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smh opinion 2012

 

The colour of money is ruining art

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

I have been painting my back fence. Not rust prevention; pictures. Figuration for the new year. It’s a stupid thing to do. The work is slow and paint is costly. Dogs pee on my genius and quite likely someone will come along and graffiti over it.

But it’s fun. People stop and chat about Jeffrey Smart, pit bull genetics, the dark truths of public housing corridors or their days flying hash out of Cambodia and Kathmandu.

And though the piece itself is poor, it seems to me – quite irrationally – as valuable a product of my eight years’ hand-eye training as anything from which I’ve made money.

Which raises a question. It’s the same question that underlies the government’s de-funding of all NSW TAFE fine arts courses from Monday coming. Why educate?

At first glance, the axing of TAFE arts sounds quasi-plausible. Boring, yes. Draconian even, but really, in hard times, what’s more important, ceramics or real estate?

This goes to the heart of what we are about.

Fine arts courses are “very popular”, the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, conceded when announcing the cuts in September. Yet “job prospects and completion levels … are low when compared with skills shortage areas such as health, community services, property and business services”.

Job prospects? Completion levels? For artists? Square-shouldered power-breakfasts demanding more artists? Junior required for lifelong underpaid apprenticeship that could yield some unimagined earth-shatterer or could just go nowhere? Hello?

Certainly, job prospects would be low-ish for the 800 TAFE art tutors axed from Monday. Almost as low as completion levels for the 4000 students suddenly unable to finish their courses.

The arts community, rightly furious, rallies, determined to justify its existence in units these dullards will understand. Jobs. Dollars.

And there are studies – mountains of them – showing the economic contribution of the arts. We don’t value the art or the teaching, but studying its dollar value, this is the university grant committee’s cup of tea. Naturally, what such studies find depends on how they reckon.

But in any case, economic benefit is not the point.

Forcing the arts to justify their existence in dollar terms is like addressing the inquisition in glossolalia. It makes their point for them.

The Redfern gallery owner Damien Minton calls this a war on creativity. “Creativity will never fit neatly into an economic determinist Excel spreadsheet. The visual arts is irritating and the word culture immediately makes the eyes roll.”

But it’s not just arts-bashing. It’s also TAFE-bashing.

There is a temptation, exacerbated by John Dawkins’s 1990s ”universitisation” of the technical colleges, to regard TAFE as a second-rate rump. This makes TAFE arts the lowest of the low; the gay whales of the education world. For the bully boys of NSW government (who cave in to shooters and private schools, attack refugees and artists), TAFE arts is the softest, easiest target.

Easy, but wrong. TAFE’s skills-based education is no less valuable, and in some cases more, than universities’ theory-based version.

In the fine arts especially, TAFE’s skill emphasis plugs a yawning gap left by the ever more academic university courses.

Minton again: ”The vast majority of artists this gallery presents teach in the TAFE system, passing on their knowledge and skills for eight to 10 hours a week. Without it, their art practice becomes vulnerable and precarious.” Further, “the first solo exhibitions by emerging artists staged at this gallery have invariably been recent graduates from TAFE”.

But arts education is never solely vocational. It is a second-chance route back into society for people who have been marginalised, a rehabilitation, a balm for shattered souls.

If you don’t believe me, watch Roy Faamatala’s recent film about Sydney homelessness where, for ex-crim Gabriel, TAFE photography is the path to redemption.

This neo-Thatcherite arts-bashing is only the tip of what’s proposed. In 2014, NSW will follow Victoria and Queensland into the so-called ”voucher” system favoured by neo-liberal ideologues. Under the suitably Orwellian-sounding label ”Smart and Skilled”, it will license providers to compete with TAFE, with results, no doubt, every bit as reassuring as the deregulation of building certification.

They argue customer choice. Bollocks. How can a school leaver, a homeless person – or indeed anyone – tell which hairdressing or crane-driving course is the best? How will they even pay for it?

Such a system favours providers with advertising dollars, and students with money, since technical courses will cost like university courses.

It’s not pro-choice: it’s anti-quality. We will dismantle a grand, century-old institution simply to reinforce the corporate stranglehold on our culture. Why, after Thatcherism came so close to destroying the entire house of cards, would we trust it with our most valued, most precious asset, our education?

A Scandinavian comparison is instructive. In recent decades, Sweden and Finland have massively reformed their education systems, but in opposite directions. In 1992, Sweden adopted the Freidmanite voucher system while Finland, 20 years earlier, repudiated the competition argument and banned private schools. For 40 years, all Finnish schooling, from day care on, has been state funded. Teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their jobs are sought after; many are rejected, and 30 per cent of children receive some special learning assistance.

They teach as though it mattered; as though preparing children not for some career market, but for life.

The results? Finland, which neither streams students nor rates schools, consistently tops global league tables, in both Pearson and OECD rankings, while Sweden hangs about 15th and Australia hovers around 10th, two or three below New Zealand and consistently heading south.

What it shows is that education, like the arts, is not about money. It may depend on money, and it may make money, but money is neither its purpose nor its measure.

This is too nuanced for Treasury’s bovver boys, who see arts as a soft option, signalling inadequacy. Who know only what they can kick.

It’s hard to believe we still need to make these arguments. Look around. As happiness season kicks in, queues are forming for next year’s clappy conventions, where high-achieving professionals pay hundreds of dollars to hear the Dalai Lama confirm there is more to happiness than being able to pay for happiness conventions.

There’s art, for one. Your back fence to paint, and mine.

Women make church more rounded

aIllustration: Edd Aragon

God, says my favourite theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, is the point at which truth, beauty and justice merge. I like that, very much.

Quite apart from the ethical appeal, and the tantalising hint of Platonism (which Balthasar rejects), these things are therapy. If you’re feeling mopey, they’re guaranteed pick-me-ups – telling truth, seeing beauty or kicking ass – which is a form of administering justice, right?

So it’s weird that the contemporary church seems hell-bent, as it were, on dumping the lot of them. Worse than weird. Dangerous, since the need for muscular spiritual leadership was never more urgent.

Democracy, which seemed in its youth to gaze across landscapes of boundless optimism, is now shrunk to the pocket handkerchief between incompetence and corruption: fumey motorways on one side, dodgy land deals on the other.

In such a circumstance you might expect the church to pause and re-up, replenishing its stocks of truth, beauty and justice as enticements.

But no, far from it. Child abuse, protectionism, corporatism, misogyny, homophobia, and churches that feel like liquor barns. Truth, beauty, justice? Pah! Who needs ’em?

So Christmas, well adrift from its origins, is now less an answer to commerce and politics than, at best, a respite from them. At worst, a perpetuation.

But say you did want some church this Christmas. Say you craved solace, a sense of old time and a lungful of goodness to keep you swimming upright through the festive season.

In Sydney, you’d have a choice between a church whose hierarchy has actively cloaked paedophiles for decades and still cannot come clean, much less apologise, and one that sees beauty as an impediment to godliness and makes women and gays second-class congregants.

Ask yourself, as you light your midnight candle, how is this OK?

In Britain, the retirement this month of the sweetly sandalled Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is seen by many, including him, as the failure of his long push to allow the church to have women bishops and gay priests.

Here, we don’t even permit women priests.

I’m surprised this is legal, given that the law bans “discrimination against another person on the ground of sex … [or] on the ground of homosexuality”. But I am advised, by those who understand that the law cannot be expected to mean what it says, that it’s like getting big-breasted women to work in topless restaurants. There are loopholes for those in need.

There was that flutter of controversy, earlier in the year, over the Sydney Anglicans’ new marriage vows – the pretence that ”submit” implied some advance on ”obey”.

Excuse me? In a world where the girls regularly – and again this week – wipe the floor with the boys academically, say what?

Certainly feminism brings unresolved issues – in finding a gender power-balance that works in both the bedroom and the world, and in not simply licensing women as aggressive, hard-drinking, fast-driving faux men.

But resolution must come through engagement, not repression. And come it must, because the issues are bigger than just us or just marriage. Just women. Just priests.

The issues are huge. After 2000 years we’ve seen what the leadership of white Christian males can deliver. Penicillin. Space stations. Iphones.

But also, and increasingly, climate change. Extreme weather. Food shortages. Extinctions. Financial and glacial meltdown.

Cardinal George Pell accuses the Greens of being “thoroughly anti-Christian”. He says non-Christians are “frightened of the future” having “nothing beyond the constructs they confect to cover the abyss”.

The abyss of paedophilia? The constructs of denial? It makes you wonder.

Archbishop Peter Jensen argues for – nay, imposes – his doctrine whereby women and gays, in church or at home, are mere helpers.

This is not in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles. It’s elective. He calls it ”headship”. Others would call it prehistoric. Misogynist. Homophobic.

Women should submit to men, Jensen says, as men should submit to the church.

Which makes it plain just how close in spirit this fundamentalist Christianity is to sharia, with its similar ”god-given” (but man-written) hierarchy.

But the weird thing is, Jesus was such a girl.

The headship doctrine claims gospel roots, and maybe that’s right. I’m in no position to exchange biblical quotations – except maybe this: ”By their fruits shall ye know them.”

A true fundamentalist would surely emulate Jesus’s behaviour, as much as his words. And the behaviours that distinguished Jesus, against a male world, the qualities that distinguish the New Testament from the Old, were fundamentally female.

Ever submissive, meek and humble, Jesus consistently turns the other cheek, sides with the underdog, washes the feet of the disciples. These were the supposedly feminine qualities, as enunciated in Lear’s tragic: “Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Jesus, in short, played the woman.

To me, as a child, this behavioural drag made Jesus rather dull. Such a goody-goody, he seemed, with none of the swashbuckling heroics, the pride and passion, the glory and revenge that I wanted in a story.

Yet of course that very humility was heroic, making Jesus subversive, and therefore dangerous. A man behaving like a woman? Crucify him.

Maybe that’s why the church needed the ”headship” doctrine, so Jesus could be seen as a servant to God, but not to humans. Certainly not to women.

Yet it is perfectly plain that the mindset we must cultivate to survive the coming century is strongly female-flavoured – less grabby and aggressive, more humble and communal; better sharing, more self-abnegation. More ”family hold back”, as my nana would say.

We don’t need women being more like men. We need men to be more womanish.

If, as the world heads into its precarious future, the church wants a leadership role, it must enlist all three of the therapeutic virtues. It must stand rigorously and fearlessly for truth, whatever the political cost, supporting the whistleblowers from abused children to Julian Assange.

It must make its spaces, its music, liturgy, vestments and the entire sacrament as hauntingly lovely and as sensual as possible, engaging time past and time future – the whole person.

And the church must learn to value women’s mix of ancient Gaia-type wisdom and maths super-smarts. It must let women speak as priests. Anything else looks like fear.

Silverback rules in the urban jungle

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

Rock-star architects, software packages worth more than a small skyscraper and wild amorphous buildings that twist, glow, buckle and undulate on every world skyline: is the world really changing beyond recognition?

Is the straight line over? Or is this whole thing just another skin-deep fashion, as enduring and significant as the miniskirt or bellbottom jeans? As Richard Sennett noted recently, ”yesterday’s smart city, today’s nightmare”.

And if there is a new world (dis)order, why aren’t we getting more of it for our billion at Darling Harbour? More glamour, more flourish, more fun?

Some say technology – both the sudden facility to build more complex shapes than the mind can imagine and the extraordinarily abstruse software needed to do it – is changing everything. The built world of the future, they say, will not only outstrip our wildest dreams but will respond to, interrogate and shape us in ways we cannot foresee, much less control.

Others are more phlegmatic. For them, the core issues of human life are essentially unchanged. Our needs for shelter and delight are little different now from prehistory, they say; the human condition is as precarious and thrilling now as ever. Plus ca change.

Yet the Darling Harbour scheme seems strangely caught between. Lots of peculiar angles, but no disguising the big-box syndrome. No real place to be, no real flair.

It has its share of rock stars, if by rock star we mean the self-indulgent, self-absorbed and obsessively self-promotional.

OMA, which designed the cactus-like hotel, is the firm of Rem Koolhaas (pronounced Coolhouse). Koolhaas came to fame through the funky graphic design and catchy phraseology of books he wrote (about himself). The buildings never did live up to expectation and, even so, it seems he sent us the B-team.

But to judge whether the Darling Harbour proposal is any good, we need some collective idea of what we really want from our buildings and cities. What makes them good, for us?

Do we ask nothing more of a building than whatever it takes to make the front cover of Time or Blueprint? The Bilbao effect? Is that the grail?

Frank Gehry’s whoops-a-daisy 8 Spruce Street tower in New York looks like it was put in the freezer before the jelly set, then whacked with an arctic hurricane. The interiors are bland and awkward, the ground level humdrum, yet this month, the building won this year’s Emporis Skyscraper Award for world’s best tower. Sculpture is sculpture.

But is it really enough? I’m surprised to be asking this, since it has been architecture’s central question as long as I can recall.

Sure, the technology is amazing. Gehry has his own software company, to facilitate his rock-star creativity. Small firms are locked out. Only the rich can buy into this stuff.

But can technology really lead us anywhere useful? Do we make caesar salad because someone invented the egg slicer?

Certainly, from Brunelleschi to the Opera House, architecture always stretches technology’s limits. But the best architecture is still idea-led, not technology-led. And the idea must be about being there – Heidegger’s dasein – not just form.

When Paul Goldberger, architecture’s king of critics, left The New Yorker in April, several sub-critics took it as the end of techno-formalism. Goldberger had symbolised ego-object architecture. Now (they gushed) that was over. Architecture was henceforth collaborative, socially-conscious and altruistic. Mindful. Architecture for the new age.

Evidence? It’s all in the name, breathed the Huffington Post. Instead of dull old proper nouns – Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; Grounds, Romberg and Boyd; Harry Seidler – ”nowadays cutting-edge firms have names like MOS, WORK Ac, SHoP, suggesting the mission is more important than the egos”.

Well, blow me down, I thought. And here’s me taking the acronym fad (of which local examples are DRAW, EAT, 1:1, PHOOEY, BKK and 2SF) as a way of getting to stand out on the page.

Here’s me reading the acronym’s implied anonymity as a mix of Gen-Y responsibility-ducking and traditional architectural wankfest, When actually it’s spiritual, the loss of the architectural ego. Bow and scrape, withdraw ‘n’ apologise.

One blogger even worried ”the pendulum will swing too far … Frank Gehry will be dismissed as nothing but an ego and a large number of funny-looking buildings without any social purpose”.

I’m waiting. But honestly? I don’t see socially-concerned eco-tects grabbing all the jobs. I don’t see dead and dying egos clogging the gutters. Not at all.

Last week’s Sydney visit from Bjarke Ingels, aka BIG, was a case in point. A Danish New Yorker here for the Barangaroo Central shortlist chats, the 38-year-old (ex-OMA) makes architecture go weak at the knees.

He is unquestionably talented. Already he has a string of successful projects – 10-storey buildings you can cycle across, super-connected loop cities, hedonistic sustainability. A tad diagrammatic, yes, but interesting. Fresh. He has visiting professorships at Harvard and Yale. He was The Wall Street Journal’s innovator of the year 2011.

But ego-less? Hardly.

Ingels does nothing without a retinue of ”people” fixing the words ”rock star” and ”starchitect” to his every move like baubles to a tree. And he has the web address to suit: big.dk. Bg.dk/#projects.

Sydney architecture has always been big-man culture. Silverback rules; one per generation. Just who can be read from the density of their works. In the ’60s and ’70s it was Seidler: from some spots you can see four or five of his buildings at once. Then it was Cox. Now, it is clearly Richard Francis Jones (FJMT), of USyd Law School, St Barneys church, Surry Hills Library, Darling Harbour CommBank and the lovely, soaring Auckland gallery, Toi O Tamaki: 60 international awards between them, this year alone.

Francis Jones’s proposals, often distinguished by bold flourishes and asymmetrical plumes, have long been more flamboyant than his buildings. The recently released Barangaroo ”cloud”, with its misaligned silver discs, is his most sinuous built-form to date.

But he never loses the central spatial idea, or the pleasure of being there. This is architecture’s core business. Maybe the new Darling Harbour could co-opt him, in the new spirit of collaboration, to inject both more wild flourish and more deep delight.

Not neither, damn it. Both.

 

Chained to scourge of slavery

December 6 2012

Slavery? Here? In Sydney?

A city, if you’ll forgive the seasonal metaphor, is like an Advent calendar, only instead of chocolates or trinkets, the enchanted doors hide numberless pockets of tangled narrative.

Often these pockets are protective, guarding inestimable treasures. (Think monasteries, keeping their arcane scholarship from the barbarians.) But, like monasteries, the pockets can also hide evil.

Slavery, for example. We see slavery as other: ancient Rome, antebellum Georgia, eastern Europe. Spielberg’s wonderful film Lincoln, opening here next year (and by the way, definitely worth seeing – a script to die for) deals with the President’s fight to ”abolish slavery”, as though prohibition ended things. Sadly, not.

Prohibition sans enforcement just drives evil deeper. The United Nations estimates there are more slaves in the world now than ever. Human trafficking – which is not the same as slavery though the two are clearly linked, since most slaves are trafficked and most trafficking ends in slavery – rates with arms and drug-trafficking among the world’s richest illicit industries.

Yet we shrug it off. Christmas and Easter might make us consider the real cost of chocolate, but it is hard to know what not to buy. (Coffee? Footballs?) Harder still to know whether buying, giving these children some money, is worse than boycotting, giving them none. The tangled nature of international law, politics and policing compounds all this, making it someone else’s impossible problem.

But slavery is real, now, on our turf. So real, in fact, that two separate inquiries are under way – one state, one federal – and a new federal bill. Yet still we hear so little about it.

Slavery is no longer a chained and clanking presence on the landscape. It is unseen and unheard, its victims by definition powerless and voiceless; often women and children, foreign, uneducated, poor and frightened, hidden in the city’s secret pockets – its brothels, commercial kitchens and building sites.

Rebecca Corby sees more of this than most. Corby, a federal police officer of 22 years standing, received a 2012 Freedom Award from Anti-Slavery Australia for her leadership of the Human Trafficking Team, based in Oxford Street.

She’d been in the fraud unit until, in 2001, she went to East Timor with the Vulnerable Persons Unit. “It was just more rewarding to help a person bleeding with a machete through their head,” she shrugs, “than retrieving money for the Commonwealth.” So, returning from maternity leave in 2004, she applied to join the Human Trafficking Team. In the eight years since, they have undertaken 350 investigations.

There are success stories, like the 15-year-old girl, kidnapped at a job interview in China, held for a year, raped repeatedly, sold and trafficked first to Malaysia, then Australia, where her false documentation was spotted by Customs. She now has her own business as a Sydney beautician.

The most famous Australian slavery prosecution – the Queen v Wei Tang 2006 – happened, naturally, in ultra-cultivated Melbourne. Wei Tang, 44, a Fitzroy brothel owner, was convicted of enslaving five Thai women whom her syndicate had brought to Australia.

For the women’s sexual services, Ms Tang charged $110 per customer. Of this, she kept $43 while $67 went to the syndicate, towards each woman’s notional $45,000 debt. Two of the women achieved their freedom in six months; that’s 900 customers, five a day, six days a week.

On the seventh day, each woman could choose to work, and to keep $50 per customer.

Without passports, money or English and fearful of detection as illegals, the women, while not physically caged, had no real freedom. Tang appealed, arguing ignorance of the law, but the High Court found against her and she was jailed for nine years.

But the ending is seldom so rosy. Sometimes, says Corby, the servitude ”debt”, an invented portmanteau of travel, documentation and ”education” costs, is perpetually augmented with ”fines”: not pleasing the customer, not making the bed, refusing unprotected sex or not wearing lipstick.

And even when discovered, even when convicted, many perps just get a slap on the wrist – a $1000 fine and a few weeks periodic detention.

Most Australian slavery occupies one of three categories; female sex workers, male labourers (on building sites or in restaurant kitchens) and forced marriage.

The new bill covers all these, and organ trafficking. Properly called the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Bill 2012, it is expected to redefine crucial ideas like threat and coercion, make forced labour a stand-alone offence and increase penalties to genuine disincentive level, as UTS’s Anti-Slavery Australia has long advocated.

But the big question is much, much bigger. For slavery is theft; an industrial-strength concentration of the life-goods of the many in the hands of the few. As such it diminishes not only its victims but also, by addiction, its beneficiaries. Us.

The UN estimates that, around the globe, 2.5 million people are in forced labour. Half are children. Almost two-thirds are in Asia-Pacific, and most are victims of physical or sexual violence. Some are in Sydney. Yet we make more fuss about live-export animals.

Clearly, Britain’s empire depended on slavery, the immense engines of industry fuelled by children in the home mills, blacks in the fields of America. Without industry, argued Engels, slavery was uneconomic.

Slavery was expensive. Overheads included food, housing, medicine, even education. Modern slavery, being hidden, is perhaps more iniquitous. Now, you return their passports, turf them into the street and get a new lot.

Which makes me wonder: has civilisation ever existed without slavery? Is there any form of privileged harmony that has not stolen its fat from someone else?

To what extent does the Mac on which I write or the tea before me (imported Darjeeling, bone china) imply this unacknowledged theft?

It is not a simple question. Perhaps unanswerable. But as we shop and feast our way through Advent – inverting tradition’s penitence and fasting – we might consider those trapped in the pockets of servitude, cooking the food, crafting the stocking stuffers, giving their joy for ours.

Ambassador’s rage doesn’t dispel facts

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

‘Swedish ambassador goes berserk over Assange,” read Monday’s Wiki-tweet. It rang a bell, as it bounced around the globe, for while most diplomats are polite to the point of somnambulism, my sole encounter with the Swedish ambassador had been distinguished by rage (his). This rage, rooted in WikiLeaks, had itself been Wikileaked.

Sven-Olof Petersson is Sweden’s man in Yarralumla. By now he may be wishing he’d followed the advice I give my 13 year-old.

It’s this. If you have something savage to say, sleep on it. Then, if it really must be said, pick up the phone. Say it in person. Shout it from the rooftops, if need be. But under no circumstances commit it to cyber-space. Cyber-speech, seemingly ethereal, is etched in stone.

Back story: last April I wrote a column about Julian Assange. ”It’s quite clear,” I said, ”that Assange is not guilty – not of rape, not of treason”, but it was more a logical deduction (from the definition of these things) than a claim to knowledge of the events. In particular, I wrote of my dismay at what can happen to speakers of truth, especially at the hands of those who pretend to uphold it.

It made the Swedish ambassador mad. Really mad. We now know it made him, by his own admission, out-of-control mad.

It was an opinion piece. And I did call the Swedish legal system ”impenetrable”. LOL. Yet there are facts here.

Assange had not been charged with any crime. The Swedish authorities had repeatedly refused even to question him in London, falsely saying it was illegal. Moreover, as Malcolm Turnbull told a university audience this year (contradicting Gillard), Assange had broken no Australian law. All this is still true.

Yet a European arrest warrant stands ready to whisk Assange to Sweden, where consensual sex without a condom can – for reasons I’ll never understand – count as rape, where he can be locked in solitary without charge or extradited to America.

There, a grand jury – or secret military court – has been convened, again without charge. It can convict him, even apply the death penalty, without scrutiny or defence. Petersson insists ”a person risking the death penalty cannot be extradited” but the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt – whom WikiLeaks claims is a US spy – repeatedly refuses to give this assurance.

Yet our government has given Assange minimal assistance. Despite what Jane Clifton-Bassett, the organiser of Thursday’s candlelight vigil for Assange, calls this ”outrageous flouting of the law”, the government chooses ”to put the American alliance first, and an Australian citizen second”.

Petersson responded to my April story with an angry letter, published in the Herald. His ”facts” were that the ”Swedish judicial system is transparent and independent” and that Assange should have ”full confidence in the Swedish judicial process”. He would say that – right?

A second, angrier Petersson email came to me personally. Manfully resisting the urge to publish, I filed it, more fittingly, in the bin.

And forgot about it until, this week, the emails resurfaced, unexpurgated, along with Petersson’s admission that his colleagues considered his missives extreme. ”But,” he notes, ”I couldn’t stop myself!”

In these now-public letters, Petersson accused me of harbouring a ”special contempt for Sweden”. (In fact, until then, I’d always wondered why Scandinavia was so much more civilised than we.) He derided me as an ignorant fantasist, a purveyor of ”any kind of rubbish” and – worst of all – ”an architect and writer from Downunder”.

It’s pretty funny. The mis-spelling, the splatter of exclamation marks and the eggy emotion sound more like some suburban troll than a high-order professional or diplomat.

The aggression is less amusing. This is how bullying works. After a while we start to anticipate, self-censor, evade the rage, like children tiptoeing around father.

This is ironic, since the Swedish case pivots on the ”ultra-feminism” that many see as having colonised Swedish politics. This has not only shaped the unfair rape laws to which Assange, once extradited, would be subject, but also unites many key players.

All these are active members of the ultra-feminist Social Democrat party: the prosecutor Marianne Ny; the plaintiffs’ lawyer Claes Borgstrom; his practice partner Thomas Bodstrom (the Swedish justice minister, 2000-06); the principle principal plaintiff Anna Ardin – who invited Assange to Sweden originally and wrote the notorious ”Seven Steps to Legal Revenge”; and the police officer Irmeli Krans to whom Ardin took the secondary plaintiff, Sofia Welin. Welcome to Sweden’s so-called ”duckpond”.

But when a mere opinion maddens a potentate into uncontrolled aggression, you have to wonder: why so defensive? What are they hiding?

Petersson was right about one thing. I know little of the Swedish legal system. (I do know educated Swedish-Australians, like retired medic Martin Gerin, who reinforce my impression that it is convoluted – some say ”mediaeval” – and, with its politically appointed lay judges, heavily politicised. They also say Petersson is an embarrassment who should be sent home.)

Assange has been effectively detained for two years without charge. His only sin was having unprotected sex (which, even my 13-year old knows, would render him as vulnerable to STDs as the women).

He has won a Walkley, the Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal, and the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. He came second in the Huffington Post’s next head of the BBC poll (after Jeremy Paxman) and is regarded by many as the century’s greatest journalist, with supporters including Mary Kostakidis, Julian Burnside, Geoffrey Robertson and Jemima Khan.

But even if Assange were, as some say, a zionist, cultist, narcissist, misogynist or Marxist – even all of these – he’d still be entitled to a fair and open trial.

There are genuine doubts as to whether this can happen in Sweden, and worse about the US trial. (With the imminent and sinister Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, its contents so secret they can’t be disclosed for four years, we’ll never exert pressure on the US.)

Australia must therefore demand a Swedish guarantee that Assange will not be sent to America. Otherwise he, and our own rights to truth, may end up naked in a cell like poor, sweet Bradley Manning.

 

Developing a tale of comeuppance

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

How brilliant to see ICAC finally doing its job. All over town, decent people are rubbing their hands with glee. Not in revenge. More from the sense that, at last, the truth may come out about the self-serving ratbaggery that for so long ran this state. Like captives in a slime-cave we scent nostril-quivering fresh air, and we want some.

Not that we didn’t know. There’s no mistaking the whiff of putrefaction. As far back as Bob Carr, he was clearly the stainless face on the pitted reality.

For years I have personally been sledged, slated and slandered by developers and politicians for suggesting that decisions like the coalmines now strewn across the Hunter Valley might be less than noble. It’s just nice to be vindicated.

Not that vindication is a remedy. Sadly, the costs of power abuse – and of the systematic destruction of trust that accompanies it – are deeper and more damaging.

Wider, too. Far broader than just planning, or even just government, the abuse of power is suddenly everywhere. From Israel and Palestine to priests and children; from nursing home bullies to dodgy politicians to Lord of the Flies taser-happy cops, it’s all about those trusted with power proving that they cannot and should not be.

You are no doubt aghast, as I am. Yet many people – I know more of them than I’d like to – consider such thuggery core human behaviour. All relationships, they say – often citing Machiavelli – are power relationships.

That may be true. Things are seldom equal. Yet, in any relationship, however unbalanced, the powerful partner has a choice; either to use power nobly or to suck above and stomp below.

The former, a presumption of general decency, underpins pretty much all our laws, habits and institutions. It is why we trust out children to priests in the first place, or our aged parents to nursing homes, or our lands and taxes to politicians.

But often, these days, suck-up-stomp-down seems more normal. In school playgrounds it is called bullying but in corporate life it’s just ‘managing up,’ and rewarded with preferment. (No surprise that Machiavelli was himself a high level bureaucrat).

It’s ironic that we expect higher standards from our children than from our selves, especially since the capacity to behave well absent scrutiny is (we say) the mark of adulthood.

Which begs the question; is it new, this behaviour?

We’ve been hearing about clergy-on-child abuse since the 1980s, but the priesthood is much older than that. Have they always been kiddie-fiddling in this way? Has it always just been unknown? Ignored? Tolerated?

Have cops always been brutalising the harmless? I’m not even going to ask about pollies. There are appalling tales of abuse on Cockatoo Island, when it was a self-enclosed shipyard, and of child abuse in remote communities everywhere.

Is the brutalisation of the weak by the strong just what happens behind closed doors, when families, orders, tribes and forces self-police? Is it, in short, inevitable?

Because it’s not just sex, or violence, or corruption, though those are bad enough. To my mind, this kind of abuse is theft. The child abused by a priest isn’t just sexualised, degraded and humiliated. As surely as Roberto Curti was robbed of his life by spontaneous official torture, the abused child is robbed of his or her budding trust in authority and, by extension, the world.

Children are very moral animals, with an intense and intuitive feel for justice. To be betrayed and defiled by the supposed source of truth and goodness leaves a child truly broken hearted.

In the case of grubby planning decisions, politicians are the slimy adults and we the broken hearted children, but the destruction is similar. We are the victims of systematic environmental theft.

The last time I saw Frank Sartor he muttered, shaking my hand, “I should have sued you.” I replied, “I should have sued you.”

(Had I the money, I would have, for saying, twice in his book and again in his blog, that I was “asked to leave” Council employment and “nothing more was said” – as though I’d been caught stealing canapé´s or peeing in the corridor. In fact I’d had consistently glowing assessments from my boss (not Sartor) and the Special Projects Unit I headed was restructured out of existence once the Olympics were done.)

Sartor repeatedly accuses me of “porkies”. But I have never said he was corrupt. I don’t believe he was. He did however engage in much criticised conduct, with Justice David Lloyd describing his Catherine Hill Bay decision as a “land bribe” – and not because of Rosecorp’s massive $143,500 party donation, but because of the land-swap agreement (which would swap approval for the development for 300 hectares of public conservation land) that the Minister signed before giving the approval that the court then rescinded.

It’s also true, as Sartor told ICAC last week, that he authored neither Part 3A, nor ministerial ‘call in’ powers over development. Nevertheless, as he also conceded, his Planning Act amendments were designed to broaden ministerial discretion and “switch off all the other concurrencies” that impeded fast-track, broad-discretion planning approvals.

These ‘concurrencies’ included the Threatened Species Act, Native Vegetation Act, Fisheries Act and assorted fire protection, forestry and heritage Acts: everything, that is, that might protect our environment from rampaging mates.

This was not corrupt but it did, as I said at the time, place a big red ‘press here for favours’ button on the chest of whoever was minister. As Barrister Tim Robertson told Quentin Dempster in 2009, these planning changes returned us – his words – “to the days of Bob Askin.”

So no one could have been surprised when in February 2011, Minister Tony Kelly finally did rely on the ”call in” powers under the notorious Part 3A, just months before he (Kelly) was found corrupt over Currawong.

Leichhardt citizens are now rightly agitating to return the 25 storey Tigers’ tower to Council control. I hope they win.

But nothing can save Rose Bay from Tripodi’s mega-marina or the beautiful and fertile Hunter / Bylong Valley region from the plethora of coal mines approved by the various ministers such as Macdonald and Kelly; Honourables both.

Charges against Obeid and Macdonald may or may not arise from the ICAC enquiry. But wouldn’t it be bloody marvellous if, this once, NSW saw justice done?

Theory runs into a building

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

When I was a student of architecture, I argued with my tutors about many things (this will surprise no one), but especially about the teaching of construction. Although, even then, I loved architecture for its ideas, my struggle – and this is what may surprise you – was to be taught building; bricklaying, carpentry and welding.

I didn’t want just to know about these things. By second year I could draw the details, pass the exams, win the prizes. I wanted to know it with my fingertips. I craved what Renzo Piano, I would later discover, calls the ”language of your stomach”.

No, stonewalled my tutors. To a man, practitioners as well as theorists, they invoked the need-to-know defence. ”Nuh. Don’t need it. We design; builders build.”

I thought that was fundamentally wrong. Still do. Not because I was interested in building. Heavens, no. The orthodoxy of joists, perpends and damp-proof courses held no enchantment for me. Not even because I believed that architecture is in essence a craft (rather than an art or scholarly discipline), although there is some truth to this view.

No, I harangued my teachers for real-life on-site construction lessons precisely because I loved the architecture’s head-stuff. I was in love with its ideas and felt certain – from a point of almost complete ignorance – that the best of them were rooted in real, material stuff.

The placing of one brick on top of another may be deeply, inherently, dull, but (I felt) it is only from that knowledge that the poetry springs.

This belief, unlike most student foibles, persists. In the theory stakes it inclines me toward the Moderns like Corbusier and Aalto and proto-moderns (such as Semper, Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc and Gaudi) who believed matter should inform the intellect, as well as vice versa. It’s not theory, but it points the gap to the theory-shaped hole at the heart of architectural practice.

Much has been said of late about the death of architectural theory, most of it by architectural theorists. After the treatises of classical antiquity and the manifestos of modernism, we live, it is said, in a ”post-critical” age. Thousands of theoretical books and papers are still written, and lectures grandly delivered. Yet our built world marches on, unchanged, oblivious.

So what is architectural theory? Does it, in fact, exist? In many disciplines the role of theory is clear. In physics, it speculates beyond the bounds of knowledge in order to extend those limits ever outward, widening the circle of the firelight.

Theory is more problematic in the arts, although in music it seems reasonably well-bonded to practice; from the ultra-esoteric, on one hand, to third grade kid stuff on the other. Imagine if we taught our children architecture theory in that way, in schools, hand-in-hand with practice and composition. What would the lessons contain?

The first architectural theorist is usually taken to be Vitruvius, who lived and died BC. His Ten Books provide little enough succour for the contemporary designer but they do traverse a considerable spectrum, from symbolic obligation (which way to face your temple) to practical know-how (how to find and channel water). For 1800 years, theory did little more than translate, elaborate, interpolate and illustrate Vitruvius. Then the classical straitjacket became intolerable and Modernism burst in.

Modernism was a new world. Chanelling Marx, it no longer produced treatises but manifestos; from the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, the 1918 de Stijl Manifesto to the 1942 CIAM Athens Charter. The content varied, except for one conviction: that architecture wasn’t just an elegant carapace for human life. It was a blazing moral torch.

Modernism’s torch burnt for half a century, off and on, until smothered beneath the thick wet blanket of French theory. Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Lacan and Gilles ”the fold” Deleuze persuaded architecture to self-flagellate with knotted whips of jagged long-chain jargon. And thus we remain, hurting, gasping for air.

Professor Anthony Vidler, the dean of architecture at the revered Cooper Union in New York, argues persuasively that architectural theory has, by these disciplines, been breached, colonised and destroyed.

Theory, he says, was once ”a means of thinking about architecture from inside the discipline” but has become so dominated by external voices – from philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis and sociology – that it is now entirely hollow-core.

Which is my point, really. French theory was always long on critique but short on creativity. The critique, however, diminished by the profound and often willful obscurity of the writing, has nevertheless been genuine and useful, sensitising architecture to context, perception, sustainability and social responsibility. Sooner or later, though, the moment of architecture arrives; the moment when the line must be drawn.

Where that line goes, and how it relates (or not) to other lines, is the essential architectural act. And it is here, where other disciplines and exigencies end, that theory should come into play.

Functionality may demand a room here, or a window there. It may even require certain qualities of that room or window. But in determining what kind of room or window, theory should be available to guide the hand according to the building’s intellectual core.

For classical or modern architects, the appropriate theoretical protocol – be it the classical orders, the golden mean, or Corbusier’s ”modulor” – was always at hand, ensuring coherence throughout, from floorplan to door handle.

But where theory is absent, other exigencies – digital parametrics or dumb-ass bean-counting – dominate, and we end up with a world that looks like it was designed by bored, cyber-addicted project managers.

If we are to control the emerging geometries of the digital era, argues Vidler, we must rebuild ethical and formal judgment. Theory must emerge, blinking, from the echo-chamber where it speaks in riddles like some narcissistic Sibyl. It must re-address the world.

Theory must become intelligible and purposeful, connecting materiality with mind, linking head, heart and hand. It must, in short, guide the line onto the page. Me, though, I lost my construction argument, so I still don’t know my Flemish bond from my Raking Rat-trap. Lucky I was always handy with a comma.

Dr Elizabeth Farrelly will chair a free public debate, ”No Such Thing as Architectural Theory”, at 4.30pm as part of the UNSW LuminoCITY exhibition at Pier2/3 Walsh Bay.

Cosy deal for casino patricians but dice loaded against proles

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

When James Packer had his stomach stapled the event made national headlines. We were supposed to be impressed that, unable to master his own appetite, he paid someone else for surgical help that would change the look while leaving the core infant intact.

This desire to cheat nature, while all too human, usually ends in tears. Ask Lance Armstrong. Now that same uncontrolled Packer hunger threatens to materialise on The ‘Roo. Can it be a good thing?

There is understandable public outrage at the blatant exercise of Packer born-to-rulism, underlined as it is by symbolic coincidence of Crown land, Crown casino and faux-royal prerogative.

But product outlasts process, and this product is clearly inevitable. Packer’s capacity to produce a billion-dollar erection is the only reason we care about the capacity of his stomach. So the question becomes, what’s in it for us? Has a Packer ever made anything beautiful?

Our interest in Packer’s weight loss flags a weird dichotomy. We play the faceless proles even as we sharpen our sickles for the tsars’ beheading.

For we’re getting uppity, too, we proles. From Twitter to clicktivism, from Destroy the Joint to people’s choice awards, events and technologies foster the people-power illusion. But be not fooled. On the ground, where it matters, the tsars still have their way with us.

The new planning act, promised for January, pirouettes on its promises of ”community engagement”. Yet, while we wait politely for the white paper, the planning system as we know it is being unbolted and carried away.

Debate over Packer’s casino brings this into crisis. Several issues are entwined – economy, environment, equity, public land, beauty – all, in theory, dealt with by the planning system. But so vigorous has the dismantling been of late, we no longer have a planning system to speak of.

Barry O’Farrell swept to power on his opposition to Part 3A. Since, however, his own grab for personal discretion – personal control of the 20-year state infrastructure strategy, unlimited ”step-in” control of major projects, systematic undermining of councils’ planning powers (in an act shoved through Parliament in an afternoon), defunding of the Environmental Defender’s Office and the ”unsolicited proposals” provisions that allowed Packer to penetrate Cabinet directly without passing Go – makes 3A look like kid stuff.

O’Farrell runs the usual good-cause argument. It’s all about “getting NSW going again”. But the beneficiaries so far are the big, not the little.

I’ve lived in Sydney 24 years, so I can do cynicism with the best. Of course the filthy rich run the show. Nudge, guffaw. Of course wealth is the natural hierarchy. What other order is there?

Yet deep down I am still dismayed by how readily a culture invented to overturn the power of privilege swallows its own tail. Dismayed, too, by the old rissole assumption that when money is at stake everything else – culture, climate and even the rule of law – becomes dispensable ballast.

Packer argues that we “need” a second casino because we need six-star tourists. These people, poor darlings, can stay only in six-star hotels which – for reasons that escape me – cannot survive alone and so, in turn, need the support of a six-star casino.

(Note that we’re not talking green stars here, but luxury stars. On the green front, Packer’s proposal relies on Barangaroo’s stated “goal”, namely, “to be the first precinct of its size in the world and certainly the first CBD precinct in Australia, to be climate positive.” But really? Other people’s unenforceable goals? That’s it?)

And the tourist-dollar trickle-down is anyway unconvincing. Such super-tourists can be expected to spend most of their money within the casino itself. Why else would a hotel even be proposed, when another is anticipated in nearby Darling Harbour?

Equity is the issue that gets us all riled. Packer, we seem to think, should have to apply for his casino licence and his development approval like anyone else.

But that was never going to happen. It’s not a competitive situation. The minute Packer made his offer, Keating was always going to shove it south, Lend Lease was always going to welcome it with a billion-dollar hug and O’Farrell was always going to think the whole thing a spiffingly good idea.

Once the Lend Lease deal was inked-in, further, no tender was ever going to be possible.

And it’s not as if the one-casino rule has any moral content. Rather, it was an ambush marketing deal to protect Star City, as it was, which has now blotted its copybook.

In fact it’s all so cosy, so all-round win-win for the big boys at the head table as to look almost arranged.

Transparent? I think it’s pretty transparent, as a window onto some boarding school dorm scene. Packer says bend over. The rest hold the toys and lubricant.

As to public land. I find it hard to care if a bunch of rich low lifes want to wallow in sex, booze and financial risk in a harbourside tower. So what?

But it is public land. Packer’s assertion that the casino will sit on Lend Lease’s “commercial site and not on public land” fudges this issue. The land is still publicly owned, notwithstanding a 99-year lease.

Even without a functioning planning system, this is power we can use. As at East Circular Quay, property rights outweigh planning powers every time.

Packer has promised an “international design competition” for his casino but, as we know to our cost, this can be worse than catastrophic without intelligent briefing and jurors.

Two things we should insist on from the Packer priapism. One, we should tax the bejesus out of it and hypothecate the revenue stream to urban improvements. Two, we should demand a building that is ultra-green and ultra-gorgeous.

It should be as luxurious as Babylon, green as the sun god and as gorgeous as, well, a Brancusi. This should be Packer’s challenge. If he can get that up, with or without surgery, I’ll be impressed.

 

More roads will just lead us nowhere

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

“I am not the only urbanist in the room,” Tim Williams, the chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, said last week. It was true. Place was full of them. Urbanism is positively the new black. But he wasn’t the only Tim Williams in the room, either.

The other Tim Williams is an urbanist at the opposite end of the hierarchy. The creator of Super Sydney, trailblazer project for this year’s Sydney Architecture Festival, he has an ear to the sunburnt ground, listening for the voices of the people.

Consultation, if you believe the hype, is this government’s middle name. But which is more likely to produce the kind of city we want, top-down, or bottom-up?

And which is the government’s $10 billion WestConnex road project? It appears populist but, as a moment young people are choosing to drive less and live denser, is it?

Will WestConnex (despite its horrible name) save NSW’s ailing economy, as its proponents testily insist? Or is it, in the words of transport elder Ron Christie, “back to the 1950s … a real LA-type solution”?

It happened that, on the tram en route to that Meeting of the Tims, I met an elderly couple from Vancouver. They sought somewhere ”interesting” for their last half-day in Sydney. Darling Harbour? I suggested. Pyrmont? Barangaroo?

As I sketched the background they were dismayed by how far and how recently Sydney has cleansed itself of industry.

“In Vancouver,” they said, “we’re trying to keep this stuff in the city so that people, and freight, don’t need to travel so far.”

In Sydney, I was ashamed to realise, just voicing such ideas still brands you as a boat-rocking leftie. How did our urban debate become so polarised? Can anyone still think that environment and economy are foes, instead of short-term and long-term views of the same thing?

The Committee for Sydney reincarnates Rod McGeoch’s 1997 creature of the same name. Remember that lobby group for those least in need, the rich and powerful? I thought it had finally vanished from lack of interest but apparently not, for the new committee gleams stiffly like a Thatcher hairdo, stiff with the same old power-myopia.

It’s very open. Anyone can join, for a mere ten grand (plus GST). And anyone can speak, as long as they’re CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation.

The committee, whose board includes Sally Loane (now spin-meister for those well known philanthropic urbanists Coca-Cola Amatil) and former Howard hatchet-man Max Moore-Wilton, proudly spruiks such membership benefits as the “opportunity to meet … key decision makers”, “access to leaders in private, public and not-for profit sectors” and the capacity to “influence key policies”. (Does saying something three times in different words mean it’s hyper-important?)

It has not been idle. Last month alone the committee hosted five events: a briefing with the Network Rail CEO, David Higgins, lunch with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, drinks for the London & Partners CEO Gordon Innes, drinks for Asian Cup Football CEO Michael Brown, and lunch with Landcom CEO John Brogden.

Whew. Talk about big issues. Just keeping track of which friend is CEO of what, this week, would fill those little gaps between your investment decisions all by itself.

The committee also blogs, with posts like ”CFS congratulates Business Events Sydney” or ”CFS commends Planning Minister”. Surprisingly, there are no comments. (Well, there’s one, in six months, a spirited discussion on intermodal freight interchange by the smart and indefatigable social activist Lynda Newnam. But she’s no CEO, and there’s no response).

As to policy, it’s a bit thin. On transport, Sydney’s bleeping-red issue, Tim #1 concedes that “the car … is now seen as a liability.” Yet he insists that WestConnex is “an inevitability,” not worth discussing. A $10 billion inevitability.

So that’s city-planning orthodoxy; top-down stuff, forbiddingly abstract. Super Sydney inverts and subverts this model. Tim Williams #2, having lived and worked in Paris, developed it from a couple of Parisian projects – Sarkozy’s 2009 Grand Paris, and the current, 196-council Paris Metropole.

Compared with Paris’s 196 councils, Sydney’s 42 seems modest. Still, over several months, interviewers headed to each of them, filming 12 conversations with 12 people about what people wanted for their city. The full, 504-video collection is available on the website.

My favourite so far is Ben from Marrickville, who says, somewhat bashfully: “I’d like to see public treehouses … really big ones, and you can, like rent it for a couple of hours and go up there … ”

Beauty’s quite big, parks and fountains. (Locals love Blacktown and Mount Druitt, in particular, for their visual charms). Diversity, community, arts, friendliness and safety all figure highly. I haven’t heard any calls for roads, although I believe there are some. But the overwhelming consensus is a clarion call for transport.

On this, vox pop accords with every visiting urbanist this year (and there have been a few). London School of Economics Professor Ricky Burdett, New York City chief urban designer Alex Washburn, and the deputy mayor of Paris, Pierre Mansat (in launching Super Sydney last week); each, unprompted, offered the same insight. Sydney desperately needs public transport.

So why this massive road project?

Infrastructure NSW argues thus: “Sydney’s road network serves 93 per cent of passenger journeys, and most growth in transport demand over the next 20 years will be met by roads.”

Especially, of course, if you keep building more roads.

This is the essence of conservative thinking. It’s why top-down produces business as usual, because that’s what feeds it.

But in fact we don’t need more roads: if anything we should convert Parramatta Road to full-on public transport. As a former Federal Court judge, Murray Wilcox, AO, QC, argues, this project demands we ask, “who benefits?”

“If it’s commuters,” he said, “wouldn’t they benefit more from public transport? If not commuters, then why do it at all?”

An answer is provided by EcoTransit’s satirical WasteConnex vid, available on YouTube.

“WasteConnex,” croons the voice over, “is the highest priority project … sucking $10 billion out of public transport and freight rail projects and delivering it to construction, consulting, and finance.”

That’s your “inevitable.” Frankly, I’d prefer public tree houses.

 

 

 

Burying the truth of death under the bland and the ugly

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

I’m coming round to Halloween. Don’t get me wrong. I still miss Guy Fawkes, with its evening tang of gunpowder and its glorification of failure on a scale matched only by Gallipoli.

But behind Halloween’s $2 crust of fake fangs and plastic witchy-poos, under even the Christian rituals of All Saints and All Souls (its more plebeian, purgatorial follow-up), lies a deep pagan truth. It’s death that gives life its most exquisite and piercing beauty.

Without death, life would be one long Sunday afternoon in the ‘burbs.

And that’s the funny thing. Sunday arvo in the ‘burbs seems exactly what we’re trying to make death into.

Death-as-died is pretty much given. But death-as-lived – the rites and protocols, spaces and artifacts – is ours to shape and choreograph. Yet it is almost universally ugly. Visually, environmentally, politically, our cemeteries and crematoria seem to embody not our best and most sacred selves, but our national psyche at its bleakest, blandest and dullest.

Halloween, after all, offers potential. Halloween is Easter’s inverse; the ghost train to its wild mouse. Its dying fall answers Easter’s rising sap; its swirling phantoms, a palate-cleanser after the chicks and chocolate bunnies of spring.

To celebrate this with dancing and feasting on graves, as in the Mexican Day of the Dead or the Celtic Samhain, may be as perverse and theatrical as Guy Fawkes itself. But unlike Guy Fawkes, Halloween is deeply nature-connected.

This age-old link between human death and the dying of nature yields a melancholy beauty and the comforting (if unverifiable) implication of rebirth. Yet our cemeteries and crematoria fight nature every step of the way. It’s hard to say whether their universal soulless, overbaked quality betokens a denial of death or of nature (or possibly both)?

Has the suburban habit of taming and faking nature colonised our patterns of death, as well as life? Or is it just pragmatism gone rampant; a line ’em up and shove ’em in mentality?

Whatever the reason, we steadfastly shear all possible poetry and romance from our funerary rites.

The loveliest cemetery I know is London’s Highgate, where Karl Marx is buried under that extravagant and extraordinary headstone. Wildly overgrown and bush-tangled, it is the perfect setting for a horror-flick, Poe-reading, ash-scattering or, indeed, burial. With a gothic vigour that makes Angkor Wat look manicured, it is nature triumphant.

But such romance is hard to find when you need it. For my own parents, moderns to the last, cremation was obvious. But in the ashes they had no interest. We dithered for years before settling on several makeshift rituals – a piece of familial bush, a minor pilgrimage and a midnight Viking ceremony that involved a cold night, a muddy river and a flaming frond-boat.

Burial is harder, especially here. Sydney cemeteries show the odd flicker of the picturesque, as in St Stephen’s churchyard, Newtown, (where Thomas Mitchell lies ‘neath the spreading fig). But most are exemplars of ugly.

From Dover Heights to the Shire, these shadeless wastelands of bleached-out buffalo grass, with their rows of polished marble, their spam architecture and their pitiless signposts – Roman Catholic 3, Greek Orthodox 1 – offer all the spiritual sanctuary of a railway car park.

And they’re greedy. In death as in life, they sprawl. Sydney ”will run out of burial space by 2035,” Alan Jones insisted as he lobbied the airwaves for Botany Cemetery’s right to grab a further 60 per cent of the adjoining market garden where brothers Gordon and Terry Ha grow their coriander and bok choy.

But why prioritise the dead over the living? Bad enough for housing to sprawl over food security, but graves? Hello? Jones berates the gardeners for taking water from the aquifer, but seems fine with bodies leaching into it.

What’s wrong with doubling up? Stacking? Churning? Densification? What about recycling? Crop rotation? If graves must have food-land, why shouldn’t food have old grave land? Natural burial, where people are buried coffinless to encourage bio-degradation, sometimes with a seedling in their mouth, is impossible in most Australian cemeteries.

At Woronora I recently attended the launch of Kymea Ngura, Australia’s first designated Aboriginal wetland for the scattering of ashes. (Indigenous funerary practices vary widely, but in the Sydney region, says Dharawal elder and project mastermind Les Bursill, cremation is common.)

The wetland, set in a casuarina grove around a serpent-shaped sandstone retaining-wall, offers refuge from the lawns’s relentless brightness. It is a soft place, an invitation to a dreaming.

But I’d always suspected sprawl and xenophobia were connected, and over tea on the lawn my suspicions were confirmed.

”Can anyone scatter ashes there?” I ask my companion, a self-identified trustee.

”Of course,” he answers through a mouthful of egg sandwich. ”But why would you want to?”

”Well, it’s beautiful.”

”Have you seen our new mausoleum?” he asks, as though beauty were a natural segue.

”Oh?”

I’m picturing gloom and shadows, incense and flowers, mystery, tradition.

”It’s for the Macedonians – they’re Orthodox. They’ve always buried their dead at Rookwood, but they visit the grave every day and didn’t want to see all the Muslims there …”

”Really? So you built them a place here?”

”Yes.”

”And there are no Muslim burials here?”

”We cater to everyone – but, well, Muslims don’t use coffins.”

”No? What do they use?”

”A shroud. They bury their dead in a shroud.”

”Oh. Like Jesus?”

Smile.

”A shroud seems pretty harmless,” I persist. ”Why couldn’t you do that here?”

”We have a coffin policy. We use only coffins.”

”Why?”

”It’s just policy.”

”So, you could be buried with a tree in your mouth, but not without a coffin?”

”Well, we don’t really have room for trees. That natural burial thing is in England, where you have a tight little village and farmland just outside it.”

”You know why they have tight villages with farmland outside? Because they have a thing called planning. Rules.”

Man smiles. Chews.

”Well, we have a coffin policy.”

What about a pumpkin, I should have asked. Could you be buried in a pumpkin?

 

 

Our Clintons? Why Australia need the Turnbulls

October 17 2101

 

Just about everyone I know loves Malcolm Turnbull. This is especially weird since my sample, though broad and random – greens and Christians, professionals and hobos, poets, Buddhists, anarchists, atheists, engineers and random reprobates – takes in few Liberal voters, if any.

I don’t solicit the information. It just crops up. In voices tinged with gentle surprise, as if they can’t quite believe it themselves, they confess. Well, in fact, yes – if Malcolm stood for prime minister, they would vote for him in a flash. It’s love.

Only under such leadership can one imagine an Australia of which to be genuinely proud. I don’t mean the usual Aussie pride in our big houses and footy scores. I mean pride for the 21st century.

I’m generally chary of the L-word, especially as applied to politicians. Penny Wong and Bob Brown are my lot so far, with a touch of the Johns, Hatton and Button.

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

What they share, these few, is not charisma. It’s not sex appeal or glad-handedness. It’s principle; each has a clear, inviolate hinterland with a big “Not for sale” sign hung on the gate and principles that will not bend beyond recognition with the next political zephyr.

Not that they share particular principles; just the fact of having some. This makes them beacons of sweet reason amid a muddy rabble of card-sharps and horse-traders.

Yet where are they are now, this backboned handful? Are they wreathed in the eternal sunshine of popular adoration? Hardly.

As the political divide vanishes beneath the frantic rush for the middle ground, our politicians feel the need to manufacture difference (or perhaps our demand of it). And this pretend-game rewards only those skilled in soap opera and farce.

Hence the absurdist, amped-up Punch and Judy show we’ve seen of late, in which Gillard’s emotionally botoxed Judy is repeatedly bludgeoned by Abbott’s big-eared Punch, waving his outsize verbal slapstick and spouting manic abuse.

Against this backdrop it’s pretty easy to look statesmanlike. But that the word, statesmanship is suddenly everywhere suggests, too, that it’s a quality we now crave.

The word implies a certain Jeffersonian dignity. More than just manners and suits; more even than bearing and eloquence, much as we primates read nobility into those. There is a palpable yearning for an end to the idiotics; for someone sane, broad, reasoned, purposeful, decent and wise. In short, a leader with a sense of goodness.

Enter the Turnbulls, Malcolm and Lucy both. For if I’m right about them (and I’d like to be) they could be our Clintons. Or maybe our Kennedys.

Only under such leadership can one imagine an Australia of which to be genuinely proud. I don’t mean the usual Aussie pride in our big houses and footy scores. I mean pride for the 21st century.

Pride in our reformed, ultra-smart education system (I’m hypothesising here); in our skilled and creative citizenry, our expertly husbanded resources, our bustling and lucrative green-energy sector and our engaged, deliberative democracy.

I know. Right now few futures look less probable. There is a crisis in public trust. Look around. Why would you trust someone who couldn’t carry off a night’s babysitting without disgracing himself with your super, your taxes or your climate?

Turnbull is one of the few I’d trust to have a go. Climate change, bike lanes, gay marriage, anti-censorship; many people think Turnbull joined the wrong party. That can happen. Like putting on the wrong shoes in the morning, you just accidentally go right instead of left.

But in fact, it’s not about which party. It’s about why party. Should there even be parties? Do we need them?

For, say I’m right about Turnbull, say he did turn out to be strong and decent, and say he were elected prime minister; he’d still have Parliament to deal with, and the reigning game of swapsies at recess. I’ll give you your education budget line for my union-buster. Your mate’s liquor law for my mate’s coal mine.

This, in combination with the whip system, undermines the very idea of policy, and ensures that those with least moral backbone rise highest.

The party system breeds career politicians who pupate as political staffers and emerge into safe-seat politics with no skills higher than branch-stacking and rung-jumping. Leadership qualities? Ma-a-a-ate.

“There is almost nowhere else in our national life,” noted Turnbull in a recent speech, “where the incentives to be untruthful or to purposefully mislead are so great, and the adverse consequences of such behaviour so modest.

“The adversarial system …  is not working effectively … Important issues are being overlooked, barely discussed and where they are, routinely misrepresented.”

We all nod, sagely. But what to do?

The newDemocracy Foundation has some ideas. The think tank, founded by Luca Belgiorno Nettis, is supported by a range of remarkable people (including Lucy Turnbull but also Fred Chaney, Geoff Gallop, Nick Greiner, David Yencken, Cheryl Kernot and John Brogden).

When Belgiorno Nettis fondly quotes the classic Sydney graffito – “don’t vote, it only encourages them” – he’s serious.

New Democracy offers models from full-on “demarchy”, where decisions are made by a network of randomly selected citizen juries, to an Athenian-style citizen legislature, also selected by lottery. Democracy without elections? That’s big.

It also proposes a discouragement to career politicians, reducing public funding to parties (from a whopping $4.78 a vote!) if they field too many former staffers as candidates.

But this is about as likely to get up as the republic – which is still seen as a Turnbull failure, evidence (along with “utegate”) of his lack of political nous.

This is just one of three albatrosses around Turnbull’s neck. The second is his great wealth.

But both these are really pluses. Political nous just means “thinks like a politician” which surely we’d be delighted to lose. And wealth? Well, at least it makes him seriously difficult to corrupt.

Albatross three goes to the love thing. The Liberal Party insists on seeing Turnbull’s popularity with the non-Liberal masses as a threat. Had they half a brain between them they would seize the opportunity, make Turnbull leader tomorrow and sweep into power the first consensus government for decades.

Still, why risk consensus when Punch is having such a time of it, playing the toxic divide?

 

Looking back with (male) anger

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

My father, I learnt after his death, had perfected a special airport routine in which he would become wronged, then enraged, then upgraded – often to first class.

This surprised me, since my dad was typically a reserved, academic type, unpersuaded by status. But he was also redheaded, boofy and bellicose. Anger was rather his schtick. My father’s anger was something the rest of us tiptoed around, like swamp-dwellers around a sinkhole.

Indeed I am astonished, looking back, by the degree to which male anger has shaped my life. I’m hardly the classic victim, yet anger – from fathers, husbands, bosses, trolls and even (I’m sorry to say) readers – has been formative.

It’s not just me. Male anger is everywhere. Suddenly we’re seeing it; misogyny is big. But it’s not new.

Male anger isn’t always misogynistic, even when directed at women. (Misogyny isn’t hating women, but hating them as women. Hating women as lefties, say, is not misogyny. It’s just hate.)

But male anger has always been a major life force. From Alan Jones to animalised footballers, from forced marriages to Taliban shootings, public male-on-female anger abounds.

Facebook’s ”I Hate Julia Gillard” page has more than 19,000 likes. ”Julia Gillard, Worst PM in Australian History” has more than 23,000 likes, the latest comment at the time of writing being Mike Nick’s edifying ”f— you, you lying slag hole. Your father did die of …” Slag hole? What legitimises this as a form of public address, either to a woman or a prime minister? Well, Jones does.

Seldom political or reasoned, it is often not anonymous. But it is simple, ugly, angry and hateful. Forgetting just how hateful, I take another look, and am shocked anew.

At my most upbeat, I see this stuff as the last gasp of threatened paternalistic fury. I try to feel some sympathy, since anger, in my experience, is at least as bad on the inside. But emotion begets emotion and I feel this anger as a Very Bad Thing. I want to leave the room. Fast. But is it wrong? Is the anger itself wrong? And is its expression, splattering rage across the public realm, also wrong?

A new book by a Melbourne psychologist, Simon Laham, suggests anger might be good. Perhaps he would say that, since the book – The Joys of Sin – has the postmodern task of reversing historic mores, in this case the Seven Deadlies, of which anger is one. But Laham is serious, he’s scientific, and he argues with lucid conviction that anger is often positive, rewarding and valued. Especially male anger.

Decry it as we may, male anger is a successful behaviour. Angry men are seen as more competent, more focused, more effective and even more worthy.

Alan Jones is an obvious example. Red-faced, glowering and narrow-eyed, he seems the very picture of a Chaucerian choleric.

Jones flavours his every performance with righteous fury. Aggression being the best form of defence, he comes out punching even when most people would be wilted and sweating on the ropes. Repossess my Merc wouldja, come back and fight, ”you big hero, McCarthy … you absolutely gutless wonder”.

I suppose it makes good radio. Anger dramatises, energises, entertains. Anger is what Laham calls an ”approach emotion”, as opposed to a withdrawal emotion. Signifying warmth and contact, it can enhance charisma. It can also, as we’re now seeing, get you into trouble.

My first response to Destroy the Joint’s anti-Jones boycott petition was triumph. I signed up thinking, yes, that’s reasonable. It’s not censorship, it’s opposing something vile and ugly and – judging by the overwhelmingly sexual nature of the abuse and imagery – clearly misogynistic. Then, as the petition started to bite, I started to wonder. Was it an act of censorship? Was it, as he claims, an attempt to silence him?

I don’t for a minute buy Jones as a victim of bullying, but how to reconcile the sanctions with that clarion call for free speech, ”I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?

Jones may be thoroughly offensive (though stories of his private kindness are legion, suggesting the anger is all show), but do we want a society of enforced niceness? Really? Isn’t that what Dame Edna warned us against, half a century ago?

I checked with Michael Fraser, Professor of communications law at the University of Technology, Sydney and the chairman of Sydney PEN. He was reassuring. No, he says, there’s no censorship involved. Jones has a right to voice his opinion, but not to a high-paying megaphone.

His opponents are also entitled to their views, Fraser says, and to exercise their collective consumer pressure that way. Destroy the Joint may be as strident and unedifying as Jones himself. It may be moralistic. It’s entitled to be.

Which brings us to female anger. Sadly, as Simon Laham notes, the benefits of anger do not typically apply to women. Bill Clinton’s televised anger over the Monica Lewinsky kerfuffle rendered him re-electable but Hillary Clinton’s anger at Republicans in Congress made her, in public eyes, ”a witch”.

It was a handcuffing, as The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted. A ducking stool. Stay quiet, she’s timid. Speak out, she’s a witch. Ancient, ancient stuff.

Laham also cites experiments showing that while men who show anger get paid more, women doing the same get paid less. Angry men are seen as responding to a cue. Angry women as inherently, pathologically cross.

The reason for this double standard, it is hypothesised, is cultural; our expectation that women are the gentler sex makes anger an aberration. To which the obvious response is, we should do it more. Get angry more, spray it around more. Don’t get even, get angry.

Not me, though. I still don’t like sharing a room with anger, much less sharing a head. I’m walkin’ away.

Why the home stretch isn’t worth it

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

Lea Zappia had budgeted “up to about $500,000″ to buy her first home. On discovering the $15,000 new first home owners’ grant however, and the stamp-duty waiver to buy off the plan, she spent $615,000 doing just that.

Never mind the logic (a 23 per cent budget blowout for a 4 per cent saving; we all do stuff like that). Is this pattern, replicated statewide and intensified by recent interest rate cuts, a good thing?

How does it relate, further, to this week’s reported half death of the Great Barrier Reef? To the relentless defence by the (supremely mis-named) Institute of Public Affairs of the McMansion as a basic human right?

And how does it bear on the self-declared ”mindgasm” the US futurist Jason Silva experienced on stage at the Opera House last weekend, in persuading his audience that humans are the new gods?

The grant is meant both to incentivise housing construction and enhance affordability; increasing supply by facilitating demand. It is also meant to channel that demand towards new homes.

But are these aims genuine, or even compatible? How wise is it to send novice home buyers into the swampiest, most treacherous buying ground? How real anyway is Australia’s notorious ”dwelling gap”? And what of the bigger picture?

The bigger picture is bigger prices, bigger houses, bigger sprawl, bigger carbon. First home owners’ grants are widely recognised as inflationary, raising the price of new homes by roughly the size of the grant.

Indeed, some commentators suggest the real purpose of the grant is not to lower the bar for new buyers but, on the contrary, to reassure existing owners by keeping house prices high.

Voters are conflicted here, with baby-boomer parents grumbling, on the one hand, that their children will never be able to afford a house nearby and, on the other, that the value of their own major investment will fall – which would be the only way, short of a miracle, that their children’s house-buying dreams at Bondi or Wahroonga might be realised.

The government, naturally, is similarly caught. So a measure that seems to promise both affordability and stability (but may deliver neither) must seem heaven sent.

The Rudd first home owners’ grant, which ended in 2009, produced frenzied bidding wars at auctions of so called ”affordable” housing across the country, lining the pockets of vendors instead of easing purchasers’ woes.

Since then – in fact since 2000 – NSW has offered a $7000 grant. But this, according to the COAG Reform Council, has not stopped “home purchase affordability for low and moderate income households declining in all jurisdictions between 2009-10 and 2010-11”.

It has not stopped rental affordability worsening, over the same period, especially for the lowest 10 per cent of households, whose rate of rental stress “jumped from 49.2 per cent in 2007-08 to 60.8 per cent in 2009-10″.

Nor has it stopped the dwelling gap almost tripling. In 2008, the National Housing Supply Council estimated an 85,000 shortfall. By this June, its estimate had nearly tripled to 230,000.

These figures are worth querying, since they require an estimate based either on the total number of homeless (including floor sleepers and caravan dwellers) or on a subtraction of dwelling numbers from household numbers.

This is trickier than it sounds, since definitions of terms such as ”home” and ”household” also come into play. So, as the council’s chairman, Dr Owen Donald, notes, “I’d be astounded if the [gap] numbers were actually that big.”

For one thing, the Bureau of Statistics reports, this year, for the first time in a century, the household size has risen. The rise is small (0.1 persons), caused by more grown children and ageing parents refusing to fly. And at 2.6 persons, the household size is still half of what it was a century ago.

But, notes the bureau, “if Australian homeowners continue to make greater use of their large dwellings … estimates of housing under-supply will need to be substantially revised”.

Yet this is the demand we are frantically trying to chew up greenfields to supply.

The grant is strictly for new homes less than $650,000. This will increase both ex-urban sprawl and off-the-plan apartment buying, sending the young and untried either out beyond the transport line (enforcing car dependence) or into some of the trickiest legal territory known to man.

Further, because ”new” includes both ”substantial renovations” and knock-down rebuilds, the first home owners’ grant is a direct blow to existing and heritage fabric and, by extension, to sustainability. The fact that rebuilds are reliably bigger than what they replace only worsens this carbon footprint.

New Australian houses are already the world’s biggest – a full 10 per cent bigger than their US counterparts. Within Australia, NSW takes the house-size cake (although if you include apartments, of which Sydney has the most, we drop to fourth, with WA on top).

Yet Chris Berg, from the Institute of Public Affairs, insists it’s all good. “That large homes … within the reach of moderate-income families …” he says, “is something worth celebrating, not deriding”. We build big houses because we can. Yay for us.

He would say that, I guess, since much of the institute’s (secret) funding is thought to come from big carbon (Exxon, Shell, Caltex, BHP Billiton).

Yet the idea that grabbing what we can is just fine seems to be gaining ground. The same thought, sent stratospheric, seemed to underlie Silva’s ejaculatory insistence that the global techno-fix (stem-cell meat, remote cell-phone medicine, self re-engineering) has already rendered us divine.

But ability is not entitlement. That, surely, is the first rule of civilisation. The capacity to buy a marble palace or cryogenic immortality does not entitle you to those resources. ”Can” is not ”should”; might does not equal right.

The house-as-castle creates an image of tribalism, not civilisation. As Boswell knew three centuries ago, urbanism is the opposite of autonomy. It is being forced to share, shrink, overlap, specialise and connect (recognising precisely that we are not gods) that turns us from tribal primates into open-hearted citizens.

I understand the temptation of the first home owners’ grant for buyers and politicians alike. I do. Our national dreaming demands a nested-in nest egg.

But it’s not the only way; not the most sustainable, most social, most creative or most civic. In Germany, property bubbles are unheard of because renting is respected and protected, so investors at all levels bankroll other, more creative enterprises than super-size homes.

A bigger favour to first home buyers, if that’s what governments want, would be to foster a more modest idea of ”home”, a richer idea of ”city” and some serious tenant-protection laws. Try that for a dangerous idea.

 

Not buying off the plan – it’s safe as houses

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

I once bought a car with lovely leather seats. Sadly, within days, the lovely leather seats were the only part of the car still functioning. Two weeks later, I sold the car back to the man for exactly half what I’d paid.

I blame myself. Yes, I was new to Parramatta Road and, yes, I was pregnant. But that’s no excuse.

Like most of my bad life decisions, it was a trust thing. Either you trust where you shouldn’t, or you don’t trust where you should. I’d trusted a charming Glaswegian used-car salesman called Charlie.

I was reminded of this the other week when I nearly bought an apartment off the plan. And again on Monday, with the hoo-ha over the nightmare flats at 52 Regent Street, Chippendale – ugly, unsound, unsafe.

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Squeezed between Barnet’s lovely Mortuary Station and the Co-Masonic Temple, with a six-track railway behind and a six-lane road in front, it is, I grant, an unpromising site. Yet a solid stone Wesleyan church once stood there and, with the Co-Masonic, centred Sydney’s theosophical movement through the 1920s and ’30s.

So bad is this building that I often use it in lectures, illustrating how not to address a street. My image shows a resident exiting the building, made to look almost furtive by the ranks of plant-room doors, garbage doors, fumey vehicle entrances and ”high voltage keep out” signs through which he must emerge. And that’s the front.

I watched it go up, over years. People who had bought in off the plan must have been feeling sick. Worse now, as the plaster peels and the fire safety officers close in, the developer vanished from the earth.

By contrast, the plan off which I so nearly bought was a good one. Not sumptuous but assured, efficient and well accoutred. It had balconies, baths and bus routes, cafes, cat-friendliness and cross-ventilation. It had a decent (but not splendid) north-facing view and, above all, good high ceilings. (In fact the only thing it didn’t offer was a drying room. This is a fantasy I have, in which apartment living doesn’t force you to spew carbon into the air in order to dry your clothes.)

The strata thing was an issue. I’ve lived in apartments but never owned one, and it felt a little like buying into a cocktail party of irritable and irritating strangers. Still, I told myself, people do it. It’s possible – a bit like that box you tick on new software downloads, signing up to pages of terms and conditions you have no intention of reading.

It wasn’t built. But even then, I quite liked the thought of waiting a year, planning the move, checking out the finished product, choosing the moment to sell. I was sufficiently persuaded to pay a (refundable) $5000 holding fee. I read the contract, began wish-listing amendments – skylights, floor finishes, cupboards. I could see us living there, popping down for a macchiato in the hippest joint in town.

Then I started to wonder. The bedroom was beside the lift: was I going to hear its noise all night? What was the building made of, actually? None of the glossy renderings showed anything structural. I spoke to the architect, which was considered rather irregular. I asked for sections and, examining them, noticed other stuff.

The sections showed structure, yes, but did not specify its material. I noticed that they also showed solid wall above the balcony doors, where the sales images showed floor-to-ceiling glass. They showed clipped eaves facing north and a skillion roof with sloping ceiling. I also noticed the words ”approval imminent”.

Doubts niggled. What was I buying, actually? Of course, if the thing isn’t built at all, you get your deposit back, assuming you can find the developer or his all-too-aptly-named trust fund. But it wasn’t that. Or even the cost of that money, meantime. It was the absence of any product description that you couldn’t drive a canary-yellow roadster through.

Having been involved in East Circular Quay (aka the Toaster), I knew how hard it is to capture a 3D building in legalese. Even doing something simple like prohibiting height-creep took a document weighing kilos.

Here, it wasn’t even attempted. Instead, the contract focused on protecting the vendor. The purchaser, it said, had no claim for ”fair wear and tear” before completion. Nor for the quality of the inclusions, nor for up to 5 per cent variation in apartment overall size. I could lose a small bathroom and have no comeback.

In signing, the purchaser ”acknowledges that Development Consent has not been granted”. Even once it is granted the vendor may vary it – dropping, say, another four storeys on top of your apartment – without consultation or claim.

As to defects, the purchaser is limited to one defects notice and the vendor need only correct it ”within a reasonable time”.

Most of us wouldn’t buy a dress without feeling the warp and weft – and that’s returnable. Yet with a purchase thousands of times larger it’s ”trust me, I’m a developer. Name’s Charlie, from the Gorbals.”

And that’s before you even get to the business of certifiers being paid by developers. (A better system, says Tone Wheeler, architect and member of the Building Professionals Board, would be to pay the levy into a pool and have certifiers allocated by councils).

Is it any wonder a City Futures Research Centre report this year found 85 per cent of owners surveyed in apartment blocks built since 2000 had experienced defects – and, of those, 75 per cent said defects still existed?

”The system is broken,” the peak body for apartment owners in NSW says. Buyers are being bankrupted and in some cases it may be a matter of life and death.

And still the NSW government is making it harder by the day to do something about defective buildings.

 

There’s no road to riches in our fat city

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

A week before Christmas, I sold my car. Some people do a year without meat, or mojitos, or sex. I’m trialling life sans car. It was an emotional moment. Of all the autos in my life, this was the first of which I’d been genuinely fond. Yet, given the 22 share-cars within five minutes’ walk of my front door, given Central Station within 10, it was a hard option to ignore.

I cycle, as you know, always have. Now I also car-share, of which more later. And I walk, a lot, especially into the city. Walking is reliable, punctual and, for an urbophile, far and away the best exploratory mode. It’s also a known enhancer of mental – as much as physical – digestion. (It is said, though some demur, that Wordsworth and Coleridge composed verse while walking; Wordsworth in purposeful straight lines across gravel, Coleridge in meanders and dalliances on grass and rock.)

I’m no poet. I’m happy, as I poke Sydney’s involutes and stroll its fumy congestions, with the occasional half-interesting thought. Monday’s, mid-Macquarie Street, was this.

If you wanted to ”make NSW No.1 again”, as the Barry O’Farrell rhetoric goes, would you start by making people fatter and stupider? Would you follow that up by sacking the one leader who has spent decades making Sydney smarter, leaner, greener and more creative?

You might expect O’Farrell, with his much-vaunted pre-election weight loss, to support walkable cities. And in a way he does. The Premier’s Council for Active Living argues that every 5 per cent switch from even short car trips to walking saves $134 million over five years – money being our last shared value.

As exemplary urban village, it cites not Chatswood nor the vast farm-guzzling estate of The Ponds, but Chippendale – inner city, semi-anarchist Chippo, with its street gardens, its community composting and its Pedestrian, Cycling and Traffic Calming, all actively supported by the City of Sydney.

Yet when action time comes, the state can’t go unwalkable fast enough. Then it’s all speed-rezoning fringe farmland into sprawl. It’s all ”transport” plans like the one released last month: roads, roads, motorways and more roads.

This despite the obesity epidemic, climate change and fuel costs. Despite the fact that roads put people out beyond the public-transport permafrost, in car-dependent perpetuity. Despite the fact that, even in car-crazed America, cities now compete to be the ”most walkable”, to institute programs and neighbourhoods that make walking practical and pleasurable. Despite the fact, in other words, that the Century of the Car is over.

Modernism’s four defining icons – the mall, the skyscraper, the motorway, the bungalow – were all predicated on the car. But in the US, as in Australian cities, Gen Y shows a distinct disinclination towards suburbia. They cling to inner-city neighbourhoods. They scoot, cycle, walk, train and skateboard. They disdain the car.

So this century’s defining icon is more likely a mixed-use, energy-independent, vege-topped apartment building with half a dozen stackable electric share-buggies in the basement.

The psychology of car-share is pertinent here. I was suspicious. I figured the self-drive taxi would save you parking and of course money. But I didn’t expect it to do much for the planet. A car is, after all, a car.

How wrong. It’s like the difference between an annual gym membership and pay-as-you-go. Paying per use, albeit far less than for ownership, becomes a real disincentive, so your trips are both cheaper and fewer.

Whereas if you’ve bought the thing, you feel pretty much obliged to get your money’s worth. If you can drive, you will. So building roads is not, and has never been, an answer to congestion.

Yet the Premier persists in talking fit-city and doing fat-city, just as he talks clever-city and does dumb-city.

Admittedly, not even Google can find a single instance of our illustrious Premier and the word ”creative” in one sentence. But he must surely be aware of the growing evidence. Not only are cities the creative founts of civilisation but, it’s now irrefutable, the creative cities are the successful ones.

O’Farrell chops $1.7 billion from education. Does he think it’s OK to preserve funding for wealthy private schools and allow a $5 million Treasury refurb while cutting public education? Does he think it’s fine to increase TAFE fees by 10 per cent and abolish TAFE’s entire stable of fine arts courses at a blow, putting 4000 students on the streets from January? Does he think our economy took the dunce’s seat because we’re over-educated?

Of course, the Premier argues jobs. There are no jobs for artists. But fine arts training isn’t a vocational gig (except in the proper sense of the word). Few people study watercolour or ceramics as a meal ticket. Art is about love, fulfilment, play, joy and yes, being better people and creating a more thrilling city. We should be grateful, not least because creativity and economy are twins.

As Canberra’s Centre for International Economics notes, ”people with cultural and creative skills play a key role in a vibrant society and economy”. Their report traces the parallel between NSW’s low and falling proportion of creatives (compared with Victoria’s higher and rising figures) and the state’s economic morbidity.

O’Farrell’s treatment of the arts as a dispensable luxury not only steals education from those who need it most but steals Sydney’s best, most vibrant self from us all.

Then, as if to cement the desecration, he sacks the only civic leader who has – ever – worked to intensify the city’s creativity. Even Melburnians now admit that inner Sydney is Australia’s Greenwich Village. Yet today, after 24 years, is Clover Moore’s last sitting in Parliament. Everyone who believes in cities, democracy or art should be there at 12.30pm to chain her to her seat.

Women on top, and the joint looks just fine

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

The cheerleading poster at the victory party of the lord mayor, Clover Moore, on Saturday read, in fat, square-pants letters: ”The voters of Sydney obviously don’t read The Daily Telegraph or listen to Alan Jones.”

Just that. Everyone knew what it meant. It meant that, despite the particularly poisonous nature of the pre-election tablogosphere, the tyranny of the green-hating, cycle-hating, women-hating barbarians that shout and slaver at the city walls was not complete. The room erupted.

Given Jones’s notorious misogynist ”women are destroying the joint” rave a week earlier, the poster might equally have borne what has since become the motto of the online troll-rebuttal movement: ”Keep Calm and Destroy the Joint.” Quite unwittingly – some might say witlessly – Jones gave the women’s movement its joyous call to arms.

But beneath the fun is a growing unease at the growing legitimacy of explicit, anti-female nastiness.

I’m often surprised by young women who say ”I’m not a feminist but …” Like cyclists who volunteer, quite unprovoked, ”I’m not a green but” (three times before the cock crows). Yes, these women concede when challenged, of course they believe in equal pay for equal work. Of course they believe in education and opportunity. Of course, the merit principle. Obviously.

Yet it’s not obvious to everyone, as Jones and his winged monkeys demonstrate. And moments like this, when Australia makes international headlines for such misogyny, shine a torch through the civilisation’s gossamer veneer.

Which may explain the vigour, wit and glee of the response to attacks on leaders such as Moore and Christine Nixon. At last, an opportunity to stand and fight.

Within days, there was a Destroy the Joint Facebook page and a change.org petition, started by a man, pressuring Jones and 2GB via their advertisers.

This goes to the question at the heart of democracy. It’s a turn-the-other-cheek question. Does my duty of tolerance oblige me to tolerate your intolerance (of me)?

Where does free speech end and vilification begin? Is it censorship to stop someone spurting bilious hatred into the public realm?

The public realm is our commons, our harbour. In relentlessly chucking their hatred into the airwaves, shock-jocks and the trolls they excite become the intellectual equivalent of those who, a century back, made the harbour a receptacle for raw sewage and animal offal. It’s disgusting, yes. But is it wrong, or just ugly?

One ad hoc test is to insert another word – another group – in place of ”women”. If Jones or someone in his position had accused gays, Asians, Jews or blacks of ”destroying the joint”, we would have been rightly appalled. Yet women, even prime ministerial women, are considered legitimate targets. The only other group you can insult that way and get away with it are Kiwis. As a paid-up member of both clubs, I feel compelled to parse the issue.

What does it mean to be sexist, anyway, given that there clearly are gender differences? And how much of it, if any, should we allow?

Prejudice is not the pointing out of difference, or even basing judgments on this difference, where it’s pertinent. It is not prejudiced to employ Vietnamese wait staff for a Vietnamese restaurant.

The prejudice comes in where judgments are based on factors irrelevant to the decision being made; where (for example) the shape of eyes or bottom or god is presumed to affect reliability, intelligence, competence or moral strength.

So generalisations are dangerous ground. To argue that a particular female leader is incompetent is not in itself sexist. Even to argue that all the particular female leaders we have are incompetent might not be sexist, although it would clearly be untrue. But to generalise, to imply, that all women leaders are incompetent by virtue of their femaleness – that’s sexist.

As to tolerance versus censorship, we need to be careful. It’s clear that ignoring this toxic bilge, putting up with it, looking away, does not silence it. It doesn’t need oxygen, for it feeds on fear.

On the other hand, it is also true that feminism tends to narrowness, to accuse any and all of its critics of misogyny, falling into the very faults it hopes to remedy.

My view is that each gender (and no doubt the ones in between) has typical characteristics, most of which are both strengths and weaknesses, depending on context.

Feminism has a tendency therefore to self-absorption, stasis and victimhood; it tends to want both the cake of being equal and the eating-it of being special. Feminism at its best is heroic, heartfelt, far-seeing and wise. At its worst it is smug, hypocritical and victim-minded. It can also be tyrannical, since to say this puts you at risk of being blackballed by your own friends and colleagues.

A recent ”wimmins issue” of the monthly Architecture Bulletin commissioned – nay, pleaded for – and then canned my review of Parlour, a women’s blog of which I had already been critical in print. There may have been genuine reasons but I strongly suspect it was motivated by a refusal of dissent.

So feminism is not perfect. Neither are women, or women leaders (or, God knows, male leaders). But none of that justifies routine debasement of the kind described in Anne Summers’s recent speech about Gillard, ”Her Rights at Work”.

Summers detailed the growth of routine vilification of the Prime Minister, from Tony Abbott’s proud photos with ”Juliar Bob Brown’s bitch” and ”ditch the witch” posters to the seriously explicitly sexual language and imagery now rampant across the web.

I’m not supporting Moore, Nixon, Gillard and Summers because they’re women. I’m saying they shouldn’t be attacked because they’re women. To their work, gender is irrelevant.

Asking Jones to apologise is not censorship. On the contrary, bullying thrives while we watch, silent. It debases us all. Until they get that, and learn some manners, I’m just gonna stay calm and destroy the joint. Eternal vigilance.

 

Female is a good fit for space and place

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

“Dare you,” said a friend the other evening, “to do a piece on the Jensenite city, the city where female submits to male.”

“It’s been done,” I quipped. I’d been talking in light-hearted, speculative vein about ”male” and ”female” spaces in cities (in the electrical, not political, sense, where male is an outie and female an innie).

And of course it’s true. The male-dominant, or Jensenite, city is the modern city, as thrusting and convex as a field of asparagus. Space, time and texture are deliberately smoothed out of existence, and women sent safely to the burbs.

The traditional city, which modernism was so bent on erasing, may not have been female-dominant but it did at least entail femaleness in its households and in its spaces.

The occasion for my talk was the AGNSW’s wonderful Eugene Atget show of photos of old Paris, and it repeatedly makes this point. Traditional cities are, in a word, crannied.

Now that urbanism is the new black and localism (in all its 50 shades) the new grey – now, further, that local government elections are upon us and most of the mayoral candidates are female – the question might be: if female spaces make for good cities, do women, in a post-modern era, make better mayors?

What, if anything, does it signify, that our three most important CBDs are mayored by women – Genia McCaffery, in North Sydney; Lorraine Wearne, in Parramatta; and Clover Moore, in City of Sydney?

I find that, when I travel, most things I photograph are holes, of one kind or another. Atget, who is not female, does the same. Most people shoot objects: he shoots cavities, carved from the solid. Streets, alleys, courts, balconies, doors, windows.

In place of a public realm, modernism gave us space around towers that was at once so dominated and so abused by them as to be permanently uninhabitable. A good city, by contrast, is like a coral reef, where convex material forms create concave spatial ones that nourish life. This requires an inalienable marriage of male and female, connected as one.

Yet, because we are so used to seeing the thing, not the gap, to value urban crannies in themselves requires a mental flip.

There’s no real reason why this flip should be a skill particular to women. Yet – to my surprise – it is what our female mayors, and lord mayors in particular, seem to be good at.

Parramatta’s Lorraine Wearne, a lord mayor, hasn’t been in power all that long. And the axing this year of the mammoth Civic Place plan is likely down to the GFC as much as any realisation that it would be as destructive of city life as Parramatta Westfield – a universally acknowledged siting catastrophe.

But Wearne nevertheless has presided over a major perceptual shift, from Parramatta the daggy, the distant, the down-at-heel to Parramatta the interesting, the chic. Suddenly, it seems, Parramatta has sassy recycled heritage and interesting laneways, hipster cafes and eccentric events, music festivals, locavore foods, cycleways, art happenings and design.

Civic Place will be redeveloped incrementally and in smaller parcels that, one hopes, will assiduously curate Church Street’s vitality and there are design competitions for major buildings, of which three (won by Architectus, Grimshaw and Tony Caro) have so far borne fruit. And the plans for Parramatta are legion, including river foreshore improvements, laneway start-ups, the Lennox Bridge conference centre and the light rail network, whose first stage would cost half what the Labor government proposed to spend on the metro from Central to Rozelle.

In Sydney city, where Clover Moore has been mayor for eight years, the achievements are more astounding.

Of the seven other candidates, five are female, including pole dancer Zahra Stardust, who has taken the idea of removing your clothes as a feminist statement about as far as it can go, and then some. There’s cafe owner Angela Vithoulkas, who believes the council should buy in off-duty police for the Cross, and barrister Dixie Coulton, who is very vocal about the width of pathways in parks. Big issues.

Certainly Moore has her detractors, although it’s always worth checking their point of origin. (Andrew Woodhouse, Potts Point & Kings Cross Heritage Conservation Society president, has sworn an affidavit accusing Moore of corruption. Who witnessed Woodhouse’s affidavit? Good heavens. One Dixie Coulton, candidate).

Moore’s steadfast and principled leadership has dragged local government in this state into the 21st century. She’s also made the city an address to aspire to and be proud of.

First: quality design has become a Sydney staple. There’s a genuine commitment to sustainability, not just greenwash. And therefore, working for the council is no longer an embarrassment for anyone whose IQ exceeds their shoe size.

Retailers and lobbyists whinge because Moore won’t give them what they want. But this determination to stand for something bigger, rather than simply bending with the tide, is why we should treasure independents in politics generally and Moore in particular.

There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come; urbanism and localism together mean that local government – strong, independent, smart city government – is the future. Call it ”glocalism”. Rather than despising it, we should strengthen it. Our cities, and our nation, will not be civilised until we give local government a constitutional right to exist.

The best route to this unlikely eventuality is for local government to prove it can behave decently and with smarts. That’s why these women deserve another term, and others deserve a go too. As the poster over the road from me has been neatly defaced to read: ”Vote Clover, you lazy scum!”

 

 

Anonymity powers the cudgels in hatesphere

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

To recap. I’d just filed last week’s column on cycling. It was a nice day, and I took a ride up the bike path to Rushcutters Bay. After three major whole-path blockages I said, to truck driver No.3, “nice place to park”. No abuse. No anger. Just that.

Had he said, “sorry love, won’t be long”, I’d have thought nothing more, dismounted, walked around. But he became immediately aggressive, insisting on his right to block the lane (but not the road) and dissing bike lane-loving lord mayor Clover Moore for being “an educated woman”. As he stalked off I took a couple of pics of his unmarked truck and posted them on my blog.

I was a bit miffed, but not angry. Had no desire he be fined. (As if.)

My point was simple: why does everyone seem to think it’s OK to block bikes but not cars?

Anyway, all hell broke loose. By breakfast, my humdrum little blog had 50 comments and a thousand hits. By day’s end, almost 4000.

I was called a pompous prat, a rude and viscious (sic) idiot, an incredibly stupid woman, a small sad person, a pompous git, an old commie bat, an absolute wanker, a poor little suffering Doctor princess pet, a moron, an imbecile, a pestiferous little idiot, a selfish fool, an arrogant conceited woman, an old tart, an old fart, a dolt, lord of the bicycle paths, a wowser, pathetic, despicable, weak, dishonest and a complete f—wit.

“That people can anonymously abuse someone in public is not freedom of expression,” said author and essayist John Ralston Saul during a conversation last week with members of Sydney PEN. “It’s slander. It’s not taking responsibility for your views. It’s not citizenship.”

His critique of cyberspace’s role in “the rise of secrecy as an acceptable way of grabbing power” resonated strongly with me, especially considering my experiences in the digital hatesphere.

There’s a bus you see round town that bears, in similar vein, a quote from Peter Cundall: “The greatest power that ordinary people have … is to tell the truth.”

Both presume that “ordinary people” are oppressed by the secrecy of governments and corporations, which is no doubt true. But in the blogosphere the boot is on the other foot. There, it’s so-called “ordinary people” for whom secrecy becomes both mask and cudgel.

As Jonathan Myerson wrote in The Guardian this week, when Martin Luther nailed his ”Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a Wittenberg church, he didn’t sign it GloomyGripe65”.

Democracy takes it on trust that people, fully fed and free, will act with intelligence and decency. What if that’s wrong? There’s a new strain of hate out there – misogynist, anti-education and clearly frightened of change; the Julia Gillard bullet-hole T-shirt; the threat to kill Nicola Roxon; the Nazi slogans with which radio host John-Michael Howson abused Christine Assange.

The common factor is the lower-cortex cruelty, the delight in hurt, the uninhibited chimpanzee blood-craze. As the president of Sydney PEN, Michael Fraser, says, “it’s almost a competition as to how depraved you can be online”.

I’d always resisted blogging. It swallows time and, well, why give away something for which you should be paid? But as the world’s newspapers started to look like an endangered species, it struck me that an ironic effect of the internet might be to reinstate a feudal condition, where the social narrative is owned by those who need no payment; the rich, the maddened and the agenda-driven.

So blogging became a kind of experiment. I knew failure was on the cards. Humiliation even. But I did not expect to feel endangered myself.

Now I am hourly reminded that experimental knowledge is sometimes so dark and loathsome we’d sooner be without.

And it’s not all anonymous. Of the mob pursuing me, some used government or university or work email addresses. Some – including their apparent puppetmaster Tim Blair – gave names.

I don’t read the Tele. I’d never heard of Blair. Turns out he blog-blags me so often it looks like attention-seeking, calling me ”crazylady”, ”grandmaw”, ”bossypants” and ”idiot doctor”, imputing motives I’ve never had to incite his hate-filled acolytes.

Some of Blair’s blogs use more of my words than his. I’m considering sending a bill.

And so he blogged on, relentlessly. Thursday, Saturday, Monday; clearly enjoying the rabble. He might not be responsible for his nut-job devotees, but he carefully fed them their ideas and terminology. Describing me as an “idiot Doctor of Urbanism who thinks ‘traffic’ means her in a freaking bike lane” he told them repeatedly that I wanted the truckie fired, hated ”working men” and thought myself too good to “get off her stupid bike”.

He helpfully posted links to my blog and CV, even requoting some of the comments from my site, where I was derided as a communist, a Green, a hypocrite and a tory; as rich, powerful, supercilious, menopausal, adolescent, a Green ”self-annointed [sic] member of the ruling class” and cause of everything wrong with both the inner city and the Fairfax share price.

It was a lynch mob; bike-hating, city-hating, education-hating. Wound up by Blair, they rode a tide of anger, envy and sexism.

It wasn’t just criticism. A personal blog is personal. The comments come to your email. These people were in my living room, spraying hot pus. Suddenly I saw how teenagers can kill themselves over cyber-bullying.

I understand the truckie didn’t like being outed. But it’s that old privacy thing: if you wouldn’t want it known, don’t do it. If it was OK for him to do it, it was okay for me to say so.

There are two issues here; the infection of politics by unmodified emotion, and the poisonous strand of class-based secrecy that sanctions the wrongdoing but not the telling of it.

Cundall is right. This will rebound. If you pillory truth tellers, you chase decency from public life, skewing politics and ending meaningful debate in a way that helps no one, least of all those on the bottom.

 

Bike haters parked in the Jurassic

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

What is the sound of a dinosaur? History does not record. Increasingly, however, the sad, lost roarings of the O’Farrell government make plausible mimicry. Attacking cycleways, in contradiction even of its own roads experts, just sounds more prehistoric than ever.

At one level, it’s a beware-the-ministerial-route-to-work story. One-time planning minister Bob Carr ‘s chauffeured commute through the redbrick walk-ups of Maroubra is why, a decade on, every Sydney apartment building looks like an inbred egg crate.

Now, it seems, the regular trip down College Street by the Roads Minister, Duncan Gay, might finally do for the cycle lanes.

But even saurian brains can’t be that small. Bikes must occasionally leave bike lanes, just as buses occasionally leave bus lanes. And although rudeness and stupidity are as common among cyclists as others, a few random failures do not a catastrophe make.

Plus, they’re popular where it counts. If city voters didn’t support bike lanes they wouldn’t keep increasing the majority of the administration that created them. (Yes, more on this in a couple of weeks.)

So is the state just playing to a different audience? Is all this cycle-rage chest-beating really aimed at the talkback sector, out beyond the bike line?

My taxi-driver test supports this interpretation. Stoked by shock-jock demagoguery, car-on-bike hatred rages on – as though cycling is some guilty pleasure indulged in only by some inner-city gluten-free intellectual elite. As though roads were for cars, not people. As though, out in the burbs, real men drive SUVs. Stuff health. Stuff cost. Certainly, stuff the environment.

That’s rubbish, surely. There are plenty of suburban types who cycle, and plenty more who would, given the cycleways to do it. Plenty of suburbanites are impacted by fuel budgets, health concerns, eco-mindedness. Plenty of them get that the future is green, because it has to be.

Even in the city, with space so contested, the RTA (now RMS) itself finds that, despite a near doubling in cycle numbers in two years, “no significant delays to other road users … have occurred”.

You’d think they’d be grateful. Every trip I make on my bike is a car trip not made. It’s petrol not burned, road wear not imposed and congestion not, well, congested. Statistically, it’s also future health bills avoided. All of which benefits everyone, with only me doing the work.

Notes one blogger, “on the figures, if the 800 cyclists who cross the Anzac Bridge every day drove instead, there’d be 8km more traffic”.

But you can’t win. They whinge if you’re on the road, more if you get off the road onto a footpath and more still if you have your own cycle lane. This four-wheeled hatred of two is so irrational I can only put it down to envy. I’m the one doing the work, yes. But I’m also the one having the fun – feeling the breeze, slipping through the sclerosis, parking without fuss. I’m the one getting to meetings on time.

Admittedly, as we share the black top, I do get to breathe their smelly rear-end emissions. But it still beats spending hours each week in an equally stinky gym. Admittedly, too, you need nerves of steel. But what better preparation – indeed, what better metaphor? – for a life of letters? Yes, you could come a cropper any time, and no, you’re not paranoid, they are all out to knock you off.

For most, safety is the top cycling issue – both the commonest reason for not cycling, and the commonest rationale for cycle rage. Your standard taxi driver will insist that his real concern is for the health and wellbeing of the cyclist he’s just veered at. LOL.

The safety thing is largely a furphy. Certainly, for obsessional, racing-type cyclists there are issues. Studies show sexual problems and bone-density loss, possibly related to perspiration-related calcium depletion, resulting in multiple fractures. (Stuart O’Grady, who broke a collarbone and five ribs in Germany this week, has an impressive list of previous fractures including ribs, collarbones, shoulder, vertebrae and skull).

For most cyclists, dilettantes like me, the health benefits far outweigh the risks, even sans helmet. The University of Sydney public health professor and cycling advocate Chris Rissel says optional helmets would double cyclist numbers. Bike share, he says, has been 10 times more successful in London, where helmets are not required, than in Melbourne, where they are. In Sydney, 23 per cent of adults say they would cycle more if helmets were not mandatory.

This is part-convenience, part-pleasure and partly because the helmet requirement makes cycling seem more dangerous than it is.

“In the first three months of the London scheme,” Rissel says, “share bikes were used more than 6 million times and the injury rate was a low 0.0023 per cent.” And that’s without dedicated lanes.

There are etiquette issues. Anyone who walks a lot will have been nearly bowled over by cyclists speeding on or across footpaths. Pedestrians get vague, they walk without necessarily thinking, they drift.

So, although Rissel also argues that registering cyclists is pointless, there could be a case for education. Driving schools teach the mechanics of driving but driving manners – when to wave thanks, when to yield your rights – are learnt from parents.

Cycling manners – who gives way at cycle lanes and crossings, how to ring your bell without offence – are still evolving. For many they’re primitive indeed, including the Domayne bedding delivery man who this morning parked on the cycleway, yelling “send your complaints to Clover Moore, she’s such an educated woman”. Unlike some.

Bikes sit somehow between cars and pedestrians, with some of the rights and obligations of each. One thing they do allow, though – one of the delights – is the ability to smile and say ”thank you” as you pass.

This is huge. If the Lycra lot could learn from it we’d be better at counteracting a dinosaur government determined to stoke the rage.

Says dinosaurfacts.org, “the ankylosaurus has very little brain inside its reinforced skull, so when faced with danger it reacts automatically and aggressively”. I reckon if it looks like a dinosaur, and sounds like a dinosaur … cycle rapidly away.

Sydney gets a facelift, for better or worse

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

I was shocked recently to hear a young female colleague extolling the virtues of Robert Moses, the Mephistophelean bureaucrat who devoted decades to imposing modernism’s biggest and baddest desecrations on New York.

“You have to admire him,” she breathed. “Just for scale and audacity. For sheer size.”

Do you, though? Is size, like, it again?

It’s no mere academic question. I’m conscious, as my friend speaks, of the vast crop of urban renewals transforming inner Sydney – which is odd, since we’re constantly told NSW is a rustbucket state.

Maybe it’s just that building runs counter-cyclical. But, whatever the reason (and I don’t think it’s me), billions are being ploughed in within walking distance of my front door. Cranes, in large family groups, on every horizon.

Like most things, city-making shifts with the ebb and flow of fashion. Robert Moses was a smoothe Ivy Leaguer who epitomised modernism’s macho obsessions with speed, size and gargantuan renewal.

Although never elected to public office, he drove more bridge, motorway, slum-clearance and housing developments than anyone before or since. Actively opposing public transport, he assiduously remade New York, city and state, for the car.

Then, aptly enough, Moses’ symbolic successor was a woman, an economics writer whose sole power was her pen. Jane Jacobs, a leading Moses accuser, emerged as flagbearer for everything urbanists now hold dear. Tirelessly championing the small, intimate, old, ordinary, communal and local, she gradually, over the next 50 years, made urbanism the new black.

Taking a walk around inner Sydney, you might easily think Moses had made a comeback. Adding up to easily $15 billion, there are projects on a scale to make Moses drool: $6 billion at Barangaroo; $2 billion at Central Park; a billion redoing Darling Harbour, not counting the new IMAX; another billion implementing UTS’s masterplan (including the Gehry); $2 billion at Victoria Park and the same again at Green Square Town Centre. And then there’s the rest of the Green Square area, several times as big again – and, bigger still, the Erskineville-Alexandria-Danks Street phenomenon. Harold Park too.

That’s some shiny rustbucket. The three big ones alone – Barangaroo, Central Park, Green Square – represent some 50,000 workers and 80,000 residents in a combined area about the size of Hyde Park.

And yes, it’s Sydney, so little of it is ideas-driven. It’s not housing the poor or defying the car or saving the planet. It’s making money, but there is in each case a commitment to density, which suits developers nicely, and a (perhaps more modest) commitment to sustainability.

Some see this pragmatism as Sydney’s enduring strength, enabling us to resist the wild swings of thought (the worst of the motorway fashion, or of suburban ”white flight”). I see it as a weakness, tending to produce city fabric without shape, charm or discernible meaning.

Yet what’s happening is unarguably immense and will change Sydney permanently. Question is, for better, or for worse?

Sydneysiders, still scarred by the era of redbrick walkups and wholesale heritage demolitions, are understandably development-phobic. The bigger the nastier, as far as most of us are concerned.

But size is not necessarily bad. Cities are distilled human energy, so it’s hard to argue in principle that more is worse; that Barangaroo is in some way being ”overdeveloped”. Compared with what?

In the end, it’s more about quality. Ask not whether developments are too high or too big. Ask whether they’re any good. This is a more difficult question. Developers don’t naturally guard the public interest. Nor, these days, do governments, being constantly torn to the dark side. So it’s up to us.

There are three sets of criteria we should apply: green-cred, public space and design.

On sustainability, all three developments make quite serious noises. Barangaroo claims to be a ”world-leading example of sustainability” with sewage mining, carbon neutrality (albeit largely in carbon offsets) and ”working towards” zero waste.

Central Park claims five green stars for each building, with on-site tri-generation and water recycling. And Green Square Town Centre, sitting just south of the Victoria Park residential area, aims to be a ”flagship, an Australian benchmark” although without much detail as to how.

There is a transport issue, since all three sit on rail stations yet provide generous car-parking; 2000 (or one per unit) at Central Park, 2274 at Barangaroo (though they’re bravely presuming only 4 per cent of commuter-trips by car, compared with the 20 per cent city average) and, at Green Square, a promise of ”no increase” in existing car traffic.

As to public space, it’s important to remember that urban design is design not in cities but of them; not a patterning of wallpaper, then, but an alignment of walls. It must be therefore done up front, at concept stage, or not at all; and largely by government.

Central Park and Green Square have made an effort in this regard, introducing new lanes, streets and squares to refine the textural ”grain” of the site. Both have a massive, grassy central square; Central Park’s relies on the huge cantilevered heliotron, or solar-reflector, to bring it sunshine.

Barangaroo’s public realm is less convincing, due partly to Lend Lease’s evident belief that ”urban design” is something you add post hoc, like landscaping or parsley. And Packer’s casino, blown on site by Paul Keating’s recent tag-line as the “very thing the precinct requires to give it world-class status”, can be expected to make this worse.

But really, in the design excellence department, things really start to look up. Forget committees. In the end, the route to good architecture is a good architect, and these developments are replete with them.

Australians involved include Frank Stanisic, Peter Wilson, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, Tzannes Associates, FJMT, JPW, Hassell and Caro. Foreigners include Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Richard Rogers. Add the Gehry, UTS’s Chau Chak Wing building, and the inner city’s immediate future looks pretty exciting. And big.

 

The writer who saw into the modern

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

I’m not really given to reverence. Bit picky, I guess. But Robert Hughes, of all his brilliant expat generation, I revered. Others were as brightly feathered – Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Rolf Harris. But Hughes, avoiding both politics and entertainment (yet doing both) seemed to me grander, loftier, than the rest. As a young graduate, I loved him; when he got old and curmudgeonly, I loved him more.

Let me be clear. I never met him. Indeed, the one time we shared so much as a room (and it was a large one, a 2000-seater) he was disappointing. Yet that’s the wonderful thing about writing. You can love from afar. Considering him, now, I’m reminded of Hilary Mantel’s take on Thomas Wyatt. Mantel writes through Thomas Cromwell’s narrowed eyes but it reads like her own statement of love, her own billet doux to the writerly life:

”He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it … He is perfectly equipped as a courtier but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open …”

Perhaps little of that applied to Hughes personally. It wasn’t his person that interested me, but his voice. Rude, honest, funny, eloquent and ruthlessly compassionate, his was a voice from a grander and more tragic age.

It was The Shock of the New that first blew me away. The year: 1980. There had been a spate of documentaries that, for the first time, revealed television as an intelligence-capable medium: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. And there’d been the books – Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Charles Jencks’s The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) – that put architecture at the centre of a stage in which modernism played out as King Lear.

Hughes seemed to get it. Few people, before or since, have written about architecture as anything more than a cult interest, a technical sidewater, a footnote. Hughes was having none of that. To him, architecture mattered.

”Building,” he wrote, ”is the art we live in: it is the social art par excellence, the carapace of political fantasy, the exoskeleton of one’s economic dreams.”

A good editor would likely remove the two penultimate words from that sentence (and no, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have had the guts to say that to his face). But you see what he was doing. Something big. He was giving architecture meaning.

People rightly admire Hughes’s knowledge. But it wasn’t Hughes’s scholarship that thrilled me. It was his insight. Never earnest or laboured, Hughes seemed to lounge on the grass at the bottom of modernism’s great waterfall, describing its tragic arc in rhyming couplets, foreshortening neither its great height nor its pathos.

And be assured, it was a great height. Before modernism, architecture, like society, was largely prescribed. Suddenly, with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s crazy turn-of-the-century futurists, it was free.

Hughes put this explosive release down to modernism’s Marxist roots, its determination not to be a rich man’s luxury but to rewrite the rules of the world. In short, to save it. That was a very Sydney Push way of seeing. For a born patrician, Hughes was eloquent in defence of the proles. ”Not since the birth of Christ,” he wrote, ”had the well-being of so small a class been so underwritten by the inarticulate, regimented misery of so many …”

It was true. The utopian stream, bubbling from Etienne-Louis Boullee and Charles Garnier, drove Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, and even transcendentalists like Paul Scheerbart.

But there was something else as well, emerging from the same source but in a different direction: the urge to expression. Architecture, escaping its traditional style-book straitjacket, was no longer a gentlemanly craft but an art.

This tension drove, split, energised and undermined modern architecture for the next 80-odd years; its greatest strength becoming, in the way of tragedy, its greatest weakness.

Both these new urges, the utopian and the expressive, manifest in that enduring modern icon, Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation (1952).

Housing 1600 people in Marseilles, the Unite, as it is known, was immediately and immensely influential. Its influence is still apparent, from the ingenious ”scissor section” of Peter Stronach’s Moore Park Gardens in Surry Hills to the fire stairs on Michael Dysart’s UTS tower. (One reason why the Powerhouse should be shamed for cancelling its Corbusier blockbuster planned for later this year).

But the Unite also became widely loathed, seeming to generate the very social ills it was meant to erase. Hughes wrote: ”Today, the [rooftop] pool is cracked, the gymnasium closed … and the track littered with broken concrete.” It became a critical trope to cite bits of Corbusier and how traduced they’d become. Yet, Hughes continued, ”it is one of the great roofs of the world”.

A few years later, that same roof made me angrier than I’d been for years; furious at the sheer paternalism of the thing, expecting people to run loops on this shadeless concrete field when they could be traversing the ground, on grass, under trees. It was this well-documented hubris that undid modernism, although not before it had undone modern cities, to produce, Hughes noted, ”the new landscape of urban despair”.

To aim so high, and be brought so low. It’s impossible not to be struck by the parallel of Hughes’s own Lear-esque arc, from silver-spoon scion, through the grand sweep of his histories to the ”extreme pain, fear and despair” that let him write so movingly of Goya’s terrifying black.

Everyone has a favourite Hughes line. Mine, which seems to encompass this entire trajectory, is (accompanied by grand sweep of hand): “Television isn’t something you watch, it’s something you make.”

The sad truth is, though – if Hughes wanted to make The Shock of the New now, he’d find it impossible not just here, but probably also at the BBC. It’s reality TV or nothing.

Where the Brits have us beaten

 
<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

A common response to Sydney’s extraordinary beauty is to note that, while nature did us proud (the harbour, the warmth, the angophoras), what we’ve made of it, our built culture, is less accomplished.

Even that oversimplifies it. To my mind, Sydney’s loveliest parts are less its beaches or opera houses – glory found, glory made – than its incidents and accidents, its cheek-by-jowl villages, its dog-leg lanes, secret crannies, luscious glimpses, strangely lit pockets, drifts of story, grunge.

So what does it say that our finest urban moments are those we never intended? And that, conversely, our most pernickety plans become our bleakest screw-ups?

Admittedly, the Olympics bring out the bah-humbug in me. Their boisterous reduction of valour to commerce makes me want to spit poison arrows so hard I feel a new international sport coming on.

The genial garden-party feel of our Olympics was, therefore, a pleasant surprise. Less surprising, sadly, is the ongoing catastrophe of Homebush Bay.

London has comprehensively shown us up in this regard. At every strategic turn, where we made wrong decisions, they made right ones.

It’s not about architecture. Sure, London’s main stadium by HOK (now Populous) is underwhelming compared both with Beijing’s ”Bird Nest” and Zaha Hadid’s water-winged Aquatics Centre. Equally, London has Renzo Piano’s new Shard, Wilkinson Eyre’s basketball arena, Michael Hopkins’s velodrome and Anish Kapoor’s weird, Vladimir Tatlin-style red thing.

But the legacy depends far more on front-end strategy, connectivity decisions; location, urban fabric, transport.

It is not rocket science. Cities have always lived and died by connectivity. So it should be obvious that any Olympic legacy is only as good as its connectivity.

Yet Sydney, already tyrannised by distance, did everything possible to deny such connectivity, forever. An awkward, out-of-the-way site was surrounded with barriers, then planned so you could not even walk from the village to the park.

It never made sense. In the winter of 1990, I sat in Department of Planning offices with high-level planning execs, arguing Homebush was the wrong spot.

As far as possible, I said, we should locate our Games in the city. Darling Harbour, overgirdled and underoccupied, already needed help. So did our public transport. So did the inner south rust-belt. So did our waterfront.

That was three years before we won the bid, 10 before its enactment. Things could still have changed.

Of course, I did not expect them to. But I was amazed, even then, that there was no locational rationale; no remediation plan for a site whose toxic depths were then unplumbed (Thiess Services later described it as ”one of the most contaminated sites in the world”); no adequate transport plan, no park-village link.

Early artist impressions showed housing and streets; formal gardens, riverside promenades and six new river bridges. The lot for $807 million, the government crowed, with ”renewal of government-owned land at Homebush Bay” expected to stimulate ”long-term renewal of adjacent private land”. So not.

Homebush Bay was master-planned by McConnel, Smith and Johnson’s Barry Young – the same individual who had planned Darling Harbour. He was smart and likeable, and he died too soon. But this does not make it OK that, despite different purpose, context and elements, the Darling Harbour mistakes (which we are now spending billions to fix) were repeated at Homebush.

Like Darling Harbour, whose failure we now blame on the bicentenary rush, the Homebush development began with a development corporation concerned mainly with marking its territory. The master plan, therefore, dropped a dozen or so unapproachable buildings like poached eggs into a sea of brick paving, then girdled the lot with impenetrables.

At Darling Harbour, the impenetrables include motorways, car parks and service paraphernalia. At Olympic Park they are a river, a motorway, a business park and the vast system of parks and wetlands (including Bicentennial Park, Badu Wetlands, the Brick Pit, Millennium Park and the marshy hectares along Haslams Creek) that effectively isolate Olympic Park even from its home village, Newington.

Next, transport. Rather than linking to, say, Carlingford or Epping, it was decided to service Olympic Park with a one-stop spur line. This was idiotic; fine for a two-week shuttle but never a serious transport option. Now, the train from Central Station runs four times a day, off-peak, and not on weekends.

This means Hassell’s Olympic Park station, prettiest in the country, sits mostly unused. It means Bruce Eeles’s Newington design for a genuine urban precinct is forever car-dependent, lacking the vibrancy that should accompany medium-density living.

And it means hundreds of full-grown jacarandas, transplanted from across Sydney, were ripped up for the V8 Supercars, leaving comfortless streets where tourists wander, looking like they regret not taking the city option.

Despite our best efforts, the place is a ghost town.

Whether it bespoke expedience, incompetence, or simple suburban habit, the strategy was lamentable, wasting both a massive $1.9 billion investment and a shot at lasting benefits for a city in need.

Barcelona used its Olympics to revitalise the Barceloneta waterfront and rebuild Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, possibly the loveliest building ever. The Montjuic Stadium was built in 1929, as a people’s alternative to Berlin’s fascist 1936 Olympics, so can be excused.

London, though, did everything right. First, it identified a rust-pocket that was accessible but seedy, needing help. Then it built a Eurostar station, between London and Paris. Good move. Also a light rail station, linking to Docklands. Pretty hard to go wrong after that.

The east end was already becoming fashionable, but accessibility and social mix were further eased with Allies & Morrison’s master plan, locating the Lend Lease Olympic Village right beside Olympic Park, and Ken Livingstone’s requirement for 50 per cent social housing.

It does not stop there. Overflow events go not to Whoop Whoop but to the city centre. Hyde Park, Hampton Court, Greenwich, the Royal Artillery Barracks, Earls Court, the O2 Arena, ExCel and the Mall all host Olympic events. The Queen can watch cycling from a Buckingham Palace balcony, and the plebs can watch beach volleyball in Horse Guards Parade.

Those close-ups of beer pyramids and conga lines in Whitehall might make you wonder how beach volleyball ever became an Olympic sport. Cheap uniforms? Bah humbug.

 

We should revere the keepers of knowledge

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

I don’t always worry about the future of the world. Sometimes I just worry about the future of me. But when I’m in world mode, one item on my list is how to future-proof fact.

I picture, in my wee hours, all those floppy disks no one will be able to read, five minutes from now. All those photos on no-longer-accessible hard-drives and memory sticks, once technology has streaked off on its ruthless marathon. All that data floating about in the cloud that everyone says cannot fall. In the midst of information overload, all that at-risk knowledge.

It probably shouldn’t bother me. After all, randomised attrition has always sculpted history, quite as incisively as methodical research. And in any case (I often think) forgetfulness is a blessing much underrated.

So perhaps the urge to keep knowledge – corralling, banding and taming facts and understandings until they’re saddle-ready – is mere neurotic territorialism. Perhaps it’s just another mute yearning for immortality. (Once, in my 20s, I thought I could read every important book ever written. Then I sat down to write a list.)

It’s not as though we’re starved of data. Of my grandparents, as children, maybe one or two small grainy snapshots exist; they are, perhaps, all that ever existed. Of my children, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos, many of them already enshrined in cyberspace.

Yet I remain convinced that, at more than just a practical level, record-keeping is the cornerstone of civilisation and, especially, of democracy. That official amnesia is deeply sinister. And that when temperate and dedicated State Records NSW executives start likening their professional experiences to ”being an abused child” and resigning, it signifies serious malaise.

Kingswood, five minutes short of Penrith, is a place less forgotten than forgetting. Not to be confused with the Holden of the same name, though of roughly that era, it comprises dozens of lookalike orange-brick bungalows of no particular distinction or offence, neither loose nor organised, untrammelled by any apparent cognisance of either past or future.

And it is amid these synchronous barrens that sits our tribe’s designated keeping-place, the State Records repository. Until three weeks ago, there was also a public city reading room, purpose-designed in The Rocks. But that’s gone now, and researchers, students, academics and indigenous groups must make their way to the public transport desert of Kingswood.

Physically, it’s about as unromantic as you can get. A dozen or so interconnected white concrete buildings of different eras, fully air-conned and humidity controlled, set in a half-hearted bush campus and fronted by a sea of asphalt.

Inside, though, hidden away along anodyne corridors of plain brown boxes and metal cabinets, are unbelievable treasures. Medical records that are sometimes called upon while the patient is in surgery. Inventories listing people’s every possession at the point of death – clothes, books, furniture as well as property. Divorce records from way back. Pen-and-wash maps of Hunters Hill, Glebe and the Parish of Gulpa (just east of Bunnaloo) from when there was a house and a creek and little more. Convict records. Land grants. Newspapers, mint.

There’s 70 kilometres of this, more than enough to pave the way from Kingswood to the Tank Stream.

Exhibit one. The Railway History Card of one Joseph Benedict Chifley, 18, starting as a railways shop-boy, September 1903. Fourteen years later, after a dispute over the new time-and-motion system, Chifley’s card is stamped ”Dismissed by Proclamation – Left work on Strike”, putting him at the front end of the general strike of 1917.

Exhibit two; a similar card, similarly stamped, for John Joseph Cahill, fitter – except that under the stamp is handwritten, in lazy blood-coloured copperplate, ”agitator”. These four syllables, dogging Cahill’s subsequent efforts to find work, might be responsible for both the expressway and the Opera House.

But what distinguishes this state agency from others is its palpable passion. The outgoing director of State Records, Alan Ventress, describes ”trying to create something of lasting value to the universe while dealing with a pack of accountants and philistines”. He relinquished the city reading room to save $500,000 in rent, charged by the government – and now must leave the job he loves because he could not face the daily 130-kilometre commute to Kingswood from his home in Manly Vale.

The deputy director, Jenni Stapleton, recalls an Aboriginal woman’s tearful collapse after identifying a mislabelled photo of her mother as a child that figured in State Records’ travelling exhibition of photos from the Aborigines Welfare Board, 1919-66.

In the lab, where white-coated conservators delicately paste fibrous Japanese tissue to old maps and books, rendering them operable, staff recall their shock at the government hack who suggested they could just ”digitise everything” then destroy these originals to save storage money.

The historian Christine Yeats, also forced into leaving her job as manager of public access by the move, is a deep well of corporate knowledge. She points out simply that records are the backbone of democracy.

Archivists, like geologists, engage at a poetic level with terrain that most people find forbiddingly arid. This, and the dwindling number of vocational undergrad courses (after the recent closure of the course at UNSW there’s Edith Cowan and Monash), makes such people rare.

But this means we should treasure them all the more. Instead, we apply democracy’s favoured bums-on-seats principle to an institution already so chronically under-funded it cannot fulfil its statutory tasks. The year-old pilot project to capture government records that are ”born-digital” is funded for only one more year. (Hence the child abuse analogy; being blamed by government for its own damaging failures.)

State Records NSW receives $0.83 per head of population, compared with $6.69 in the Northern Territory, $5.63 in Tasmania and $4.17 in Queensland.

Much of State Records’ most popular work – the million-plus fully indexed names available to genealogists through Ancestry.com that makes its website one of the most heavily trafficked in government – is done by volunteers. And many of its 50-odd paid staff are cross-subsidised by revenue-generating activities. But this only makes it worse, because percentage cuts take the higher income as their base.

It’s not just keeping. It’s also culling. A large part of archiving is choosing the knowledge to destroy. This is huge. We should revere these people, house them in temples, bathe them in frankincense, for they are the seed-keepers of the future.

 

Educate the public and this plan might work

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

Let’s be clear. Just being endorsed by the developer, mining and business lobbies doesn’t necessarily make a thing bad. But it might reasonably alert your suspicions.

The NSW Minerals Council praises Brad Hazzard’s planning green paper as a path to “growth, jobs and economic benefits”. The Property Council calls it bold and far-reaching. The Sydney Business Chamber says it “de-risks” development. The Urban Development Institute of Australia calls it a “great start”. And Infrastructure Partnerships Australia heaves a sigh of relief that the new system will finally “close off ongoing appeals and reviews”.

Crikey, Hazzard himself has intoned “slash red tape” and “revolutionary” so often I suspect he’s channelling Francis de Groot.

Under the circs, then, you’d be mad not to see all this as a classic opening of the sluice gates – except perhaps in Barry O’Farrell’s own Ku-ring-gai.

This is, after all, our tradition. When Labor takes government, it slips into its tart-shop mentality, channelling largesse into the legions of eyeless acolytes that sleep under the topsoil. The Liberals do likewise, only their acolytes are, naturally, bigger and richer.

So the sluice-gate interpretation of the green paper would be no more or less than a restatement of habit. But is it accurate?

I am constantly surprised that we, with more wealth, leisure, freedom and choice than anyone, ever, are less and less capable of building the cities we like. Traditional cities were planned and built by wealthy elites and inhabited – some might say worked – by the masses. In many ways, this is still the case, except that the wealthy elites are now the big development corporations and, unlike the kings and merchants of old, they no longer boast much in the way of fine education or noblesse oblige.

Yet as our freedoms increase, our sense of control over and love for our cities dwindle, until enmity between the city-builders and city-dwellers is taken as axiomatic.

To this stalemate, politicians, professionals and communities widely assume that the answer is consultation; the more the better. But consultation, as it is done, is unwieldy, expensive, ad hoc and exhausting. It is also ineffectual for everyone, constipating the system to near-death without a demonstrably better product. Lose-lose.

Is there another way?

There have been moments, in democracy’s short history, when developer drives and public desires have married. The Modernist push of the early 20th century was one, flinging residents out to the burbs and leaving city centres for business. The reversal of this trend, a century later, was another, bringing the new vogue for mixed-use, medium-density and recolonised downtowns.

Admittedly these marriages, despite their consensual beginnings, have been neither blissful nor lasting. In both cases, goodwill was eroded by repeated betrayals, as it emerged that developers did not necessarily have public interests at heart – or indeed on any part of their person.

Thus did developers become bad guys and residents nimbys. Check.

Yet, for all that, it may still be possible to find a means of planning that rewards developers and the public alike. It may even be that this green paper is heading that way.

It is proposed to rethink the system and rewrite the Planning Act for only the second time in its history; 1945, 1979 – by these rhythms, it’s overdue.

Any new act should enshrine enough zeitgeist to sustain us for several decades. Will it? Can it? What do we, communally, value?

The green paper nominates 23 big changes to zoning, infrastructure, development control and the rest. But its central thrust, appropriately, deals with consultation.

City planning has two phases. They are known as ”strategic” and ”statutory” planning; essentially, the rule-making and the rule-breaking. Naturally enough, strategic planning involves the creation of planning strategies or plans; statutory, their implementation. Pretty simple.

Consultation is intended during both phases, but concentrates hugely in the second, since only when something actually pops up next door do people generally grasp what the plan proposed.

Thus planning devolves into ad hoc, site-by-site warfare, which is messy, emotional and hugely ineffectual, since all too often the development in question was foreshadowed years back, in the plan.

Hazzard’s green paper proposes to slide the consultation part forward from the rule-breaking phase to the rule-making.

This must, in theory, be a good thing. Impelling us to engage early should ensure that our plans truly prefigure the kinds of cities and precincts we want, so allowing most development – say, 80 per cent – to be ”as of right” and reducing approval times from months or years to weeks.

It would also improve our decision-making, since it would demand of us more of a god’s-eye perspective, while providing efficiency and certainty for developers and public alike and yielding the cities we want. All good.

But three things are essential to these outcomes: a disciplined government, an honourable development fraternity and an educated public.

These are big asks: a government that declines to tinker; developers who do not cheat twixt cup and lip and citizens educated to imagine (and care) beyond their own patch. Together, they add up to trust.

This is why people call Hazzard’s plan naive, blaming the fact that his “one and only adviser”, the green paper author Tim Robertson, is a young property type, formerly of the Urban Development Institute.

Still, it could work. Politicians could sit on their hands. Developers, excited by a smooth approval process, could behave honestly.

The education thing is the biggest – as in, huge. We should be teaching urbanism in schools. We must minutely canvass and excite the populace. And – this is crucial – we must lavish millions on a genuinely interactive digital planning model, so that everything can be seen and understood in full 3D detail by all at that initial plan stage.

Without this, Hazzard’s talk of a public participation charter is meaningless piffle. With it, people in Darlo might actually give a toss about developments in Campbelltown or Kyogle.

This would be the kind of genuinely engaged citizenry to scare the pants off politicians and lend cred to the minister’s description of his green paper as a genuinely “revolutionary document”. Scared? Don’t be. It’s that or the sluice-gate.

The toll of secularity is inbuilt in new design

 
Mike Paget, senior minister, outside the rebuilt church.Mike Paget, senior minister, outside the rebuilt church. Photo: Dean Sewell

The girls on the footpath at Railway Square are having a little whinge about the bells. They’re tourists, by the look, from Cairns or possibly Perth, peachy, bumptious and untroubled. Except by the bells. It’s the loudest street corner in town, but those bells keep messing with their heads.

“They’re so annoying,” complains one, with flick of glossy mane. “Why can’t they just be quiet?”

The bells – a glorious, liquid carillon – originate across the street in the mysterious other world that is Christ Church St Laurence. They sound real, real ropes swung on by real bell-pullers. But OMG. Calls to piety can totally interfere with your hooking up.

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

My church pathology has got so that, when my need for ancient mysteries starts to fibrillate, I must drive to (of all places) Canberra. On the bleached-out expanses of Anzac Parade, Edmund Blacket’s lovely St John’s offers a deep well in a dry paddock.

So I am consoled, although I resist his arguments, by Alain de Botton’s assurances in Religion for Atheists that a craving for ecclesiastical aesthetics is not weird.

The yearning is not merely physical. It’s for both church and liturgy. King James’s Bible was 400 years old last year, the Book of Common Prayer 350 this year. Many writers, from Alexander McCall Smith to PD James, link their success to early inoculation with these books’ entrancing rhythms.

”I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholick Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh and the life everlasting.” Even as a kid reading comics in church I loved this stuff. “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made … ”

Yet the Sydney church seems to give rather less of a stuff than those girls on the street.

I’m no medievalist. My preferred architecture is transcendent modern. But so few moderns (except Corbusier, Ando, Zumthor) do decent church.

Why? Partly education. The moulding of light for mystery and transcendence do not figure large in Design 101. And partly the Church itself, as client, frantically shedding anything that might distinguish it from big-box shopping.

So when a new church pops up I’m all agog. This particular Sunday morning, then, is a church-crawl between two extremes; Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp’s superwhite renovation of Blacket’s St Barnabas on Broadway, and Sydney’s last-remaining pocket of pigmenty God-gloom, Christ Church St Laurence, tucked into the soot and stone of Railway Square.

The Barneys rebuild – and yes, the diminutive is official – is now almost complete. It was never Blacket’s best moment; small, awkwardly sited and lately painted clotted cream. Yet I was aghast when it burnt, and more aghast that the rebuild would be total.

Yet architect Richard Francis-Jones has made a handsome building, eye-catching despite some ambiguity of purpose.

If you didn’t know, couldn’t see the glazed cross on high up front, what would you take this building to be? An office, says its glazed street facade. A community centre or three-star hotel, says its foyer. Something monkish, maybe a convent, says the crested white hood, visible from afar. A school, perhaps, or yoga studio, or minor publishing house.

The entrance is rewardingly ceremonial, ramping boldly up from Broadway (although not on the cross’s axis, which is planted with trees). The foyer – and no, we don’t say narthex – has the strongest sense of higher power, being emphatically vertical, with the cross-shaped window beaming in.

But the auditorium (no, not nave) feels distinctly secular. It has proudly curved walls, up which children love to run and down which they love to slide. It has an intimate acoustic and a low-brow, first-person liturgy (“Jesus died so I don’t have to hide”) on a big screen above the stage.

That’s enough for me. I like this building, but sense no godliness in its formica-smooth interior. I understand that this slide into civicness began 350 years back, with Christopher Wren’s 51 rebuilt post-fire London churches, and that Barneys is on the humanism gradient.

But whereas, in Wren’s flattened, white-and-gold interiors you feel the enlightenment at work, Barneys’s bright auditorium feels less a defence of science than a yielding to lounge-room populism. Church in an age of consumption.

I don’t want church to be about me, or my ordinary life. I come here for otherness. So off I head, with my little troupe, to the darker, more wrathful end of the spectrum.

Christ Church St Laurence is about as high as High Church gets in Jensenite Sydney. It has Latin and incense, pews and shadows, robes and chants and genuflection. Where Barneys has joy, St Laurence has solemnity.

In part this is aesthetic; a difference between upbeat and down, between major and minor keys. But it’s also a shift of the power relationship between God and humankind.

Democro-capitalism’s biggest failing is putting humanity firmly in charge – of nature, the planet, God. Where once, God was a given and we were created, it’s now we who are given, and God shaped to fit. Push has become pull.

That’s OK, I guess, but it doesn’t suit me. I like a sense of necessity, of very God. If you’re going to have God – and I hover pathetically between atheism and agnosticism – you really need a big one. God underneath is just not God.

If I’m bothering to do church, I want my penny-worth of exigency. I do not wish to say “help us to look after the world and to reach our full potential,” when I could be saying “give us this day … ”

I want chiaroscuro of language and space. I want it difficult, subtle, hard and high. I want crucified, dead and buried. I want glorious.

Obscure? Sure. But as the Prince of Wales wryly notes, “the word of God is supposed to be a bit over our heads”. Also the house.

 

They went their own way, to a late acclaim

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

A UK friend is writing “a little book” on architectural losers. Such a British idea. He’s collecting the under-talented and the under-appreciated, the beaverers-away in an unappreciated style. To which my predictable response is: how many volumes can you run to? How, from the myriad, will you choose?

The unappreciated category is especially interesting, since it reveals how fashion secretly subverts perception . The category might be extended to embrace those who start out avant garde and end unappreciated, whatever the course between. In Britain, Denys Lasdun springs to mind; hugely celebrated for decades, then hugely ignored. In Australia, the lionised moderns – Col Madigan, John Andrews, Philip Cox and, of course, Harry Seidler.

None was a loser by any conceivable definition, yet for a moment they seemed to disappear. Now, suddenly, re-appreciation is in the air.

Just as every cafe or tapas bar seems to be playing Janis Joplin or Fleetwood Mac, so, all around, those big old mid-century geezers are getting gongs.

First, the Moderns. It is a peculiarity of Sydney, a half-century late in adopting modern architecture, that high (or hard) and late (or soft) Modernism happened at once here, which may be why both figure equally in the current re-appreciation.

Seidler, a High Modern, took out two architecture awards this year: enduring architecture – for Australia Square (1967); and urban design – for the clifftop memorial ”Harry’s Park”, at Glen Street. (The park, sadly, was designed not by Harry but after him and how a park in any case qualifies as urban design is a mystery.)

Still, Australia Square changed Sydney. It’s that simple. Not because it was the first to break through the statutory ban on towers but because, where its predecessors, like Peddle Thorp’s double-concave AMP Centre on Bridge Street, had gently slipped the new ideas into morning tea with the vicar, Australia Square trumpeted them from the rooftops.

It’s kind of wonderful that Seidler, who so despised Sydney heritage that he once declared the whole of Ultimo-Pyrmont to be a demolition-ready slum, should himself be celebrated as heritage.

Yet, by the time modernity reached our shores, the tide was already turning. Australia Square, with its heroic self-belief, its deliberate destruction of the old and its disdain for the small, the public and the earthly, was at once our tipping point into modernity and the trigger for late Modernism’s resistance.

Among the resisters were James Colman, the Sydney architect and planner who received this year’s inaugural admission to the Planning Institute of Australia’s hall of fame.

A part of that great flowering of talent that was the 1971 City of Sydney strategic plan (enshrining pedestrianisation, mixed use and city-furnishing two decades before Jan Gehl), Colman has always been a model of intelligent modesty, dedicating 40 years to the idea of public engagement in planning, giving voice to the voiceless.

Another is James Weirick, professor of landscape architecture at UNSW and world-class Griffin scholar, who delivered this year’s Utzon lecture last month on the Griffins and, in the same month, won the Institute of Architects’ president’s prize. One of the few Australian academics who cares to dirty his hands with public debate, Weirick has argued long and hard for a compact, sustainable and intelligent urbanism.

In New Zealand, so often a decade ahead, the resisters included le grand homme Peter Beaven (1925-2012), who died last month. Beaven, known throughout the profession simply as that, was one of Christchurch’s two major Moderns.

The other, at the high or orthodox end, was Sir Miles Warren; bow-tied, classically educated, gorgeously mannered and with dangerously cantilevered eyebrows. Trained at the London County Council in its heyday, he returned with a nuanced Brutalism to rival the finest in the genre (being that of the British firm Howell Killick and Partridge, the Swiss Atelier 5 and Brisbane’s Robin Gibson). Beaven, equally old-moneyed and private-schooled in a town where such things still counted, was also a Modernist, barring one tiny detail. As early as the 1950s he refused Modernism’s core refusal: history. Like a communist refusing to share.

A charismatic bear with a poetic soul, a massive ego and a serious penchant (as I recall) for claret, Beaven was doing pitched and pointed roofs when everyone else’s were flat.

He did colour and decoration when everyone else was doing raw concrete and exposed services; picturesque while the crowd did minimal; medium-density when they loved only pavilions in the bush and, most remarkably, inner-city revival 40 years before its moment.

This steadfast extrusion of tradition into his work looked, at the time, a lot like underdigested Modernism. Only later did it appear instead as hyper-prescient Postmodernism. Even now, Beaven’s oeuvre could be seen either as a brave stand against Modernism or a timid compliance with tradition. What cannot be disputed is the sheer talent of the man.

My last offering in the underappreciated category is not mid-century at all, although his work, half a century earlier again, already resisted modernity. Robin Dods insisted – like Beaven – on traditional continuity as a means of accommodating the human animal.

Yet Dods was largely forgotten until a new and scholarly book, Robert Riddel’s Robin Dods, Selected Works, appeared last month. Born in Dunedin in 1868, Dods worked in London for the great Arts and Crafts maestro Sir Aston Webb and practised in Brisbane from 1894 to 1920.

He produced some of the finest, most gracious and sophisticated buildings this country has seen; inventing a language that was locally responsive and internationally admired. Riddel’s claim that Dods is “up there” with Edwin Lutyens, Robert Lorimer, Walter Tapper and Charles Voysey is no overstatement.

Suddenly, weirdly, it’s Modernism that looks like history, success that looks like failure, and old stuff that looks fresh. How to advise my friend on his book? Define loser.

 

Coast goes from green to greedy

<em>Illustration: Dionne Gain</em>Illustration: Dionne Gain

Colour me weird, but I do not love the Australian seaside town. The full-on vulgarity of Bondi I can enjoy, for a coffee or swim, but, to me, a holiday at the beach requires realness; bare boards, sandy feet, crumbling jetties, loose, modest buildings.

Noosa is among the finest. Yet a couple of days there last week reminded me why, for a sense of place, I always head inland. It also made me see Noosa anew, as a canary in the mine of Australian urbanism.

Coastal towns, even those as sweetly self-conscious as Noosa, suffer from a single organising principle: water. Nothing else figures – church, square, town hall, market, windmill. Only water, which is to say, money.

Water makes a town self-arrange like iron-filings along a magnet, its streets pervaded by a palpable straining for view, proximity or access. Architecture is tyrannised by it and those not so blessed are permanently blighted by its absence.

It’s as though water is the one common value remaining. And it has remade our coast, one of the longest and loveliest littorals in the world, into an encircling crust of suburban gentility. A pelican or albatross might see the continent as a margarita glass, encrusted not by pink Himalayan sea salt (yes, it exists) but by a jagged brocade of flesh-pink concrete, outscale aluminium windows and glass balconies.

Noosa’s charm derives largely from its tradition of resistance; a half-century of protecting itself from suburbia by enshrining national parks, opposing sandmines and limiting development. It is probably our oldest limits-to-growth community. But has it fallen victim to its own, often heroic successes?

The mayor, Mark Jamieson, made headlines in last Friday’s Noosa News by refusing to extend the town’s infamous ”population cap” to the rest of the Sunshine Coast. As if. For more than a decade the Sunshine Coast has been Australia’s fastest growing patch. The official 2008 amalgamation of tiny, eco-conscious Noosa Shire into the massive and rampant Sunshine Coast trapped Noosa in a relationship much like Bali’s to Indonesia, or West Berlin’s to eastern Europe. A wholly owned subsidiary that can neither secede nor prevail, Noosa holds its own by sheer tourist magnetism.

The curious paradox, at the heart of all tourism, is that this magnetism expresses Noosa’s paradisial beauty – preserved only by strenuous anti-development – in the only terms developers understand: dollars.

The revered, indefatigable Noosa Parks Association dates to 1962. Then, concepts such as heritage and conservation were barely even fledgling, anywhere in the world. In Sydney, architects were just starting to colonise Paddington terraces; buying them for a song, painting them lurid colours and making early murmurs against wholesale demolition.

But it has to be asked. What has the Noosa experiment achieved, and what lessons does it hold for cities more generally, with the growth question bleeping red?

Last week’s Noosa Longweekend artsfest applauded local eco-heroes such as Nancy Cato, John Sinclair, Noel Playford and Michael Gloster, who argues the focus of Noosa’s eco-battles has been on the natural, not the built.

That’s understandable. You live in paradise, you’re going to want to protect it. And from Fraser Island to Cooloola, their wins have been immense. But how to parse this protective urge from the territorial?

For there was a subtext. These battle-scarred eco-warriors, nudging retirement, seek a younger generation to take the cudgel, yet Noosa’s young are conspicuous by their absence, putting an ominous echo behind resident playwright David Williamson’s take on Noosa as ”a great place to live for relatively well-off retirees”.

Has the town’s self-imposed limit backfired? Limits to urban growth can take various forms. You can cap population (residents, workers). You can cap floor space (square metres). Or you can cap spread (a formal boundary; city wall, say). They sound similar but the effects are very different. To limit spread and not height will produce a towering citadel, while capping population but not spread will generate exurbia; very low-density sprawl.

Noosa’s population cap – often quoted as 50,000 or 60,000 people – is somewhat apocryphal, since the real limits are on floor space, height and, up to a point, spread.

Simple, you might think. But consider how it works on the ground. Building constraints push development pressure outwards. In theory, the hard-won national parks act like a green corset, preventing sprawl. In fact, unless the council is steadfast, development simply leapfrogs the corset, landing in the bushy hinterland.

In Noosa’s water-rich environment, with lakes, lagoons, rivers and beaches, the result might be seen as hamlets interspersed by bush. But with the bush-to-built ratio so low you can see the traffic on the other side, it’s really a vast bush suburb. Canberra-sur-mer.

How ironic, if our very best nature-conservation efforts simply produce more sprawl, more entrenched car-dependence, more carbon. What can we learn?

Effective urban planning is about clarity of mind, strength of will and unity of purpose. We must decide what we want to protect, design a few very simple, very clear rules to that end and apply them collectively, impartially and enduringly.

In the absence of a global government with the necessary wisdom to imbue global policy with local acuity, our settlement-making must find a way to distinguish conservation impulses from the merely territorial.

For local activists, the focus is inevitably local. But any larger view makes it clear that humans shut out of paradise can only take their polluting, consuming (human) ways somewhere else. At what point does protecting nature merge into protecting our own rights to it; our own pleasure and property values?

The best way to defend nature is to stay out of it. To do this, we need a green agenda that conceives the artificial not as a blot on nature but as a lovely counterpoint to it.

Only then will we create hamlets, villages and cities that, as counterbalancing goods, tempt us from nature, keeping her pristine. Failing this, our attempts to defend nature from ourselves must end in tears.

 

 

Developers won’t save Parramatta Road alone

<em>Illustration: Dionne Gain</em>Illustration: Dionne Gain

Cynicism, when it comes to developer motives, is usually just realism – especially when it’s gangs of developers and those motives miraculously coincide with a green agenda.

The Urban Taskforce is such a gang and its Parramatta Road proposal – 100,000 jobs, 100,000 apartments – is such a coincidence. Quentin Dempster, moderating last week’s launch, noted in that soft, lovely way he has of slipping the stiletto in, ”you, the development industry, have a big problem as far as winning back public support is concerned”.

”Why wouldn’t a community be deeply suspicious?” Dempster asked. ”Urbangrowth NSW is just Landcom on steroids.” To which a wag at my table retorted, ”on steroids? Or with a lobotomy?”

My first-ever sortie along Parramatta Road was by bus, on a muggy spring morning after I, 39 weeks’ pregnant, had become suddenly convinced I needed somewhere for the baby to sleep. (This was wrong. I didn’t. But it was my first.)

I changed buses, twice, then walked in the rain. Everyone – bus drivers, shop assistants – seemed terrified I’d go into labour on the spot. By day’s end, safely re-stashed in my Darling Point apartment, reflecting on the stupid things clever people do, I felt I’d been to hell and back.

This harrowing and futile adventure underpins my perverse affection for the putrid worm that Robin Boyd rightly called ”the longest stretch of ugliness in the world”. These days it’s not just ugly but filthy, noisy, sclerotic and dull. One imagines there will be few tears spilt over its proposed transformation.

But will it work? Will it happen, and if it happens, will it be any good? Will it be, further, green?

The Urban Taskforce tags its proposal ”Australia’s first mixed-use liveability corridor”. Hideous jargon for a road lined both sides by places people can live, work and shop. In short, a high street. We have these already; Military Road, Oxford Street, King Street. Hardly new. Nor is it new to propose siphoning-off some of the increased development yield to fund infrastructure enough to render the whole clean, green and viable. That’s called a betterment tax, or a section 94 contribution.

But what sort of infrastructure? That’s the rub.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, the SydneyCENTRAL consortium, comprising John Choi, Adam Russell, Adrian McGregor, Frank Stanisic and others, won an international competition with pretty much the same idea, only (with 130,000 apartments and 185,000 jobs) higher, denser and more exciting.

Twelve months, nine councils and 200 pages of design development later, the scheme, despite all-of-government support, died. As to the cause of this untimely death, developers always say red tape. Abolish the councils, they tirelessly argue, and everything will go swimmingly. Swimmingly their way, is the subtext.

Accordingly, the Taskforce’s Parramatta Road proposal, spearheaded by the former government architect Chris Johnson, is really an illustrated demand-to-government to reconceive the road as a single development site; suspending 23 kilometres of democracy (nine councils) and establishing a special authority with summary powers. Spot-rezoning on steroids.

But in truth, red tape isn’t the problem. The problem is what everyone outside this rustbucket state is now calling ”the NSW disease”. It’s transport, transport, transport. We need to be able to get around our city quickly, cleanly, quietly and without feeling humanly degraded by the process. Is that so much to ask?

Civilising Parramatta Road, whichever scheme you take, depends entirely on transport. Not just on ”completing” the M4, which will only move the sclerosis a couple of blocks sideways and the bottleneck from Auburn to Glebe.

Connectivity is everything in cities, and Sydney is now desperately connectivity deprived. We’re bleeping red for about 50 years worth of serious transit: light rail, heavy rail, metro. If it’s true, as Quentin Dempster noted, that governments can’t do transport any more, we’re genuinely, no pun intended, routed. Because the private sector can’t do it, either.

But why not governments? Did I miss something? Isn’t funding those big, collective, public-good type enterprises the reason we have government?

The reason, according to EcoTransit convenor Gavin Gatenby, is that NSW has drastically over-valued transport projects for most of the past decade.

Gatenby has produced a short vid called ”The great rail infrastructure rip-off”. It asks why, for example, the new South West Rail Link, running all of 10 kilometres from Glenfield to Leppington, is costing over a billion dollars (and another billion for the Glenfield interchange).

This is three times the initial cost estimate. How can that be? It’s not like there’s heroic engineering involved. No mountains or valleys, no rivers or tunnels, no expensive resumptions. Just ”gut-basic” suburban rail track.

Compare Perth’s new Mandurah Line, one of the many claims to fame of the former West Australian planning minister Alannah MacTiernan. Seven times as long as the SWRL, it includes a kilometre-long tunnel, a bridge over the Swan and 11 new stations, eight with bus interchanges and one, underground in the CBD, entailing demolition of half a city block.

Yet it cost about the same – $1.22 billion. That’s $17 million per kilometre compared with $230 million per kilometre for Sydney’s, and a year quicker in construction, as well.

Why the spectacular difference? According to Gatenby it’s a mix: NSW’s dramatic over-servicing with consultants, a ”cosy duopoly” of construction companies and, perhaps most significantly, our dumping of the old public works model.

In Mandurah, says Gatenby, the government retained a high level of expertise in-house, and tendered package by package, deliberately fostering smaller firms while keeping overall control. But MacTiernan’s real genius was running her rail up the freeway median. Drivers sit and fume as transit-passengers slip smugly past.

Sydney’s tram network was once the envy of the world. Forget tape-snipping. The biggest thing government could do for the Parramatta Road – perhaps the city – would be to exploit the council agreements that exist from 2002, gazette a local environment plan and fund – yes, FUND – an upfront, median-strip tramline between its two top-tier CBDs. Otherwise we’ll just get 23 long kilometres of eight-storey, traffic-bound egg-crate patternbook. Dull and duller.

The new feminism: if it’s girly, it’s good

<em>Illustration: Dionne Gain</em>Illustration: Dionne Gain

Here’s the truth. I’m not a misogynist.

It’s 13 weeks, give or take, since I was accused of misogyny in these pages. At first I thought it was funny. The idea of a female misogynist, especially a feminist female misogynist, struck me as entirely novel. (It’s not of course; nothing’s new in the blogosphere).

Technically, the misogyny barb was levelled not at my person but at my “misogynist asides about menstruation and sewing circles” in a critique of Women’s History Month. But spare me the nit-picking. It’s clear that to criticise women or, worse, poke fun is considered misogynist.

But in the intervening weeks I’ve searched my soul and decided no, not true. Not only are many of my best and closest of the female persuasion but I despise men every bit as much as I despise women. Especially when they behave like girls.

OK. Joke!

Feminism always had a strategic choice; either to escape the sewing circle or to make it legitimate. I’m with the escape artists. Most of what passes for feminism these days, however, just legitimises girliness.

I don’t usually read women authors but not because they’re women. Because they’re boring. My female friends are shocked by this, urging me to revisit my Margaret Atwood or Jeanette Winterson. But I tell you, if I never read another intelligent female devoting her first page to how she felt when her husband left her it’ll be too soon.

Not that it doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. I just don’t want to read about it – any more than I want to read, ever again, Philip Roth or John Updike’s droopy late-life self-pity. Not interested, girls. (Notable exceptions include the wonderful Terry Castle, Rose Tremain, Ruth Ozeki, Barbara Kingsolver and my absolute fave-du-jour Hilary Mantel.)

In part this is an aesthetic thing. I like writing with a higher IQ and lower pH than most women can manage: tougher, edgier, stringier. But it’s also, unavoidably, political.

To my mind it is the task of writing to lace the personal into the supra-personal – bridging from the self to the political, the abstract, the cosmic. To fail in this, to wallow about in the personal, is a muscular dystrophy of the mind.

I have nothing against girls, which is lucky considering I have two of my own. Up to a point, girls are entitled to girliness. But it’s still – barring drunken love affairs perhaps – a thing to grow out of.

We used to know this. Remember when people used to take offence at women athletes being called ”girls”? Now it seems feminism has given up. Far from liberating us into the tough, exciting world, it has simply stretched the circle, like some outsize marsupial pouch, to encompass it. We’re all girls now.

At the gym you hear men earnestly sharing tips on diet products. Over coffee they dissect fashion, babies, relationships. “I said, then she said, then I said …” Neo-boys’ natter.

Just as suddenly the Women’s Weekly, which for me growing up symbolised everything frilled, dumb and domestic – everything I did not want my life to become – is a cultural icon, with its own TV drama and a National Library project to digitise it as “nationally significant material”.

Now you can catch up on all those stain-removal tips and sponge-making recipes online, secure in the knowledge that you’re engaged in something of national significance. Super.

Anyone would think those synthetic oestrogens in beef were finally having their way with us.

Perhaps we could simply accept widespread girlification as a broadening access to character traits – so that girls can be boys and boys can be girls – if only it weren’t so narrow. Narrow and narrowing.

Everywhere you look there’s women’s stuff. Websites, blogs, zines and e-groups. The explosion of social networking, and not just the ability but the expectation that you indulge, is a symbolic victory for the X chromosome. But how feminist is it, actually?

It’s not only sexist. Instead of Wendy Harmer’s site The Hoopla, imagine a website called, say, The Stoush, featuring articles only by, about and for men, touting men’s insights and wisdom, focusing on What Men Want. Instead of the site ”Parlour: women, equity, architecture” (Parlour? Really, girls?) imagine one called The Boardroom; men, success, architecture.

I know, you’ll say those things already exist, they’re everywhere. This is affirmative action. But are they, actually? Is it? Do two sexisms make a decency? I’m unconvinced.

But it’s more than that. The sub-heads of the Parlour blog, for example, go unconscious bias, leadership, mentoring, pay equity, career paths, work/life, and so on.) It’s run by writers and academics but none of it – not a word – deals with architecture the stuff, the content, the juice.

It makes me want to scream. Stop self-obsessing, girls. Leave the sewing circle. You want respect as architects, get on and bloody do it. Build something brilliant, funny, sweet, enchanting, weird, crazy – I don’t care. Do it, and they’ll come.

I have a lot of time for Zaha Hadid for this reason alone. I recall her as a young thing in London, sweeping all before her with her retinue of black-clad gay boys like the Persian princess she was. She didn’t bother whingeing about work-life balance. Balance be damned. She just did it.

I believe Greer is right (she too is labelled misogynist, as is Paglia, so I’m in good company). There is a level at which men hate women, for a very simple reason. They’re jealous. Women are core, men are luxuries.

But this very core-ness can turn us into ruminants, and saying so is not misogynistic. Quite the contrary. It’s recognising that it’s bigger than us. The world needs heroic females more than ever; it needs us out there, muscular, mindful, purposeful and strong. That’s funny.

 

Developers show their stripes all over town

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

Ever get the sense the bad guys are winning? The Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, promises this month a package of “very radical” Planning Act reforms. Well, Mr Hazzard, reform this.

Our planning system, like our tax system, seems increasingly geared to screw the little guys while rich douchebags suck it dry.

Consider. I work at home, in a terrace, reportedly Mr Hazzard’s preferred form of housing and soon to spread across far westburbia. On this at least, Brad and I are as one.

But in a terrace, the biggest challenge is light. Even with skylights and extreme spatial ingenuity, dark pockets persist. My writing space, for reasons best left obscure, inhabits such a pocket.

A couple of years back, driven to resolve this (and inspired in part by Michael Pollan’s wonderful A Place of My Own), I lodged a DA for a writing studio at the end of the garden. A tiny, see-through room on stilts, it would have surveilled our backlane drug deals, made minimum shadow and followed precedent up and down the street without precluding the off-street parking so beloved of the council. Exactly the kind of urban enrichment you might think a contemporary council would wish for.

Well, luvvies. What a palaver. Visiting planners spoke in reverential tones about urban design principles, floorspace ratios (which would have risen by about 0.25 per cent) and heritage laneways. My inner curmudgeon, never far away, came rapidly to the fore.

“Good god!” I felt like shouting. “I wrote the wretched laneways policy, and much of your urban design policy, when you were still feeding your Tamagotchi. And it’s not about sterilisation!”

How wrong. The planners, unamused, gave me two choices: withdraw and save them the paperwork, or take refusal. I took refusal.

That’s the fate of small, careful, stitchings onto the urban jacket. If, however, your proposal is truly outrageous and enduringly desecratory – alienating harbour frontage, blocking views, wrecking high streets, destroying villages, generating hectares of floating plastic or sucking community lifeblood – then yes siree, you have a real chance of getting up.

Now, suddenly, Sydney abounds with such schemes. The Premier, Barry O’Farrell, swears his opposition to Part 3A. Yet, of the 50 Part 3A determinations his government handed down in its first six months, only two were refused.

Three current schemes are illustrative. Not all are 3A but all are environmentally execrable, all weirdly linked to the Obeid-Tripodi traduction of our planning system and all once considered dead, or shrunk – yet have lately bounced back, bigger and uglier than ever.

They are: the Balmain Tigers redevelopment (cruelly named Rozelle Village for the community it will destroy); the Blackwattle Bay function centre; and the floating triffid that is the Rose Bay Marina, relentless in its efforts to grow another arm.

Rozelle Village started at 10 storeys, linked to the then metro-to-be. By 2010, when it was first refused, it was 13 storeys. Now, though the metro is long-dead, the proposal has been accepted as ”state significant” under Part 3A (by outgoing minister Tony ”ICAC” Kelly) and has almost tripled in size into two towers, 20 and 27 storeys respectively, with a massive five-storey retail podium and a 7.65 floorspace ratio. In Rozelle!

With 304 flats, the ”village” has enough height to overshadow Darling Street all winter and enough retail (20,000 square metres) to kill the real Rozelle village as dead as Westfield has Bondi Junction. It also has 834 car spaces; almost three per dwelling. Just what Sydney’s most congested peninsula needs.

The proponent is the supposedly carbon-conscious Tipping Point Institute, “a group of dedicated professionals who believe that success is not found in the pursuit of personal gain, but rather in pursuing goals that benefit society at large … ”

The sale of the Tigers site to Rozelle Village (the Tipping Point Institute) was packaged by Benny Elias, board member of both the Tigers and Rozelle Village (from which he resigned before the sale). The project manager is Kym Lennox, a former RTA bureaucrat who has worked for the Obeid family.

Lennox is also project managing the function centre application for the concrete batching sites at Blackwattle Bay in Ultimo. Ben Elias’s brother Joe – sole director of All Occasion Cruises (known for their raunchy strip shows) – is the named proponent, but Ben was reportedly involved in the early stages, along with Eddie Obeid’s son Eddie Jr.

The lease was controversially won in 2009, when Joe Tripodi was the Minister for Waterways and Sydney Maritime had an acting chairman for a month. The Elias bid, for an 18-berth marina, was higher than its competitors, but partly because it included a non-conforming function centre.

For three years the site has been used for commercial boating as the 2002 masterplan intended. Now, the function centre has reared again, contradicting the plan by blocking views from Wentworth Park and inhibiting public access to the waterfront.

Similar issues have already resulted from the Rose Bay Marina, as built, and will be greatly intensified if the proposed extension – blogged against by Malcolm Turnbull and the Greens alike – goes ahead.

Tripodi’s gutting of Maritime’s ”landowner’s consent” policy that had governed harbour leases for a century (limiting jetties, for example, to 16 metres) facilitated Addenbrooke’s 2006 proposal of a 128-boat marina. It was knocked back by both council and court, but in 2009 the court approved a smaller, 76-vessel version, without its third, eastern arm.

Now the eastern arm is back, boofier than ever. An 80-metre pontoon is proposed, with 46 more three-storey plastic boats, concomitantly reducing the far prettier, less intrusive swing moorings. It’s that old ”no means yes” developers’ mantra.

My writing studio is now 50 storeys with mirror glass, subterranean robot parking and ground-floor strip shows. Zero carbon, natch. I’m just looking for the right person to lunch.

elizabethfarrelly.net

Rozelle Village and Rose Bay Marina are exhibited on NSW Planning & Infrastructure website until June 18. The Blackwattle proposal is also on the website.

 

 

Less of ‘me’ in planning would help rest of us

Had I 10 wishes for the planet, one would be to take the ”me” out of planning. You might think there’s no me in planning. I’d be forced, respectfully, to disagree. As a rule there’s nothing but.

Call it, if you prefer, urbanisme. But virtually all that passes for planning debate in this country is a mere jousting of self-interests: government, developer, resident.

I might not care – it’s hardly new – except that me-ist planning of this kind could split green thinking asunder. Greenwars. Brown versus Rhiannon will look like play school.

“Where I live in Fremantle,” asked an audience member after a talk I gave last week in Adelaide, “the Greens council is supporting a 10-storey building. Everyone is very upset, including me. What can be done?”

The questioner – whose words I paraphrase but you get the gist – was Carmen Lawrence. Professor Carmen Lawrence would, I still think, have made a very decent PM. And although her question sounds like classic nimbism, it’s both more interesting than that and more inscrutable – not only because Freo is one of the Earth’s sweetest towns.

Traditional nimbism pits developers against residents and other locals (who, be they stockbrokers and bank managers in their out-of-home hours, for these purposes wear the ”ratbag” hat).

Most of our planning debate is of this kind, driven by the host community’s fear of built mass or ugliness, their distrust of both government and developer, their sense of being unfairly imposed upon, their protectiveness of their investment and their determination to shroud their (perfectly legitimate) emotions in rationales of traffic, heritage or sustainability.

A less common nimbist variation pits residents against political bastardry. Ku-ring-gai springs agilely to mind.

But a third kind, the nimbism of the future, will be both more nuanced and more damaging. It’s this that could split green from green.

The greenwar of the future has two fronts, both largely unacknowledged, both needing to be fought. These are the fight over green space, and the fight over density. Two flanks, but one war, which will pit old, agrarian, hippie-based green-think against urbanists like Edward Glaeser.

Traditional green-think has a survivalist hinterland; the sense that when things really arc up, you can always grow your own food and generate your own energy from your own waste. Many critics of globalism, like Helena Norberg-Hodge, take this view. Their future settlements are low-rise, low-density, field-based – not unlike Hodge’s beloved Ladakh, the mediaeval European village, or sprawl. Call these the radish-growers.

Opposing them are the urbanists. Glaeser argues that, in carbon terms, more is squandered by urban agriculture than it saves. “All that’s grassy is not green,” is his summary position; Manhattan is the greenest settlement on earth.

Myself, I imagine – and believe we can invent – a middle way, yet unbuilt, that combines food production and intense city dwelling. Of this idea, all those ”green walls” and productive rooftops and tri-gen schemes currently in construction, as at Central Park Broadway, will constitute a preliminary test.

But as Carmen Lawrence noted the other day, urban imagineering is far more fraught when dealing with existing communities.

This is because existing communities mix emotion, ego and money into a lethal potion. It’s called nimbism.

I sometimes fantasise about a world where people engage in hive-shaping discussions from a loftier viewpoint – not intellectual, necessarily, but as though they had no personal stake.

This of course was John Rawls’s advice about politics in general; we should think and vote as though we are not ourselves affected by the outcome. But in planning, as in politics, the invasion of the overweening ”me” takes such higher thought further from our reach.

Most people, most communities, get sufficiently fired up to ”do something” – rant, rage, rally – only to protect their own corner. Views, amenity but, above all, property values.

Governments, accustomed now to their abandonment of the public good, do likewise. So a planning stoush often comes down to resident self-interest versus government self-interest. My dollars versus your dollars. No moral content at all.

Of course, you say. Of course you must fight for your own.

But two contingencies underpin this feeling. One, the sense that if you don’t protect your interests, no one will. And second, the fear that whatever comes next is, almost by definition, worse than what exists now.

Both are real, reasonable and demonstrable, but they are still contingent. Mutable.

Sharing the stage at that same talk in Adelaide was Colombian Enrique Penalosa, who is celebrated for his New Urbanist reforms as mayor of Bogota.

Penalosa may be a politician, but he resisted telling Dr Lawrence what at least part of her wanted to hear, which was that the Freo Greens were behaving badly and should stop it at once. (I mean no insult to the good doctor. She’s smart enough to know that, may her heart plead, there are harsh collective realities here, in particular climate change).

“The first principle of democracy,” Penalosa said in his charming Spanish accent, ”is that where there is a clash between private good and the public good, the public good must prevail.”

Certainly it’s easier to start from scratch, but good governance is a tough-love exercise. “Manhattan is Manhattan because things were knocked down and rebuilt. Houses were knocked down. That’s how it goes.”

Fremantle mayor Brad Pettit’s argument is not just a climate-change drive to density. His motives are also cultural, urban and economic.

A cyclist who famously sold his mayoral parking bay for charity, Dr Pettit believes bringing the masses to live and work in central Fremantle will save it.

“I don’t want to see us keep sliding down a slippery slope where in a decade’s time all you’ll be able to buy in Fremantle is coffee, ice-cream and tourist T-shirts,” he said.

I myself would be very sad to see Freo destroyed, or Surry Hills, Woollahra, Fortitude Valley, Carlton. Not because they’re mine, but because they are unique and lovely and vitally of their place.

When Michelle Obama starts growing vegies in the White House rose gardens it’s clear the war between density and open space must come. But Australia, with its warmth and wealth, is ideally placed to invent a new model, combining intensive building and intensive greenery. We just have to lose the me from urbanisme.

By accident or design, Labor’s legacy of bad planning lives on

Illustration: Edd Aragon

As a primate of signal curiosity I often feel like some urban fringe dweller, guddling about in the detritus of the culture industry, feeling with my fingerless gloves for gleams of truth or loveliness amongst the dross.

I constantly remind myself, as I go, not to take umbrage that so much of it is junk – it is after all a midden – and to focus instead on the finds. These I tuck under my jacket to re-use or, better still, transform into some astonishing new implement of mind.

It was in such a spirit of enquiry that I popped down, the other day, to hear the former planning minister Frank Sartor at the Writers’ Festival.

The question in my mind – the bauble I was seeking in that particular midden – was why is planning so hard to come by, in NSW? What, if anything, can we learn from obvious mistakes? Surely it’s not that hard.

The book in question is The Fog on the Hill, one of those cute Labor tropes about train driver Chifley and the putative lumens emanating from Labor’s now very small bump in the landscape.

Sartor’s chat held moments of genuine entertainment, like his rendering of Michael Egan’s quip that ”Bob Carr’s not in charge – he’s just an effing journo we hired to win elections.” Or when he told us ”of course, Carr was a total hypochondriac” and twice mimicked his orotund baritone.

There was much on the importance of compromise – as if Labor’s problem was simply being too principled – and even a degree of honesty. ”We were more morally bankrupt than corrupt …” fessed Sartor. ”Transport was our No.1 big sin, and we were very poor at policy, on energy and a few other things …”

Hard to argue with him when he said, ”it was a very weak cabinet …” He noted: ”It was obvious we were on the nose … We’d been giving mining companies exemptions from pollution charges for ages … We just wouldn’t address the long-term issues …”

And of course that’s part of why a government with a massive mandate and over a decade in power failed to produce anything remotely resembling sensible strategic planning across the state.

But the overwhelming flavour was one of pathos. ”Planning damaged me terribly,” Sartor complained at one point. Why? Well, because ”the press saw me as an easy target. Once you lose people’s trust it doesn’t matter what you do …”

Those rotten media scoundrels. They’re so mean. They make things up. ”You stick to your principles, they call you arrogant. If you compromise … you get called a crook.”

Planning may have damaged Sartor. But consider, for a moment, the far, far greater damage that he and his colleagues did to planning.

Part 3A, which was invented by Craig Knowles but greatly expanded by Sartor, focused planning control in the minister’s hands.

It was Sartor who suspended so much ancillary legislation – fisheries, forestry, agriculture – and concentrated so much power in, well, himself, that it became possible, as Clayton Utz noted, ”to approve wholly prohibited state significant development.”

That’s why we have coal mines all over the state, foreign-owned resorts in world heritage areas and massive housing developments swamping coastal hamlets. I’m sorry. Damage to him?

Never before in this country has a piece of planning law generated a genuine storm of protest. Decisions, sure. Developments, zonings, after the fact. But not law. Part 3A did it, and with cause.

The essence of good planning – perhaps of good governance, generally – is impartiality. Part 3A made that impossible.

”The party’s collection of money was outrageous and toxic and it killed us,” said Sartor. But it wasn’t just the money. It was that, in conjunction with Part 3A.

Part 3A brought the party donation inflow – hundreds of thousands a year from Rosecorp, Meriton, Australand, Bradcorp, Buildev, Johnson Property Group, Macquarie, Manildra, Multiplex and, ahem, Medich – to the very same cabinet room from which decisions flowed out. And this was some kind of accident?

”I should have fought harder to give power away,” says Sartor now, ”to distance decisions from myself …”

You might think all this is history. Barry O’Farrell came to government vowing to repeal 3A, and repeal it he did, last October. But to almost no effect. The main difference between Knowles-Sartor’s 3A and O’Farrell’s Part 4 of the Planning Act is that the minister can no longer just call in anything he feels like, on a whim. It must be recommended by the Planning Assessment Commission and the reasons must be published. But it hasn’t stopped the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, hopping along to developers’ nosh-ups, as he did earlier this year with the Urban Development Institute of Australia, and offering to help anyone who needed land rezoned. Anyone, anyone?

So 3A’s legacy lives on. The department, commission, all those assessment panels might as well go home now, if that stuff is still happening.

Yet planning matters. More than property prices and development yields, it affects air quality, growing fields, travel times, residential amenity and – dammit – beauty.

Why, then, doesn’t planning happen? If you believe Sartor the causes are a weak cabinet, colleagues ”just there for the deals” and, above all, the media. ”There’s a great myth in our society that the media represent the public interest,” he barked. ”They don’t. They don’t. They represent commercial interests. Even the ABC represents commercial interests.”

Even Labor’s rhythmic concoction of rail-line fantasies was the press’s fault. After all, who was standing there with the fluffy mike, asking for it? Then again, no one has to talk to the press. And Sartor was practised in attempted press-control.

But when politicians start blaming media scrutiny for their failings, it’s a short step to tyranny.

That’s what belongs on the garbage heap.

 

 

The PC crowd that’s keeping the world of art mediocre

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

The Australia Council is threatened, say some, with change beyond recognition. The question is, will it make any difference? Halfway up the godless bit of Regent Street between Central Station and Cleveland Street sits a newish block of flats, smart in its way, but taking several years to build and half as many before it started to fall apart. On its flank a bronze plaque morosely informs passers-by that ”on this site once stood the Wesley Church”.

The church, an 1847 sandstone gothic that became part of Sydney’s free-thought precinct, was knocked down in 1965 for a petrol station. Thirty years on, the petrol station was in turn demolished for ”inner city urban renewal”, if renewal is quite the term for a building that makes even its own residents look furtive.

How is this relevant to the government review of our premier arts-funding body, released this week?

These consecutive shifts – church, petrol station, flats – neatly symbolise our changing priorities. Nineteenth century, 20th, 21st; God and free thought. Speed and consumption. Self and home.

It’s a little parable about what happens when the blowing of the zeitgeist has its way. And it suggests, I contend, that the proper task of our knowledge institutions is not to reinforce these shifting values but to withstand them.

From the Australia Council through universities, museums, galleries and professional institutes to government developers such as Landcom, the same holds. If they conceive their mission as simply subsidising the popular, they might as well not exist.

The popular is the eucalypt. All the soils of democro-capitalism are devoted to its nourishment, even as it sucks them dry. The reason we need institutions – indeed, the only reason – is to sustain the casuarinas and Wollemi pines of the arts world; exemplars of excellence that, being abstract, abstruse or downright esoteric, could not persist alone.

This used to be simple and obvious. But postmodernism has undermined it, by making judgment seem elitist and making elitism seem bad. Reinforce this will-to-populism with vote-addicted politics, and you have an arts world wholly captive to abject crowd-pleasing.

The Melbourne writer Tony Birch, though shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, is at pains to demonstrate that ”writers don’t represent any elite”. ”I’m not Black Caviar,” he says, to underline his modest surprise at being shortlisted, as though somehow being worse at what you do balances out the elitism, making it okay to win such things as awards.

In the same spirit, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell hands the Premier’s Prize for Architecture over to popular vote, saying ”as we see every year with the Archibald, people love having a say and I reckon they get it right”.

Do they, though? Everyone got very excited recently when a critic at London’s Daily Telegraph, Richard Dorment, said: ”Contemporary art in Australia is going to be the next big thing.” His reasoning was simple. Nothing to do with the quality of our ”art practice”. Rather, it was a follow-the-money-line. Australia is still rich.

But money isn’t all it takes. A lively arts scene needs money in hands that can tell a good idea from rubbish and are prepared to make that call.

This week saw the announcement in London of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, the brilliant exercise in pop-up architecture that happens every summer. This year it’s Herzog and de Meuron with Ai Weiwei, whose lovely water-roofed archaeological amoeba plays in the footprints of its 11 predecessors (by Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor and the rest).

Oh, the envy of it. They get to wander around genius. We get an epidemic of spotty, gnarly people’s choice (code for ”too frightened to make a call”). There’s a reason People’s Choice has the initials PC.

The Archibald PC, announced today, and the Premier’s Prize PC can be confidently expected to produce results as daringly out-there as the National Photographic Portrait PC, announced on Tuesday: John McRae’s sweet soft-faced snap of Margaret Olley looking, well, sweet and soft-faced in a room with flowers. Lordy, lordy. What a surprise.

Everywhere you look, the great institutions of the collective mind are bending over backwards to restrict their message to what people already know, think and like.

This is the direct opposite of education. Yet, weirdly, it’s a top-down push to the bottom. Our institutions are full of PhDs in how to tell the populous that McMansions are just fine, Margaret Olley was a great painter and every half-literate self-published memoir is up there with Tolstoy.

And how wonderfully perverse. How wonderfully Australian. Forget the antiquated notion that a prize denotes excellence, and that excellence is by definition elitist.

Forget that the only possible purpose of prizes in the arts is to seek out and sustain pockets of excellence so rarefied that the market does not even register their presence.

Turn every arts prize into a desperate search for mediocrity. Appoint to the task the biggest possible committee – the public – confident in the knowledge that it will award the dullest, most ordinary, most average practitioners. It’s only fair.

Unless, of course, we’re talking sport. Sport’s different. There we strive. Be an elite swimmer or athlete any time you like. Win medals. Knock ’em dead.

Or money. Sell property, dig up minerals, find something practical and lucrative with not an idea in sight – sure, go for it, mate. With you all the way. Identifying. Applauding. Egging you on.

Just don’t let us catch you doing anything clever with your head. Write, or paint, or compose something brilliant and we’ll punish you. Never mind the years or decades you’ve spent at risk and in penury, dedicated to your art. We’ll brand you elitist and cut your funding till you’ve learned your lesson. Appeal to the illiterate masses or die!

The Australia Council review attempts to deal with this dilemma by distinguishing ”access” (government) from ”excellence” (Australia Council).

But an overwhelmingly bureaucratic worldview – where artists are ”service providers”, being ”distinctively Australian” is a core artistic value and the important questions are about committee arrangement – bodes not well.

We might be rich, and London poor, but they still get the Serpentine and we get a Premier too timid to choose his own award.

 

 

Bold, frank criticism can only nourish architecture

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  • <i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

Oh to be so powerful. Ellsworth Monckton Toohey, the villainous, pin-striped architecture critic in Ayn Rand’s appalling novel The Fountainhead, makes and breaks careers. He generates strikes, reshapes entire developments and rhythmically reduces excellence to mediocrity, just for fun. It’s a game of critic-on-top. I wish.

Critics are much despised, not only by their targets, who generally assume them both to be failed practitioners and to have more power than is actually the case.

Last week’s standing room-only crowd at Make-Space 4 Architecture’s first public event – a consenting-adults chat about the new MCA and its thought cloud – bespoke a healthy thirst for debate. It also revealed a widespread misunderstanding of what criticism is and does.

Architecture critics are in a particular bind. Like art critics but unlike, say, those of film, they must swim in the same social sea as their targets. Further, because useful architectural criticism requires experience of the design process, they must also be prepared to offend those by whom they might otherwise be employed.

The critic, in other words, must be ready to shift from within the guild to without, and stay there. Add the mismatch between spatial brains and verbal ones, and the rarity of Criticus architectus should be no surprise.

But the effect, as a 2001 Columbia University study noted, is that “architecture is the most public art form and, curiously, the least subject to public debate”.

This hurts us all.

John Summerson – Sir John Newenham Summerson (1904-1992) – was the finest architectural historian ever minted. But he was once a critic, until the night that drove him into the arms of history.

It was May 1957, 14 years after Rand had planted Ellsworth Toohey in the popular mind. Summerson was giving the Royal Institute of British Architects’ monthly lecture in Florence Hall, Portland Place, W1. His title? ”The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture.”

Apart from Summerson, the crucial players that spring evening were the radical moderns Alison and Peter Smithson – fierce, flamboyant and known simply as The Smithsons.

They should have been allies. The Smithsons were of that British modernist stream dedicated to proving that England’s climate was in fact Californian and designing accordingly – as in their pitchless, eaveless, prefabricated Hunstanton school.

Yet their attack on Summerson’s rationalist, socialist design framework was so ferocious he never exercised his critical faculties in public again.

I recall this tale often, especially before last week’s MS4A bash. The crowd expected blood and not a few, moi included, thought it might be mine.

Later, one blogger breathlessly recalled insults “hurled … across the room”. Another, starting from the “air of expectation … tensions charged by the prospect of imminent bloodshed”, professed himself disappointed by the tameness. One suggested it was badly chaired; another applauded the organisers.

What was agreed, though, and salient, was the sheer, collective energy of the thing. The hunger; for blood but also for mind.

“Sydney is renowned,” ventured the pre-blurb, “for sticking the proverbial boot into its new public buildings and their architects. The closer … to the harbour and the Opera House, the harder the blow. The … MCA is the latest victim of such attention…”

Wrong on three counts. One: Sydney seldom sticks the boot in, in any critical sense. Melbourne has long fostered gloves-off talk clubs like MS4A, but Sydney has had little between the bow-and-scrape of the Grand Man’s Public Lecture and a grizzle over a schooner.

Two: If the Quay location means extra scrutiny, bring it, right? It is, as Philip Cox noted, our sacred space. Also, while the MCA’s new wing was privately funded, it sits on prime public land, attached to a (bad) public building, with a $4 million annual public subsidy. What’s not to scrutinise?

Indeed, one might ask, according to what covenant does director Liz Ann Macgregor get to treat the MCA as – her words – “my building”? If museums are the new cathedrals, as someone noted, why shouldn’t the public expect a great space within? Some genuine shock and awe?

Three: What makes a recipient of criticism automatically a “victim”?

Criticism is not description. History, sure. Summerson found history a safe harbour not only because his subjects were dead, but because history, although analytical and often interpretive, is not essentially evaluative.

Criticism, by contrast, must distinguish the good, the bad and the reasons. It needn’t be right, except factually. It needn’t be popular or consensual. It needn’t even be persuasive, though this is preferable.

It must be interesting, or no one will read it. And it must be truthful. If the critic thinks something is rubbish, she must say so, and why. The phrase ”positive criticism”, from last week’s event, is a nonsense. Without dark, light is meaningless.

Criticism must make the critic’s view and reasoning, however bizarre, quite plain, thus helping readers to form and articulate their own views.

MCA architect Sam Marshall is wrong to dismiss people’s likes and dislikes as petty, wrong to insist that opinion is valid only when backed with 20 pages of “intelligent” reasoning. Sigh.

People’s likes matter greatly; only when these responses are articulated can they be understood, refined, shared and educated.

What many architects do not see is that, while they might be the targets of criticism, they’re not its audience – any more than film reviews are intended for filmmakers.

Architects are unlike doctors, dentists or lawyers. Their services are not essential but optional. This means that the bubble in which they float, although woven of arcane knowledge, still depends wholly on the two-way air-tube from the mother ship.

It is this tube into which the critic breathes life. Architects, accustomed to the rarefied atmosphere of the bubble, cannot usually speak into the wider air without sounding vain and otiose.

The Huffington Post recently declared the architecture critic dead. “And good riddance,” wrote Vanessa Quirk, critics being stodgy, impenetrable and starchitect-obsessed. (Her particular target was New York Times critic Paul Goldberger, who isn’t dead, just switched to Vanity Fair).

I beg to differ. Goldberger might be dull but the critic’s audience-building role is more than ever crucial to a profession too adoring of its own jargon to talk to the very public on whose understanding it depends.

Sacrifice Redfern’s grunge at your peril

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<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>Illustration: Edd Aragon

On Anzac Day we stopped in Cullen Bullen for lunch, if lunch is not too kind a term for a toastie that seemed to be made of melted-down prostheses. A local, formerly of Campbelltown, heard we were from Redfern.

”Which part of Redfern?” he wanted to know.

The subtext was clear enough; there is a good part and a bad one. You expect that sort of thing from country NSW. What did surprise me was hearing similar sentiments from SBS newsreader Ricardo Goncalves, who more or less argued in print the other day that Redfern should be cut in half.

In Goncalves’s plan the good half of Redfern – his half, naturally, the eastern half – would be rebadged South Dowling. The bad half would quarantine all the public housing, rental shackery, old-style walk-ups, elderly first-generation immigrants and The Block. Oh, and quite a few ratbag professionals in their $1.5 million terraces. And me.

What’s wrong with being thought to live in Redfern? Why, although the hipsters flock here nightly, do my children’s east-burb friends say they’re not allowed to catch buses here?

The same reason those teenagers riding their car onto a Kings Cross footpath were first said to be from Redfern, when in fact they were from Mount Druitt. Redfern has become a metaphor for all kinds of social dysfunction, and a euphemism for The Block.

Mr Goncalves’s friends, boldly visiting him at home (in his shiny security residence), assure him that his part of Redfern, with its high-rise apartments, new shopping centres and cafes ”has a totally different feel, character and look. It’s not the same suburb.” Damn right. Real estate agents agree.

Perhaps what Redfern needs is a wall to keep all the clean, shiny people from polluting us grubby old poor ones.

For in truth, it’s not just The Block. There are black people and poor people (not necessarily the same thing) and old people and ratbag professionals strewn throughout Redfern, as well as Waterloo, Surry Hills – and indeed, Campbelltown. To my mind, this is fine.

What’s not fine – as the failures of modern planning so catastrophically showed – is to separate cities out into constituent parts. A city is not about separation, but about mix. And this mixing – this intricate urban dance of which citizens partake – enriches not just the poorer ingredients, but us all.

Multiculturalism has its flaws, god knows. But this simple, pluralist message has informed the last 50 years of thinking across every discipline from urbanism to anthropology, from fine arts to physics. Surprising, then, to hear this secessionist rhetoric from a reporter for Australia’s only expressly multicultural TV station, even if the rest of the Sunday tabloid story did smell of a beat-up.

I’ve lived in Redfern 14 years. It’s been a period of rapid gentrification, in which I’m clearly implicated – not only as a resident but as a paid-up member of the global reclaim-the-city push. I have evangelised urbanism for 20 years, as writer, academic and local politician, for reasons cultural, environmental and aesthetic. I’m not about to back down now.

And these oldies are part of what I loved. I’m sorry to see them go, the toothless drunks, the heaving hookers, the foetal alcohol boys and the rooming-house ladies. There was one lot – a drug dynasty specialising in rooftop intimidation and barbarous back-lane bonfires – that I was happy to see locked up. Broadly, though, these old-school Redfernites furnish our streets with a warmth and affection to which the hipsters and designerati contribute little.

As old Redfern has dwindled, it’s been a standing joke with us how yuppies and real estate types yearn to classify our place as ”Redfern East” when it’s clearly plain old Redfern. When, equally clearly, plain old Redfern is vastly more real and vivid and interesting and, well, urban, than the brash shiny bit.

In a small way, of course, each of us changes the neighbourhood where we live. But it should still be understood that when you move in you take a city on its terms, not yours. Just as it’s bad form for empty-nesters to move from Turramurra or Ku-ring-gai then start whingeing about late night noise, it’s bad form to move into a city centre then whinge about the existing community because you somehow see it as lowering the tone, especially when it’s the oldest urban indigenous community in the country. Very bad form indeed.

The Block is largely now a ghost-town. Over a decade, virtually all its 62 houses have been demolished by the Aboriginal Housing Company to whom the Whitlam government deeded them in 1973.

The idea is to redevelop.

A first scheme was approved by planning minister Kristina Keneally in 2006; a revised and enlarged scheme was submitted late last year, under the dreaded Part 3A, and awaits decision.

There were a few public submissions, mostly objecting to the height increase from three storeys to (maximum) six. Objectors noted incongruence with the two-storeyed environs. They worried about traffic generation and that the new buildings would overshadow their solar panels (an interesting new issue for planners; I see compensation coming). Some argued against designating the housing specifically for Aboriginal people, others against allowing commercial components that are not for Aborigines.

But if it’s such new high-rise developments and shopping centres that are lifting Redfern East into Redfern Heights (where’s Dame Edna when you need her?), how can the same be banned from The Block? Especially since the local RSL, two blocks away, is just now completing its Frank Sartor-approved tower of 20 storeys.

Twenty storeys would not suit The Block – especially not since they share the RSL’s architect, Nordon Jago. But Moore Park Gardens (over in Redfern east) shows how height can be achieved with grace and street-making charm.

Redfern is rightly a metaphor – for the beating black heart at the centre of Australia’s oldest city and for authentic urban grunge. This we sacrifice at our peril.

 

 

Living in the past: it’s a sign of our times

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

The tall American before me in the queue is modest and thoughtful-looking. He wears socks under hiking sandals, a sagging backpack, antediluvian corduroys and an expression of benign amusement. I take these things to mean he’s a retired academic; an anthropologist, or some other sweet anachronism.

Then again, maybe he’s a sous chef or merchant banker costumed as anthropologist emeritus. We are, after all, at the global centre of affected anachronism.

It’s the entry queue to the 13th annual Lithgow Ironfest, a thousands-strong gathering of re-enactment aficionados, or ”creative anachronists” as they’re known in the trade.

Unperturbed by the passing swarms of green-haired goths, corseted fairies, wizards, pirates, villeins, camo-rednecks, tartan bagpipers and Second Empire soldiers, my anthropologist and his friend are talking model helicopters.

With gentle condescension, the anthropologist explains that his interest in helicopters is abstract, derived from his helicopter theory of civilisations. (How, with increasing energy, societies evolve, gradually achieving lift-off but how, if the rotors over-accelerate, the culture destabilises, crashes and burns).

The friend glazes over. His mind likes the helicopter’s whirring reality, not the metaphor. But I’m with the anthropologist. I want to see what makes these muppets tick.

We all know about American Civil War nuts, bit-parters from some Carl Hiaasen novel or Coen brothers flick. But until recently discovering the Viking groups strewn through the Blue Mountains, I hadn’t really believed Aussies went for this re-enactment stuff. So wrong.

This year’s Ironfest was themed ”Apocalypse”, in deference to the 5000-year Mayan calendar that puts world’s end at 2012. It’s the 13th Ironfest, the 13th Mayan baktun and a good moment for general primitivism.

Which is what my anthropologist is explaining when his friend, helicopter man, butts in. ”Maya?” he says. ”We were arguing about this in the car, and I said Maya was a people group, but everyone said no, Maya’s the place in Melbourne where you go shopping.”

I stifle a snort, although helicopter man has a point. If there isn’t an apocryphal link between the shopping mall and the end of the world as we know it, there should be.

Civilisations end but the yearning for a simpler – less complex, less material, less energy-guzzling – life, a life whose rotors whirr serenely, is eternal. Virgil wrote the Georgics about it two millennia ago and still, in many ways, it drives these dress-ups.

From the outside, the yellow Lions Club T-shirts and aroma of frying onion presents Ironfest as an Easter Show without the cart horses, skinless mice and giant zucchini. Inside the big gates, though, it’s clear it’s something different.

For a start, it’s friendly. All these steampunk pirates exude a sense of welcome you never feel at the Easter Show, where you’re only tolerated for the rip-off. There’s Lithgow’s peculiar cultural mix of new age and old coal: mountain hippie meets mining hardhead. But there’s also enchantment. Welcome to my fantasy.

Of course, at one level, we all live inside our own movies. But much of modernity, from the sporting field to the shopping mall, deliberately strips the story out of existence. Story-less synchronicity was part of scientific objectivity and its promise of a new, democratic Eden. It’s this against which Ironfest rebels.

People love it. There are Napoleonic re-enactments – real muskets, real cannon, real clouds of saltpetre smoke. There’s a mediaeval village (mainly tents) with farriers, chain-mailers (yes, you can try it on) and cloth-capped cow-horn minstrels. There’s steampunk, robots (including K-9 and R2-D2), hippie bluegrass and falconry, using native buzzards and an imperious wedge-tailed eagle.

There’s fully costumed jousting, swordplay where children can ”bash each other into submission” and Uppsala, a fully armoured adult fight club with real swords and shields. ”We’re a combat-based mediaevalist group from” – wait for it – ”Chatswood and we fight not for love or honour, but because we like fighting”.

Risky stuff. But riskier still is Soldatenheim, an authentic German World War II mess tent, kitted out with mortars, field tables and SS insignias. No swastikas but, this close to Anzac Day, we all cringe.

Altogether it’s fun and, despite the jumble, convincing. But our hosts (we’re staying locally) are shocked that we even attend Ironfest, which is seen to hover between the ratbag and the redneck. Said hosts are themselves Vikings, first generation from Samso – the Danish farming island now a famous exemplar of energy-autonomy.

Do we, the latte classes, despise re-enactment for being phoney, history Disneyfied? Or for not being phoney enough, for the implied glorification of violence and cruelty?

Mediaeval life was never fair, pluralist or eco-aware. In fact it was sexist, racist, barbarous and cruel. This wasn’t just necessity; the pain and fear were, and are, also part of the entertainment, the edge. The thrill.

These days the jousters’ lances are balsa-tipped, the falconers are conservationists, the rabbits are fake and the musket balls blank. From under the wimpled ladies’ gowns, scuffed blunnies poke.

Yet its appeal, and its unity, is still underlying secessionism. The Kingdom of Ironfest, just launched, is a collective of co-ops, designed to ”seize back control of our collective financial destiny”. This is what unites the disparate mob: refusal.

Can you have the secession without the savagery? Can you rethread history to make it reinhabitable?

There is an obvious alliance between mediaevalism and environmentalism. Yet the eco-thread is conspicuous by its absence. Lithgow is coal country. Cooling towers billow over the landscape. Forget Soldatenheim. If it’s audacity Ironfest craves, next year’s should be themed ”Green helicopter; keeping the rotors turning”. It should feature solar-steam punk, biofuel robots and wind-powered warfare.

Too tame? Not really. Badge it ”Miners versus Greenies” and I reckon they could lose the balsa tips, and have jousting for real.

Truth of Assange is stranger than fiction

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

I’m not given to conspiracy theories, incompetence being so much easier to imagine, but one thing gives credibility to Clive Palmer’s otherwise nutty CIA phantasm about US influence in Australia.

It is Julian Assange, a story that hinges on the uncomfortable relationship between truth and power.

We expect truth-telling from our four-year-olds but not from our politicians. In the case of Assange, truth is actively and repeatedly punished.

This implies that, as you move up through society’s power strata, there’s a point where morality flips.

A sort of moral inversion layer, beneath which the rules apply but above which they’re reversed.

The modern Labor Party seems to illustrate this as well as anyone.

It seemed rather a giggle last year when, after their electoral drubbing, NSW Labor felt the need for ethics classes to learn how to be “honest with ourselves and … the people we represent”. But prolonged electroconvulsive therapy might have been more in order, for whichever thread you pull, the last decade of Labor emerges like an episode of the Jason Bourne film franchise.

Start anywhere. Say, at Mark Arbib. Arbib, then a Labor senator crucial in deposing a first-term prime minister and crowning Julia Gillard, was later revealed as a secret US government source. He also owned a beachfront apartment in Maroubra, built by a Labor donor developer, as did Labor’s former NSW treasurer Eric Roozendaal, both in the very same block where Moses Obeid, son of Labor MLC Eddie, also resided.

For two years Arbib stayed in the Canberra apartment of Alexandra Williamson, staffer to Gillard and daughter of the embattled HSU boss Michael Williamson.

I tell you, it’s the Philippines out there. When Craig Thomson popped up as an electoral contender the ALP must have kicked his tyres, seen his dodgy log-book and thought, yep, he’s one of ours. Bring him in.

I mention all this not just to illustrate that high-level grubbiness is so normal we almost expect it, but to highlight a more sinister possibility; that we, like the Philippines, are a puppet US state, where truth comes second to power.

This kind of talk I’ve always resisted. Yet it is now undeniable that, at US behest, Julian Assange stands to lose his liberty, indefinitely, for telling the truth. And the very same Labor Party, with its CIA-assisted PM and its concern for truth re-education, lifts not a finger to help him.

It’s quite clear that Assange is not guilty – not of rape, not of treason. As Malcolm Turnbull, responding to Gillard’s “illegal” claim, told a Sydney University law school

audience last year, it is prima facie clear that Assange has broken no Australian law.

In words of one syllable, the Australian Federal Police agrees. There has been no breach of our law.

Christine Assange says when she began investigating this, it was like slipping through a wormhole into another, shadowy world where the rules do not apply. Australian lore sees her son as a cult-outlaw in the time-honoured tradition, a modern folk hero, wrongly maligned for helping us to see into that wormhole.

Assange has been under house arrest for 15 months. His family are in hiding and governments all over the world vilify him. A US sealed indictment could deliver decades in prison, or worse, his lawyers claim. Yet he has not been charged. Not with rape. Not with terrorism. Not with hacking. Not even with condomless sex.

The man is an Australian citizen in fear of his life, victim of a massive miscarriage of justice. But our government does nothing.

Were it anyone else – even on a genuine charge, formally laid – Gillard, Roxon and Carr would be over there, holding hands, pressing buttons, making tea. But because it’s Assange, and because he’s been telling inconvenient truths about Big Brother, he is guilty until proved otherwise.

The sex charges are clearly ridiculous and the Swedish justice system so convoluted as to be, if you’ll excuse the pun, impenetrable.

Yet the Sweden-US bilateral extradition agreement requires neither charge nor evidence. The minute he lands in Sweden, Assange can be locked up in solitary, incommunicado, and indefinitely without charge.

Or he can be shuffled straight onto the US extradition plane and, under sealed indictment, into the secret horror of a grand jury. There will be no judge, and no defence materials. Just a jury drawn from the most militarised area of the US – Alexandria, Virginia.

This is weird. Assange didn’t do the evil stuff. He exposed it (names redacted).

But join the dots. Over the same period, Karl Rove has been advising the Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, known as ”Sweden’s Reagan”. Julia Gillard, flipped into power by CIA-friendly Mark Arbib, describes herself rhythmically as “a true mate” to the US, “an ally for the 60 years past … an ally for all the years to come”. And in our Parliament a raft of sinister legislation has appeared.

Labor’s special amendments to the Extradition Act allow the same, proofless ”streamlining” of extradition from Australia. Its so-called “WikiLeaks Amendment” allows ASIO to spy, at the Attorney-General’s discretion, on known supporters – despite the AFP’s view that no law has been breached. And its controversial Cybercrime Security Bill allows routine collection and surveillance of private emails, texts and other personal data.

As Gillard told Barack Obama last year, “you can do anything today”. Assange’s story will make a great film, in years to come; Jason Bourne with a dragon tattoo. But it’s not fiction. It’s real. We may yet be forced to recognise that Gillard’s ”anything” may include totalitarianism by stealth. And this is Labor.

Kafka has nothing on web weaved by telcos

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

No doubt Franz Kafka was a perfectly decent chap, not in the least paranoid (though he clearly had every right to be) and nothing six-legged about him. Yet he gave his name to the kind of reasonless, powerless horror we associate with evil dreams, tyrants and telecommunications companies of all stripes.

I have several telcos in my life. This would be merely inconvenient, had it not gradually made me the beetle-like victim of a faceless web of telcos, banks, retail giants, credit card companies, intelligence firms and debt collectors.

This not only threatens a serious impact on my retail life but flips me from busy-if-critical worker ant to supine victim of the capitalist conspiracy.

But unlike Kafka, I’m not alone. New complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman more than doubled last year. To each of these 112,376 consumers, and the millions more who do not complain, this is for you.

The true extent of my helplessness became apparent after a recent visit to a major Sydney department store. I’m not sorry for department stores. Any shop that can’t provide even a manned and visible cash register deserves every e-tail drubbing it gets.

Yet there was some gadget with 10 per cent off for storecard holders. Having naturally ditched my old DJs card when they switched to Amex with its annual fee for nothing-at-all, I agreed to apply. Major palaver followed. Forms longer than a short novel, wasting twice the time represented by the paltry saving.

Still, I got my discount – only to receive, two weeks later, a nasty letter saying my store-card application had been declined due to my ”personal credit bureau report”.

I’m sorry, what? I’m such a debt-phobe I never even rack up Visa debt. Bad credit rating? Moi?

There were no details. The letter, from Veda ”Applied Intelligence”, invited me to pay $52 for my e-file. Or write a letter and wait 10 days. This I did. Why pay them for your own guff?

The return letter, a fortnight on, required yet another form and three types of ID, which I scanned and emailed back – but the address on their letterhead bounced. So here I sit, indicted but, like Julian Assange, still ignorant of my crime.

But what I suspect is this: telcos.

I’ve long learned to resist the sweet-talking telemarketers who offer to ”bundle” your entire needs for a quarter your current bill, then charge you seven or eight times what they promised. Yet I still have four – four telco relationships.

Of these, two are genuine. They do service, I do cash. The others are phantom relationships, like phantom limbs; the service is non-extant but the pain is nightmarishly real.

One of these phantoms is benign. It’s years since I had a contract with Telstra yet every month, for reasons of their own, they post a two-page bill saying they owe me $6.24. Interest never accrues. They never send a cheque. They just keep sending the bill.

Do they think they’ll tempt me back? Do they, in fact, think?

The second phantom evinces the real bastardry. Until September last, my mobile was with 3. When I went in to upgrade, I was required to switch to Vodafone (although escaping them had been my whole reason for switching to 3, two years earlier).

The switch took place on September 15, 11.49am. There were two phones involved (for me and a child), with modest caps of $49 and $29 respectively. Yet I paid Vodafone, on the day, $312. (3 sweetly waived their $37 service cancellation fee).

Within the month, the bills started coming.

Reading mobile bills is always maddening. Some charges are retrospective and some prospective; some GST-able and some not; here are unexplained credits, inexplicable debits and however you cut it, nothing adds to the total. Generally, I don’t read – just link to my Visa and pay.

But the bills from 3 resumed, too. Small at first; $8.89, for calls supposedly made after the switch. This was clearly spurious yet, like a good little capitalist beetle, I paid. Just easier.

Then it got more complicated. That same September I’d been holidaying in Bali (with my new iPhone) when the NAB, without warning, cancelled my credit card. Very embarrassing. No cash, no credit. It later turned out they had freaked because someone – my web host – had four addresses, one of them in Panama.

The first time, it was potentially dangerous. They knew that, and who my web host was, yet over the next three weeks they did it twice more; each time interrupting all direct debit arrangements, and then losing the replacement card. It was a bad month.

But one effect had been that my final payment to 3, just over $100, was rejected, so in mid-October I’d had to pay by BPay. That was all fine.

Until the following month, when 3 sent me a further bill – a $16.50 payment dishonour fee.

And so it goes on. Each month 3’s bill to me escalates. It jumped to $26, then $68, then $75. There’s even the little chart, comparing this month’s ”spend” with last. Except that there is no spend, no phone, no contract; just each month a new payment dishonour fee. At 1400 per cent per annum, it’s genuine.

You ask, why not phone and yell at them? I try, but their given number requires a 3 phone number. Mine is no longer 3, so the machine cuts me off. “Sorry. That mobile number is not recognised.” Very Kafka.

In January, 3 threatens me by letter with Dun and Bradstreet and “up to five years” shame and disgrace. Two weeks later a second letter arrives, saying 3 has “no option but to terminate [my] agreement …” Yes! I think. Do it. Terminate.

But no. The bills keep coming, keep increasing. And this – I surmise – will be the content of my secret Veda file, if I get to see it before landing on my back in dank debtor’s prison, where my only consolation will be that, at that rate of increase, Telstra now owes me $53,813.76.

Pavilion reflects a ‘grown-up’ Australia

New look ... concept images of the new Australian Pavilion in Venice.Multiple uses … including art, architecture, film and photography. The pavilion will be built with private funds. Photo: Denton Corker Marshall

WELL, at least it doesn’t have corks around its hat.

DCM’s winning design for the new Australia pavilion in Venice is a direct counterpoint to the “Australian” image lodged in the collective unconscious.

For most people around the globe, “Australian” probably looks a lot like a Glenn Murcutt shed-house: pitched tin roof, lightweight glassy walls, big open verandah, views.

This, in many ways, was the basic recipe for the Philip Cox-designed “temporary” pavilion (from 1988) that this will replace. The new pavilion could hardly be more different.

Where the existing pavilion is as bright as a rosella on a handrail and as blithe as a cresting wave, the new pavilion is a simple – some might say dour – charcoal box.

Compositionally it is static, but also dynamic, symmetrical but also asymmetrical, heavy but also light. In lesser hands, such ambiguity might tend to flubber. DCM, however, having designed our embassies in Beijing, Tokyo and now Jakarta, are old hands at growing-up “Australia” to mean something more serious and more urban than Crocodile Dundee.

There are three good buildings in the Venice Giardini. Three out of 29. These are Takamasa Yoshizaka’s Japan Pavilion (1956), Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion (1962), and James Stirling’s bookshop (1991). Now, snuggled in between France and the Rio dei Giardini, there’ll be a fourth; DCM’s Australia Pavilion.

The plan is a simple square, and the section is also simple, with a back-of-house ground level accessible from the water, in classic Venice fashion, and a piano nobile gallery cantilevered towards the river.

The material too is simple: black South Australian granite on a steel structure. Four three-metre stone panels open like shutters: one is the door; others admit light and provide display.

In fact the building is not-quite square, and not-quite cubic, but you get the picture. Within the black box is a single, six-metre-high white one; white walls, polished concrete floor, simple reception.

What does it say about us, this house for Australia’s offerings to the alternating art and architecture biennales?

DCM’s presentation to the jury – whose decision was unanimous – dwelt heavily on words such as memorable, powerful, confident and singular. Respectful. Responsive. Enigmatic.

I’m not sure if Australia is really any of those things. On the other hand, if you had to design a house to withstand drought, fire and flooding rains, it might look a lot like this. Before, and also after the event. Sweet as a nut.

 

Quay to our city? What a load of bull

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

Standing out from the art-insect crowd at this week’s MCA press preview were a couple of wilted Brits in silver trackies. I thought they looked quite depressed.

Perhaps, I speculated, they were fringe-dwellers who’d wandered off from an ugg-boot tour of The Rocks. Buskers seeking work in the human-statue industry. Or disaffected tech-staff embarrassing their way to reinstatement.

But matching silver tracksuits? I know England has taken a cultural dive since we left them to it, but really?

Later I saw one of them alone, slumped disconsolately on the deck of an equally morose yet equally silvered yacht. It was smallish, unrigged and quite the opposite of ship-shape, mooching around the Circular Quay seawall.

Then it hit me. Of course! This wasn’t a sad-looking couple on a sadder-looking boat. This was Neil Bromwich and Zoe Walker, who’d tweeted excitedly about being in Sydney aboard a ”dazzling vessel covered in 60,000 mirror tiles!” This was art!

That changed everything. ”Celestial Radio” is the project and even for art, it’s deep. Positively oceanic. A mirror-tiled floating radio station that ”explores the metaphorical oceans of life’s big questions both cosmic and microscopic”.

Art’s always exploring stuff these days. Explore is a handy verb because you don’t actually have to find anything, like continents, or answers. The exploration itself is enough, investigating, like Walker & Bromwich, ”the space between what exists and what is possible”.

Walker & Bromwich do promise ”lightweight solutions to global problems”. But they haven’t quite sorted climate change or Third World hunger yet. Certainly ”lightweight” is accurate. This ”dazzling” yacht has all the failed over-reach of a primary school project.

Why do I care? Only because of the bullshit, really. Because if we’re spending half a hospital’s-worth (contributions from all three levels of government and, let’s not forget, Crown land) on new facilities at the MCA, specifically to proselytise this stuff to the nation’s kiddies, I’d like my dazzle to dazzle.

Children should learn that art is thrilling, moving, skilled, incisive or funny – as much in the MCA is. But to teach kids art is just the skill of retrospective bull is profoundly destructive.

I used to think the MCA was misplaced at the Quay. Contemporary art seemed to deserve a grittier, grungier – realer – bit of city. But now I see that this very bull puts it right at home.

All round the Quay, bull prevails, crowned now by Hany Armanious’s Fountain, an agglomeration like a melted Athena nike of marble, resin and turquoise kitchen table that tries desperately to hold down the MCA’s vast new sculpture terrace.

I overheard a journo who clearly hadn’t read the memo receiving regulation condescension from a curator: ”The table looks ordinary but gradually reveals itself – that’s what Hany does.” If he had read it, he’d have known it was no ordinary lean-to on a kitchen table but in fact referenced everything from Christian baptism to the Greek muses, using ”playful logic” to reveal underlying significances and ”the innate spirit of inanimate things”.

Never mind that it’s 100 years since Duchamp’s urinal (the original ”Fountain” – note the little play there, le petit hommage?) and 50 since Warhol’s Brillo Box. Perhaps, like sex, the amazingness of ordinary objects is something each generation, deprived of history, must now discover anew. Another win for the eternal present.

From the sculpture at the MCA around to the Opera House, the entire quay can seem a work of performance art, playfully revealing the inner spirit of every tawdriness known to man.

An exploration of the space – nay, the gaping chasm – between rhetoric and fact. Circular Quay, we tell ourselves, is our ”most iconic precinct”. (Uh, is it time we banned the word iconic?) The Quay is our front door, our best self, our sacred site. It is that highest of all Sydney Things, our prime real estate.

Yet the truth of it is grimy redbrick paving, charmless walkways, bad didge playing, crummy cafes with menus unchanged in 20 years, fake Akubras, the ugliness of the Cahill Expressway (and the pretence that just removing it would make the place beautiful), all justified by ferry wharves we do our utmost to hide and ignore.

The planned removal of the monorail (which personally I’d keep for a cycleway) has rebirthed all those other demolitionist furphies. Demolish the Cahill, although it’s a crucial part of our rail network. Demolish the Toaster, although it’s privately owned and actually offers the Quay’s only civilised public space.

What these people don’t get is that beautiful spaces aren’t just left after demolition. A city is not a back-to-nature exercise. Beautiful spaces must be made. Piazza Navona, Placa Reial, Place des Vosges: all are made. They’re a lot harder to make, but also a lot more valuable, than beautiful buildings.

Which brings me to the proposed new Amatil-Mirvac building, on east Circular Quay, on the last site between the Cahill and the Toaster.

In this debate, bullshit also abounds. The Toaster was allowed to build over council land on two conditions; one, they reduced the building height several storeys and two, they funded (and allowed council to control) the public space. Paul Keating made it possible, giving the city the Customs House as ”payment”. I also devoted two years of my life to the weekly acrimony of a design process.

Amatil and Mirvac know all this, yet they are asking for both the existing height and the extra width to create ”integrated” design (read big, fat or gross). Then, they say, they could consider offering public space on public land.

But bull characterises the other side too. The objectors – principally inhabitants of the Quay apartments (itself one of the city’s ugliest buildings, shamelessly replacing the fabulous First and Last Hotel) – pretend it’s all about the public interest when really it’s about views and, you guessed it, property values.

Me, I just wish, for once, people would say what they mean. All this pretence makes me want to explore the space between the gin bottle and the ice cube.

 

 

Spatial delight gets lost at MCA

 

The best thing about the MCA’s blocky new Mordant Wing is that at last you can believe there might actually be some contemporary art, down there at the Quay. No longer is the city’s front door just opal shops and fake didgeridoos. No longer will the MCA need Jeff Koons’s Puppy, or similar, on permanent display just to flag that, inside the World’s Dreariest Building, something interesting is happening.

This is what director Liz Ann Macgregor calls the Mordant Wing’s ”signifier role”. It does it well, in its shoulder-padded, faux-brutalist way. But still it begs the immediate question; for how long can a building signify ”contemporary”? How long before new is old? When does the flag fall?

For the building, as for the art it holds, it’s a vexed question. Fashions change. In architecture, as in art, the cubist look will pass. Then the building’s other roles and qualities will matter more.

Apart from signification, there are three main things architecture can do for art. One, provide spatial delight that enhances the art without dominating it. Two, offer a circulation system so easily intelligible that it, too, becomes background. Three, make an entrance that is unequivocally inviting. And there was in this case a fourth requirement, superimposed by Macgregor; facilities to art-evangelise every school-age Australian child. Given these, and one of the

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most complicated sites in the country, how does the Mordant Wing score?

Last to first: the classrooms, occupying roughly half the building, are fine; desks, screens, breathtaking views, bright colours.

A bit playschool but, well, they’re classrooms.

The entrance is undeniably the new building’s triumphant spatial moment. Driving a great, glassy sweep through from George Street to the grand stair at the Quay, it establishes the Mordant Wing as the entrance portico for the entire museum.

But, ahem. It’s in the wrong place.

This goes to point two, circulation. The great street-to-sea punch-through shouldn’t be at one end of the old building but right at its centre. This would bring light and action into the museum’s heart, where it is so sorely needed, while respecting the building’s overwhelming symmetry and enabling clear-as-a-bell circulation.

As it is, the MCA’s circulation may never be intelligible again.

But it’s the first and most obvious role, the spatial delight role, that the Mordant Wing most blatantly abandons. The Mordant offers one new gallery, windowless and easily mistaken for a black-box mediatheque; two old, tall galleries that have been halved, sacrificing quality for quantity, and a rooftop café´ that, despite its breathtaking views, is so under-nuanced as to feel like an IKEA special. It’s fine. The kids’ll love it.

But I wanted the enchanting, the sophisticated, the sublime – and it’s not that.

 

 

List of Clover critics shows this mayor is in fine fettle

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

Last weekend, a party in a Surry Hills park marked the successful adoption by their loving foster parents of two young, severely traumatised boys. Nothing special, in a way – except that the guest of honour was the lord mayor, Clover Moore, without whose legislation this adoption couldn’t have happened. The parents are gay.

Barry O’Farrell, talkback radio, the bloggerazzi and the low press generally – in fact, everyone whose opposition would convince you you’re doing something right – seem to agree. Moore has ”worn out her welcome”, as the Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine puts it.

No one offers proof. Never mind that there’s an obvious test, purpose-designed, six months away. It’s called an election.

The argument, a dazzling display of the double-pike, half-twist non-sequitur-in-action, goes thus:

First, the ”I’m over Clover” chatter clearly shows O’Farrell is right to legislate against Moore (and the 18 councillors he endorsed, just months ago, as Coalition MPs) being both MP and mayor.

Second, Sydney’s proud new cycleways have ”strangled the city”.

Third, we should therefore return Frank Sartor to his rightful job as lord mayor.

And fourth, running the city is too important to leave to the people who live and work there: the entire metropolis should vote.

The blogosphere adds its immeasurable gravitas. ”What is Moore, is she a lezzo or a commie loony or what?” asks the aptly-named Oneye. Well yes. Give Oneye the vote. That’d sort Moore out.

But does any of it even make sense? First, it’s obvious who should decide whether representing the same electorate at two different levels is a conflict or a serendipity: the voters. Eight lord mayors have done it before. And Moore has been re-elected twice – in each role – while doing both.

In her 20 years as MP, with more successful private member’s bills than anyone in a century, Moore has done more to keep the bastards honest than Don Chipp ever did. And in her eight years as lord mayor, she has proved repeatedly that it’s more confluence than conflict.

All those small funky bars you see, letting Sydney find its inner Melbourne? They’re Clover’s. That the showgrounds are still publicly owned, that Moore Park is not covered in commerce and parking, these are down to Clover. Freedom of information, whistleblower protection, disclosure of government contracts, boarding house protection, tenant’s rights, strata title reform: without Clover Moore MP, Sydney would be a much, much less civilised town.

In part, this is about the importance of independents in politics. Much as we applaud indie movies, we typically dismiss indie pollies as loose cannons. Yet it is their very looseness – their exemption from enforced tribal horsetrading – that allows them to be principled. John Hatton, Ted Mack, Clover Moore. Their names shine as beacons of honesty and forward-thinking across a sea of backward-looking swill.

As to bike lanes, since every bike is clearly a car removed, city gridlock is more probably caused by too many choosing to drive, than too many cyclists. In what world-class metropolis do you expect to drive through the city centre? Surely, given the highest CO2 levels in 800,000 years, any move against car use should be welcomed? And at least Sydneysiders, like New Yorkers, Londoners and Parisians, can now get (safely) on our bikes. Usage has doubled in 18 months; up to 500 bikes an hour. All this, and the city’s tri-generation work, shows us moving at last into the 21st century.

And yes, demographics are crucial. Yet what ”Sydneysiders” generally think of Moore is irrelevant. Especially since her own constituents are increasingly Clover-minded; young, diverse, middle-class, eco-aware, educated. Even 20 years ago, this was very different. The City of Sydney was a strongly male-o-philic business district. Residents were few and voting was dominated by corporations, retailers and legal partnerships (one vote per partner). Encircling it, South Sydney was the residential hinterland, run by rusted-on Labor and habitually gerrymandered-off by Liberal governments for that reason.

With South Sydney gone, the Liberals reliably took the mayoralty. With it reattached, a Labor mate’d get the robes. The Sydney Concertina Syndrome allowed the mayoralty to be passed rhythmically back and forth. An independent mayor was a dread eventuality.

But that’s how history goes. In 1991 Sartor squeaked in and began the process of city repopulation. I was one of Sartor’s three-strong indie team. We dreamed up the name, Living City, one moth-filled night in my Surry Hills backyard. But the idea wasn’t new. It was already 30 years since Jane Jacobs’s world-changing book, The Death and Life of American Cities.

Sartor stopped being independent, and I stopped believing in him. But the repopulation continued: 180,000 people now live in the city, up 40 per cent in a decade. This phenomenal growth – higher than Blacktown and Baulkham Hills combined – makes it NSW’s fastest-growing constituency by far.

It’s also, still, Australia’s dominant business centre, hosting 4 per cent of Australia’s workforce to produce $90 billion annually – about 8 per cent of the national gross domestic product and 25 per cent of the NSW economy.

But the city’s biggest shift is qualitative. Its workforce includes 20 per cent of the nation’s financial sector; 13 per cent of media; 11 per cent of creative and performing arts; and 44 per cent of internet and broadcasting. A third of city residents have at least one degree. For the first time ever, the City of Sydney is becoming a centre of smarts.

This is a game-changer, and is clearly intolerable to the Premier. Yet the gerrymander won’t, now, work for him since those pesky, educated residents are no longer outside the gates. They’re in.

What does O’Farrell hope to gain? Not control, which he already has. Already the state must approve all city planning schemes, all road changes (including bike lanes), all major developments. Or – as at Barangaroo – they can simply take control. This has been true for decades.

Control is about vision, but O’Farrell has made his visionlessness abundantly clear. He’s not trying to better the city. He wants Moore out.

 

Revisionism can achieve the ordinary all by itself

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

Last Thursday, the conjunction of Australian Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, was also the day of Sydney’s Great Deluge. Nature wept. She stormed and stamped her feet. Yea, and mightily she flooded. What was she trying to tell us?

Just the name, Women’s History Month, sounds both menstrual and hysterical, reminding me that there is, in fact, an etymological link – hystera being Greek for womb. Normally I’d just stay home.

But this year the month is themed Women with a Plan, celebrating long-forgotten women architects, planners and landscapers. What can you do?

The mission statement is arresting. Women with a Plan declares that its overriding goal is “to turn the extraordinary into the ordinary”. And by god, I think they’ve done it.

”You, Milly, take Witless, Humourless and Gormless; Molly do Box-ticking and Committee-going and Mandy, Absolutely No Intellectual Content Whatsoever. That way, with all bases covered (like grannie’s crocheted cushions) we’ll be quite certain to snatch mediocrity from any threat of glory.”

I’m not just being mean here. Twenty-four women grace the website. The historian Dr Bronwyn Hanna has documented scores more. Yet it is the month’s stated aim to glorify not their achievements, of which there are disturbingly few, but simply their existence.

“We want to remove any surprise at the number of women among the urban planners, architects, and landscape architects who shaped our surroundings, and our history in the past century.”

The subtext to this – and to all “women’s history” – is that legions of women have been, wittingly or otherwise, blanked out. Redacted, in post-Assange parlance.

This is hard to prove, since it involves re-mining the soil for overlooked nuggets and trying to tell fool’s gold from the real thing.

To mark the lunar conjunction of day and month, and to further this polemical cause, Hanna gave a talk on Florence Taylor, widely celebrated as Australia’s first female architect. I went along, hoping to be proved wrong.

I’d been hoping this for years. As a postgrad I had assiduously combed the magazine, Building, that Taylor and her husband, George Taylor, published for 50 years. I sought ideas, wit or insight. But no. Building, while an excellent historical record, was a dull and provincial little mag, designed mainly as a vector for advertising.

In 2008, in the same vain hope, I’d examined the Museum of Sydney show that put Taylor among Sydney’s ”top 10 visionaries” – with Phillip, Macquarie, Bradfield and Seidler. But again, her work was pale, narrow and dull.

This year, on International Women’s Day, I nurtured the same hope of finding that Taylor had, after all, meant something. That in our slender history of creative ideas, she had signified. But honestly – did she?

Florence Taylor enrolled in architecture at Sydney Tech in Harris Street in 1899. She completed her studies but (like most students) never received a diploma, began her articles but was never admitted to the institute, worked as an assistant for a couple of years but never registered. Some of this, certainly, evinced outright sexism, which is a PhD thesis in itself. Like most PhD theses, however, it misses the point. The only question about Taylor-as-architect that matters is, was she any good?

But since not one building exists that is clearly and definitively from her mind, as well as her hand, we’ve no idea. Even those cottages that could, possibly, be hers are pattern-book jobs; comfortable, conservative, dull.

Yet she is far more celebrated than her wildly more-talented husband George – architect, cartoonist, writer, aviator. He, being male, must compete with other males, and so is ignored.

This is where affirmative action and I come to grief. It is both hypocritical, in employing precisely the same kind of double standard it means to oppose, and ineffectual, since two untruths can never make a truth.

It’s also downright insulting. Never mind, dearie, whether you built anything, just becoming an architect was brave. And that’s enough – for a woman. Affirmative action insults the very people it is meant to assist.

You can say we should all be celebrated, and fine. If you like. But we do not all deserve a place in history. To pretend otherwise undermines the entire human enterprise.

The hard truth is this. Architects and planners are remembered not for their personal qualities, their kind hearts or formidable strengths, but for their creations. A few (Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas) are remembered for their words. But most famous architects are famous for their works.

If everything Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed was unprovenanced or unbuilt, he’d be nobody, too, just like most Australian women architects. Yet so eagerly is this revisionism pursued, so determined are its practitioners to prove that women were up there with the boys all along, that they ignore this crucial fact. In this way they betray both the art and the science of history; the science of impartial evaluation and the art of discerning who actually deserves recognition, and who not.

Certainly Women’s History Month lists some genuine achievers. Most interesting, to my mind, is Edna Walling who, untrained and (gasp!) unhusbanded, designed and built an entire model village, Bickleigh Vale, in Victoria. It’s hardly revolutionary but, charming and nuanced, it’s every bit as good as John Sulman’s Daceyville here in Sydney. Better, probably.

Tellingly, one of Building magazine’s few interesting moments – its ongoing criticism of the Burley Griffins’ architecture as ”freakish”, ”ugly”, and ”absurd” – sees Taylor routinely chastised for daring to be critical. This, say some, reveals her as uneducated, unethical and ”not very nice”.

But I say, “Go girl!” All history, men’s, women’s or three-headed dachshunds’, must scrupulously give credit where, and only where, it is due. Simpering revisionism that elevates niceness over truth drops us straight back into the sewing circle. Make the extraordinary ordinary.

Dr Elizabeth Farrelly will deliver the 2012 Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ Margaret Hendry Lecture, entitled Sex and the City, in Canberra on Tuesday.

It’s time to switch on to the great switch off

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

What if there was an energy source that could meet half our needs by 2030 (but was not coal seam gas)? A source so cheap it could halve your energy bill (but was not coal), so clean it had zero emissions (but was not wind or water), with no capital costs?

Surely such an energy source would sit at the heart of our national energy policy, argued Chris Dunstan of UTS’s institute for sustainable futures at a recent forum run by the Australian Alliance to Save Energy. Stupid not to, right?

Well, here’s the good news. We have such a source. Here, now, available. The bad news is we ignore it. This mysterious power has a name, though not a sexy one (which is part of its problem). It’s called switching off.

The cost of power has doubled in five years. It will double again over the next five. This is due not to the carbon tax, which pales by comparison, but to the immense costs of infrastructure to accommodate not average demand, but the early evening peak.

The national broadband network will cost $36 billion by 2020. Energy infrastructure will cost more, sooner; at least $45 billion by 2015. And because we disdain anything clean or clever, this means more, bigger coal-fired power stations. These decisions are under way right now. If we cannot reduce our peak, we’ll pay the bill – environmentally, as well as financially – for a generation.

At my house, the next doubling will bring the bill to about $1500 a quarter, or $6000 a year. Something’s got to give.

So, alternatives. We can invest in solar panels which, at $6000 a year, would be paid off in no time. Then we could squander energy like our parents squandered petrol; like it was costless and meaningless.

Or we can save. But we don’t, which is in itself mysterious. If saving meant losing your fridge or dishwasher, or forswearing one’s expanding plethora of rechargeable devices, our thrift-resistance might make sense. But if all that’s cut is waste – and yes, there’s a definition question there – or spreading usage into off-peak, is that really so hard?

Dunstan showed a graph of average household energy use across Sydney. Ku-ring-gai tops out, naturally, at 28.6 kilowatt hours a day, while the City of Sydney is lowest, at just 12.4 kWh/day. Which goes to Edward Glaeser’s point about high-density city living being the greenest possible living pattern. The burbs waste vast energy heating and cooling big rooms with unshared walls.

Even without another price doubling, energy saving is clearly sane and obvious; the low-hanging fruit of the energy scene. Why do we still look away?

Answer: in part, because we’re not that kind of primate. For a desire-driven creature, doing is always preferable to not doing. You can’t crave not doing something. To eat, then exercise, is way more fun than not to eat.

So how to persuade the recalcitrant human animal? How to make the negative feel positive? I toy sometimes with a shame system, a bit like the sumptuary laws of mediaeval and Renaissance Europe when, in an effort to curb consumption, only the nobility could wear ermine or split sleeves.

In the same way, you could require huge real-time readouts on the front of every house, with metre-high neon letters showing in micro-increments how much greenhouse weight its denizens are adding to the atmosphere.

But, yes, sadly, there are civil rights issues. Privacy issues. Fairness issues. Policing issues. Cruelty issues. (For all you know they could have someone in there on dialysis three times a week, or an iron lung.) There’s also the law of unintended consequences.

Many sumptuary laws ended up achieving the opposite of their desired effect. Laws restricting certain colours or styles to the nobility rendered those fashions immediately beloved of the aspirational classes to whom they were forbidden. Laws meant to impose a stigma, such as the prostitutes’ striped hood, doubled as advertisement.

There is also the need, Dunstan points out, to ”decouple” energy producers’ profits from their production so that – this is deeply counter-intuitive – the per-unit price they can charge drops as demand rises.

But from the international speakers at the forum, one thing became blindingly apparent: just how backward Australia is in taking energy efficiency seriously.

In Britain, where ”fuel poverty” is real and deadly, the remarkable new ”green deal” is almost ready to launch. It’s a bit like a phone contract. A consultant devises a savings-renewables package to bring your house up (or down) to scratch; solar panels, insulation, smart meters, whatever. The regime you choose is then installed, free. Costs, up to £15,000 ($22,000), are bundled into your mortgage, with a 25-year payoff and quarterly repayments set below the energy savings, leaving everyone better off.

I know what you’re thinking. We’ve been burnt by pink batts before. But that’s where upskilling comes in. Already the green deal is spawning a new industry: trainers, assessors, installers, certifiers. The scheme should benefit half of Britain’s homes and create 100,000 jobs within three years.

In the US, where energy saving has been big for decades, you can read your usage in real time, online. In 2008, says Laura van Wie McGrory of the Alliance to Save Energy, saving ”generated” 52 quadrillion British thermal units, or 15.2 trillion kWh – as much as coal, natural gas and nuclear combined. That’s big.

But the upskilling must include government, not just tradies. Here, December’s draft energy white paper pays lip service to efficiency. It also notes, with undisguised glee, that “by 2035 … global energy demand will grow around 40 per cent … [and] Australia is well placed to export into these markets”. Our prowess in coal, gas and uranium, it boasts, will “support improved living standards … in our region”.

I must have missed something – the bit where clean air and food is no longer part of ”living standards”.

We may not have fuel poverty, but only because we’re a nation of pathetic fossil-fuel junkies. Fossil fuel, fossil brains. Decoupling energy producers from the profit wagon is hypocritical at best until we’re prepared to decouple ourselves.

 

 

Baranga-roulette? It’s a piece of cake

<em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

I’m finding it hard to forgive Labor, and not because of their leadership wars.

Sydney’s planning history is littered with cretins. True, I’m redefining cretin to mean a person who achieves public office then appears to wield their power with no concern for the good of the city as a whole but only to benefit their supporters or the (rich) people they would like to consider their friends. Cretins is just shorter.

The rationale, in so far as your average cretin needs one, seems to be this: the people elected me. I, therefore, am The People. What’s good for me is ipso facto good for them.

Of course, cities everywhere have their cretins. German President Christian Wulff recently resigned over an exchange of home loans for special favours. Like cretins everywhere, Wulff used his special €500,000 loan to produce a house that was just depressingly mediocre.

But at least Wulff fell on his sword, repenting his failure of moral leadership. At least the German people still expect such leadership. And at least his mediocrity was small. Not here.

If you say our pollies are buffoons, people shrug, like, tell me something I don’t know. Which may be why our cretinous mediocrities tend to be big ones. Not big in world terms. Not glamorously, audaciously, breathtakingly big. Nothing like that. Just big in terms of city-fabric devastation. Big in terms of opportunities lost.

Of course, the cretins don’t always win. In 1959, Lord Mayor Harry Jensen wanted to knock down the Queen Victoria Building for a car park but couldn’t get the numbers. Same year, Civil and Civic (now Lend Lease) wanted to cover Observatory Hill in 40-storey Neville Gruzman-designed slab blocks. Developer Dusseldorp said it would make the Hill “Sydney’s leading beauty spot”. Luckily he, too, couldn’t get it up.

But cretins don’t always fail, either. When Mr J. W. Houser called on Sydney in 1956, site-hunting for a new Hilton, Lord Mayor Pat Hills fell over himself to help. No, said Hills, Houser probably couldn’t have Bennelong Point, tagged for a new Opera House. He couldn’t have the Conservatorium or the QVB either, both tenanted.

“But,” added Hills, “we are prepared to assist anyone in the way of getting over building regulations to build new modern tourist hotels in Sydney.” Hills went on to serve as a minister in various Labor governments, flogging Sydney’s proposed anti-sprawl “green-belt” to friendly developers before it was even gazetted.

So, apart from the rampant sprawl from which Sydney’s carbon footprint may never recover, Hills’s other main legacy was the George Street Hilton, for 40 years one of Sydney’s ugliest and most hostile buildings. That’s no small thing.

So try-hard was Sydney then, so desperate to encourage the new ”skyscrapers” (which everyone else had been building for yonks but we still thought of in quotes), that the Hilton was awarded extra height – and permitted to bury the gorgeous Marble Bar – in return for a “through-site link.” Perhaps, the Council dimly wondered, pedestrian connectivity might actually matter after all. But this flicker of enlightenment was quickly snuffed. The Hilton was glamour itself, yet such was its driving greed that two entire layers of retail walk were stuffed in a single-height hole, rendering them irremediably low-rent. The place became a dive. The enduring lesson was that developers, like bankers, do not reliably act even in their own best interests, let alone those of the city as a whole.

It’s simple, really. Developers are grabby. Like children with birthday cake, they’ll seriously over-grab if you let them. Also like children, they’ll stick with what they know, if you let them, and never try anything new (unless it’s really stupid) without someone leading.

Government’s role in this is therefore a parental one.

For Barry O’Farrell, Premier, to ask developers how much city fringe they want for housing, or whether they can build over rail lines, or what should be done with Barangaroo Central, is like asking a three-year-old what time it wants to go to bed. And for O’Farrell to bless James Packer’s Barangaroo casino concept before there’s even a formal proposal is like letting a 13-year-old girl go out unsupervised in heels and lipstick. It’s plain irresponsible and could easily turn years of cultivated potential into something ugly indeed.

“What happens at Barangaroo Central will define how people see Barangaroo in the future,” says the government website. Are we seriously going to choose a Packer casino for this image? Are we that cheap?

True, casinos needn’t be as physically ugly as they are morally. It’s easy to imagine a casino, a la James Bond, that has not altogether abandoned the idea that glamour can be stylish. More Monte Carlo, you might say, then Macau.

But if Australia’s – and, in particular, Sydney’s – existing casinos are any guide, the contemporary gaming house makes an egregious addition to the urban fabric. I don’t really care what happens inside. That’s their issue.

It’s a stretch to call it tourism – one darkened room full of fat people gaming is surely much like another.

And in public terms, Pyrmont’s Star casino is no better after its $850 million rebadging than before. No less tacky, no less klutzy, no less squat, its sole half-decent space being the fume-filled taxi drop-off out back.

The hoops through which Packer must jump before dropping a second casino on Sydney’s shores are the hoops of civilisation.

For O’Farrell to pre-empt them so publicly is reckless and arrogant. He may as well be some cretinous monarch, for what planner or official will contradict him now?

I had hopes for O’Farrell. Really. I figured he couldn’t be worse than the rotten mess we had. But, in the city-making stakes, Premier O’Farrell is showing serious signs of cretinism in the time-honoured Pat Hills tradition.

More galling still is that, had Labor been remotely electable, we’d never have had to face this – which is why Labor must remain unforgiven.

 

 

 

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

Illustration: <em>Rocco Fazzari</em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

There’s a scene in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House where the ultra-tightly wrapped Lady Dedlock is so affected by a fragmentary glimpse of handwriting that she gorgeously faints, setting off the train of events that leads eventually to her death. It’s not the content of the script that has this startling effect but its style, which – amongst all other elegant copperplate hands – she has recognised as that of her lost lover.

This scene could not be written today. Not only because legal documents are no longer hand-copied, but also because handwriting has all but ceased to exist as a signature human activity. Indeed, proper handwriting has ceased even to be legible to most under-30s. They might as well attempt Mandarin.

Alan Ventress, the director of NSW State Records, says Australian history is becoming inaccessible to younger users who, versed only in Times New Roman 12 point, ”react with … utter confusion [to] beautiful 19th-century copperplate”.

Dickens’s own hand wasn’t all that hot, to be honest, if the letter in the National Library’s astonishing Handwritten show is any guide.

The show, from Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek, has the Venerable Bede, Kaiser Wilhelm and James Cook. It’s a stunner. Skip Renaissance at the National Gallery if you must, but don’t skip this.

Yet Dickens’s own letter, addressed to one Mrs Clarissa Cattermole (who, yes, sounds like one of his characters), is hasty and scrappy-looking, clearly not meant for posterity.

Of course, no one’s asking us to read Dickens in the original, so his handwriting is perhaps immaterial. Yet, though we fussed over his bicentenary last month, Dickens is barely read now. The books cost almost nothing, but still most of us know them only through the eyes of the BBC cameraman.

And it’s not just Dickens. Much high-school ”literature” now consists wholly or partly of parsing the screen adaptation. Yet reading and writing, capacities that dragged us from the swamp, are clearly linked. They rose together, as honed and crafted skills. Are they also disappearing together?

Especially astounding, to those of us who can only think via a screen, is that Dickens scribed those rich, unfolding tales by hand, sending each chapter to press before the next was written. Imagine. No revision. For us, most of whom will never handwrite any extended document except an exam paper, this kind of commitment aforethought is inconceivable.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not going Amish. My first-ever word-processing experience was in the mid ’80s, on my then-new Amstrad. Old-tech now, but after the clunky intransigence of the typewriter it felt weightless and frictionless, like shifting leaves on the surface of a pond. I’ll never revert to white-out, much less ink on paper. But what effect is failure-to-write having on our minds?

Learning handwriting is dull and repetitive. I know. I did it twice: once at school – where I was never very good – and again in architecture, where I spent several weeks, in my first office, tracing the leggy patrician lettering from Trajan’s Column onto starched linen with a blobby Graphos nib. So yes, it’s a bore to learn. But in this particular bathwater, what baby hides?

Dickens’s slit-eyed lawyer Tulkinghorn answers M’lady’s stricken enquiry as to the copyist’s identity by examining the script, then declaring: ”The legal character which it has, was acquired after the original hand was formed.” This is one loss; the idea that a hand was indeed a signature, revealing in transparent, tissuey layers its proponent’s education, mood, tastes, experience and circumstance.

Anything drilled – tables, scales, declensions, the reams of Shakespeare and Milton my mother could still lovingly recite on her deathbed – is regarded as regimenting creativity out of existence. But in truth handwriting melds conformity and individuality in a lovely duet; the more schooled the practitioner, the more finely nuanced the result. Which simply makes handwriting, like virtuoso violin, both art and craft.

Of course handwriting isn’t our only signature activity. There are other means of individuation. There is now Facebook, which offers some room for expression but often has the opposite effect, representing every human entity, however dull or paltry in fact, as an enchantingly quirky, pouty bon vivant, 24/7.

And there are still things that reveal character, rather than hiding it – like swimming. People who swim like bloated whales in the fast lane, or stiff-armed like thresher sharks, or grunting like choleric Nazi walruses can be assumed to drive – and speak, and make love – similarly.

But research increasingly shows what intuition suggests: that teaching handwriting builds neuronal pathways and that learning to write – repetitively, devotedly, boringly, the ”h” up to the line, the ”t” not quite, the loops looped, the slopes constant – activates the very same brain areas as learning to read.

At last month’s handwriting summit in Washington DC, Assistant Professor Karin James argued that the brain’s reading network develops as a function of handwriting and that ”handwriting, and not keyboarding, leads to adult-like neural processing in the visual system of the preschool child”.

It’s no surprise. We know that reading builds neurons, and that hand-eye stuff does the same; we’ve just never really put it together.

Architects once led the handwriting charge. Not everyone did forced labour on Trajan’s Column but all were drilled in line quality, command of page and lettering as composition.

No longer. Now, in architects’ offices as in primary schools, the machine does the lettering. Except in Asia. Japanese high-school entrants must know 1006 of the 1945 kanji in common usage. In China, too, children are drilled in the thousands of intricate characters. In Australia these same kids, tiger-mothered, cram this learning into Saturday and spend the rest of the week wiping the floor with the education system, doing their bit to stop Australia sliding even faster down world standards.

Could there be a connection? To my mind the most beautiful hands in Handwritten are Copernicus, Galileo, Voltaire and James Watt (Grimm is jolly, too). Mozart’s Figaro trips lightly over the page but lovelier and more heartbreaking is Beethoven’s quavery, scribbled-over, Fifth. You join the dots.

 

 

Health of all on line as Davids fight gene giants

 
<em>Illustration: RoccoFazzari</em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Remember Pandora’s box? In the future, when the seaside mansions have sunk and my bit of Redfern grunge is absolute waterfront, our children’s children will look back gobsmacked by the evils we so blithely loosed; nuclear war, climate change, gene meddling.

The Murdochs and Bransons will have vanished with their palaces beneath tides they helped create but two of the lowly will be revered forever; an organic farmer from Kojanup, Western Australia, and a Brisbane breast cancer survivor.

What do Steve Marsh and Yvonne D’Arcy have in common? Only that both are fighting barehanded to stuff the gene genies back in their box.

It is all very Promethean; a story of money and power and the urge to possess life itself. When Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine an interviewer asked him about patenting it. Salk laughed. “Could you patent the sun?”

Few these days have Salk’s wisdom. Both Monsanto and Myriad Genetics believe they own the essential stuff of life – and this is what Marsh and D’Arcy are testing. Their two quite separate cases will help shape not just state or country, but the global future of food and health. Small people. Big stuff.

Pivotal to the legal issue is the distinction between art and nature, the made and the found. The made is owned, and can therefore be patented. The found is given, and cannot.

It’s no semantic trifle. It’s a battle for the commons, as important – perhaps more important – as the enclosure battles of manorial England. Like those enclosures, it is a war waged by the rich against the poor. But now the poor are starting to fight back, in the courts.

Marsh was an organic farmer growing wheat, oats, rye, canola and fat lambs in Kojanup. I say “was”, because when in late 2010 his crop was contaminated by modified canola genes from the next-door farm of his childhood friend Michael Baxter, Marsh lost his organic certification. The GM seeds had blown in. He lost 70 per cent of his livelihood. Regaining certification will take years. He had no choice but to sue his mate.

The court case is imminent but the law remains murky. Australian GM farmers are not obliged to inform their neighbours, and remedies are unclear. Yet organic certification rightly takes a zero-tolerance approach since there’s virtually no longitudinal research on the safety of GM food and growing evidence of harm.

A letter from ex-army plant pathologist Emeritus Professor Don Huber to the US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsak, in January last year warned of a “previously unknown” pathogen, apparently a micro fungus, pervading Roundup Ready crops. Huber suspected this bug of causing “epidemic” reproductive failure in swine, cattle and horses, with abortion rates up to 45 per cent and recommended an “immediate moratorium”.

Yet, here, governments and farming federations insist on treating these as simple neighbourhood disputes to be sorted over the back fence.

This is moronic, since the stakes are so much higher. Marsh is supported by various green groups, including the Safe Food Foundation, with legal firm Slater & Gordon working pro bono, but it’s still costly. The respondent, Baxter, is supported by the WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association. Monsanto denies contributing (though some dispute this).

Maybe Marsh should be thankful Monsanto isn’t suing him for patent infringement, as it sued Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Schmeiser was a seed saver. GM contamination set his breeding program back decades, but Monsanto regarded it as a theft and sued him for $37 a hectare. Schmeiser eventually won, but not without a 10-year trail to the Supreme Court.

Patent law is meant to protect inventions, not discoveries. Monsanto’s RR gene is clearly synthetic: the argument is about the market control this allows (patents are not supposed to create monopolies), the behaviours used to protect it (allegedly including threats and intimidation) and the unknown effects of genetically modified organisms in the food chain (you can’t patent anything harmful).

D’Arcy’s case, opening on Monday in the Federal Court in Sydney, takes a different tack. Here the argument is about Myriad’s right to own a gene – the “breast cancer gene” BRCA1 – that has been extracted from the human body but not otherwise modified.

But how can a private company have intellectual property rights over something that, for better or worse, inhabits every cell in your body? Myriad argues, predictably, that just isolating the gene renders it “markedly different”. Professor Peter Cashman of the University of Sydney’s law school argues the other way (as does, now, the US government).

If Myriad wins, it can continue to monopolise not the therapy – oh, no – but the test, for which it charges $US3200 ($3000). (The American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge to private sequestration of human genes opens in the US Supreme Court tomorrow.)

Myriad is not alone. About 10,000 genes, more than a third of the human genome, are now privately owned, including genes for muscular dystrophy and polycystic kidney disease. So the implications of this test case, which will start to determine the legality of “owning” genes that were found, not made, are immense.

It’s more than just money. With last year’s creation of the first wholly synthetic life form, Craig Venter’s replicating single-cell microbe, the capacity to own new life – the Frankenstein faculty – becomes quarantined by the very same corporates, biotechs and pharmas that have repeatedly proved themselves oblivious to the good of the species.

So where’s government? Out to lunch, basically. The Gene Technology Act 2000 should have established a clear framework for farmers’ GM liabilities but didn’t, leaving them to rely on common law torts of negligence and nuisance. This means cases such as Marsh v Baxter will cost millions and destroy communities.

As to the human genome, Senator Bill Heffernan introduced a Patent Amendment Bill last September that would prohibit all patenting of human genes. But with every sandstone university and the Academy of Science opposing it – uh, because it might harm business! – the bill is bogged in indecision.

And all the while the genies fly. Eat your heart out, Prometheus. This stuff makes Pandora look benign.

 

 

 

It’s time art and science engineered an alliance

<em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

I like engineers. This surprises me slightly, since architects usually see engineers as bubble-busters. It’s not their niceness I like. Not even their near-endangered status – though a 20,000 shortfall does lend a certain pathos.

What I like about engineers is their commitment to truth. Where architects commit to imaginative blarney, engineers deal in fact. They don’t do PR, spin or vanity press. This is their strength. It’s why engineering has the status of science. But it is also a weakness. The downside is both mundane and significant. Look around. It’s everywhere.

At the launch last week of an exhibition on the Engineering Excellence Awards at the Powerhouse Museum, the Engineers Australia Sydney president, Brendyn Williams, noted proudly that engineers have shaped the modern world. So true, but to how much of it, actually, would you admit?

Sure, there’s optical fibre, cochlear implants, low-solar glass and the Sydney Harbour Bridge – miracles of modernity. But the images that spring more readily to mind are of motorway flyovers, tilt-up slabs, bio-engineering and other WMDs. The dumb, the brutish and the bad.

The five projects on show at the museum illustrate my point. One is worthy but dull (a new approach to Third World education). Two – a dynamic wavelength programmable optical processor (huh?) and climate control for the National Gallery’s funeral poles – are so abstract they’re almost impossible to appreciate. And one – the ludicrous duplication of the Iron Cove Bridge – should never have happened, period.

Only one is genuinely sexy; Soren Lunoe’s floating solar array, which mounts standard PV technology on modular, sun-tracking, bottom-anchored floating frames. HydroSun (patent pending) reduces water loss as it generates power. Shading the water keeps it cool (which increases oxygen content), and cool solar panels are about 40 per cent more efficient.

This is one blindingly good idea. Covering just half of Warragamba, says Lunoe, HydroSun would save as much water as the Kurnell plant desalinates (250 megalitres a day). As well, it would generate eight times the electricity that Kurnell uses to do that (225-900 GWh per annum), and for less than half the capital cost ($830 million compared with $1.9 billion).

Or consider the huge Moree Solar Farm, which the Gillard government seems poised to kill. A HydroSun installation to the same 150 megawatt brief would cover 2.25 million square metres – a hundred or so mid-sized farm dams. It would also save 5250 megalitres of water a year (enough to irrigate more than 1,000 hectares of wheat) and cost about $600 million, less than two-thirds the cost estimated for Moree.

Lunoe, a Dane, came to Australia as a chef, set up several bars and restaurants (including the cult-classic Martin’s Bar on Oxford Street), established Latina Pasta, started farming durum wheat in Brewarrina, ran low on water during a drought and got interested in evaporation reduction. It just happens that his dam cover is also a solar array.

It’s brilliantly simple. So simple that coal-addicted Australia looks away. Usual story. Lunoe has sold his product to Israel, where irrigation water costs five times ours and renewable electricity (which Israel will use to desalinate further) is serious business.

Simple, cheap, efficient, clean, ingenious; the only thing HydroSun isn’t is beautiful. Engineering can be beautiful – think wind farms. Think the Briton Isambard Brunel. Even the Anzac Bridge, lovely by accident. But beauty isn’t in the engineer’s core promise. Should it be?

Among the Engineering Excellence crowd at the Powerhouse a genial, silver-haired man stands head and shoulders above. ”That’s John Nutt,” people whisper reverently as he passes. ”He designed the Opera House.”

He didn’t, quite. Dr Nutt was among several engineers, including Sir Jack Zunz, Michael Lewis and Ove Arup himself, who realised Utzon’s dream. All are rightly lauded for it, since they took a brilliant idea and made it more so; more beautiful, more conceptually elegant, more possible.

Yet so little engineering is like that. Generally, engineers treat beauty as simply irrelevant. It’s as though, committed to verifiability, they demark themselves as value-free zones, much as barristers and taxi drivers vow to serve all comers; as a hedge against partiality. But it lets engineers be badged “excellent” for things that, like the Lane Cove duplication, shouldn’t exist.

It’s that old CP Snow ”two cultures” thing. “The intellectual life of … Western society,” Snow argued in 1959, “is increasingly being split into two polar groups” – science and the humanities. The split remains. It underlies the present hoo-ha over universities teaching alternative medicine. Scientists want only evidence-based knowledge taught in universities. I agree. But there are many areas – from cancer to chronic pain – where knowledge is patently inadequate, and where either empirical evidence or simple desperation leads people to try other therapies. And this is where science must head – testing them, building evidence, establishing proof, one way or the other.

Science and art needn’t merge; the tension is the creative space. But they do need to co-operate. The question is, can they? Are science and intuition compatible, not just in the same university or faculty but in the same head, without mutual destruction?

Surely, yes. We all have two brain hemispheres. We can all do logic one moment, poetry the next. Historically, and still in Europe, architects and engineers are taught together, specialising only later.

Filippo Brunelleschi was neither architect nor engineer but rather a goldsmith and clockmaker. Yet his miraculous, boundary-pushing Duomo in Florence may be the last time science and beauty merged perfectly as one. HydroSun’s clunkiness in the visual department is a problem only if we’re covering Warragamba in it, in which case I, for one, would like it to be gorgeous. As gorgeous as if Brunelleschi – or Steve Jobs – had designed it.

Everyone’s very worried about the engineer drought; desperate to increase the uptake, especially among women. No doubt the uncoolness of school maths is an issue. But maybe it’s also time to tweak the knowledge model. Drop the impartiality mask, not to soften the science but to take it somewhere good. Make the word engineer mean something a little less Roads and Maritime Services, a little more Brunelleschi.

 

 

 

Rarely has a renaissance hurt the arts so much

 

<Em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

If, as they say, we are but the sum of our prejudices, then having them subtracted, or extracted, should be painfully reductive.

But, surprise. Shrinking can be fun. Indeed, this may be pessimism’s greatest reward; one’s surprises tend to have an upward inflection. My latest trip to Canberra was such a surprise, and such a subtraction.

For Canberra has cultural precincts. Many have argued the place featureless and cultureless, myself included. Canberra has seemed to connive at this, being so keen to escape itself that even its satellite towns sprouted satellite towns. But Canberra is changing, and in ways that finally substantiate its claim to the nation’s highest on-ground intelligence, measured in PhDs per square centimetre.

Fledgling, yes. But Canberra not only has precincts, such as Fender Katsalidis’s enchanting NewActon development, like a bit of Surry Hills escaped to the lake shore. It not only has culture, like Chris Latham’s guerrilla music pop-ups, strewn over hill and dale, in library and street and quarry for the Canberra International Music Festival. It has, in the making, cultural precincts; theatre, music, arts.

But there’s the rub. It’s the biggest rub, the deepest rift, that Canberra’s arts community has seen for some time. With a tag that sounds like some post-modern novel (The Time Traveller’s WifeThe Map-Maker’s DaughterThe Idiot’s Nosegay), it’s known as the Fitters’ Workshop.

It is, according to Peter Sculthorpe, the best music space in Australia. Others say it is unique in the world. But it sits within the nominated visual arts precinct on Kingston Foreshore and for that reason will soon be crammed with $4 million of partitions and mezzanines and given a new life as a print studio.

Nothing wrong with prints. Megalo, proprietor-to-be, is rightly revered for its many excellent artists, including the fabulous G.W.Bot, whom I adore. Megalo should have its airy, light-filled $4 million space, no question. But this particular space – a gaunt, gorgeously fenestrated concrete shed designed in 1916 by John Smith Murdoch – is musical genius.

Murdoch, who was Commonwealth architect during the Griffin years, designed some of Canberra’s most lovable buildings – the old Canberra Hotel (now the Hyatt), the Ainslie Park School (now Arts Centre), the Acton Hotel (now Diamant) and Old Parliament House – and may be credited with what amounts almost to a colonial Canberra style.

They are typically finger-buildings, much like Florence Nightingale’s hospital designs; long, narrow, transparent spaces with extensive glazing and courtyards between. My favourite John Andrews building, the 1976 Cameron Offices in Belconnen, developed the same idea. But even within that tradition, the Fitters’ Workshop is special.

“You know how some people fall in love with particular buildings,” Chris Latham says. “Chartres, say. Well this is my building.”

I have long wanted to write about how a city would look if it were designed for an acoustic, rather than visual effect. (The sound of the Australia Day land rights march, with its chanting and its didgeridoos, was pretty special within these high-walled, curving concrete canyons that in Canberra pass as streets.)

Latham tests cities this way. He sounds them out, literally, exploring by ear not eye, locating a fine or interesting acoustic rather than a distinctive look. Which is how, three years ago (when it was already promised to Megalo) he ”found” the Fitters’ Workshop.

By way of explanation he drops to all fours, puts his mouth to the gap under the tall timber doors, and sings. Just like that. From outside, through the great imperial windows, I hear – almost see – the sound swell into the room. It seems hungry for it, sucking it in, swilling it around like wine, savouring it for a full 15 seconds before, reluctantly, swallowing.

Such a reverberation time is almost unheard of – longer than the glorious Ripon Cathedral choir, longer than Westminster – though with a 400-strong audience it damps down to a more manageable eight seconds.

It’s rare. Really rare. The Belgian conductor Roland Peelman describes it as “crisp and beautiful and clear and generous. If Canberra really wants to be a place where creativity is celebrated,” he says, “it needs a place [like this] where music can be magic.”

Latham who, as a violinist, has played Carnegie Hall and Wigmore Hall six times each and the Concertgebouw three, says they are wonderful spaces and rightly celebrated, but he would take the Fitters’ Workshop any time.

It is beautiful; proportions, light, and acoustics to die for.

Were it purpose-designed, the architect would be feted. Glassblowers on one side, Megalo on the other, would gather round in a tight weave of gardens and cafes to form the pulsing heart of this vibrant waterside precinct, this truly capital city. But because it is found, not made, and despite petitions, pleadings and ”protest sings”, we’re about to trash it.

At the moment, all that stands between the Fitters’ Workshop and sudden death is a parliamentary inquiry forced on the ALP government by the Liberals and the Greens. Ironically, it’s not just that the building doesn’t fit the use – the use is so under-accommodated by the building that a whole new shed will need to be built next to, and adjoining, the Fitters’ Workshop.

Chances are the whole thing could be built new for less money and with greater efficacy than adapting the old workshop. Yet the fight is intense, prolonged and vituperative.

Colin Stewart, the architect for the original Kingston Foreshore masterplan, envisioned a dozen or more arts uses, each supported by a concomitant private use.

He suspects the slow whittling away of the proposed ”arts precinct” to a couple of ALP-favoured users reflects government desire to flog the remaining sites for development. At which point it all starts to sound depressingly Sydney.

But you really know you’re back in town when there’s no longer even the pretence of planning.

When the Premier asks developers where they’d like to build, rather than vice versa, as reported this week. “Would sir like this strawberry field or that bok choy paddock?” It’s like asking Dracula which virgin he’ll bleed first.

 

Indigenous development in the eye of the beholder

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

As you read this I’ll be in our illustrious capital witnessing, possibly through rain, my first corroboree. You might wonder how I’ve come so far in such ignorance. I marvel at this myself. But one thing I’m intrigued by is whether, on the symbolic but otherwise undistinguished ground of Canberra’s enduring tent embassy, there’ll be any magical making of space.

So much of Aboriginal culture consists in the ephemeral, the abstract, the excruciatingly subtle. This is its biggest disadvantage in grappling with modern materialism, or perhaps ours in grappling with it. What seems to us a rock groove or bit of coloured clay can be, by analogy, Rembrandt.

Yet evidence abounds, now, of fully physical Aboriginal building traditions, from log cabins (and even farming) along the Murray to stone bird hides in the Northern Territory and woven, sapling-and-paperbark sleeping domes in Western Australia. Nomadism was much less prevalent than we thought. Yet there is little expectation new indigenous development be traditionally flavoured.

Two such indigenous proposals are exercising the mind of the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard – or at least making him hunt for it. One is Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council’s vast Heathcote Ridge proposal at West Menai. The other is the Aboriginal Housing Company’s relatively small but immensely significant proposal for the Block in Redfern.

How should they be assessed? It’s harder than you’d think. At risk of sounding like a Bible-belt loony – though few things cheer like glossolalia in the morning – I’m perpetually surprised by how hard it can be to pick the moral way. Each development divides the high moral ground. The Gandangara scheme pits conservationists against self-determinists while, at Redfern, although (almost) all stakeholders want a strong indigenous presence, there’s wild disagreement over how, and whether, that might come about.

Of course there’s planning law, which should be simply applicable. And, oh, if only it were so. There’s also the contrary temptation to say, well, it’s their land, freehold, they’ve had a rough deal, why shouldn’t they just do what they want? But, in neither case, could a person of conscience simply say, “okay, boys, go for it”.

The Heathcote Ridge site comprises about 850 hectares of bushland just north of Lucas Heights and east of Holsworthy. Gandangara proposes to develop a third of it with dwellings for 8000 and workplaces for 15,000, denoting the rest ”conservation”. Then-minister Tony Kelly approved the entire site as ”state significant” in 2010; now his successor is asked to rezone accordingly.

In some ways it seems reasonable. Others make a killing by wrecking the environment, why shouldn’t they? This is the ”how can we expect developing countries not to pollute as we have” argument, and has some sway.

But there are issues. Fire, for one. It’s a long narrow site that spans the steep, forested gully between Heathcote Road and the New Illawarra Road. The idea is to run office buildings along Heathcote Road, scattering a dozen or so pockets of medium-density, suburban and ”bushland” housing through the bush as topography permits.

But there’s no public transport, the entire site is fire-prone and water supplies are iffy (compounded by the need of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s nearby medical reactor for a constant, prioritised supply).

Also, because the houses necessarily occupy ridges, the regulation 60-metre asset protection zones slope up from thickly wooded gullies, in a manner reminiscent of the 2003 Canberra conflagration.

For this reason ”ongoing fuel management” is proposed across the site. But this summons the next problem: biodiversity. The site hosts a half-dozen or more threatened animal species including red-crowned toadlets, Rosenberg’s goanna, the powerful owl and the endangered swift parrot. There are also echidna, wallaby, koala and platypus, and endangered flora.

In the early mornings, according to local Dharawal elder and archaeologist Les Bursill, OAM, you’ll hear platypus splashing in the creeks. Just as compelling are the cultural artefacts. On rocks and overhangs across the site are hundreds, possibly thousands of petroglyphs (rock engravings), hand stencils and axe-grinding grooves up to 4000 years old. There is also, Bursill says, the only ochre grinding bowl he knows of in the shire.

The development may be driven by and, ostensibly, for Aboriginal people (though it is unclear precisely how, or how much of, the profit will be distributed). But, in thousands of report pages, the only ”site history” begins in 1968, and the first cluster of 40-odd houses already built on Ella Avenue comes within 50 metres of a rock overhang where hand stencils and animal paintings now sit unmarked and entirely unprotected. (Laneway graffiti is one thing but, on ancient art, surely another).

Unsurprisingly, Gandangara’s archaeological report finds most developable areas to have ”low/no archaeological sensitivity”.

Bursill, who has degrees in archaeology and anthropology, begs to differ. His own survey documents dozens of high-significance sites. He says the land designated ”community” or ”conservation” is the unbuildable stuff – the rubbish dumps, the gullies.

If such arrogance to country surprises you, it is worth remembering that, according to Bursill, the Gandangara land council includes Cabrogal, Wiradjuri and Darug people, but not the local Dharawal, whose cultural relics they are but who did not benefit from the claim.

This makes the Redfern shenanigans look simple; 62 houses (not 2700) on 8000 square metres (not 8.5 million). The initial proposal, slated by Frank Sartor, was approved by Kristina Keneally in 2009. Now they’re adding student housing as a funding prop, much as new public housing in the locality is supplemented by private.

Tribal differences still apply, with the AHC dominated by Mickey Mundine, born in Grafton (and opposed by Warren Mundine, of a different tribe – the ALP). There’s talk of stackings and exclusions, they’ve exhausted several architects and, right now, there’s barely a house left standing. The new proposal, 30 per cent bigger than the approval, seems excessively dollar-devoted, and I believe they’ll regret shoving a hundred bedsits on site, since it’s no way to a classy precinct.

But, at least, there is a commitment to rehouse 62 Aboriginal families and reinstate a genuine Koori community in the heart of Australia’s biggest city. Nothing metaphysical about that.

 

 

 

Hope at last showcase harbour can be a darling, not a dog

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

Each morning, in reprisal for a rash coupon purchase of children’s riding lessons, my inbox floods with cheap offers for cleavage enhancement, spiritual healing and ultrasonic fat cavitation. For under a grand I could be made pretty much perfect, body and soul. I’d do it, too, only I reckon most of the offers, like the riding, would be booked out till past their use-by date or available only at midnight on Easter Sunday inside a small drainpipe in Corowa or the Paris end of Captain’s Flat.

So I generally hit delete. Last week, however, two offers caught my eye. They seemed to signify. Arriving at once they were (in Sydney) an ad for advanced cupcake decoration lessons and (in Melbourne) virtual gastric-banding hypnotherapy.

That’s it, I thought. That’s the difference between the two cities. Sydneysiders pay to make something so gorgeous they can’t resist gutsing it, despite its sub-zero food value. Melburnians spend the same money to ensure that, however gorgeous, they can neither eat it nor want to.

This at least is the traditional Sydney-Melbourne difference; the sensual versus the intellectual, the double-wide suburban versus the uber-chic grunge-town, the god-given versus the man-made. They do Neighbours, we do Sylvania Waters.

Oh, I love Melbourne, says the Sydneysider. I love its laneways, its trams, its graffiti.

But we’re a bit anal about that. We jail teenage girls on their first offence, elect premiers who promise to toughen graffiti laws further still and sanitise the art so it’s nice and safe to consume. Near me, in Redfern, are specially authorised graffiti walls, where specially authorised ”youth” can come and spray their specially authorised stuff which, being specially authorised, is almost always third rate. We even have special shows where, in a cleaned-up, ex-industrial, faux-urban landscape, we applaud celebrity imports such as Banksy for precisely the kind of art (OK, better) for which we jail our own young.

Now, though, it seems we might be switching roles. Just as Sydney starts seriously to compete on the laneway, tram and small-bar front, Melbourne seems hell-bent on making Sydney – or possibly the Gold Coast – its urban exemplar. Pretty weird.

Consider our two urban developments du jour; Sydney’s Darling Harbour revamp and Melbourne Docklands.

Darling Harbour was always an urban planning catastrophe. Partly because, as Andrew Andersons said, Laurie Brereton hastily ”gutsed the thing through” after a strenuous session of roughly five minutes’ thought. And partly because it hit the soulless cusp between postmodern political expedience and modernist dog-turd planning (a technical term).

The political expedience – copied by Brereton from Thatcher – went like this. First, encircle your precinct with a big black Texta, thus obscuring all fine detail (streets, planting, heritage etc). Enshrine this boundary in law, suspend democracy throughout and install a group of mates, honchos and wide boys as an all-powerful ”authority”. Give these cowboys limitless discretion, a massive budget, a tight time-frame, a juicy profit motive and zero requirement to justify, publish or minute decisions. Then let them see the rabbit.

Dog-turd planning had a different provenance but made an easy fit. Old-fashioned even in the mid ’80s, it involved three simple steps. First, shove all major transport to the precinct periphery. Two, within that boundary, drop your buildings – plop, plop, plop – anywhere they can see and be seen. Three, fill in between with landscaping and label, in finest lettering, ”pedestrian space”.

This approach pleases the pollies (fast, easy), the transport engineers (fast, ugly) and the architects (fast, lots of show-off room). What it doesn’t do – never has, never will – is make a decent urban precinct that, being fully city-connected, attracts people and makes money.

Connectivity is the key, especially pedestrian connectivity. The opportunity clearly existed then, as now, to treat the city as a matrix of connections rather than objects. Working for UTS back in 1995 I developed a system of pedestrian links from what is now Central Park to UTS, TAFE, the ABC, the Powerhouse Museum and Darling Harbour. Now, 15 years on, it’s part built, and part still waiting.

From the start, Darling Harbour did everything possible to reinforce its political isolation with physical barriers – barbed wire, motorways, rail lines, car parks, loading docks and storey-high double-brick walls – that are in places five deep. Every building, including the recent Exhibition Centre extension and the new Commonwealth Bank – turns its backside to the city.

A pedestrian trying to penetrate Darling Harbour feels a lot, one imagines, like a male gamete in that recent sperm doco. Of half a billion starters only one or two make it, and even they’re exhausted by the effort. No wonder the retail fails.

There was little enough excuse for such idiocy in the ’80s; much less 20 years later, when Melbourne’s Docklands came on stream. Yet, apart from making the buildings tall not short, Melbourne doggedly repeated Sydney’s errors: the dog-turd planning, the difficult connections, the dead pedestrian sea. As though, far from despising our screw-up, Melbourne envied it.

Now, though, redemption beckons. Sydney is re-strategising almost the entire Convention Entertainment Exhibition precinct, linking north to Barangaroo and south to Broadway. There’s still a marked tendency to let developers lead, not follow, and another 600 car spaces. But at least there’s hope.

What should we hope for? That the three short-listed bids (Lend Lease, Macquarie Group and Brookfield), due in March, do not just do a Barangaroo, cramming as much building as possible onto the site. Rather, they should extend the city street grid – Goulburn, Liverpool, Quay and Macarthur streets – breaking down barriers, undergrounding cars and services entrances, making the place fully permeable. Only then, once the public framework is established, should the private development be allowed to infill.

Meanwhile, today’s offer from Melbourne is for a cupcake ”masterclass”, very cheap. But I can’t help feeling that somewhere between the icing baubles and the stomach staple – between the gluttony and the self-punishment – there’s a healthy city precinct trying to get out.

 

 

Wanted: leaders with principle and purpose, whether right or wrong

One of The Iron Lady’s surprisingly frequent touching moments is shot in a Dartford driveway. It’s October 1959 and Margaret Thatcher’s twin six-year-olds, Mark and Carol, chase her car into the leafy street. ”Mummy, mummy,” they cry, ”come back, mummy!” She does not, of course. Mummy is late for work. It’s day one, Westminster.

The point is not that she’s heartless. No more than any mother who has ever left her kids to work. The point is that she’s torn. She does not have to work in order to live. It’s both more glorious and, by some lights, more selfish than that. What’s driving Thatcher is her conviction, as she blurts it at Dennis upon his proposal of marriage, that ”one’s life must matter. I cannot die washing up a teacup”.

The film has been accused of disrespect, hagiography, clumsiness, obtuseness, ”horrifying” sexism and – by America’s National Public Radio, no less – ”sheer awfulness”. Some are charmed, others disgusted – largely along tired ideological lines.

Yet to me it seems at once a clear-eyed feminist treatise, a sympathetic study of ageing and dementia and a thoughtful analysis of mother-daughter complexities. On a canvas of riotous democracy, it cartoons the contemporary human condition, and in particular the contemporary female condition.

The constant state of torn-ness we euphemistically call ”work-life balance” is not a time management issue, work versus children. For people such as Thatcher, it’s a permanent struggle between pleasure and purpose, between living your own small life and yearning to change the world, between feeling and thinking.

As the elderly Thatcher remarks, ”people don’t think any more, they feel. One of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Now, thoughts and ideas, that’s what interests me.”

This exaggerated humanity makes The Iron Lady a tragedy of Aristotelian proportions. It is King Lear recast in a context of feminism, democracy, television and dementia. Innocent beginning, glorious climax, fatal flaw, dreadful end.

The Iron Lady is not told linearly, partly because we are assumed to know the narrative arc, and partly because fragmentation is the theme, common to democracy, post-modernism and Alzheimer’s disease.

Yet it is a Lear. Carol of course is Cordelia, faithfully serving the parental monarch even as she is unwittingly lashed. Mark is the perfidious Goneril, calling from South Africa only to turn the knife. Dennis is Poor Tom – equal parts priest, shrink, joker and crutch – and Airey Neave is Gloucester, car-bombed, rather than eye-gouged, for his loyalty.

Enthroned at the centre of it all is Thatcher herself; grand, as well as grandly flawed. (The film pointedly ends with her self-sketched fate, not dead but – worse – softened by disease, washing said teacup). She stands on principle, and on principle she falls.

Living five years in Thatcher’s Britain, I had no particular sympathy with her policies. (I admit to being entranced by the ”get on yer bike” theory and considered ”Arfa” Scargill a menace to civilisation). Everyone I knew, even the toffs, hated Thatcher with a passion. It was not just disagreement. It was hate.

I did not even warm to her personally. The pearls and handbags, stagey voice and sprayed hair all seemed old-fashioned, phoney and tasteless. I was among those who, hearing that both Thatcher and Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease, took it as karmic revenge.

Yet I had a sneaking regard for Thatcher. I admired her courage in the face of such hatred, and her unswerving commitment to principle. ”We will stand on principle or we will not stand at all,” she says in the film. I suspect you are supposed to hate her at that moment, but I loved her for it.

It thrills me now, and it thrilled me then, how the mere fact of conviction put backbone into the democratic flab, rendering politics interesting. Imagine if we had some here. Anyone, anyone?

Thatcher was smart, muscular, intellectually honest and hugely brave, even when she was also hugely wrong.

And she was hugely wrong. To shrink the whole of Britain into London, then remodel that vast relocated wealth into something as ugly and brittle as Canary Wharf was bad policy, pure and simple. To require the selling of council flats was also wrong, in social as well as urban terms.

Yet she changed history. You might argue that if it had not been her it would have been someone else. But it was her. A grocer’s daughter from Grantham, revolutionising not just her own party but Labour. Thatcher shifted the ground. Without her, Blair would have been unthinkable. Without her, Britain would have been Portugal. Thatcher paid the price.

We have no such leaders here. They pop up, we behead them like weeds. Julia Gillard has her Iron Lady rep and I suppose she has her principles – mainly ambition and survival. On the toothless carbon tax, and the mining tax, she talks brave, cops the flak, but she does not actually do the deed.

Gillard suggests more farce than tragedy – Shampoo, perhaps? – but if it’s Shakespeare we’re talking, she’s more Macbeth than Lear. This ambition-driven knifing of a loved mentor and colleague casts Kevin Rudd as both the murdered Duncan and Banquo’s vengeful ghost.

Gillard has no teacup, but she has red hands. We are her witches, prophesying and catalysing her fate, and Alan Jones is her (cane) toad, first into the pot.

 

Harbour roots lost in pastel haze of fireworks

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

I know it’s the silly season but is the sun in some weird astrological house or something? Because all this crazier-than-usual stuff keeps happening.

In Japan, earthquake donations are diverted into illegal whale hunting. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews beat up on women as if mimicking the Islamists they despise. In Sydney, Woollahra council, famous for cracking down on tree poisoners, votes to exterminate three mature figs that just happen to block bridge views.

And when, speaking of the bridge, you Google New Year’s Eve, you get ads for some society obstetrician who invites you to check out his (dead, white) rooms as if you choose your obs and gobs man for his decor – which nevertheless feels oddly appropriate because that ridiculous round rainbow thing on the Harbour Bridge did have an obstetric feel.

Doubtless it was the lolly hued circularity that gave Marc Newson’s ”endless rainbow” the real-feel squishiness of a dummy, condom or other disruptive device – though someone could surely have told him that rainbows do not include pastels.

Newson became famous for his 1986 Lockheed Lounge. Unusable, natch, it became a museum must-have for its riveting visuals (no pun intended). But his New Year’s Eve design wasn’t even gorgeous.

I suppose we can bear a rainbow bent into a circle, although the suggestion of endless stasis – the spinning wheel – is a lot less enticing than the arc and its implied but mysterious endpoint, its elsewhereness.

We can probably tolerate reducing the spectrum’s seven vivid colours to four, although the pastels were a definite lapse. I was forced to assume my full height (and my black wig) and channel Morticia Addams: ”But Debbie . . . pastels?”

Perhaps we can even savour the incineration of $8000 a second, in a bread-and-circuses kind of way, although I’d travel far for a pyrotechnic display that seemed actually to signify. That was, in a word, art. Yet all that, given enough champagne, we can forgive. But is the condescension tolerable? Are we just fine being instructed by press release that this year is our ”time to dream”?

Newson says mauve represents community, turquoise the harbour, yellow optimism and green, duh, the environment. He says the goopy rainbow thingy will help us focus on our aspirations, large or small.

Is this kindergarten bilge really the most eloquent and uplifting civic symbolism we, as a society, can manage? Leonardo had The Last Supper and we have a gelato rainbow-ring?

Do we really conceive life as a series of Hallmark taglines? It’s like stuff you read on corporate T-shirts. The year is a blank canvas, paint on it what you will. Follow your dream (staying safely under 40km/h). Is this what we have come to?

I know what you will say. People love it. Populism is all. A secular world has just two universal goods, the vote and the dollar. They are our key performance indicators, our twin gods, joined at the hip pocket. Sydney’s New Year’s Eve may cost $6.5 million but it brings $156 million into the economy. Argue with that, bitch.

So OK. Allow me.

Clover Moore must have been reading from the Jamie Packer how-big-can-we-make-this book of design excellence when she declared ”every year we make sure our celebrations are bigger and better than the one before”. And I guess, to be fair, a small fireworks show wouldn’t do.

But it’s like the Olympics, for which we are still paying. Some Olympic cities throw a fabulous party with a legacy of urban improvement. Others just throw a fabulous party.

What kind of legacy? Consider the harbour. A good harbour, like a good city, relies on connectivity. The water is great. In Sydney’s case, the topography is also great. That’s nature.

But what makes nature into a great harbour is culture. It’s the transitional fringe, the incremental embroidery of wharfs, slipways, seawalls, steps, cafes, platforms, boathouses, chandleries, shipwrights, moorings and (if you really must) marinas that make a harbour. Sydney Harbour has a grand tradition of this stuff – working, industrial harbour furniture much of it, but also the canvas dinghies, packet boats, watermen’s wherries, tugs and fishers and coal lighters and wild 18-footers and container ships. Bit by bit this tradition of doing stuff is being erased – relocated, sanitised, banned – and replaced with spectacle.

Perhaps it’s our TV habit that makes us comfortable about replacing a tradition of engaging with the harbour with the more passive and leisurely expectation of looking at it. This replacement of work by leisure and of active by passive is a killer. It’s a front-room mentality, a look-but-don’t-touch, nanny-is-right mindset. It killed Darling Harbour, now it’s killing the harbour proper.

What if, instead, each new year left a new waterside spot on the water’s edge? Instead of lobbing back to the Opera House every time, the lord mayor could establish a new party place each year, speechify from there and leave it as a grove, jetty or stilt-legged cafe for the future.

Of course, we’d have to lose the benighted Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, which spent two New Year’s Eve’s-worth burying Ballast Point beneath a zillion tonnes of award-winning concrete.

The ALP was so pleased with itself, turning it over to ”the people”. But it’s as if some atavistic class shame makes Labor over-gentrify industrial heritage to within an inch of its life (just as Keating wants to de-industrialise Goat Island). Instead of remediating Ballast Point, planting a few trees and letting people use it at will, they had to wrap the headland in a snarl of ramps and railings and multi-storey bastions of hair-netted rubble. Far from connecting you to the harbour, they isolate you from the experience you’re trying to have.

Then there are the patronising poetics scribed in steel, such as Les Murray’s bizarre ”stone statues of ancient waves, tongue like dingoes on shore”. And Robyn Backen’s ”like us, water breathes and dances to and fro between the earth and sky”. Sigh.

So I capitulate. If we must have greeting-card aphorisms, maybe we go with fireworks. Full circle, like the gelato man said. At least crackers don’t hang about, cluttering up the place. Twelve minutes and it’s over. Done.

Opinions

  1. Post comment

    Hi Elizabeth – just a message of support following your piece in today’s SMH – I always enjoy your articles and hate the thought of so much nastiness unleashed in cyberspace against you or any commentator.

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  2. Post comment

    Hi Elisabeth,

    I read your article “Time for Turnbull”, etc. Turnbull is stuck in the Opposition. His opportunity would only come if the electoral support for Abbott declines and then, of course, he is the Party leader and probably PM. However, this would also restrict him in making serious system changes – which is what is necessary. I am a retired political scientist, formerly A/Prof of SCU. Here is my letter to SMH in response to your article.

    Farrelly’s musings.

    If one can look beyond Farrelly’s flowery language her article is a kind of break-through in terms of reflections on Australia’s dysfunctional parliamentary system (Time for Turnbull to heal the divide, SMH 18th October). For the first time in years there is mention here of alternatives to Australia’s ailing democracy. Surprisingly all media in this country seem to go out of their way to avoid debate about system change. While it is disheartening that Farrelly favours a Prime Ministerial couple that could be “our Clintons or maybe our Kennedy’s” her recognition of serious local parliamentary problems is encouraging. If Turnbull is her favourite trustworthy politician encourage him to leave the Liberal Party Elizabeth, form a new party and then come up with a new electoral system. The answer is proportional representation as in the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and many other states. Notions that complex societies can do without parties are utterly unrealistic but the scene could be cleaned up dramatically by a multi-party system that provides diversity and democracy. The adversarialism of Australia’s parliaments is a daily debacle and scandal that costs the nation dearly. This legacy of Westminster Australia can profitably do without.

    Klaas Woldring,
    6 Tourmaline Avenue,
    Pearl Beach, 2256

    Ph. 02 4341 5170

    _____________________________________________________________
    http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/a-new-electoral-system?

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  3. Post comment

    Hello, I wrote a pretty good blurb in response to the Turnbull piece here. Now it’s gone. Interesting. Too much dissent I guess. Oh well…

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  4. Post comment

    As a volontary Swedish Ambassador in Australia I oppose the official Swedish Envoy Mr Petersson’s view as a false representation of my country of birth.
    Petersson’s action on this whole matter is nothing but a rage and far from diplomatic.
    I’m Sweden, and not only a Swedish citizen as well as I am Australia, and not only an Australian citizen.

    Sense Moral:
    Living in Darwin with a expired Swedish Passport I have to travel to Canberra to have a new passport issued as the embassy in Canberra is the only place in this big nation of Australia who have a “special camera” for a portrait taken legally accepted for the new passport.
    Only the Gestapo would have such an arrangement. It is absurd!

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  5. Post comment

    UPDATE
    There is more problems.
    The passport takes approx. 3 weeks to produce, so you either have to fly back home to Darwin, and return 3 weeks later and paying for a new flight to Canberra, or you you stay in Canberra, and find a hotel for 3 weeks and now on top of all your cost, you have to pay a fortune for that small pamphlet called a Passport.
    Fantastic innovation and a insane service!!!

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