of the 2013 Venice Biennale pavilion committee who insists that “we’re not looking to build something architecturally outstanding”.

What beats outstanding? Why, “something that works for the artist”, of course. Some mortgage-paying, time-keeping, law-abiding roof-and-four-walls on which to hang pictures. Some nice tilt-up shed perhaps.

As though a building couldn’t be both brilliant and workable. As though that weren’t actually the definition of architecture. As though this weren’t the first new Giardini pavilion this century, with all eyes on it. As though every second Biennale weren’t an architectural one. As though we just didn’t give a damn.

What is it about Australia that we put these people in charge? Why do we refuse the school-bully but accept the bullying of the rich? Buying art doesn’t mean you know anything about it. Most rich people are rich only because they do not waste time on any non-money stuff like scholarship, altruism or creativity; because they let no other values cloud the dollar-signs in their eyes.

Or do we actually want to come across as provincial-on-steroids? Is that it?

Ironic, really, since Australia, almost more than any other country, owes its reputation to architecture. Not for quantity, it has to be said. But for that one building. People think Australia, they think Opera House. That’s it.

We think the fifties were bad, and Askin was rotten, but if forces of dullness now controlling both Barangaroo and Venice had been running the show then, we wouldn’t even have the Opera House.

Either Bennelong Point would sport a huddle of ancient tram-sheds, in prescription heritage colours and crammed with government-funded artists’ studios churning out dull political correctness for the corporate market. Or we’d have built one of those local also-rans, something solid and square and functional, a good meat pie of an opera house. None of this fancy shell nonsense.

It might even have brilliant acoustics and a genuine, working fly-tower. But no-one would be blogging snaps of themselves in front of the four’n’twenty.

Good architecture isn’t easy, or there’d be more of it. But it does matter, now more than ever. The B-word proves it (and I’m donning that splatter-jacket … now).

Champagne, not beer, key to a new Pav

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>.Illustration: Edd Aragon.

I know. Ask Prague. There’s always a false spring before the real one. But these soft, sky-high days make me crave champagne and, with it, some lovely eyrie in which to sip the meretricious bubble.

Yet each spring I am surprised, like some slow cuckoo, by how few such nests Sydney offers. There’s no shortage of pubs and bars, or of seaside parks and rocks if that’s your preference. But there’s an astonishing lack of culture-made crannies that are just exuberating places to be.

At least, I’ve always thought it astonishing. Always wondered why Sydney wasn’t festooned with the signs of our delight in it; slung beneath the Harbour Bridge, threading through the colonnade at Central, cantilevering glassily over Martin Place, encrusting the cliff-tops at Bondi.

Now, though, I see my error. I see that to offer an ordinary, elegant space for the delight and dignification of the human is simply unAustralian. It’s as though we’re still ashamed of being here. Still substituting apology for optimism and bureaucracy for chutzpah. Still committed to the dull and predictable – or we wouldn’t be having this ridiculous bunfight over the Australian pavilion in Venice, for a start.

Examples? Two such exuberant spaces leap to mind. Both glassy and linear, high and prospective, though these may not be essential traits. Both, like the best of Australianness, are honest, dry, transparent, modern, dynamic, underdressed and straight. Yet both, as happens, are in London.

One is the lovely champagne bar – Europe’s longest – that Alastair Lansley, last vestige of British Rail’s architect’s department, slotted into the revamped St Pancras. There, high under George Gilbert Scott’s grand glass vault and at lamped tables that are more British Library reading room than railway cafe, you can quaff your Dom or Roederer by the glass and bless the Eurostar before it hightails to Paris.

The other is the bar in Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern, where the sippers line up above the Thames like birds on a wire, silhouetted against St Paul’s and the City and looking down on Foster’s fabulous bridge.

Neither is exclusive or even especially expensive, but both are visually and spatially enchanting. It’s the ultimate in spatial good manners; elegance that, far from making you feel your clay feet, lifts you effortlessly to paradise. So why can’t we make such places to please ourselves in Sydney? Or to represent ourselves in Venice? Why is that verboten?

Of course, they’ll say that’s exactly what they’re doing. But if that’s what they want, they’re going a mighty peculiar way about getting it.

The Venice pavilion may be small – roughly the size of a modest weekender – but it matters. As David Parken, the Institute of Architects CEO, reflected memorably this week, “this is not the Sydney Opera House. This is an important building . . .”

Too important, it seems, not to screw up. Too important for us not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in time-honoured Aussie tradition.

The crisis is hardly unforeseen. The existing Pav’, designed pro bono by Philip Cox in 1988, was always temporary. Just as well, since it is indelibly stamped with that moment in Australian architectural history when we thought everything meaningful could be encapsulated in the wave form.

It was probably fine for a minute, and there’s still a nice open feeling on the (added) verandah under the trees. But the cramped and charmless interior seems especially perverse in this leafy, canal-side location.

So a replacement is needed. No question. What, though? The recent Melbourne competition, run by Cafe di Stasio, produced a stable of unremarkables, little different from the rubbish that currently litters the Giardini.

Yet a couple are good: notably Sverre Fehn’s breathtaking Nordic pavilion from 1962, a single, tree-centred square space in fine white concrete, and James Stirling’s Electa Bookshop (1991), the last built work before his sudden (and, for many, earth-shattering) death in 1992.

With Fehn a modern puritan and Stirling a post-modern roue, the two had little in common except their genius, which was in both cases wild, funny, brave and deeply rebellious. Stirling, an enormous man and renowned curmudgeon who, on our first meeting, wore a Venetian straw boater with a long, lolly-pink ribbon hanging down his back, grudgingly accepted a knighthood because it might be “good for the office”.

What does this suggest in terms of how to represent Australia? Does it say to you, let’s make it really exclusive, not to the best, but to those with a track record?

Our existing public buildings are so shudderingly brilliant that no improvement is possible or necessary so let’s select not on design but on capability. That way it’ll be really fast and really, really predictable.

Let’s, in other words, treat the Oz Pav’ just like a civil engineering project. Is that what it suggests?

Or does it suggest something more like this: here is a rare opportunity, a building of relatively small budget and simple program on a glorious site where symbolism is paramount. Here’s a chance to remake Australia’s international face, a face that will last decades. Let’s therefore seek the very best, ideas that, however simple, are truly stunning. Let’s get it right.

Well you know what I’d do; I’ve pretty much told you already. I’d do something spare, graphic and thrilling. Something that lets you hang over the water, tickle the treetops and explore the spatial magic of life.

I’d appoint a genius jury – Murcutt, Leplastrier, Johnson – with a very tight brief. Then I’d simply throw it open. We have plenty of architects who do this stuff, and do it brilliantly. They’re just not among the half-dozen usual suspects who fit the Australia Council’s bureaucratic prescription.

This is not about being fair, or kind, or giving young talent a chance. Young designers are no more intrinsically interesting than old ones.

This is about seeking out that high, wild card, about not leaving the nuancing of life to some committee, about wanting Australianness to look more like Assange than Murdoch.




Fairness, fault and the killer instinct

All nature is eugenicist; constantly striving to improve and cleanse the gene pool. Which makes our outrage at Anders Breivik?sIllustration: Edd Aragon.

‘So you’re telling me the mother cuttlefish is a eugenicist?” The 11-year-old’s fulsome scorn is directed at David Attenborough, who is buoyantly whispering to us of the female cephalopod’s evident preference for alpha males. To find the strongest, the female must defend herself vigorously, producing a no-means-yes scenario that only the most virile can, well, penetrate. But this in turn inspires the smaller, beta male to come over all Justin Bieber and slip through the female’s defences, getting in first.

”Well, yes,” we say as one. All nature is eugenicist; constantly striving to improve and cleanse the gene pool. Which makes our outrage at Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage the more intriguing. The urge to ethnically cleanse may be natural and tribal, but clearly we expect those troubled by such impulses to keep them seriously buttoned down.

Whitman had earlier recorded his ”tremendous” headaches, his concern over his increasingly violent urges and a request that his brain be autopsied. The subsequent dissection, after police shot him dead, showed a small but aggressive tumour

But what if Breivik’s disinhibition in this regard turned out not to be his fault? He may yet plead insanity; what if some physical abnormality – some gene or growth or endocrine imbalance – ”made” him do it? Would we still hold him responsible? Would we still want to punish him, lock him away, bring back the noose?

Charles Whitman ... discovered to have a brain tumour after  killing his mother, his wife, and  13 other people in 1966.Charles Whitman … discovered to have a brain tumour after killing his mother, his wife, and 13 other people in 1966.

”It’s not my fault!” is the child’s automatic response to accusation, voicing our intuitive sense that responsibility needs volition. With Breivik, our outrage is clearly magnified – more die every day in landslides and train wrecks – by the extraordinary level of volition. The planning, the calculation, the targeting; the will to kill.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist whose new book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, argues both that behaviour is largely biological, driven by factors other than volition, and that this does not absolve us at all.

This sounds contradictory but Eagleman offers examples such as 25-year-old Charles Whitman, who on August 1, 1966, killed his mother, stabbed his sleeping wife five times and then, with an arsenal of weapons, climbed the University of Texas Tower, bashing-in the receptionist’s skull before positioning himself as campus sniper, killing a further 13 and injuring 32.

Whitman had earlier recorded his ”tremendous” headaches, his concern over his increasingly violent urges and a request that his brain be autopsied. The subsequent dissection, after police shot him dead, showed a small but aggressive tumour impinging on the amygdala, the brain structure that regulates emotion.

Eagleman cites other cases. The normal 40-year-old man who suddenly developed a sexual interest in children, was found with a stash of child porn and convicted of paedophilia before being diagnosed with a massive frontal-lobe tumour. When the tumour was removed the child molestation stopped, returning when the tumour regrew and only ending when the tumour was removed completely.

Such cases, of which Eagleman says there are many, are normally thought to absolve or at least diminish responsibility – just as Tourette’s, say, is seen to absolve your responsibility for barking in church, or frontal-lobe dementia for taking off your clothes on the bus.

It’s clear that you can act without volition. But how far should we take this reasoning? Perhaps all action is actually predestined, not by God but by nature or nurture, illness or accident; stuff that’s not our fault. Perhaps free will is illusory.

As Eagleman notes, there is ”a particular set of genes” that ”most prisoners carry” which makes carriers eight times more likely to be arrested for murder.

What to do? Is eugenics after all the answer? Should we sterilise these people, preventing reproduction?

Before endorsing such a plan, you may wish to know the name of this gene-set. It’s called the Y chromosome. Carriers are called ”males”.

The point is, surely, that there’s a sense in which nothing is ever anyone’s fault. My kids gladly blame me for every mistake or failure. Either it’s their genes, which makes it my fault (yes, yes, or their father’s). Or their upbringing, which, ditto.

But then, I have the same recourse. I can blame my parents, and they theirs, back to Adam or the single-cell amoeba, whichever you prefer. We all have excuses but excuses are irrelevant. They don’t let you off the hook. We are all – with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch – constantly required to take responsibility for things that are not our fault.

It’s not your fault your mother gives you foetal alcohol syndrome, like people around the streets here in Redfern. It probably wasn’t her fault that she, like most serial killers, was abused as a child.

Perhaps Amy Winehouse had some gene or imbalance that drove her self-destruction. Perhaps the same gene or imbalance produced her remarkable, broken-hearted talent. None of it was her fault, but it was certainly her responsibility.

A Sydney grandmother, Pat Galea, took dopamine agonist for her restless legs; now it seems the drugs may have caused her gambling addiction but she, not the manufacturer, spent the month in jail.

This question of who should pay goes to the old question of punishment theory. Should it be utilitarian and forward-looking, or retributive? Although emotion always wants revenge, our enlightened selves generally tend the utilitarian way, punishing only for rehabilitation, prevention or protection. Certainly this is Eagleman’s argument: that where genes or circumstance make recidivism likely, sentences should increase to protect future victims.

A study of 23,000 sex offenders shows the strongest predictors of recidivism are not, as expected, childhood abuse or low remorse, but prior history and sexual interest in children. US courtrooms, says Eagleman, now use these ”actuarial tests” to guide sentencing. But this amounts to punishment for crimes uncommitted, directly contradicting our deep, intuitive need for fairness – which we share with other primates and which requires that punishment fit crime, regardless. Life for life, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Children, too, need this. Children’s punishments must always embody both education and prevention. But retribution, too, is neces