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smh opinion 2013


Why I love a desiccated, juiceless country

Elizabeth Farrelly

Elizabeth Farrelly

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist


AustraliaArid Australia is real Australia, writes Elizabeth FarrellyPhoto: Andrew Quilty

An empty dam is a good dam, says Monaro farmer Charlie Maslin, especially after rain. My ears prick up. It’s not exactly what you expect from a grazier on a dry patch on the world’s driest continent.

I’m conflicted about The Dry. I know drought is soul-destroying for its victims and potentially catastrophic for the species. Every time I buy a juiceless supermarket orange I wonder if it is drought-sucked.

Yet The Dry is what I love most about Australia. I love its dusty vacancy, its echo. I love that the hardwood sleepers from the old Ghan lie unrotting in the sand like clips from Ozymandias. To me, arid Australia is real Australia.

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

I recognise this as fatuous aestheticism. A townie’s view. Then again, dry is why I’m here. Otherwise I’d be somewhere green and vulgarly fertile such as Tasmania, New Zealand or Sevenoaks, Kent. I love how Australia feels run off her feet. Knackered, like the old continent needs a Bex and a good lie down.

But – says the latest thinking – that’s not how Australia was meant to be. Australia as nature intended is a lusher and softer creature, a landscape of waving grasses, sparse trees and slow, subcutaneous water.

Charlie and Annie Maslin’s farm, Gunningrah, is one of several helping the continent find her inner self.

The Maslin family has farmed their 4200 hectares for a century, but the 1990s were hard for Australian farming and by mid-decade the Maslins were concerned. Two things worried them especially; that production costs could double or triple, depending on rainfall. And that a plant survey showed their ground cover was only around 70 per cent.

Thirty per cent bare soil means a lot. It means evaporation, soil loss, microbe death, noxious weeds, unhappy plants, immune-compromised animals. It means unhealth – in land, in stock, in profits.

Self-education is big in the country. We might think rural Australia an ideas-free zone. We’d be wrong. Not only is there an increasing proliferation of Ag-Science degrees, reflecting the growing complexity of the job (but often stymied by the fact that, even after the NBN ”rollout”, many have connectivity only a few minutes a day, after dinner, standing in the bathtub).

There’s also an amazing continuing professional education network of talks, courses and field days. So two names, everybody knows: Allan Savory (see last week’s column) and Peter Andrews.

Savory argues soil, Andrews water. Farmers cut-and-paste their ideas to fit context and mindset. But the point of convergence is this: working the land with both empathy and science, feeling its nuances, nurturing its strengths. This is new.

The Maslins encountered first Savory, then Andrews. Soil, then water.

A week’s Grazing for Profit course run by Terry McKosker’s Resource Consulting Services inspired ideas of partnering the land, rather than wage war on it. Learning of Savory’s grazing revolution, the Maslins redivided their stock into much bigger mobs, moving them every few days and giving each paddock roughly 10 times as much down-time as grazing time.

“The paddocks started to recover really quickly,” Maslin recalls, “and the streams started to heal. It was exciting.”

A decade later, Charlie and Anne chanced to watch what turned out to be the ABC’s most popular Australian Story ever. It was the 2005 tale of horse breeder and water guru Peter Andrews. As does Savory, Andrews urges biomimicry as a guiding principle, applied to water rather than grazing.

The core idea is that Australia’s streams and rivers were actually chains of ponds, percolating through reed-choked marshes on the “ribbons of elevated ground” often noted with wonder by early explorers. In effect, the entire river behaved more like a delta, with floods spreading fertility out across the flood plains.

The slowness and the levels encouraged soakage, so that most of the water – perhaps 80 per cent – was stored in anti-evaporation layers underground.

”This vast construction process [of the flood plains],” Andrews writes, ”faltered when Aborigines began burning and it was brought almost entirely to a halt when white farmers arrived with cattle and sheep.”

Aboriginal burning, focusing on stream-banks to attract game, began the erosion. Clear-felling hugely exacerbated it, and voracious creek-bank grazing completed the process. Now almost every creek you see runs, however intermittently, in a deeply eroded fissure.

This seems normal, to our eyes, even good. But a deep, fast-flowing stream is a gutter, driving water and nutrients from the land, where they are so desperately needed, to the sea, where they do only harm. (A recent study published in Nature Geoscience found that 30 per cent of sea-level rise between 1961-2003 was aquifer water, used for irrigation, sent to sea.)

Charlie and Anne decided to test Andrews’ theories. Essentially, it involved blocking waterways; slowing them with ”leaky weirs” made of earth, rocks, old fences, posts, rails, even willows, which so many farmers desperately root up. In six years they’ve built 40 or 50 such weirs. The water has slowed to a trickle, the stream beds have risen: a sharp eroded gully you could not cross with a farm bike is now a gentle depression clothed in metre-high grasses.

This is why a good dam is an empty dam. Because slow water, like slow food, is healthy. It means water is soaking into the paddocks, building groundwater, feeding grass, animals and us. Slowing the water cycle means streams now flow for extended periods again.

Yet none of it is legal.

“The law said we could take as much water as we liked from our main creek,” Anne says. “We could pump all those beautiful waterholes dry. But we couldn’t build weirs over half-a-metre.”

They did it anyway, fearing repercussions. Instead, the Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority made Charlie a Carbon Cocky 2010.

“I’m just not a very good judge of half a metre,” he says with a wry grin.

We’re on a granite scarp, watching a platypus family frolic like otters in the creek he could legally have drained. Behind us is a paddock of thigh-high native grasses.

“But this stuff gives me pleasure every day.”

Twitter: @emfarrelly



Herd approach restoring arid land

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

Allan Savory once killed 40,000 African elephants. Your local supermarket designs lighting specifically to deceive you that its food is more nutritious – the greens greener, the meats redder – than they are.

What’s the connection? It’s a long story.

Savory’s pachyderm count totally knocks spots off Shooters MP Robert Borsak’s piddling ”several”. Yet their motives could hardly have been more different.

Borsak kills for fun. “I put the second barrel into the top of his head and it was all over,” he blogs, grinning insanely against heads and tusks and corpses. Savory’s kill, by contrast, was “the saddest and greatest blunder of my life”. Now, after half a century’s penance, what he offers is hope.

Savory, who lectures in Australia next month, is an ecologist, biologist, farmer, soldier and winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. At 78, he is a driven man. His mission? To save the species (ours) with a revolutionary soil management system that puts meat back on the eco-menu. And not elephant meat.

When his sad epiphany hit, Savory was in his 20s, shifting grazing communities from land earmarked for Zimbabwe’s national parks. “The minute we did it,” he recalls, “the land started to deteriorate.” Convinced that the burgeoning elephant population was to blame, Savory persuaded the authorities to cull.

Heartbreakingly, the damage continued. Turned out it wasn’t about overpopulation, or even elephants. It was about grazing, predators and soil.

Wild grasslands, Savory realised, are not destroyed but restored by huge, fast-moving herds of grazing animals that bunch against predators, eat intensively but briefly, foul their own pasture and move on.

The animals’ presence breaks down grass, both by trampling and by digestion. This has many positive effects. It provides mulch and nutrients, enhances water holding and seed capture, encourages germination, reduces evaporation, fights erosion and fosters the mycorrhizal fungi behind 50 to 70 per cent of soil carbon sequestration. In the long animal absence that follows, these factors build a robust, diverse savannah.

Savory saw that only mimicking this restorative natural grazing would enable humanity to feed itself into a future otherwise doomed to the wars and plagues of mass hunger. Suddenly, his new life-task was to grasp and implement the crucial difference between this natural grazing and the destructive human-controlled sort.

Current thinking locates the origin of human agriculture in Neolithic settlements within the so-called ”fertile crescent” between the Mediterranean and Persian seas around 12,000BC. Within 30 generations, soil scientist Professor John Crawford told the 2011 Dubbo TedX, the crescent’s fertility was gone, never to return. And not because the rain stopped.

We like to imagine our forebears living in harmony with nature. In fact, says Crawford, human civilisations have always operated a wreck-and-move-on paradigm. Unlike the fast-moving herds, though, they far outstay their welcome, typically continuing to pillage – even when they have the knowledge and technology to reverse the damage – well past the point of reversibility. Sound familiar?

Of course, it’s not yet clear whether we will do the same. But if we do, it won’t just be a matter of shoving off to the next valley or continent. Our destruction, if it happens, will be on a global scale. Logically, this should concentrate our collective mind. But will it?

About two-thirds of the world’s land, says Savory, is desert or desertifying. (This is contentious – not because people dispute the figures, but because they love deserts. I understand. I love deserts. So it’s worth noting that the push here is not against “true deserts”, which are beautiful and intricate ecosystems in their own right, but against the relentless anthropogenic sterilisation of arable land.)

Australia has a significant role here. Ours is the driest continent and home to one of the most enduring human populations. We also have famously depleted soils – notably low in phosphorous and zinc – and sit at the leading edge of many epidemic diseases including cancer, diabetes and immune disorders.

The link between soil and human unhealth remains controversial, but three things are now clear.

One, that just having enough food security will be the issue of the coming century.

Two, that the chemical fertilisers and biocides still pushed by most governments are the problem, not the solution.

And three, that our degraded soils, so often used to justify these chemical interventions, were made, not given.

Even Aboriginal culture was ecologically flawed. Tim Flannery has argued that Aboriginal populations rapidly killed off Australia’s mega-fauna and that the resultant fires, feeding on now-uneaten plants, replaced fire-phobic, rainfall-enhancing forests with fire-dependent, water-greedy eucalypts.

Historian Bill Gammage casts a slightly different light on this, arguing in The Biggest Estate on Earth, that Aborigines were not shiftless wanderers or opportunists but “gentry” who used fire as a precision instrument to turn much of the continent into an intricate kitchen-garden mosaic.

Gammage quotes dozens of eyewitness descriptions of “trees planted as if for ornament, alternating wood and grass, a gentleman’s park, an inhabited and improved country, a civilised land”.

This puts Australia more in line with Africa where, as Savory notes, the destruction that 10,000 years of tribal farming began, a 100 years of modern science effortlessly completed.

Savory’s holistic management system, then, requires massive increases in fast-moving herds of grazing mammals. Of course, we don’t have to eat them. But does this mean meat-eating is OK again?

Apart from soil health, anti-meat arguments include human health (cancer) and air health (methane).

Regarding human health, the culprit is more likely excessive, chemically tainted, grain-fed or nutritionally depleted meat, than meat per se. And methane is arguably irrelevant. As David Mason-Jones notes in Should Meat be On the Menu?, cow fart is not ”new” carbon, but recycled, being first sequestered from air, then returned to it.

Tragically, says Savory, Zimbabwe’s national parks still favour elephant culls when numbers swell. But in fact, just restocking with cattle might sort the problem for them.

Allan Savory will talk in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne August 14-18 (see


Big Food won’t solve the obesity crisis

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

The proposal being touted is that Big Food can solve the obesity epidemic with the palatable oxymoron ”healthy junk food”. This creates a tempting stew of science, aesthetics, politics and morality. But the core issue is this: even if science can solve our moral problems, should it?

It is an irony of the industrial-scientific revolution that the more engineered a product, the cheaper; just as the fatter, the poorer.

Thus, a clean-living unmedicated chook is several times the price of one on which vast amounts of science and engineering have been lavished. A plain cotton T-shirt is four or five times the cost of one produced by many-tiered industrial processes, dyed, painted and bejewelled. A homemade Christmas pudding is six times the price of a manufactured one. Truly, less has become more.

At first glance it might seem that the prophets’ poetic inversion has come to pass. And every valley shall be exalted, and the mountains made low … (Old Testament, rice paper). The first one now will later be last … (Nasal voice, harmonica riff). Bought things, with high embedded energy, used to be for rich people. Now the poor have access to the goodies.

But history is mean. No sooner had the Industrial Revolution made these synthetic goodies widely available than we decided they weren’t goodies after all, but baddies. We began to see how unhealthy they were. Began to compete, instead, for the real stuff, plain and unmediated.

Smell says it all. Poverty used to smell of putrefaction; sweat, mud, beer; gutter odours, close to the earth. Modern poverty pongs of synthetic toxins; the plastics and perfumes and nameless petroleum-based carcinogens that, unable to rot, choke the reeking aisles of two-dollar shops and big-box retail. With every breath, you can feel the aromatic hydrocarbons and long-chain polymers burrowing into your bronchioles. Two words spring to mind: Erin Brockovich.

This weird twist applies in particular to food. Australia is now fifth in the obesity leagues, after Mexico, the US, New Zealand and Chile. But it’s not just the fat. It’s how it’s distributed. Town by town, Naracoorte, South Australia, is the fattest, with 79 per cent of its population overweight or obese. Wangaratta, Dubbo, Bourke and Broken Hill are also up there, while North Sydney and Central Melbourne are the slimmest.

We pussyfoot around this with headlines like ”Obesity Plagues the Bush”, pretending distance is the crucial factor. Experts insist on blaming access to healthcare, good food and exercise. As if you can’t get broccoli in Bourke. As if you can’t walk in Wodonga.

The truth, about which Americans are blunter, is obesity has become an inverse socio-economic indicator. It’s not about distance. It’s about low income and low education. (By education I don’t mean being brainwashed at primary school about Mr Celery and Mrs Apple. I mean being taught, rigorously, to work your brain; to think.)

David Freedman, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, recently spent thousands of words thundering against the ”Pollanites”, which is ”a cadre of international food writers, celebrity chefs and entrepreneurs” who think like Michael ”eat close to the ground” Pollan.

Freedman argues that the obese masses, impervious to ”the dubious health fantasies of a small elite minority”, will never choose broccoli over Krispy Kremes; and that food engineering is the answer.

Food engineers can synthesise the complex tastes and textures to fool our bodies into experiencing a quarter pounder when in fact it’s a sprouts-and-tofu wrap.

Fat people, already addicted to diets ultra-saturated in fat, salt and sugar, can sustain their pleasure levels and lose weight without moving a muscle or shifting a habit. That’s the idea.

It may not work. The ruse depends, after all, on the belief that food is a simple molecular sum; that a glass of juice or a vitamin C tablet is nutritionally identical to eating an apple. It’s the same scientific reductionism that persuaded mid-century mothers to feed their babies formula as an improvement on breastmilk.

We now know this is untrue. Not only does real food contain nutrients – fibre, trace elements, antibodies – that are not replicated in the food-substitute and may not even be known to science, it also has physical properties – texture, toughness, bounce – that generate responses in us (like chewing) with their own chemical benefits.

But even if it did work, the moral question remains: is it a good thing? How much responsibility are humans prepared to lose?

Already we outsource many mental chores; calculating, mapping, memory. You may not consider these moral activities, and narrowly you may be right. But to me they all feel moral, since all use mental work to polish the truth and clarity of our perception.

To travel for a week, as I’ve just done, with only Google and satnav for guides is to scientise wayfinding, reducing it – as we have reduced food – to a utility. Subtracting your own responsibility from the exercise leaves you diminished in that overlap between imagination and will that is surely your moral centre.

This is why education is inherently moral (and, no, I’m not saying PhDs are automatically good, or fat people bad). Hard thinking gives you moral utensils; discipline, the pursuit of truth and the idea of reward for effort. The significance of the obesity epidemic does not lie primarily in Medicare costs. It’s a moral thing. Which is why leaving governments to ”make us” lose weight through brainwashing, lap-banding, town planning or tax incentives is ludicrous and wrong.

I’m not good at it. Discipline is hard, and virtues of omission are hardest. But I regard my fat – or, if you prefer, my self-discipline – as my issue. I’m not handing it to anyone; not science, not Big Food and certainly not government.


Within a whisker of being stigmatised

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

Can you love a killer?

It being winter, my cats like to sit on things: laps, keyboards, magazines, in order of preference. One, miraculously returned after four months in the asphalt wilderness, presumes himself especially entitled to such small insulations. Curled there, he’s the living picture of Felis catus; happy (or domestic) cat. Yet the magazine beneath him depicts a snarling feline with the tagline: “feral cats: killing 75 million native animals every night”.

But take nature to its conclusion and it is clear cats should gorge irregularly, as in the wild, and should hunt.

Seventy-five million? A night? That’s 27 billion a year – bilbies, bettongs, quolls, hopping-mice. I’m staggered we even have that many. As a kill-rate, it’s nothing short of catastrophic.

This is the cat owner’s conundrum. Not only, as they say, do our cats see us as staff. Their job description makes us indentured gamekeepers, procuring permanent access to a kill.

How do we reconcile this about our friend, Felis catus – cuddly kitty, ruthless killer?

Cats’ compulsion to kill wasn’t always a problem. Historically, it was a virtue. You’d seek out a first-rate mouser. But as killing loses acceptability, you have to wonder. Is keeping cats at all, as Professor Mike Archer insists, immoral?

My own cats, it may not surprise you to learn, are both card-carrying eccentrics.

Jack Pussy, a big-hair mog, loves to drink bathwater – but only warm, and only occupied. He’s fine with unguents and even rosewater but declines the more synthetic perfumes. Diesel, an otteresque Burmese, loves raisins – Thompson’s organic, no oil – taking them daintily one by one with his tiny front teeth. He also likes rice crackers, especially the dried seaweed variety, and being suspended by his four paws. This makes him purr.

Diesel and Jack are mutually devoted. They share milk, reciprocate grooming and playfight without rancour. They sleep curled together in one round bed like yin and yang. They crave human affection. Diesel touches your face gently with one paw to make eye contact, and repeatedly to keep it.

They are, in short, sweet. Yet cats are carnivores, and carnivores hunt. Even Jack and Diesel hunt. Twigs. Leaves. Cockroaches (crunchy!). Bogongs. Baby rats. Inadvertent mynahs (rare) and, despite long-term lizard-aversion therapy, the occasional drop tail skink.

Frankly? Half a can of jellified ex-meat spooned out with the evening news doesn’t cut it in the thrill department.

There’s also this. That can of Purrfect Pussy is like putting your kids on a Maccas three times a day.

Jack, age four or five, was diagnosed with feline urinary tract disease. He had trouble peeing and needed a scientifically formulated biscuit diet, $66 a bag. To feed him anything else, the vet said, risked hospitalisation and death.

It got worse. A couple of years later, Diesel developed dreadful smelly breath. He grew listless and refused food. The vet diagnosed feline stomatitis. Said he needed antibiotics, possible dental surgery and regular tooth cleaning.

I’m sorry, what? Me, twice a day with a cat toothbrush? There had to be a better way.

Meanwhile Jack, on his exorbitant science-nosh, was permanently ravenous. He lost weight and, under the big fur, became bird-light. He was anxious, and started escaping over the back fence at night, hunting. At least once a week I’d find a baby rat, or a tail, or just a blood-smear, on the bathroom floor.

Before remortgaging the house, I did what you do. Googled, found a website called Raw Meaty Bones. The message was obvious and compelling. I decided to try it. For a month, I gave them each a daily, raw chicken wing. Period. Pretty soon both cats were bouncing. No trouble peeing. No bad-breath or sore inflamed gums. Their coats became thicker and glossier. Two happy cats.

Slowly I added beef bones. Fish scraps. Milk (lactose free). Bathwater. Rice crackers. More love, more purring happiness.

That was a few years ago. The cats – now 10 and 12 respectively – have never looked better. Yes, I feel bad for the chickens, but as I write, Diesel lies beside me, snuggled in, supine, nibbling raisins, purring deeply, feet flopped in the air. Weird, but happy.

But cat cuisine turns out to be intensely controversial. The blogosphere, unfailing spring of sincere misinformation, bristles with advice. Some is eminently ignorable, like the railing against “raw fish, chicken or eggs” and “bones of any kind”.

More difficult is when verified truths contradict my experience. Grape and raisin toxicity, for example, is a recognised cause of acute renal failure in dogs and possibly cats. Yet mine like them. Chocolate is meant to kill dogs, yet our overbred poodle puppy, with stomach issues of his own, once ate an entire dark-chocolate yacht, weighing at least a kilogram, and was fine.

The problem becomes epistemological. Who to trust? Science? Nature? Experience?

When science fails (or worse, seems captive) we default to nature. The scientific cat diet, emerging as less a treatment than a subtle vet loyalty program, made nature’s raw meaty bones a plausible alternative.

But take nature to its conclusion and it is clear cats should gorge irregularly, as in the wild, and should hunt. It’s what their teeth, physiology and instincts imply. But hunt what?

Anything, really. Outside the picket fence, cats are massively destructive. A recent US study estimates that roaming cats kill about 2 billion birds and 12 billion mammals a year, plus countless frogs and reptiles. The cat is a bigger foe of native fauna than climate change and habitat destruction together.

In Australia, which already holds the world extinction record, it is even scarier. Seventy-five million small furries a night is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s estimate. It may be on the low side.

So is cat owning immoral? Will it acquire social stigma, like obesity, like smoking? I’d be sad. Quolls may make good pets, but they don’t purr.

Still, although there’s comfort in knowing most urban cat-kills are exotic pests, not native treasures, I am more assiduous about keeping the cats on-site (another virtue of the terrace house, and its walled garden). I support the city’s regulation desexing. And I buy in a regular supply of free-range chicken; expensive as science, but healthier all round for cats, rats and quolls.

Innovation for all the elements

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

This is not about Kevin Rudd. Quite the opposite. It’s about shelter from the storm.

What is architecture? Broadly speaking, I consider this the kind of undergraduate unanswerable that should be well behind you before your first inklings of mortality. Last week, however, two largely unrelated events returned it to my frontal lobe.

One was the NSW Architecture Awards. The other, rain.

Rain! How those nine nights and days felt like 40. Yet my house, bless it, held out to the end, or almost. Only on the very last day of that Old Testament weather did our roof start to leak. Not frogs, I’m grateful for that. Quite likely just vines getting uppity.

So for eight nights, as it bucketed down, I’d Google ”ark, blueprints,” or similar, and go to bed pleased not to be in living a cardboard box or storm drain. Then, halfway through night nine, one small drip shattered my equanimity. One red bucket showed me that what I love most, not just about this house but about housedness in general, is shelter. Staunch, unfailing shelter.

Shelter is architecture’s most fundamental promise, yet one it so often disdains. Necessary, sure. But interesting? Difficult? Beautiful?

Frankly, I’m with them. Architecture begins where building ends. Shelter as such is mere building, but shelter composed – shelter designed for proportion, light and meaning or, in Le Corbusier’s words, as “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light” – that’s architecture.

Which is why ”emergency architecture” has always struck me as an oxymoron. What you need after an earthquake is not magnificent play – right? – but a tarp and a good bit of rope. You’re trying to waterproof the newspaper over your kids; you’re not wondering how the light falls.

Yet two central Sydney buildings in this year’s awards rollout made me rethink. One is Collins and Turner’s lovely vine-covered starburst for Weave community centre in Waterloo. The other is Environa Studio’s ultra-sustainable, ultra-surprising and seriously good-looking Wayside Chapel in the Cross.

Weave drew the big gong, the Sulman Medal for public architecture. The Wayside, although shortlisted, got nothing. Yet both demonstrate the value of architecture in situations in which immediate exigency is usually prioritised over anything resembling aesthetics.

Overall, the awards were a strange mix. Included were charming and eccentric small buildings: Lava’s Martian Embassy in Redfern, Bates Smart’s Iglu Central in Chippendale and Drew Heath’s gorgeously inside-out Tir na nOg house, which won the Wilkinson.

Yet the most decorated building was among the dullest; FJMT’s already over-celebrated Darling Quarter. Far from the firm’s best work, it inexplicably took out the Lord Mayor’s Award (although it totally turns its back on the city) and the Lloyd Rees urban design award, although its strongest public moment by far is the ingenious children’s play area, designed by Aspect Studio’s Sacha Coles.

Still, back to Wayside, which offers a solar-powered, green-roofed, spatially ingenious high-chroma inner sanctum for people in need. And to Weave.

Shane Brown hit Sydney in 1974, a 17-year old from the Bay of Plenty logging town of Kawerau, New Zealand. Many kids in his position gravitated straight to the art-and-drugs scene around the Yellow House in the Cross. Instead, Brown found himself employed by a group of local Aboriginal parents worried about their kids. He started work on the streets.

Squatting with assorted Bondi anarchists (that was then!), Brown had his own car and a base in the Rachel Forster Hospital, now slated for residential takeover. He’d sit – in his car, in parks – and just talk to people, finding ways to help them sort their lives. This became Weave.

In 1993 Weave was registered as an independent not-for-profit. South Sydney mayor Vic Smith housed them in a disused change-room on Waterloo Oval. It was pretty crummy. Bare concrete with 15 showers and toilets. “We demolished 14 of each,” recalls Shane. He adds, a little wistfully, “with 12 staff, that was demolition one too many”.

That concrete shed housed Weave for 15 years. Then, after the “best street skate park in Australia” was built next door, Brown asked the City for a renovation. To his delight, “Clover and Monica [Barone, CEO] just said yes.”

The resultant building retains most of the existing breeze-block walls. A central court has been scooped out and paved in hardwood setts and glass bays pop out at each corner. This gives the whole a pinwheel of a plan, surprisingly reminiscent of the Rose Seidler House. But where that house, from 1950, seems to spin up and out of the landscape, Weave burrows down, bedding itself deep into the hillside.

But the building’s most recognisable face is the star-form steel-mesh veil that envelopes it, a three-dimensional mask driven by the desire for graffiti-proofing but sheathed now in a profusion of flowering native climbers. The roof terrace has become a productive garden and plans for permaculture mentoring are afoot.

The starburst is the image – and keeps the vines from the gutters! – but the real magic is within. There, early school leavers are tutored by medical students, people with psych issues are counselled, the Streetbeat bus service shepherds Marrickville and Redfern teens safely home at night and the Kool Kids Club runs 230 programs a year for children from La Perouse. Under Brown’s direction, 34 staff now deliver $2.4 million a year in social programs to a couple of thousand of mostly indigenous people.

Yet, just as the steel is softened by botanic exuberance, these lives are warmed, both by Weave’s openheartedness and by architecture that bespeaks genuine respect.

They’re still pinching themselves. Like, we’re worth this? Winning the Sulman – sharing it with the Opera House, NIDA and Australia Square – amplifies that respect.

This is architecture. Shelter from the storm.



Harbour view: just a phoney dream

June 27, 2013
<i>Illustration: Simon Letch</i></p><br /><br /><br />
<p>op ed for the 27th June .jpgIllustration: Simon Letch

Just when you think Sydney’s waterfront couldn’t get any tackier, Star casino chairman John O’Neill reveals – da-dah! – his billion-dollar brainwave to ”complete Sydney’s new feature precinct”.

Feature precinct? Seriously? It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Yet O’Neill’s choice of words was scarily apt. His proposal for the ”world’s first connected, integrated resort” has all the grace and authenticity of those 1950s feature walls with coloured faux-stone fireplaces and plastic ivy growing up stretched string.

Sunday’s announcement brimmed with have-we-got-a-deal-for-you hyperbole. A carefully orchestrated shot across the Packer casino’s bows, it was crafted to sound both altruistic and upbeat, a glimpse of our gleaming future.

Instead, it all felt strangely passe, like they had forgotten to dust the china bunnies before popping them on display. Like Willy Loman watching his star go down.

You remember Willy, the rumpled hero in Death of a Salesman? He spent his life chasing the shiny American dream until finally, in desperation, his son Biff shouts, ”Will you take that phoney dream and burn it before something happens?” Then something does happen. Willy kills himself.

The Star represents the same phoney dream. When Arthur Miller wrote Salesman in 1949 the dream was already clearly fake. Now it is old as well.

What is the dream? It is that old illusion that we can all be rich and live like magnates on the sunny edge of some martini-fringed pool. Very last millennium.

Not that profit is out of fashion. Hardly. It is the notion that profit can be pursued to the exclusion of everything else – manners, modesty, openness, generosity and local response – that makes it feel like something dragged up from the Askin years.

Echo, the Queensland owner of the Star and several Queensland casinos, trades on the wealth illusion. Needs it, like oxygen, and follows it straight to hyperventilated absurdity. Echo’s website vaunts its ”Responsible Gambling Code”. In seven different languages it commits to ”providing programs and initiatives to minimise problem gambling behaviours”.

Yet, as we speak, Echo lobbies to increase Queensland’s $20 pokie limit to $50 and $100 bets. (This is already allowed in the Star, where – unlike the $10 limit elsewhere – you can lose $500 at a single flick of the wrist, if you choose.)

Echo calls this a ”level playing field” argument, although it argues simultaneously to retain existing $5 pokie limits for pubs and clubs and to limit Crown’s proposed Barangaroo casino to designated high rollers only. I guess there’s level and there’s level.

Echo’s proposed Pyrmont feature development speaks with the same forked tongue, consistently cloaking thuggery as altruism.

O’Neill repeatedly described his proposal as the ”world’s first connected, integrated resort”.

Hardly true, since ”integrated” is a Singapore euphemism for ”resort with casino” and all existing examples – in Singapore, Dubai and, soon, Miami – are ”connected”. But the common factor, apart from their gargantuan size and breathtaking vulgarity, is the way they blockade their vast, multihectare sites against anything and everything resembling the public life of the city. Make way for mall-mindedness on roids.

True, the Star has always been grim. It is a bad building, probably Philip Cox’s worst, quarantining a massive waterfront site on which it should never have been allowed to settle. Twenty years ago, when it was approved by the Fahey government, the council (of which I was a member) argued that the other side of Darling Harbour – now King Street Wharf – was more appropriate: more urban, less residential and better connected to transport.

We argued that the four chimneys of the soon-to-be-demolished Pyrmont Power Station were not sufficient reason to substitute skyscrapers of similar height. To lose the building and keep only the height was plainly idiotic.

We lost on everything except the heliport planned for where Sydney Wharf apartments are now.

Star City was an exemplar of ugly process yielding ugly building. Bombastic, impenetrable and rude, it turned its unattractive back to the locals while blocking their views and stealing their water access. The light rail stop it so greedily ingested sat in a dark hole in its belly.

But the Star’s new embouffement makes that old behemoth seem a model of tact and charm.

The CGI guys had a ball. The images show everything a-gleam, a-glow and a-dazzle. There is more light in our future ”feature precinct” than in the Mormon take on the ascension.

Two glossy new hotel towers – one five-star, one six – bookend the existing development. Between them, a row of new $25,000-a- night apartments encrusts the top of the existing building, flanked by dozens of turquoise pools of every shape and type (except public) and a seemingly limitless roll-out of emerald-green, highly-specked parkland. This verdant carpet, fully razzamatazzed with every trick in the landscaper’s book and a generous strewing of ”contemporary artworks” by the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is clearly moving into high-end property styling.

The only thing missing is humanity – either as flesh or as spirit. Not a biped can be seen, not a single warm material, not a small-scale gesture, not a whiff of permeability or eccentricity or reality. The landscaping, presented as public-mindedness, is really just a means to privatise public space. Rolling relentlessly across parks where people now play footy, read books and hold growers’ markets, it seems designed to engender protest; sacrificial parkland.

As to connectivity? This amounts to little more than a new pedestrian bridge springing from the end of Darling Island to – you guessed it – Barangaroo.

This, then, is Sydney’s feature precinct. A harbour rim of expensive tat designed to exclude rather than enrich the city, it takes in Darling Harbour, with its own two new tower hotels all of 250 metres away, and the newly linked Barangaroo, with its bulked-up residential towers and 60-storey casino-hotel. That’s five new swanky high-rise hotels within a stone’s throw.

Which makes you wonder. Perhaps it is not competition after all? Perhaps the Star’s real job, far from competing, is to make Packer’s casino look svelte. Dammit. Will someone take this phoney dream and burn it, before something happens?

Zoning changes deserve a raspberry

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

A few years ago, when the last Metro Strategy was in draft, I made a pilgrimage to the strawberry fields of Leppington. The occasion was a public meeting on the residential rezoning of Sydney’s kitchen garden, now the north-west and south-west sectors. I anticipated a vociferous placard-waving defence of the humble food-plant. Not likely.

The meeting comprised mainly ancient immigrant couples who shouted in thickened English that these fields were their investment and their grandchildren’s birthright. What, they demanded, had taken the rezoning so long?

My point is not ageist, nor anti-immigrant. It is that, ever since 1788, attitudes to land in this country – whether for mining, agriculture or development – have shown all the sweetness and altruism of the neighbourhood rapist.

At least mining and agriculture require effort. Land speculation involves waiting for the windfall.

Governments and developers are the worst, treating planning as a financial enema, so that ”getting things moving again” is cross-spectrum pollie-speak for opening the development sluice gates.

But, as anyone in planning knows, residents’ groups can be just as duplicitous. Despite the vast difference in power, these groups, too, routinely guise property-value concerns as heritage, traffic or public interest. We’re all in the trough.

Until this shifts, until we understand that ripping unearned benefit from the land is not civilisation’s central act, we’ll have neither a working planning system nor the cities we think we deserve.

Planning in NSW is set to change, dramatically and soon. Any minute now we’ll have a new Planning Act, a new Metro Plan and a new local government structure. To give them any chance of working, we’ll all have to grow up. Fast.

It’s all in a svelte thousand pages of jargon-riddled government-speak – 1200 if you count the two bills – and you have until this time next week to object.

No doubt this – the density, the obscurity, the rush – is all part of the plot. Napoleon’s boulevards, bored through Paris as a nice straight firing line, find their crowd-control equivalent in the obscurantism of democracy. Our governments know it’s easier and cheaper to befuddle the riff-raff than shoot them.

Which makes it all the more imperative that you do object. Go ahead. Stick your oar in. Soon.

But when you do, remember that the test of the new system is not whether it maintains your sun, view or property value.

It’s not about your desires, deserts, or voice.

I know that you, like me, like my Leppington friends, feel unheard, bulldozed and betrayed. Damaged, disappointed, disgruntled and distrustful. You fear, quite rightly, that if you don’t defend your corner, no one will. But it’s not about you. Or me. Or even (I like to think) James Packer.

City planning – personal definition – tries to frame rules that, applied to everyone, make the city better for everyone. It’s that simple and, once you mix money, territory and ego, that complicated. Which is why planning requires the cool brow and aerial wisdom of a Solomon. It requires this not just of the planning czar du jour but, increasingly, of us all.

There are five main documents – three papers, two bills.

Future Directions for NSW Local Government merges NSW councils to 97 from the current 223. The draft Metropolitan Strategy proposes yet more land releases for a half-million houses. And the White Paper promises a ”consultation blitz” in compensation for bringing all public input up the front, rule-making end of the process.

All appear reasonable, assiduously mimicking steps towards the cool abstraction we so need. Council amalgamation encourages regional planning and disempowers minority loons. The Metro Strategy requires a hierarchy of plans that sit within each other like Russian dolls. And up-front consultation makes us all think bigger picture, about the public (rather than self) interest.

But there’s appearance, and there’s fact. As one insider noted, if this were a commercial prospectus, they’d be up for false and misleading information. But the duplicity only becomes obvious when you read all 1200 pages together.

Council amalgamations, with the bill’s severe reduction in council powers, cannot enhance regionalism but only dumb-down further, to the old roads, rates and rubbish model. Conveniently, it will also make life much harder (given the bigger elections) for independents.

Since our best and most honourable politicians – Ted Mack, John Hatton, Clover Moore – have traditionally been indies, this is an outrage and a travesty, a blatant grab by party tribalism. More Get-Clover boy-stuff.

The City, being already twice their minimum size, should be left entirely intact. Then they should ban party involvement in local politics.

As to up-front consultation, it can only work if the rules are then enforced and discretion shrunk to almost nothing.

But by their deeds shall ye know them. The Metro Strategy proudly claims 250 visitors to its drop-in centres and 56 online comments. Out of 4.7 million? If that’s a blitz, I’m a fluffy slipper.

The scariest aspects, though, are the several new Part 3As, giving the minister limitless discretion over spot re-zonings (now Strategic Compliance Certificates), non-complying development and exemptions of all kinds. And the uncanny similarity between these new provisions and the submission from the developer gang known as the Urban Task Force.

In the end, planning comes down to the ”musts” and the ”mays”. Here, the musts are all about maximising financial gain, and the mays about environment and heritage. Ask yourself. In a pitched battle, which will win?

This takes us straight back to 1960s rissole culture, except that here the rissoles have been dressed as gentlemen, by none other than high-couturier Chris Johnson, former government architect turned Urban Task Force chief executive.

So object, absolutely. But – here’s the plea, to both sides – do it like a grown-up.


We’re not so safe behind our firewall

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

So it has come to this. Government versus the people. Do they seriously think they can get away with locking their own secrets behind closed trials and solitary confinement while covertly invading ours? In what world?

As a child I was gripped by an image in one of the fat anthologies that inhabited a gloomy corner of the study. It showed a mediaeval walled garden where wimpled ladies drifted, gossamer-sleeved, among flowers. (Such languor. Such long pale fingers. How I craved a wimple!) Under a gentle sky, stiff-legged whippets tugged at leash, ringleted chaps in velvet slippers recited sonnets and children played hoopla.

The garden seemed entirely self-sufficient, unjoined to house or city and without evident doors. In the distance a spot of ritual jousting could be seen. But of the mud and poverty of local life there was never a whiff – much less of the appalling foreign mayhem that was the garden’s flip side.

So I was saddened, later, to learn that the mediaeval garden was no simple refuge from chaos but actually dependent on it; that the serenity of wealth, the tradition of courtly love and even the walled garden idea itself fed on the arrogance and cruelty of the Crusades.

Now, watching the tribulations of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, I’m flabbergasted to see we are still mentally locked in that garden, where the bliss of the few both demands and justifies the misery of the many.

Naturally we ignore the link, assuming that if the wilderness-dwellers only got cracking they could make their own garden. And perhaps, if ours was the innocent refuge it seems, they could. But in truth our garden more resembles an air-conditioned lock-up, concentrating privilege inside precisely by sucking it from those without.

We garden-dwellers are blind to the cost of our privilege because it is borne by distant others. The wall has many functions. It defines and unifies us by excluding them, demeans and scatters them while protecting us from their discontent and, crucially, stops us seeing this.

Indeed, so charmingly painted is this wall that we scarcely know it exists. Until one day – like Manning, Snowden or Assange – we wander through a door and find ourselves in the terrifying out-land.

Even then, we insiders barely hear their now-faint voices, turning gaily back to our hoops and flowers.

Distance is all. Australia committed some 2000 military personnel to the Iraq war, and $3 billion. When we withdrew, having lost no soldiers in action (but a handful to accidents), we managed to feel good about it, but we left in our wake a social catastrophe of unthinkable proportions.

According to some estimates, such as by MIT, 5 million Iraqi children are now orphaned. Many live on the streets, vulnerable to criminals, human traffickers and arrest for begging. Two-thirds of infants do not have safe drinking water and although educating women was one of the few plausible pro-war arguments, three-quarters of even those girls who start school now drop out during the primary years.

Add the thousand per cent increase in childhood cancers, miscarriages and birth defects – children born with one eye, crumpled skeletons and complex neural problems – from the toxic chemicals and depleted uranium dropped on Fallujah by the ”Coalition of the Willing” in 2004. Medics compare these effects with Hiroshima but a long-awaited World Health Organisation report, promised for December 2012, has been mysteriously delayed.

How is that not war crime? These were the kinds of actions that Assange, Manning and WikiLeaks were desperate to expose. Theirs was unquestionably the moral course from which, even now, no evil has been shown to flow. Yet they, not the bombers, are punished.

And we walk away. Ten days ago, Prime Minister Gillard halved the budget for unaccompanied refugee children (to a mere $12 million) despite still-rising numbers. Bob Carr – though the Manning trial has confirmed WikiLeaks as a clear US target – washes his hands of Assange more often than Lady Macbeth.

Yet most Australians find the latest football or racing scandal more shocking.

Terrifyingly similar in principle is the NSA-PRISM espionage outrage. For six years, the US government aided by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple (in signing-up order) has been gathering into its nine-hectare server metadata on all calls, emails, movements and purchases.

And it’s not just metadata. All those privacy policies you tick without reading before using the various cloud services? Look again. Most of your rights are gone. Then there’s Google Glass, the spectacles with a tiny screen that maps and shops but can easily (though Google has banned these for now) do pornography and facial recognition, and what is known as the Google panopticon.

”They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” whistleblower Ed Snowden told The Washington Post.

You might think this is fine. Sure, it’s kind of creepy how one minute you’re looking at a Skoda on the internet and the next minute an Octavia ad pops up on your Facebook page. Sure, having your coffee meeting or medical records beamed back to government might be a bit weird. But if you’re innocent it doesn’t matter who knows, right?

Snowden makes this view look dangerously naive.

”Certainly I had the authority to wiretap you, or a federal judge, or even the President … They can go back over your life, every conversation you ever had … and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

And don’t feel protected by distance. The WikiLeaks Party reports 300,000 phone and email intercepts were performed by Australian authorities last year without warrants. As to flicking this stuff on to the NSA? Nothing easier.

So maybe we need to rethink this garden thing. Maybe it’s less a refuge than a cage, with us the sitting ducks.

Twitter: @emfarrelly

Correction: The original version of this story said incorrectly that 5 million orphaned Iraqi children constituted about 14 per cent of all Iraq’s children. It should have said 14 per cent of Iraq’s population.

Not man nor woman, just a blur of genders

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

What is the meaning of sex? That was the question before the court. Justice Beazley, AO, presiding, may have been thankful it was the noun, not the verb, on which she was required to deliberate. Defining the verb – deciding what it means to have sex – might have taken the court into the next millennium. As it was, ”sex” was restricted to ”gender”. What is gender? Even that took a while.

”It’s a boy!” or ”it’s a girl!” This exultant peal of the gender agenda is, as any Call the Midwife fan knows, the first utterance that most humans hear. To most of us it seems obvious and innocent.

But from outside the boy-girl gender camp, from the no-man’s land of ambiguity, this simple declaration might easily seem more sinister; a deliberate and irretrievable locking of the birth-triumph to gender dualism.

Which may explain why Norrie looked equally triumphant last week when the NSW Court of Appeal declared hir officially gender-free. (And no, that’s not a typo; hir and zie are the recognised non-gender pronouns.)

These days – now that we can sex a child when it is still the size and consistency of an avocado – birth is less of a player in the gender games. But that only entrenches the genderisation process. By birth, many a child’s gender is fully fitted, colour-coded and ready to wear. This has always seemed to me a simple descriptive act, cultural clothing for nature’s given form. But what if that’s wrong? What if the garment is actually a mould?

Behaviourists have argued ”nurture” for a century and, clearly, the meaning of ”boy” or ”girl” is partly cultural. But what if the distinction itself is illusory? If the birth or pre-birth genderising is actually more creative than descriptive?

Norrie, born a boy, underwent (what was then called) sex-change surgery before deciding womanhood wasn’t for hir either. This began the long battle for official recognition as being of ”non-specific” gender.

As Justice Beazley found: ”The word ‘sex’ … does not bear a binary meaning of ‘male’ or ‘female’ … There are other sexual identifications that may be registered.”

On the face of it, this decision simply puts a third box on the birth form, as already exists for passports, validating the small group of people who are born neither male nor female. This is good – but the ripples are far broader and more interesting.

The court didn’t just recognise Norrie’s right to gender-neutrality. It also accepted that the determinants are part-psychological. Norrie is ungendered because that’s how zie feels.

Justice Beazley quoted a 1993 case: ”Sex is not merely a matter of chromosomes … [but] also partly a psychological question (a question of self perception) and partly a social question (how society perceives the individual).”

Add to this the vast array of hermaphroditic, intersexual, non-sexual and transsexual possibilities and the fact that ”male” brains often occupy perfectly standard female bodies and vice versa – and the entire landscape changes. Suddenly there’s the tantalising thought that gender may actually be a spectrum.

Norrie’s opponent was the NSW Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. We have constructed these as life’s three pinch-points, moments demanding propriety. The rest of the time you can wander off into as much weirdness as you like but for birth, death and marriage you must be unambiguously named, typed and tagged.

Until now. If there are three gender choices, why not more? Why not an array?

We see gender as fundamental. Gender is the first thing we know about ourselves and the first thing we perceive about others (unless, as racists, we prioritise skin colour). This is why talk of changing and even querying gender can make you feel queasy. If that can shift, you feel, anything can.

It’s also why so many of the most interesting cultural movements – from Alexandria to Weimar and from ’70s punk to ’90s ”dark cabaret” – have been intent on blurring gender boundaries.

I speak as a boundary person. I like definition. Much of my life is devoted to it, aesthetically, verbally and urbanistically. To me, defining the colours lets them shine more brightly. Yet perhaps gender is an exception. Or perhaps the mistake is to generalise, applying one rule for all.

The history of feminism is, broadly speaking, a continuing progress towards maleness, of one kind or another – from trouser-wearing to public swearing (personal favourite) to promiscuity. A separate process, be it due to oestrogens in the water or expectations in the air, seems to be trending maleness girl-wards, as evidenced by man-boobs, top-knots and house-husbandry.

This may eventually produce a genderless melee, where all colours merge into brown, but it strikes me as unlikely. More probable is an acceptance of a gender spectrum, an extension of ”rainbow politics” to include us all.

Think of it as a sci-fi proposition. What would it mean if sex persisted as a verb but disappeared as a noun? It’d mean accommodating the pronouns hir and zie, as we’ve accommodated Ms – and maybe extending Ms to include everyone.

It’d mean toilet blocks and change rooms, instead of being clumped as male and female, might run from ultra-male one end to ultra-fem the other, with in-betweens self-selecting along the way. It’d end gender-appropriate clothing, behaviours and perfumes and make gender-free parenting look suddenly less nutty.

It’d end feminism, since war requires dualism. End sexist movements such as One Million Women. And end the battle for same-sex marriage, since all marriage would be same-sex. (This might be a jolly good thing, given new studies showing gay marriage is fairer, happier and more enduring than straight). And of course it would change the midwife’s cry. But to what? Maybe instead of ”it’s a girl” or ”it’s a boy” we could practice, ”it’s a [new-four-letter-word-meaning-neonate-sentient-biped-with-near-infinite-potential]”. Hmm, I dunno – what about, say, baby?

Twitter: @emfarrelly

Queen Victoria Building Sydney, from the book Public Sydney
Queen Victoria Building Sydney, from the book Public Sydney.


01 June 2013

Historic Houses Trust and UNSW, 232pp, $95.

“Who’s interested in reality?” asks Peter John Cantrill over coffee under a spreading fig. The deep Sydney shadow, pierced by sunlight and perfumed with sweet rot, is in many ways the perfect setting for this central question of Cantrill and Philip Thalis’s new book, Public Sydney: Drawing the City.

Engine St area, Haymarket.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
General view of Vegetable, Fruit, Fish & Poultry Markets, Municipal Cold Storage & Municipal Stores, Engine Street area, Sydney, c1920 *** Local Caption *** Original file id: 004958.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Lending institution id:<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
NSCA CRS 51/4739 Haymarket, Sydney, from the book Public Sydney
1920s … Engine Street area of Haymarket, Sydney.

This magnificent tome polishes and parses the real, in particular the reality of this place, Sydney. It is a work of heart and mind, fully integrated, for which Cantrill and Thalis should be applauded. Instead, until now, they have been resoundingly punished.

The book opens with Paul Klee’s 1920 image, Angelus Novus. The angel is being “blown by the winds of progress,” Cantrill says, “but sees only history, which it cannot change”. To the future, which is contingent and towards which it is relentlessly pushed, the angel is blind.

For Cantrill, the angel signifies an ideal; an unnostalgic view of past and future, a yearning to confront the real. This desire, to see things as they are and were, in order more fully to imagine how they might be, led to the book.

It began a decade ago, when Thalis and Cantrill were teaching architecture undergraduates at the University of Technology, Sydney. Starting with the Rocks, they decided to use the city as a laboratory – experimenting not with changing it but with seeing and recording what it is and has been.

It may sound dull, but Thalis and Cantrill’s examination of the real Sydney is far from it. On the contrary, it resonates with passion and intelligence.

The authors’ goal here was not a building almanac or style guide but – more subtley and significantly – to understand and map the pattern of public space in this town. This is revolutionary conceptually because it involves a mental flip – from male-brain to female-brain, seeing not the objects but their relationships as the dominant figure. And historically, because it involves reversing Sydney’s disdain for its own experience.

Like da Vinci’s mapping of the human anatomy, Public Sydney is an attempt to educate the mind via the hand, to understand the organism more intimately so as to intervene more wisely. Mapping of this kind, it might be argued, is the source of all culture. Yet even at the most prosaic and literal level, it is an exercise Sydney has disdained.

Britain has its fabulous ordnance survey maps that, like some druidic vellum, ink in the bridle paths and ley lines, the burial mounds and rights of way that crisscross the island kingdom. Rome has Nolli, the 17th-century map celebrated by Aldo Rossi in the 1970s, that shows the city’s public spaces as a flowing lacework, eddying around the Coliseum and through the Piazza Navona.

But Sydney, like some cavalier Kalgoorlie, has spent its short white history wiping out its own traces. Until Google, Sydney has consulted its Gregory’s and thought, that’s a map, right?

In this context, Thalis and Cantrill are indeed revolutionaries; their approach at once scientific, poetic, scholarly, analytical and intensely, enchantingly, visual. Such a document has not been seen before in this country.

The book is a compelling mix, over 200-odd pages, of maps ancient and modern, precinct plans, building plans and sections, photographs and essays.

There are some omissions. Darling Harbour, for instance, is not covered; mainly because UTS, changing to its extreme-theory horse, sacked Cantrill and Thalis before the work was complete. But almost all of the city’s public buildings and spaces are here – its parks and stations, its post offices and theatres and opera houses and cathedrals – are drawn, accurately, minutely and to scale, in plan, section and elevation, together.

Together is the important word here, since for the first time you can see exactly how Barnet’s Australian Museum relates to College and William streets, and to Sydney Grammar. You can see how St Mary’s Cathedral evolved in stages over 150 years, and how Greenway’s St James’ has withstood Sydney’s torrential road-mindedness by linking axially across to the Barracks as if for dear life.

There is some argument over what constitutes “publicness”. Does it inhere in ownership, access, or simply – as with Australia Square – public affection? Does Sydney’s makeshift history add up to a genuine urban enterprise?

Mercifully, both Thalis and Cantrill can write – a rarity among architects – so their essays dealing with these questions are engaging and enlightening, adding sparkle and breadth to a book that, for its drawings alone, should be collected by scholars and institutions across the globe.

Everyone involved in Public Sydney, from then-Government Architect Peter Mould (who first encouraged the sacked and despondent Cantrill and Thalis to publish their work) to the Historic Houses Trust and University of NSW (who did publish it) should be immensely proud.

Wheels turn to what women really want

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

With the country’s car industry disappearing up its own heavily subsidised tailpipe you might think we’d all be frantically buying vehicles. You might hope the industry would be tripping over itself to learn what women, its majority buyers, want. You might expect it to race headlong, full sports mode, into the green century.

No way. New car sales have dipped, after a 2012 high. Broadly speaking, we weren’t buying cars made here anyway (Mazda3 and Corolla being the eternal Aussie faves). Green barely figures in the sales chatter, and the industry is as macho as ever.

Perhaps, since cars are bad, this is good. Yet, strictly entre nous, I’m looking at buying one. And I can tell you this. If I’m even close to typical, what women want from a vehicle is at least as nuanced and contradictory as what they want from sex.

Don’t misunderstand. That’s a good thing. Nuanced and contradictory is authentic. It means we’re approaching this decision as whole, complex people, not robots.

Certainly, it may signify over-choice. Just as you can stand in the shampoo aisle for an hour, paralysed by the variables, so with cars. If it was a Model T Ford or nothing, life would be simpler. Car, no car. A binary decision.

The paradox of choice is that choice eventually makes choice impossible. It becomes an addiction, scouring the net for hours each night, letting the vast array of makes, models and badges persuade you that the perfect car is out there somewhere, if you only turn enough rocks.

Everything (except reality) fosters the belief that, with the right car, you can achieve something like fit.

And this is the complicator. Fit is about interface; not just machine-to-animal interface, but machine-to-psyche. A car is a personality-prosthesis, a mind-mask, an avatar. A car is a self.

Like any prosthesis the car must feel good, look good and work. The first two, bridging from inner to outer, are what I mean by fit. They give the car symbolic, as well as mundane, purpose.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m overthinking it. I see it as a challenge. Cater to that, car industry.

So it won’t shock you to learn that my car-buying is not going well. In fact, I’m finding it surprisingly hard in a kaleidoscope of ways.

My green self is appalled even to be considering such a purchase after an 18-month experimental abstention.

My bluestocking self is shocked to be writing such a shameless selfie in pages until recently considered the last bastion of newspaper objectivism.

And my feminist self is staggered at how hard it is to buy a car, as a woman.

I’ve done it before, but not sans male. Yet I figured it was possible. I’d recently had fun buying my first power tool – no, no, not battery powered, not that sort of fun – and a car is just a big power tool, right?

But the macho market was a surprise. Twenty years ago I told my toddler, ”Darling, if you’re going to be a feminist, you’ll need money. Your own money.”

That was then. Now that women buy more cars than men, the market should be fully oestrogen-savvy, right?

Wrong. In every car-yard I’ve visited (and it’s a few) the sales guys are all men. Not just any men either but, with two notable exceptions, car-men. Petrol-heads. You know the type. Men who do not talk easily to women.

It’s not like I can’t talk torque, or wattage. And it’s not like women aren’t there, behind the desk, on the phone, doing the money. But when the tyre-kicking starts, it’s all men. Which is weird, given that women can kick and talk at the same time.

These guys pester you daily for weeks then, when you ask for their best deal, they want all your personal details and a commitment to buy. They want control.

So imagine their faces, these chaps, when I explain what I want. The perfect car. I’ve had my share of Camrys, Falcons and Charades; sensible cars that forbid emotional engagement, doing the job without gall or grace note.

Sensible be damned. I want a snappy bod, an eager drive, a flattering interior, an edible acoustic. I want it low-carbon, city-chic, frankly muscular, sassy but not vulgar, with an opening roof and a hint of Rilke or Eames. I want it affordable. Oh, and yes, did I mention that? I want it to go. Is that so hard?

Admittedly, I was spoiled by my Saab, my only car-love. But Saab is history. What now?

I’m torn between the temptations of the midlife crisis and the more agricultural appeal of cross-country. Sophisticate or cowgirl? What’s wrong with both?

A citron yellow 1976 Alfa Spider catches my eye. Gorgeous, stylish, and no room for dog or kids. But such a car requires the mechanic boyfriend, and I decide that’s too much to pay.

Plus those old cars are so filthy. Why can’t someone make a 1975 Porsche like Saga’s in The Bridge or a 1962 Volvo like The Saint’s, with a clean engine and USB port, instead of those bug-eyed anime remakes?

But practicality kicks in. The reason I need a car at all – at least my rationale – is I’m planning some country trips, and this is not a continent to do by public transport. So I want a car that can shoulder the load and foot it with the kelpies, as well as zip around the Hood. Hmm.

I test drive everything. Wranglers. Too silly. Golfs. Too chick-lit. Beemers. Too glam. Giuliettas. Too small. Skodas. Too hard. I drive the Prius, the Eos, the Smart, the Yaris and the Volt.

In the end I go back to where I began. The VW Tiguan. It’s not perfect, and neither am I. I may not do it, and if I do, it won’t save the industry. But Lord, I’ve given you fair warning. Stop me if you care, for I may be about to sin.

Twitter: @emfarrelly

No logic to cycle of abuse on roads

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

Here’s a first. Seen tooling around Surry Hills before Easter, a tandem with a difference. The front human is lycra-clad, leaning in, pedalling hard. The other, behind, reclines. He is calm, sweatless, business suited, working the phone. Unsure whether it’s micro-industry or performance art, I log it anyway as a new local life-form, Limosinius cyclus farrellii. The lesser pinstriped cycle limo.

That’s how cycling should be; joyous, energetic, mildly eccentric. Too often it’s the opposite – as in the appalling death near Brisbane of 25-year old violinist Richard Pollett.

For all I know the jury may have been right, earlier this week, to acquit the truckie accused of causing his death, when he was crushed under the wheels of a cement truck while cycling in September 2011.

Many cyclists support Brisbane Bicycle User Group’s Paul French in saying that the state’s rejection of the metre-berth rule allows “bike riders [to] be treated as a mere obstacle”, no more significant on the road than a witch’s hat.

NSW rules do, at least, require motorists to “change lanes when overtaking bicycle riders on multi-lane roads and allow at least one metre space for bicycle riders in a single lane situation.”

Yet even in Surry Hills, the world epicentre of cycle tolerance, two wheels are easily bullied by four. The cycle lanes are great, although the lines are often wonky. But between cycle lanes, you’re in the valley of the shadow of noise-raddled, diesel-stinking death.

Any cyclist knows instantly from the heat and flavour of the four-wheel slipstream whether her passer is friend or foe.

But as you leave Surry Hills, the ambient levels of two-wheel antipathy increase with the square of the distance, along with speed, road-width and resentment. And in a way, that’s what is interesting. It’s not just war. It’s that thing we don’t have: class war.

A few months back, when I stopped to query a man who’d parked his removal truck across the cycle lane – the third such blockage in half a kilometre – he instantly upped the decibels.

”Tell that to Clover,” he yelled. ”She’s such an educated woman.”

He was making some impressive leaps, real Alan Jones specials, from cycling to Clover Moore to education-as-insult, in order to collect them all in one elitist basket. What was he saying, exactly? Decently ignorant blokes drive utes? Good guys pollute? Thoughtfulness is unAustralian?

Blogging about this I was immediately accused by a thousand foul-mouthed trolls of hating the proletariat. (I’m sorry, the what?) Of trying to get the poor truckie sacked or jailed so he couldn’t feed his countless hungry children. In fact, for all they knew, the driver was an unusually rude inner-city gay of private means, moving his own stuff into his penthouse as part of a fitness regime.

So, who’s drawing the stereotypes here?

Throughout, one of my most heinous sins was having a PhD – as though studying, especially studying cities, instantly made you a snivelling green. I am, of course, but the logic is still flawed.

The typecasting cannot hold. Cyclists also drive. Oncologists own utes. Drivers cycle. Cyclists walk, pedestrians skate. People stand and chat in bike lanes. Life is not simple. That’s why it’s worth the bother.

Yes, cyclists are annoying. We’ve all felt it. They’re in the way – and rest assured, they are aware of this. But cars also hold people up. They even hold bikes up. Scoria trucks back across six lanes. Drunks drop their pants in Macquarie Street. None of it elicits the rage that flows so freely towards the cyclist. It’s as if the bike makes rage OK.

The rage comes out as abuse, verbal and gestural – on Wednesday, I was again yelled at by a ute driver.

But it also emerges as serious, life-threatening behaviour, especially too-close passing that forces cyclists to choose their risk; risk being ”doored” by parked vehicles or being collected by moving ones.

A 2009 AAMI report confirmed drivers’ increasing aggression, finding that almost a quarter admit performing risky manoeuvres to vent anti-bike anger. This despite the 2008 NRMA report that found venting their rage makes drivers feel worse, not better.

The cyclist cannot win. She can switch to the bus only lane. This is illegal, and few terrors compare with a vengeful bus, swinging back in so tightly that its rear, articulated end swipes the dirt from your frail front wheel.

She can switch to the footpath – also illegal unless in a shared zone or with a child in tow. This annoys the pedestrians, who rightly defend their right to drift, and unleashes its own perils. My daughter, cycling on a footpath once in Kings Cross, was shoved by an unprovoked pedestrian off her bike into coming traffic.

Or cyclists can ”claim the lane” as it’s known – insisting on her legal right as a vehicle not to be shoved dangerously aside. This is often safest, since it prevents reckless passing, but does nothing to assuage driver fury.

The issue is this. We have three modes of transport – vehicles, bikes and pedestrians – and only two carriageways. Legally, the bike is a vehicle but taxonomically, it is a hybrid, a centaur. Part-car, part-pedestrian, it can slip through traffic and perch at lights for a quick getaway. It can cross with the pedestrians (this should be legal) and slide over traffic islands.

The rules should recognise this third sector and educate all to its existence. Cycleways cannot be everywhere. Where they are absent, etiquette must kick in – based, like all manners, on tolerance, diversity, and a duty of care directly proportional to wheel count.

Twitter: @emfarrelly

Clarification: The original version of this story said it is illegal to ride in a bus lane rather than a bus only lane.

Great cities are governed greatly


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

So, let me get this straight. We know the city is our creative hub, our wellspring of health and mind, our core ecology and by far our majority habitat. Simply, the city is the future. Yet the question of whether to protect our nearest thing to city government is something we need to think about. Yep, that makes perfect sense.

On September 14 a referendum will ask us to enshrine local government in the constitution, recognising its right to exist. Most of us will consider this a footnote but actually it’s more significant than any Abbott-Gillard Botox-and-whack ’em Punch and Judy show.

We never really got local government in this country. The Rum Corps, and its inheritor states, set councils up first to fail, then to blame. When the states feel a spot of rack and pillage coming on, when they want something to sack, savage or eviscerate, the council is there to oblige.

Deliberately underfunded and underpowered, councils are too poor to be competent and too small to be impartial. They are the clapped-out Morris Minors on our governmental highway, the dung beetles of the political ecosystem, hated just for existing when what they really need is recognition, repair and fuel.

Place-making does not figure in the referendum committee’s hefty deliberations, but it should, for governance profoundly affects place.

All flavoursome cities – Barcelona, London, New York, Paris – have strong and entrenched local governments. In Sydney, our islanded city precincts – Darling Harbour, Barangaroo and Eveleigh – show clearly that silo-governance produces poached-egg urbanism. So clear. So simple.

Which is what I was thinking last week, under the orange tree in Margaret Fink’s lovely parterre garden. With me, enjoying the lyrical humour of George Washingmachine and sons, were a group of 30-odd charming Yanks whom I had the pleasure of squiring for a few days around Sydney. They were on a flavour-hunt and several of us were helping.

It’s always fascinating to see your own city through foreign eyes. What struck me repeatedly was just how much more succulent Sydney is than it seems.

Surface Sydney is all idiotic government, trite metaphor and committee-based arts and tourism mediocrity. All flash and dazzle and no heart.

Governments that, not content with shooting bushwalkers and mining the foodlands, now want to log national parks. Planning ministers like Brad Hazzard who litigate for Rio Tinto’s right to dig up the Hunter. Committees that think a giant steel waratah stuck into the Chelsea flower show will convey some truth about the big dry continent.

It’s a view of city as commodity, competing for some global quality-assurance marketing tick. Remember the New South Wow! campaign? Kiss of death.

Localism, by contrast, is the spatial version of the slow movement. Terry Eagleton, once described as a ”Marxist punk with a chip on both shoulders”, argued in the ’90s that the edge was the new centre. Localism – local food, economy, culture – bears him out. Local government, ditto; small, down-low and popular. Very 21st century, I’d say.

Localism understands that, behind Sydney’s dull official mask, lies a city brimming with talent, alive with humour and threaded with astounding narrative.

Last week’s four-day Sydney tour, run by San Francisco-based AFAR, was designed to sip these secret juices. Called experiential (or ”curated” or sometimes ”conscious”) travel, it deliberately engages with the particularity of place – its ideas, its pockets, its people.

At first, some of us were wary. Why spend time without being paid? Some declined. But those who engaged, for fun, curiosity and the pleasure of playing host found themselves entranced.

It started – where else – at the Opera House. In the sparkle of a new harbour day, young soprano Rebecca McCallion and guitarist Bradley Kunda filled the glassy foyer that hangs out over Pinchgut with the loveliness of early-morning Sculthorpe.

Sydney City chief executive Monica Barone talked not about corporate stuff but about being a child of Italian migrants in ghost-town Canberra, forming a street-performance company in self-defence and learning to see the city, with its intricate paths and dogleg narratives, as a form of theatre.

Architect Eoghan Lewis, a self-described ”Utzon head” who runs the Sydney Architecture Walks but looks like a cross between Gandalf and Aragorn, talked about how Utzon learnt from nature, understanding the formation patterns of stone and wind and water in order to reapply them to building.

Lunch at Margaret Fink’s amazing trinket of a house brought local writers and eccentrics together under the wisteria. Dinner, with musket fire, archi-talk and a redcoat band, was at the Barracks.

Wendy Whiteley chatted in Brett’s studio about hobnobbing with Dylan and Joplin at New York’s Hotel Chelsea in the sixties, before inviting everyone to picnic in her secret Lavender Bay garden. John Morse, whose Aboriginal name means ”weaver”, spoke of crying in the dawn in Arnhem Land.

There was the fish market at daybreak with Tetsuya Wakuda, a bridge climb with engineer-raconteur Andrew Prattley, a studio tour with sculptor Janet Laurence, house tour with eco-coach Michael Mobbs, another house tour with Brian Zulaikha and gallery viewing with Anna Schwarz. Mike Archer talked about resurrecting the thylacine and safari guide Charlie Carlow about wildlife conservancy in the outback.

And at day’s end the thylacine barked again, along with an eye-popping assortment of tree spirits, megafauna and life-sized local dinosaurs in the Carriageworks studio of the Erth puppeteers.

Sydney is not innocent. To my mind it is the Caravaggio of cities – sensual, deeply shadowed, pocked with danger and enchantment. Equal parts fecundity and putrefaction, it was born in misery and is at its best when forcing this pathology – this rot – into flower. And that was just the first two days.

What does it have to do with government? Only this. Local flavour is our best defence against globalism, and good local government intensifies it. To do it, councils must be small enough to understand place, big enough to resist the sway of minority nutters and powerful enough to attract the smarts.

Also, it must not be constantly second-guessing developers, the courts or the states. Reform it by all means but, for this reason if no other, give it a right to exist.

We are taken for idiots as others take a gamble on greatness at Barangaroo

Hypocritical: James Packer's proposed hotel and private casino has slipped through the governments Unsolicited Proposals Provision.Hypocritical: James Packer’s proposed hotel and private casino has slipped through the government’s Unsolicited Proposals Provision.

So far I’ve been pretty relaxed about this casino business. I mean, it’s a global city, right? It’s downtown. People do these things. I have no interest in gambling myself, but if a lot of bored rich people want to lose money to other bored rich people, who am I to say they should do it in Vegas or Hong Kong, not here?

It’s not like Sydney’s been keeping itself pure. We abandoned our collective moral cherry some time back: day one, maybe. If you have one casino, why not another? Besides, is there any real difference between high-stakes blackjack and a game of two-up on Anzac Day?

So use is not really the issue. As to process, you can’t get too worked up about whether the thing went to tender. Does fairness even apply, in billionaire-land? Billionaires are people too rich to pay tax. I ask you. Is equity even a concept?

True, this 65-storey tower has popped through the eye of the government’s Unsolicited Proposals Provision, O’Farrell’s version of the Part 3A he so noisily opposed. Hypocritical, you say? Unfair? Arrogant? Well, naturally.

But show me any good Sydney precinct produced by due process – even one – and I’m yours, all the way.

In this case “due process” just means that the landowner, the Barangaroo Development Authority, sets its profit ask then arranges the planning controls to fit. Public interest? Urban design? Bah. I mean sure, slurp, if there’s time. Slurp. But it’s full-on, being vampire in charge of the blood-bank.

A rule of thumb says development quality is inversely proportional to the hyperbole-cloud that surrounds it. On Barangaroo, there are more jargon-riddled pseudo-consultation YouTube clips, and a thicker scattering of words like “iconic” and “breathtaking” and “genius” than there are faux-boulders around Point Keating.

And then there are the buildings already approved, depressing not because they’re tall, badly planned or overbuilt, though all these pertain, but because they’re so damned ordinary.

It’s all just a downer, from the deep mediocrity of Richard Rogers’ half-built Lend Lease towers to the lifeless syntheticism of Keating’s headland park – with column-crammed interior and its conversion of the magnificent sandstone scarp to a deathly concrete chasm.

So, all up, my expectations were low. Yet I’m shocked by what I see.

Lend Lease promised. I swear they promised world’s-best architects for this wretched casino. And as hope triumphed over experience I thought, well, they’ve screwed up Barangaroo thus far, made every wrong move and been complicit in others. But maybe they’ll redeem themselves here, with something at least interesting.

What was I thinking?

The three shortlisted designs are remarkable only for their sameness. Ultra-glassy, cryogenically frozen Dubai-type towers that dwarf the rest of Barangaroo, they all have that ghostly sheen of computer-rendering, yet all claim inspiration from nature.

If Utzon’s Opera House can do biomimicry so, they seem to say, can we. Except that Utzon’s attempts to reapply nature’s principles were genuine. Here, it’s more about photo-shopping a nautilus section onto the press release.

Wilkinson Eyre’s tower tells us it is “reminiscent of three twisting petals.” Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill’s “is based upon…shells and molluscs” and therefore recalls ancient middens. And Kohn Pedersen Fox “is influenced by yacht sails, the bridge itself and the Opera House … [evoking] nautical themes such as a ship’s prow or a heeling yacht.” Uhuh.

Are we so easily bought? This garbage has been trotted out for every harbour’s-edge building in Sydney since the eighties. Does the conversation have to be this idiotic?

They’re not bad architects. In descending order: Wilkinson Eyre (London) did the lovely Olympics basketball arena. Smith and Gill (Chicago) did Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the even-taller Kingdom Tower in Jeddah. And KPF (New York) did Chifley Tower, still among Sydney’s worst, and the failed 1989 scheme for East Circular Quay.

Yet James Packer assures us that “with these sorts of designs, Crown Sydney will be the most iconic … since the Opera House.”

These sorts of designs? Can he not tell the difference either?

Still, all good – since, says Packer, “whoever ends up winning, it’s guaranteed to be a masterpiece.”

Paul Keating, unusually incoherent, says “the idea of sculpting the essence of the sculpting from nature is the right direction to go, rather than simply seeing a geometric building with the hand of man all over it.”

Hmmm. These are smart people. They know it’s drivel. So is it we they think are the idiots?

Truth is, it’s all about the jury. A jury of crass commercial-types gives a crass commercial result. Utzon won the opera house competition only because it was an architect-jury led by design giants Leslie Martin and Eero Saarinen. Otherwise, we’d have had a flat-topped bunker, as here.

The seven-man Sydney Crown jury represented all the commercial interests, but no major design mind. The two architects on board represented the Planning Department and the Development Authority.

Which is to say, government – the same government that benefits with each extra floor, that knows roaring ground-level winds and dull public space is never going to be a voting issue.

Yet it should be. This building will dominate our skyline and shape our most significant public space for decades to come. It is funded by one of our richest citizens and occupies public land. For it to be anything other than absorbingly lovely, enchanting to explore and ultra-green is simply a disgrace.

Choosing the road to adventure

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

A mountain crossing, a ruined pub, a town sucked dry, a picturesque trail under threat.

On Saturday, as we collapse into our mojitos after the citywide SUV-seizure that is the school sport diaspora, we might spare a thought for the road-making venture that, exactly two centuries earlier, started it all.

We might also consider what that first Blue Mountains crossing means for our road-making 200 years into the future.

After lunch on Tuesday, May 11, 1813, 16 exotic mammals powered only by their own 50 legs and a decent dollop of testosterone set off from South Creek, St Marys. The Blue Mountains – a name as redolent as The Hungry Mile – were Sydney’s rampart. They were the beyond-which-not, the shark-infested sea, the end of the possible.

So the explorers must have been conscious that their venture, this first scrape of teaspoon against rock, constituted an attack on the prison wall. But they could not have known how fast and emphatically it would transform the prison colony into a nation.

Farmer Gregory Blaxland (35), surveyor Lt. William Lawson (39) and Acting Provost-Marshall William C. Wentworth (21) were accompanied by convict Samuel Fairs (46), two other convicts, an unnamed guide, four pack-horses and five dogs. They pitched camp that first night at Emu Island (now Emu Plains) on the Nepean and, at nine the following morning, began the arduous climb.

And honestly? I’d rather be with them than the mojito mums. Call me romantic, but I’d sacrifice the clink of ice-cubes and the tang of minted lime for billy tea and creaky leather any day. Yet the thrill of the adventure, and the riches it unlocked, mustn’t blind us to its destructive consequences. For where some is good, more is not necessarily better.

They’re still pretty rugged, those big ole mountains. From down here in the basin, they can seem a bit twee, but that’s because we see the tarot readers and weekend cottages as the whole, not just marker-buoys for what lies beneath. The real Blue Mountains are as treasure-laden as Peer Gynt’s hall, and as dangerous.

Seventeen days in, the explorers gazed upon what Wentworth described as ”an abundant crop of grass of an Excellent quality … superior as a grazing Country to any land on this side of the Mountain”. Unable to get far past Mount York, with their shoes shredded and supplies gone, they were obliged to head home.

But it was enough. Their discovery of the vast inland pastures was attended by wonderment worthy of Ice Age. At Macquarie’s command it was quickly followed by George Evans’ survey, all the way to Bathurst and, the following winter, by Cox’s Road.

The colony’s main highway, until then, was the Parramatta Road, still so dangerously rutted as to lame horses on a regular basis. Yet Macquarie briefed Cox for a road at least 12 feet (3.7 metres) wide ”so as to permit two carts or other wheeled carriages to pass each other with ease”.

Covering 101.5 miles (163 kilometres) of the colony’s most difficult terrain, William Cox built his road in seven months. (Compare this with the years the RMS has spent so far on ”improving” the same road, and still only half done).

The effect was dramatic. Sheep poured through, like they were the ones imprisoned, headfirst to the grasslands of genuine economy. Within a decade, one-third of the colony’s sheep grazed west of the mountains. By 1830, wool had surpassed whaling and by 1840 Australia was safely on the sheep’s back.

By then, too, a second road had been marked out, following the Dharug trail from Richmond to Lithgow. The Bells Line of Road (best road name ever) was well-used during the gold rushes, yet it remained unsealed until after World War II, when fear of attack suggested a need to have an evacuation route for Sydney.

It remained steep, narrow, winding and breathtakingly lovely.

It’s also dangerous – though not dangerous by Lawson and Wentworth’s standards, of course; just by the standards of the nanny state. Question is, should it be allowed to stay that way?

Or should it go the way of Cox’s Road which has been gradually smoothed and widened and straightened over its 200 years transforming first, with one or two deviations, into the Great Western Highway and then, under the RMS’ tender care, into a flavourless, super-smooth mega-highway, 10 times its original width and more than 10 times as fast.

I like engineers, as you know. I like their frankness, usefulness and (yes) modesty. But road engineers are the worst. Drunk on power given them by the roads lobby – which is to NSW as the gun lobby is to America – road engineers are dangerous at the wheel.

An image on the RMS website, publicising their triumph over the GWH, reads ”Lawson Pub in a revitalised town centre”. What, do they think we’re blind?

The picture shows Lawson’s gothicky, veranda-encircled pub, heritaged to death, adrift in a concrete ocean half a middie-sized stumble from a roaring eight-lane freeway.

Town centre? Revitalised? There’s more life in a precast gutter on a dry day than in your post-RMS mountain town.

I know what you’re going to say. A road is a conduit, and flow depends on width. The GWH road was a bottleneck, a hazard. Speed is important, as is safety. All that.

I know it because these are the arguments currently aimed by the RMS against their next target, the Bells Line of Road. The Bells’ crash record – 54 per 100 million vehicle kilometres, or 13 fatalities over five years – is roughly twice that of a standard rural NSW road.

But a road is not just a conduit. It is also an experience, a place, a thing-in-itself. And safety is not the only value. There’s also diversity. Choice. So perhaps speed-freaks and pragmatists should take the ultra-fast, ultra-wide flavourless concrete mega-route through these fabled, chasm-riven mountains.

And the rest of us can go with the being-there option, the Bells Line of Road, thrilling to the mountain poetic, the frisson of danger and, like those early explorers, the sheer luck of being alive.

Look backwards to future of design

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

There is a 10-metre section at the centre of the Devonshire Street tunnel where the air never moves.

I formed this thesis one morning after following a fluoro-topped railway worker as he swabbed blood from the tunnel floor. Weeks later, despite the glum hordes who oscillate daily through, the antiseptic reek remained, strong as day one – and no, not through obsessive swabbing, since the blood also stayed.

A city lives or dies on the quality of its public spaces. Be they hard or leafy, accidental or designed, breeze-washed, grimy or secluded, a city’s spaces make plain the delights and addictions of its citizenry. Together, the rhythms, pace and texture of this connective tissue frame the dance of the demos.

Public space is also a form of tax; redistributing the goodies.

Yet the Devonshire Street tunnel, more used than the Opera House, is like some chain store brandy snap. Cream goes in both ends but never quite reaches the middle. What does that say about us?

A wonderful new book, Public Sydney: Drawing the City by Peter John Cantrill and Philip Thalis commemorates, in passing, the expedient birth of this ”miserable pedestrian tunnel” from the 1906 collision of the new Central Station with our main east-west street.

A century on, but just metres away at Darling Harbour, the government writes a billion dollar cheque to repeat the same expedient errors while, up the road at University of Sydney, architecture students revolt against the same costly mediocrity.

Public Sydney is the first-ever collection of scale drawings of Sydney’s public spaces. Our equivalent of Nolli’s map of Rome, it grew from a decade’s painstaking research with UTS architecture students. It is a love-song to Sydney, not as harbour adjunct, but as a made thing, valuable in itself.

It is the greatest work of public-space scholarship seen in this country. Yet in 2006, like Macquarie in 1822, Cantrill and Thalis were unceremoniously sacked for their troubles by UTS. Seems public-mindedness, of the space-making kind, is as tidal as that old tunnel, coming and going with the left and right of political fashion.

As a child I was fascinated by a futuristic MAD magazine I found under the bottom bunk in a borrowed lake shack. In it, two bell-bottomed, peacenik parents, now middle-aged, bemoaned the law-abiding, mortgage-paying habits of their young-adult offspring. Where, wailed the parents, had they gone wrong?

It was my first taste of satire and, naturally, it hid a moral point. We assume that progress is always forward. But here was the suggestion – shocking to my eight-year-old head – that things, big things, could regress.

I had only the vaguest idea of what a hippie was, yet it was clear that the shift being lampooned was not just style. It was the difference between belief in collective creativity – publicness – and selfishness.

Yet now it seems the pendulum swings again. Not only are Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger and the always-excruciating Deep Purple gargling at us from every hipster boutique. Not only are bell-bottoms and aviators back. There is a discernible shift towards public spiritedness, a recognition that we’re all in this together. There’s even student rebellion.

In the ’60s you weren’t a genuine student unless you’d jeopardised your future with at least one sit-in or exam boycott. Now, such events are rare – until last month, when Sydney University’s architecture students staged a build-in.

”Claiming the ownership of space,” Design, Construct, Protest built a number of marginally functional installations in the courtyard. Their beef? Not ‘Nam. Not the right to hallucination as a study method. They wanted to be taught properly, taught enough, in studio.

Studio is the core of all design teaching. Other things – history, structures, lighting – can be taught in lectures. But design, into which everything else feeds, must be taught in studio. You have to sit around and draw ideas.

It’s expensive, because it requires head-to-head connection. But there is no other way to learn to translate idea into form.

As students, we had three-hour studios, four days a week; twelve hours, officially. Unofficially, we ate and debated in studio, studied and drank there, built domes and yurts, painted everything matte black then tiger-striped, and did all-nighters there. Studio was centre of existence.

These students have half that, six hours a week; all they demand is no further cut. Yet 38 per cent cuts have been made. That brings six to four. Sometimes whole weeks pass with no studio scheduled. The students are so desperate that they have started running their own studios, teaching each other.

The dean John Redmond says it’s for the students’ good. ”We are reducing students’ expected workload to enable those with … other responsibilities to complete their … education in an equitable way that does not disadvantage their academic performance …”

Very less is more. You hike the fees then shrink the product so they can earn enough to pay. Perhaps the university would like to cancel teaching altogether?

As if that weren’t private-sucking-of-public-realm enough, consider Darling Harbour, where billions of public dollars and land are deployed to repeat past errors.

They say it’s essential to Sydney’s future, but so little changes. Three massive buildings – convention, exhibition, entertainment – will replace convention, exhibition, entertainment. There’s an extra hotel at the north and some student housing at the south where, at least, streets are extended. Otherwise, same.

The net gains, across a 50,000 square metre development, are a bigger banquet space and a 20 per cent increase in exhibition. Otherwise, same size, same parvenu aesthetic, same blasted public realm, same cold-shoulder to Ultimo, same disdain for public space.

I’m no Darling Harbour fan but honestly, why break so many eggs just to make the same old omelette?


Golden soil needs the female touch

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

We head up country with the roof open. Sunshine dapples through poplar and stringybark as we bowl along, singing our hearts out to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

There’s a crack, a crack in everything (we warble to envious currawongs), it’s where the light gets in … The order is rapidly fadin’ (we screech at alarmed cockies), and the first one now will later be last. For the times they are a-changin’.

It feels like simple nostalgia. The 14-year-old is humouring me with a shared paean to singers who cannot sing, poets who will not die.

But after three days in sheep country, I’m thinking, by God they’re right, these tuneless ones. Never has poet-led revolution seemed more necessary, or more likely.

There is a crack. I like to think it’s a widening one. I picture myself at work with crowbar, prising access for the moted beams. As our eyes adjust, I fondly hope we’ll see things more truly. This is the Big Shift.

Even so, the country seems an unlikely locus. Typically, when I say ”I want to live in the country”, my latte-companion du jour quips, ”Hah! You’d last five minutes, less, before you’re lynched and strung up on a bullbar.”

City people regard country as nine-parts redneck, one-part squattocrat; both rigidly conservative. Country minds seem as surely fenced off from us as the paddocks themselves. This reinforces our sense, received from explorer days, of an atoll-shaped civilisation fringing an inscrutable interior.

But if my recent meanders around Mudgee-Gulgong are any indication, change is afoot. Big time. It’s not just evolution. It’s revolution, in the roundest sense of the word. Not that they see themselves as poets. Hardly. They’re graziers, seed-savers, pasture-croppers, carbon-farmers, cattlemen. Yet there’s evidence of a profound conceptual shift that covers time, nature and gender. Just thinking about it makes my pulse race. Potentially, it’s the biggest thing since modernism; a new renaissance.

At one level, it’s about learning to be Australian. Remember those stories of the First Fleeters almost starving on Sydney Harbour’s fecund shores? It was poverty, not of soil or sea, that caused it, but of their own mindset, which was all but suicidal.

The story of the Australian land, while less dramatic, follows the same trajectory. For two centuries we have poisoned, ploughed, trampled, acidified and salinated, ”killing things that want to live,” fifth-generation Bendigo farmer Darren Doherty notes, ”to grow things that want to die”. Very male.

Only now are we starting to undo this suicidal killing practice, understanding how to feed ourselves for more than five minutes from this unprecedented place. Strategic nurturing; very female.

On the table at Clarissa and David Mort’s farm near Mudgee is Bill Gammage’s recent book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. It concludes: ”If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.”

Mort runs sheep and cattle but describes himself as a grass farmer. ”If you can grow grass,” he explains, ”the rest follows”.

But not just any grass. The grasses on these farms – except a spot of tough-ass kikuyu round the shearing shed – are native.

Native grasses have long been despised as nutritionally inferior. In fact, says Stipa, the Native Grasses Association, they offer excellent nutrition. The also give year-round cover (since growing seasons vary), drought resistance, microbe sanctuary, carbon sequestration, soil stabilisation, poison-leaching and water retention.

The implications are immense.

Colin Seis runs sheep on about 800 hectares near Gulgong. His family has farmed here since before Gulgong existed, but this story starts in 1979. After decades of ploughing, superphosphate, herbicides and exotics, the soil was acidified, starved, compacted, under-microbed and over-salted. Then, exacerbated by this exposure, fire destroyed everything – sheep, fences, buildings.

Forced to start again with nothing, Seis began growing native grasses; self-seeding, self-feeding and perennial. He was surprised to find he could run more stock than before. He also found that the permanent ground-cover and root-matter fought weeds, retained water and stabilised soil temperature, nurturing subterranean microbes and above-ground mammals equally.

Ten years later, Seis heard about time-control grazing, where relatively high stock numbers ”crash-graze” quarter-size paddocks for short periods. Sceptical, he set out to prove it wouldn’t work – only to find it did, dramatically, improving both pasture and yield.

So far so good. But for cropping, he was still a nuke-before-you-sow man – meaning more money for Monsanto, more death to the natives. Until one night, after ”about 10 beers”, Seis and his mate Daryl Cluff wondered aloud why you couldn’t sow directly into grass. Next morning it still seemed a good idea, so they did.

”Two blokes on the piss,” Seis notes, ”aren’t that clever”. And the results amazed them both. Now, 15 years on, Seis saves $81,500 a year on fertiliser, seed and vet costs (since drenching is quartered). Plus each paddock offers three harvests; grain, native grass-seed and a doubled wool yield.

And all this leaves the soil not depleted but rebuilt. A Sydney University study shows that what was 100 millimetres of topsoil on top of rootless compacted clay is now half a metre of rich, loamy topsoil fully threaded with roots. Soil nitrogen has doubled, along with most other nutrients. Soil carbon has tripled. There are no weeds and barely any flies, so Seis – this is major – no longer needs to mules his sheep.

As to poetics, the paddock is a picture of bucolic contentment. Thigh-high golden grasses of 50 different types host 100 bird species, 300 happily grazing sheep and a zillion soil-making microbes. The earth is friable and bouncy to the touch, with a sense of fit never achieved by those bright-green Monsanto monocultures.

There’s poetic revolution here, since it implies unknotting the corporate stranglehold to feed the world without gene-splicing.

And in what Seis says next, with suitable agricultural gruffness. ”We need more women on the land. It’s a nurturing thing, not a killing thing.”

There’s your revolution. City meets country, full circle. And who knows? Maybe there’s a ute-and-kelpie in it for me yet.

Time to stop knocking the past

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

At dinner I sat next to a man whose job it is to resurrect the Bamiyan Buddhas the Taliban destroyed in Afghanistan. Piecing together the desert-picked stone fragments, a team of international scholars virtualises their connective tissue while attempting to ignore the (still massive) politics and the absence of funding. They work on bended knee, begging the film to run backwards, willing the fabled gargantua from the dust.

The ethics are complex. The technology is extraordinary. The dedication is astounding. But what really takes my breath away is devastatingly simple; the sheer single-mindedness devoted to pulverising these sixth-century Silk Road treasures in the first place.

I bring this up because today, of all days, we should honour our past.

Thursday helps mark both Australian Heritage Week and UNESCO’s International Day for Monuments and Sites. But apart from the usual pre-Anzac surge of nationalist sentiment and a flood of cheap-looking-government-websites-with-embarrassingly-bad-graphics, there’s not a blip on the popular radar.

Do we not care? Or do we simply consider the battles won? Do we presume, as with feminism, that an absence of chatter means an absence of issue? (When in fact the diversion of our gaze allows destruction to proceed unchecked).

I listened to my Bamiyan colleague, wide-eyed as Desdemona, thinking, what kind of culture actively obliterates its own treasures? Answer; one that is shallow and insecure. Niggling query; like ours?

We’re not the Taliban, of course. Our anger and philistinism are puny by comparison; mostly, we substitute ignorance or dumb pragmatism.

(These can also work in our favour. My Theory of Australian Conservation holds that rural heritage is preserved by neglect, and urban heritage by corruption – of which more later).

Yet, Taliban or not, we continue blithely to destroy our own beauties and stories at a rate that – per cubic centimetre of treasure or per year of history – easily compares.

I am reminded of that wonderful tale of the irreplaceable Gilbert Scott alabaster reredos (or decorative altarpiece) that, as late as the 1960s, was rowed out by the Anglican dean at midnight and dumped into the waters of Port Hacking.

Of course the motives, there, were moral. (So, they would argue, were the Taliban’s). The centre panel of the reredos showed the crucifixion, which the evangelical Sydney diocese – well, naturally – feared would lead to idolatry and superstition.

Never mind that it had been commissioned for the Cathedral in the 1880s from the world’s pre-eminent Gothicist, Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect for St Pancras hotel, the Foreign Office Whitehall and the Albert Memorial. Never mind that other churches would happily have given it a home. No, the crucifixion had to go.

In the end, the motive is immaterial. Whether driven by devil-may-care engineers, slimy politicians or god-fearing Christians, the end-point is the same; wanton destruction. What makes us, as a culture, do this?

My thesis makes beauty a core human response, as primal as light or justice. Every act, better or worse, is an aesthetic act.

Further, it seems clear that aesthetics, ancientness and our striving for a better world (call this, for the sake of argument, happiness) are linked in ways that we ignore at our peril.

From tourism to cars to property to iPhone sales, we are surrounded by evidence that aesthetics are at least as important to us as utility. As the wonderful Roger Scruton writes, ”the beautiful and the sacred are connected in our feelings, and both are essential to the pursuit of happiness”.

Yet we continue to destroy.

We act as though heritage were a box of dusty attic junk about which no one really gave two hoots; as though beauty were entirely subjective and superfluous and world-betterment a simple matter of doling out the cash between states, schools and institutions.

It’s like some sort of auto-immune disease, where the body’s defence system moves into overdrive, destroying its vital organs.

Take the Anglican church – not because they’re the worst, but because we expect them to be the best. It’s not just the 1885 reredos. In 2009, a historian found, folded and broken in a cupboard, a glorious stained glass window. It turned out to be the tall triple lancet designed by A.W.N. Pugin for St Marks Darling Point.

The only Pugin window in Sydney, it had been removed in the 1920s for reasons unknown and now languishes for want of cash in a restorer’s drawer in Moss Vale.

And just last year, the synod voted to sell Bishopscourt, the Archbishop’s picturesque Darling Point residence, to Band-Aid their massive global financial crisis losses.

Associate Professor Stuart Piggin, expert in Australian religious history, says he pleaded ”in tears” for the synod to uphold ”the appeal of beauty” and resist ”the utilitarianism”. But to no avail.

It’s not just the church. At the other end of the grandeur spectrum – just metres from where Gilbert Scott’s crucifixion scene slid beneath the waves, but marooned in pink-stucco MacMansionland – sits 5 Evelyn Street, Sylvania Waters.

Built in 1865, this modest weatherboard cottage is the oldest liveable building in the shire, the last remnant of the Thomas Holt Estate. It’s a classic, verandah on two sides, lean-to kitchen at back.

Ten years ago, Sutherland Shire Council bought it to restore. Now it looks for all the world like they want it gone – knee-high grass, collapsing roof – and lo! They do.

The council, having diminished the house’s value both by a decade of neglect and by the heritage listing they initiated, resolved in February to seek its own permission to demolish – and of course, flog for redevelopment. With protectors like these, who needs attackers?

The point is this. If even the good guys destroy beauty when it suits them (or their finances), what chance do we have of stopping the bad guys? And what chance of ever building up the kind of cultural treasure-house Afghanistan, even without the Buddhas, has aplenty?

Protecting a cultural right to abuse

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

At what point does autonomy slide into apartheid? Do the rights of a culture outweigh those of its people? Why can’t we talk about this?

The Aboriginal war memorial in Canberra is a small bronze plaque pinned to a rock in scrubby bush, 10 minutes – a universe – from official Australia’s pompous mausoleum and inscribed with words you have to squat to read.

It’s almost like deliberate symbolism: ”We tolerate you blacks but, basically, what goes down in the bush, stays in the bush.”

We are people of conscience. Every week we’re shocked by another Indian rape, sharia stoning or fresh evidence that the German people ”must have known”.

As Anzacs we stand (and fall) for decency and truth. A fortnight hence we will honour the fair go, the level ground, the open heart, the unforked tongue and the clear eye. So we like to think.

Yet there is a snake writhing in our midst that we cannot bring ourselves to see or even name.

To the pack rapes, genital mutilation, arranged marriages, wife beatings and routine child sex at the heart of our continent we turn a blind, terrified and – truly – conscience-stricken eye. A recent Sydney Institute talk by academics Stephanie Jarrett and Gary Johns laid it bare. Indigenous violence, they argued, is not ”our” fault. Although alcohol-exacerbated, it is endemic to pre-contact indigenous culture.

They are not the first. Many distinguished writers including Peter Sutton, Louis Nowra and Nicolas Rothwell have documented these horrifying stories, supporting observation that goes back to the First Fleet’s Watkin Tench. These writers had nothing to gain. They must have known they’d be reviled by their own demographic, so it’s hard to impute motives other than frankness.

In Another Country (2007) Rothwell wrote that “a pathology of violence, pornography, promiscuity and sexual abuse has taken hold”, in remote indigenous communities. The book shone with a love of Aboriginal people and culture, yet Rothwell was accused of being an assimilationist-sympathiser.

The same year, English teacher Jenness Warin and UNSW mathematician James Franklin wrote a paper entitled Aboriginal Communities: Why the Trade in Girls and Other Human Rights Abuses Remain Hidden. Warin was accused of trying to empty Aboriginal lands.

Also in 2007, Nowra wrote Bad Dreaming, his unflinching omnibus of misogynist violence and routine child rape in central Australia. Reviewers, although shocked, continued to blame European impact and insist that Nowra’s white-male view was inherently skewed.

What, does rape look different if you’re brown? Does it feel different? Matter less? Is that what we’re saying?

Reviewer Jan Richardson voiced the standard view. Rather than seek the root of violence, she argued, we should try to improve indigenous men’s grasp of capitalism, hoping that “social inclusion and … positions that bring men the kind of esteem and authority they earned when their cultural milieu was unhindered by a foreign philosophy might promote fulfilment and reduce anger”. Our fault, our responsibility.

But Nowra’s question – whether indigenous male violence was intrinsic to pre-contact tribal culture – is core, and should shape our entire policy approach to indigenous development.

If violence is endemic, self-determination emerges as an error of tragic proportions.

White liberalism habitually sees all criticism of indigenous culture as right-wing racism. This effects a self-censorship that is profoundly racist – talk about anything, just not this – and, argue Jarrett and Johns, breathtakingly cruel.

We’ve had the stories. With a care and acuity one can only wish was more typical of academia, Jarrett and Johns array the evidence. Sadly, it is compelling.

Alice Springs politician Bess Nungarrayi Price, who writes the foreword in Jarrett’s Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence (Connor Court Publishing 2013), was raised in traditional culture and has the scars to prove it. “Men had the power of life and death over their wives,” she recalls. “Young girls were forced into marriage with older men.”

Jarrett documents many current instances of the “customary rape of young women (often as part of a group deflowering ceremony) and sexual abuse of children”.

Official statistics show black-on-black violence to be three times higher in remote communities than urban, and four times higher against women than men. Hospitalisation for family-related violence is 30 times more likely for an indigenous person than a non-indigenous.

There’s also paleopathology showing that cranial injury from attack was almost four times higher, pre-contact, in women than in men.

It’s not just booze. Indigenous alcohol consumption is falling, but the violence rises. Men who are peaceable in the city revert to routine violence in remote cultures. Women who are young and successful in the city return to tribal culture, becoming trapped in violence and coercion.

Therefore, argues Johns in Aboriginal Self-Determination, the Whiteman’s Dream (Connor Court Publishing 2011) current ”self-determination” policies are not only massively wasteful – throwing billions of dollars into a black hole of impossible service provision in remote areas – but condemn women and children to lives of unconscionable brutality.

They could be wrong. This could be a massive conspiracy. There could be other explanations of the damaged skulls, the violence, the abuse.

If so, these counter-arguments should be put. Instead, we have emotion, ridicule and snide personal attack.

The Monthly’s John van Tiggelen wrote a snarky, gossipy review dissing Jarrett (”tremulous”, ”slightly posh”), her PhD (”human rights before cultural rights”), Johns (”a Howard man”), their publisher (”a bush operation”) and their audience (”white-haired white men”), as though ipso facto outing their secret belief that, in his words, “once a savage, always a savage”.

But to talk truthfully of violence is not to undermine Aborigines. Two centuries ago white Australia was also violent and abusive. It is the rule of law that dragged us out, protecting weak from strong.

And that’s the crux. Endemic or not, this violence is illegal. Condoning as ”customary law” what we would never countenance for ourselves is not autonomy. It’s apartheid.

As Price notes, “the best thing about acknowledging … our own traditional forms of violence is that … we can fix ourselves. We don’t need to be told what to do by the white man.”

So let’s have the discussion without the ridicule, since if it can’t be discussed, it can’t be fixed.


Bullying opens a can of norms

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

Bullying is very big right now. Suddenly everyone’s a victim. It’s no longer just ambos, shopgirls and one in four schoolchildren. Bullying, like silverfish in your woollies, has gone top drawer.

Leading prosecutors, scientists and judges are all being bullied at work. Everyone from Kathy Lette’s autistic son to James Packer himself is a target. This, surely, is sit up and take notice territory.

But wait a minute. If bullying is everywhere, doesn’t that make it by definition normal? And if it’s normal, can we change it? Should we?

When you google ”bullying lawyers”, half the hits are for lawyers being bullied, and the other half for lawyers touting to help you litigate it. Bullies for hire.

So what are we saying exactly? Bullying is OK if you’re getting paid to do it but bad if it’s just a hobby?

Bullying is about power, and as primates we are power creatures. Put three humans in a room and their first act, even before the fight-or-flight, is to establish the power relationships between them. Power – specifically power over each other – is our medium, as natural to us as breathing. Bullying is simply the misuse of that power.

Of course, being natural doesn’t make a thing good. But it does mean, to pluck it out, we’ll need some serious precision tweezers.

Governments do what they can, but precision doesn’t figure highly.

Take last month’s National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. The website,, offers (with help from its self-validating sponsors, including Channel “boned” Nine) a fully downloadable propaganda barrage of posters, press-kits and faux-hand-decorated Certificates of Congratulations. (Congratulations on what? On bullying? Not bullying? Surviving?)

Only marginally more acute, the NSW public schools website defines bullying as “repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological behaviour that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by an individual or group towards one or more persons”. It includes name-calling, physical aggression, social abuse like ignoring or ostracism, psychological abuse including rumours, dirty looks and nasty texts. It can happen anywhere and can traumatise even bystanders.

I suddenly realise I’ve been bullied most of my life. Picked on at school, tick (those horrid girls). Sexually harassed, tick (those lacy knickers, the perfume). Unfairly sacked, tick. Yelled at by those I trusted, tick. Lied about and abused in public, tick. Crumbs, I can hardly think of a boss in my life who hasn’t acted that way.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s OK for her. She’s tough. Different if you’re an Asperger’s child or a – well, a top prosecutor on half a million a year. Poor sweeties. But I’m not tough, just resilient – and that perforce. As Churchill said, and I paraphrase, success is simply the ability to keep on getting up off the floor, bloodied and with your feathers awry, and stagger in a direction approximating forward.

Sure, I make light of it, but there is serious bullying. People – teenagers, nurses, lawyers, scientists – are driven to suicide. They’re not just being pathetic. Not wimping out.

To isolate the trigger behaviours, though, we must first define them in a way that is not downright idiotic, being very clear about the difference between power’s use and its abuse.

We must also ask the unaskable: is there a systemic issue here? Does its ubiquity imply that bullying has been, evolutionarily speaking, useful? Is it still?

Humans can be divided into managers up and managers down. Usually, the managers down are nice, but the managers up are successful. Turds float.

In a corporate situation I, brought up to defend the underdog, reflexively nurture those beneath and deliver a straight right to the jaw of those above, telling the truth as I see it. Sadly, this behaviour is seldom appreciated, which is why I now work for myself (toughest boss ever).

Successful corporate behaviour, by contrast, kicks down and sucks up. In schoolyard terms, this is bullying. In corporate and government spheres, it’s just managing up.

This establishes an invisible line below which people are required to be nice, and above which they are expected to be ruthless. Below which heart, above which, head.

This is at its barest, a class system: a system that is itself a bully.

The difference between power’s use and its abuse is quite simple. The test is, who benefits. It’s like parenting. Tough love is good if, and only if, it benefits the child. If it’s about the parent’s gratification or benefit, it’s bullying.

On this test, we are habitually bullied by governments that use power to impose decisions which disbenefit the public while benefiting donors and mates.

When James Packer gets special treatment on his casino, or when the Obeids evade their $17 million smart pole while handing out coal licences to their creepy mates, that’s bullying.

When RMS refuses to repair derelict road bridges across NSW but devotes millions to destroy the one bridge that everyone (except the coal seam gas industry) wants to keep – one of the oldest in NSW, at Windsor – that’s also bullying.

And the consequences are not just personal. They’re societal.

Doctors who might usefully critique the health system are routinely silenced by punitive contracts. CSIRO scientists are habitually gagged by managers whose commitment to genetic modification derives from Big Agriculture funding. As former chief research scientist Art Raiche says, “scientific independence has been lost”. As to judges, the mind boggles.

Handing our core truths over to the robber barons in this way is a perilous practice. Like all bullying, it flourishes in closed and self-regulating systems, so we assume exposure is the answer. But there’s not enough public scrutiny in the world to watch everyone, all the time.

It used to be God’s job, watching the unwatched, but we are determined to go it alone. This is an experiment, civilisation without the Great Scrutineer. To pull it off we’ll need to get a whole lot better at doing the right thing just because it’s right.

Dunno about you, but I’m not holding my breath.

Nailing the cross to mind and body

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch</i>Illustration: Simon Letch

This is a column about whether worship is grounded in biology. I approach it with trepidation since I am frequently scolded, even by those such as Philip Adams, whose opinion I revere, for over-egging. I stuff my columns, they say, like Christmas stockings. I link them too gladly and brachiate too easily from branch to unconnected branch.

And although I try to be singular, here I am, again seeking your indulgence for linkages that some say should never be made.

It’s not just perversity or entertainment, though I do have a mind that reaches for coloured baubles.

Tracing these connections is for me the business of existence and, I think more broadly, the key to survival. Plus if Easter is not a time for courage in the face of scorn, and indeed for over-egging, what is?

Perhaps I should table my baubles du jour: a dragon, a ship, a reef, a world in danger, a species in need, a bodily organ, a philosopher, a ritual practice and an ancient symbol. Here be magic.

So to Missy, the pygmy bearded dragon who lives on my kitchen bench, three years old and gravid for the second time.

This in itself is a kind of Easter miracle since Missy’s mate, Zip, died months ago in a mid-stair catastrophe (emphasis on the cat). But because these amazing creatures store sperm, Missy has half a dozen pregnancies still in her and a hundred or so young, all from a single glimpse of conjugal heaven.

Right now, as equinoctial sunshine fills the kitchen, Missy basks, motionless, hyper-alert. Naturally – or unnaturally – her sun has help: a UV lamp for mites, heat for energy. And it is the heat lamp that receives her rapt adoration. Big-bellied, straight-legged, stone-still she gazes, drawing energy for the hunt that will nurture her hidden eggs.

Mostly I see it as yoga, a reptilian Salute the Sun. This seems apt since what Missy presents – as my mental yogi’s voice enjoins ”open your heart, let your collar bones smile” – is a perfect rendering of Bhujangasana, or cobra pose.

But it is Easter. So as pilgrims across the globe prepare to flagellate, self-gouge and crawl on sharp rocks to manifest the (very yogic) tension between agony and ecstasy, I see in Missy’s vertical stretch another kind of worship also. Easter rising.

I know. Anthropomorphism, tut. But perhaps this really is worship, or something like it? Worship, properly performed, opens your heart, fills you with a warmth and energy, fuels your life and your future. That’s the idea. Is it so different?

And – this thought struck me anew as I sat in climate-destroying traffic for hours recently, attempting in vain to get to the climate-saving Rainbow Warrior – would we not benefit from a little more worship in our stance?

Hmmm. Challenging. And I confess, worship is not my natural attitude, though I try to keep up my downward-facing dog. Worship is a vertical stretch. Perhaps a little more worshipful dragon and a little less arrogant frog would enhance our prospects of survival.

I was in Auckland when the first Rainbow Warrior was bombed. It was a big deal and not only because, for years after, Kiwis needed visas to visit France. It was the sheer depth of European colonial arrogance that blew everyone away.

Richard Sennett, the much-loved scholar, blames Christianity for this arrogance and for the restlessness and anonymity of modern culture. And certainly terrible things – wars, burnings, abuses – have been enacted in its name.

Yet if we focus for a minute not on the shadow of the cross but on the symbol itself, a different light is shed.

Christianity is famously prepared to embroider its rituals onto a pagan substrate – the birth onto winter solstice, Easter to spring equinox, the eucharist onto blood sacrifice and so on. Some see this nature-rootedness as a dilution of Christianity’s potency but I see it otherwise, as an intensifier.

Which brings me back to Missy. At one level the dragon’s sun-stretch is simply biological. On top of her head is a parietal or ”third” eye, a specialised, photosensitive evagination or scale that enhances her hunting and predator avoidance by alerting her to shadow movement. It also links directly to her pineal gland, which regulates melatonin production and controls the diurnal and seasonal body clock.

But biology is never simply biology. In humans, excepting mystic metaphor, the parietal eye is absent. But the pineal gland remains, mid-brain, regulating melatonin, sleep and all things circadian. It is also linked to seasonal affective disorder, serotonin and depression. It makes Norwegians crave sunlight in winter and, when satisfied, bestows a general sense of wellbeing or adjustedness that spreads warmth like honey through the veins and feels for all the world like love.

Uncannily, since the science was then scant, the 17th century rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes, author of mind-body dualism, regarded the pineal gland as the ”principal seat of the soul”. It was, he said, the point at which mind and body connect.

And so we come to the symbol, the cross. The much more ancient Egyptian ankh, or Coptic cross and the Greek chi-rho (a superimposed X and P) are quite different, since the hooped head resembles a human figure.

The Roman or Christian cross, by contrast, comprises two intersecting axes, the X and the Y (again, thank you Descartes). To my mind – and this is a shamelessly personal interpretation, unvalidated by any theologian living or dead – the X is the human world of outreach and compassion. The Y-axis is the rising sap, the entropy-defying stance, the figure on the salt lake, the yearning for truth and justice, the god-stretch.

Vertical and horizontal. Justice and compassion. Head and heart. And the crossing point, the origin, the belly button of the world? That, I think, is love.

The Chinese buyout has just begun

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch</i>Illustration: Simon Letch

The plump Chinese boy plays his smartphone while the grandfather, his only table companion, orders yum-cha. Of course, it could be any child, any grandparent, but the scene reminds me of the day my six-year-old came home from school in tears. Her half-Chinese bestie, a lovely kid, was family-friends with a Chinese boy who insisted that Chinese should neither marry nor befriend white people.

That was eight years ago, when it was still seeping into our consciousness that racism could go both ways. In the same eight years, China’s share of world savings has risen from 10 per cent to 25 per cent; a tenth to a quarter in less than a decade.

It’s remarkable how much easier this is to discuss now that China is explicitly on top – which suggests that our prohibition on racism may actually relate less to race, per se, than a reflex; a post-Christian defence of the underdog. In any case, how different things look when one is oneself, so to speak, under the dog.

As commerce professor Douglas McWilliams told a gob-smacked London audience last month, China’s ”savings glut” must eventually put 25 per cent of the world’s assets in Chinese hands. Further, because China’s gross domestic product is just 12 per cent of the world total, and slowing, half that investment must be outside China.

Here, for example. Last Friday, I learnt two new things. One, that one of Sydney’s most venerable architectural firms, PTW, had been bought by a Chinese construction company for $15 million.

Two, that so desperate is Australia for such investment, so eager to flog our cultural chattels, that we have fitted our ”impartial” immigration system with a special moneyed-person’s loophole. The Significant Investor Visa sells permanent residency to anyone who invests $5 million or more over four years in buying, well, Australia.

Entry to heaven may be a problem for the rich, but entry to Australia? No worries.

And somehow selling shares and coal mines – even Cubbie Station – is one thing. But selling our cultural stuff, that’s another.

PTW, then Peddle Thorp, designed Sydney’s first skyscraper, the curved AMP building on Circular Quay, and all Sydney AMP buildings since. (They also designed the Water Cube, with China Construction Design International, their new owners). PTW director Andrew Andersons declares himself “full of enthusiasm” for his firm’s more moneyed future.

Likening it to AMP’s trundling of PTW into south-east Asia in the 1960s and ’70s, Andersons sees the takeover bringing more work, not just in China and Australia, but also in Africa and India – better staff, more resources, and more graduate exchange opportunities. “I see no negatives at all,” he says.

Perhaps he’s right. In London, in the ’80s, when Harrods was bought by the al-Fayeds, I was more shocked by the “Madam, if you have to ask the price you do not belong here” attitude than the ownership change, or the throngs in black burqas.

Yet the China Syndrome is different. Different in sheer size – from the ’80s oil sheikhs, and the American empire – in that the ownership we’re talking is no longer metaphorical, but real.

What will it mean? Architects this week; next week, what? Lawyers, doctors, artists? Schools, film companies, medical centres, newspapers, department stores, footie teams, childcare? Why not entire towns? Kalgoorlie? Newcastle?

There’s less talk in public, for fear of racist accusations – Yellow Peril? White Australia? There’s also, a decade into the Chinese century, fear of regimentation and reprisal.

China’s Silent Army, a recent book by Spaniards Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araú´jo, is subtitled “remaking the world in Beijing’s image”. It details the dozens of Bordeaux wine chateaux and Italian fashion houses now Chinese-owned; the port of Piraeus in Greece, the high-end property in New York and London and the shares in both Thames Water and nuclear power stations.

“From Tehran to … Peru, from Luanda to Hanoi,” they write, “the rise of the giant is happening on an overwhelming scale, still disguised by … lack of transparency.”

And ownership is, well, ownership. There’s a great scene in an old episode of House, where billionaire Ed Vogler, having bought board chairmanship for $100 million, tables a motion to sack Dr House and any supporters. Finally, hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy stands up to him, telling the board, “if you think [we] deserve to go, then vote yes. But if you’re [just] afraid of losing his $100 million, then he’s right. He does own you.”

Cuddy wins, although her victory is bitter-sweet. But in real life, the world is that teaching hospital, and China is Chairman Now. Doubt not. When China owns enough of our stuff, it can and will call the tune.

Question is, will it be a tune we wish to sing? There are two answers. One is the unabashed autocracy that seems to sweep away Beijing hutongs and childhood play in the same ruthless breath, replacing them with cookie-cutter towers, Dubai slavery, dragon mothers and Sydney schools where, as the saying goes, “96 per cent is a Chinese fail.”

The other is that, as cultural researcher Greg Noble notes, “any skill, be it in maths or music or sport, is an habituated skill”. The best example of this is the wild and entrancing creativity shown by contemporary Chinese art, such as the new Smash Palace show at White Rabbit.

It’s everything art should be; cheeky, beautiful, rude and deeply thoughtful. But this creative ferment is due partly to the disturbing fact that art thrives on repression. Ours is flaccid. Theirs is exciting. It’s exciting because it critiques the way greed, corruption and autocracy are spreading fear and anxiety in China, which in turn is why it can’t be shown there. Hmm. Figure that.


The twist boomers just didn’t bank on

<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare</i>Illustration: John Shakespeare

Are you ready for the moment when you meet your daughter’s boyfriend – or girlfriend – naked on the stairs? Apart from keeping your eye steadfastly above the horizon, how will you respond?

Households are changing, and the implications for our cities and psyches are more complex than you think.

It’s not just the fact that, with house-size doubling and family size halving, we each have four times as much living space as our grandparents.

Nor is it just that SANK and TANK households (single adult no kids and two adults no kids – and yes, I invented the acronyms) are the fastest growing groups, or that kids are staying home till they marry or that the population is ageing or that gay couples are changing the definition of wedlock.


All that is true, and truer in cities than out of them. So for Australia, the world’s most urbanised nation, these issues are bleeping especially red.

But as climate change heats the competition for land, food and water, honing our cities as engines of enchantment and survival will become both more difficult and more crucial.

Changes to the meaning of ”home” may be radical, and are already shaping your relationship (or mine) with the man on the stair.

At the time, your response to l’homme d’escalier might range from outrage to embarrassment to gracious equanimity. Possibly in that order. You might shake hands and introduce yourself, skipping gaily across such questions of etiquette as whether first names or full are indicated in such moments of wildly unequal age and exposure.

But this is a scrape for which history offers no guide. Yes, there have been extended families before. And yes, teenagers have had sex before, even random, wanton sex. But never have the two come so quite close together.

Not even the baby boomers – who, after all, pretty much invented sex, and are now the ones meeting unknown chaps on their stairs – expected to ”do it” under their parents’ roof.

Proximity changes everything. For the ex-boomer parents, so surprised, it’s not just the sex. The make-love-not-war generation makes light work of sexual tolerance. More challenging is the power stuff.

An adult or near-adult child is one thing, but a sexually bonded couple, in your nest, is another. Suddenly, this kid whom you have loved and nurtured and ferried through vile traffic to a thousand soccer games has manifest allegiances in another direction. One is offspring but two is a gang, a threat to your authority on your own turf. Interesting.

For the boomers this represents two own goals, sexual and economic.

First, in making sex so central to their youthful rebellion, the boomer generation adopted a permissiveness that requires them, now, to embrace such behaviour in their own kids – which automatically shifts sex from rebellion to normalcy.

The second own-goal is the same – only in housing.

When the boomers were young and rebellious and leaving home (in order to have sex) they moved from leafy suburbia into cheap, inner-city housing.

Personally, as a late boomer in Auckland, when I moved I paid $4 a week for a big corner room in a spreading timber villa on a quiet acre of land a stone’s throw from that city’s harbour bridge. Its corner French doors faced north-east and opened to a fretwork verandah. Water-reflected light danced on the army-surplus silk parachute suspended from the ceiling.

Urbanism felt hip and rebellious: to demand a life of busy streets, sidewalk cafes and radical-chic bookstores the size of postage stamps (and still grow your own veges) was part of refusal culture. We were different.

And so it proved. For that very shift, and the consciousness that went with it, means inner-city housing will never be dirt cheap again.

Naturally, the house under the bridge is long gone, bulldozed for fashionable apartments for the young, cashed-up (or parent-funded) urban insects.

The irony is deep. So successful were the boomers in re-vogueing the inner-city that their children cannot buy in.

Instead, these new chicks remain in the chic parental nest, wooed by location and embraced by permissiveness, challenging their parents’ authority not by leaving but by remaining.

So the boomers, who made share-housing a political platform, find themselves sharing once again. Thus, with a twist of lemon, do chickens come home to roost.

At the same time these same boomers – the first of whom are hitting 65 – are moving their parents into nursing homes.

This, too, I have endured; the most excruciating experience of my life, bar none. The hospital decided that my mum – my fierce, poetic, compassionate musician of a mother – was too sick to stay there. She was dying, so she was thrown out. Well, naturally. By car and wheelchair we had to taxi her around, vetting end-stage care institutions for a woman who could no longer speak or walk or eat. Imagine.

Boomers, by and large, undertake this exercise with a deep gut-dread and a silent vow to self: anything – anything! – but this. So another kind of neo-sharing is also on the agenda. Namely, how to get old(er) in a way that is creative, vital, unorthodox, urban and, at least partly, enjoyable. How to age with cafes at your fingertips, chooks on your roof and choices on your menu.

It’s not simple. Modernity taught us all to expect our own grass-moated castle and, within it, our own private keep. This expectation makes us unhappy but, like our waistlines, continues to bloat.

Sharing is not easy. I shared a bedroom as a child, and have the bite marks to prove it. But many children now feel entitled to not only private bedrooms but private bathrooms. Can that be anything other than retrograde?

For rest assured, on a shrinking planet, sharing will come. Our private bubbles must diminish and our communal bubble expand. The coming century will be defined by our skill in choreographing this dance between the one and the many. If we start now, it can still be fun.

Quite white thinking at Green Park

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

My dad liked all things heterothermal (his word). The term betrayed his scientific training but the underlying principle – which embraced the various conjunct pleasures of hot steak with cold beetroot, warm bedding with cold feet or hot baths in chill night air – was about as close to a genuine aesthetic precept as he ever came. Opposites don’t just attract, they exhilarate.

I was reminded of this recently in the famed bronze-age thermal spring of the alpine village of Vals, Switzerland. And again, more distantly, at the Green Square library and plaza launch in Sydney.

It is rare, these days, to find architecture that plays to the non-visual senses. Peter Zumthor’s serene quartzite caldarium, the Vals Therme, is such a work.

We headed there, as it happened, just as Zumthor headed to London to receive the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal, speaking to a capacity audience on the importance of “all the things which are not form”.

We arrive late, having contrived to board the Vienna train instead, and in the dark and swirling snow wind our way up the frozen mountain then down the icy track, where the restaurant, kept open specially, is ear-shatteringly invaded by Viking-horned, woad-smeared, cowbell-clanging revellers. Carnivale is not restricted to Rio.

So when we finally sink into the glowing midnight waters we feel distinctly deserving of their benificence. We have been prepared.

The water is turquoise, the colour of glacial melt. Lit only from within, it is close enough to body temperature to remove all sense of physical existence below the neck. Talking is banned at these midnight swims, and Zumthor’s grey stone slabs drop into the water in sheer planes that amplify the silence.

Your body is gone but out there, in minus 18 degrees, your face is fully alive, spritzed by the silent swirl of snow and steam and stars. Soon humanity itself seems abstracted to these floating moon-faces, silvered by reflection from the mountain’s massive snowy flank. Nothing exists but bare flesh, white towels, grey stone, water, steam. Mountain.

Two days later I bowl up to meet the man who designed this astonishing experience. He also designed my other favourite building, the Bruder Klaus Chapel in northern Germany, perhaps the world’s only example of the lost-tree-trunk method of ecclesiastical construction. So this is a kind of pilgrimage.

Zumthor is famously taciturn and, to be honest, this is part of his attraction. I’ve never entirely understood why architecture, the least erudite professions, is so focused on what you can only call wankery. But any architect who manages without thick layers of this smear-on unguent has my immediate respect, especially if he can do spatial poetics like Zumthor.

It’s 8.30am, still snowing heavily across rural Graubunden canton. Haldenstein is too small for hotels but the taxi driver, delivering me from neighbouring Chur, knows exactly where to go. Seems all visitors here head to atelier Zumthor.

Zumthor’s office is a purpose-built timber barn – or possibly nave – fitted with his trademark cantilevered matte-black steel entrance-box. It makes a good look against snow.

The barn brims with reverent global 20-somethings, now so numerous that they spill over into the adjacent house, a concrete and glass work worthy of Swiss moderns Atelier 5. Here, though the floor is polished concrete, guests must don felt slippers. It has the required devotional effect.

I mean to ask Zumthor about order and disorder in his work; to examine the play of newness and age, the urbane and rustic, line and volume, still life and the other sort.

I’m curious about whether he sees these counterpoints as, in their own way, heterothermal. Perhaps he answers this question, although not at all in the way I am expecting.

Zumthor comes late to the interview and leaves early. He does not wait for me to question him but launches into a story that is strangely reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House; a Valser tale of dirty tricks, meeting stacking and dirty politics.

The 10-year Vals narrative pitted Zumthor and his wife, Vals resort manager Annalisa Zumthor-Cuorad, whom he describes as “the soul of the hotel”, against board chairman Remo Stoffel, his tycoon backer Pius Truffer (owner of the local quartzite quarry, with massive property interests in Dubai) and eventually, the town. Vals may look like a child’s idea of Switzerland, but even under a very thick quilting of snow, it has its secrets.

Stoffel has been subject to many court actions and more are pending. Meanwhile, the Zumthors have been shut out. So le grand architecte is driven to ask me, how does it feel, now? Does it feel neglected, sad?

Vals is his child, his opera house, and rightly he fears yielding his created order to the forces of disorder and entropy; fears what will come when the invisible bulwarks against chaos are breached.

The Green Square library and plaza winner is less heterothermal than heterospatial, and not (yet) subject to organised crime. Here, the 20-somethings are no longer padding about whispering. They’re in charge. Felicity Stewart and Matt Hollenstein had help from Stewart’s architect dad, Colin, but won the competition anonymously.

It may seem a little daft to underground a library in a hundred-year flood plain. But this building is less underground than excised, chased from the earth, making space for humanity like dugout or clearing. Or Central Park.

And as juror Glenn Murcutt explained, theirs “was the only scheme that actively made space”.

To make a public building wholly interior is quietly revolutionary. Stewart and Hollenstein redeploy surrounding buildings as outside walls, much as Zumthor redeploys the Alps. Inverting traditional archi-think, this is the essence of urban design. Not in cities, but of them.

Elsewhere, an underground civic centre would seem a contradiction in terms. Here, surrounded and defined by towers full of 20,000 workers and 48,000 residents, this carving-out becomes an exercise in nuanced city-making.

Everything exists in counterpoint. Opposites exhilarate.

Emotions ruling debate, but not the one in the Commons

aIllustration: Edd Aragon

Three weeks ago we spent two refrigerated hours inching along hard wooden benches in the gaunt, unheated grandeur of Westminster Hall. Luckily, it’s one of the best rooms in Britain, hammerbeams to die for. Unluckily – for him, if not for posterity – it is where they sentenced Charles I to death by beheading.

Charles died, you might say, so that the House of Commons might live; the one for the many. So it seems a kind of memorial act to queue here in the monarch’s tres froid death-chamber, to witness the Commons’ gay marriage debate that he unwittingly made possible.

It’s the Second Reading debate, the day of the big division. The kids have chosen this over both the London Eye and tea at the Savoy as prime entertainment; history as it comes from the mould.

The press lead-up has gaily trumpeted the supposed emotion and ”vitriol” in the gay marriage debate but I am struck, as we slowly thaw in the lovely shoebox of Barry’s Commons, by the sophistication, nuance and sheer moral elegance of this prolonged parliamentary exchange.


Up there, behind the terrorist-proof glass, there’s no doubt. This is it, the ritual dance of democracy. I feel like Attenborough, hushed to camera, watching the brolgas bob.

Sure, there’s still implacable disagreement. Plus a conscience vote does varnish a debate in authenticity. But, as MPs from both sides and the middle take the floor to reveal this or that experience, affiliation or belief and to draw from it their argument, it seems that every possible type and twist of view is framed within this shared scaffold of manners and respect.

Comparisons are inevitable. The constant giving way to ”my honourable friend”, the compliments exchanged, however disingenuously, across party lines and deep differences of opinion and the eloquent acuity of thought make Australia’s parliamentary grandstanding look like thickneck buffoonery. Entertainment the Commons may be, but as gripping as Lincoln.

Yet the next day the media were back to it, emphasising the personal and emotional aspects of the debate instead of congratulating the Old Blighty on this remarkable, consensual step.

I’m not by nature a compromiser but I do see this. Society is the art of complex mutual compromise or (if you prefer) balance. And perhaps the most significant fulcrum any society must find is that between public and private.

To craft laws and mores that protect both public and private spheres while encouraging a creative exchange between is perhaps the core cultural act.

It isn’t easy. Whether you’re framing a mental health law to protect adult freedoms while allowing the mother of a 32-kilogram, 18-year old anorexic to prevent her daughter’s hospital discharge (and subsequent death), as happened recently in Bristol, or devising a planning scheme that constrains individual dwellings to produce walkable neighbourhoods while still accommodating choice, it is treacherous ground.

Not easy, but crucial. Indeed, the centrality of this public-private transaction explains why so much of our most stirring literature, from Lear to Mockingbird to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, deals with precisely that. The authors deploy history not as backdrop but as antagonist, enmeshing character and history until the struggle becomes universal.

Of course the public-private divide is not identical with that between the many and the one, between head and heart or between male and female – which makes it the more interesting how far these things, historically, align.

Many societies have considered that all women, all emotion, or all individuality should be confined to the private sphere. Now we seem to be swinging the other way, so that all public discourse is coloured by the emotive and the personal.

That this shift is profoundly shaped by the media is perhaps unsurprising. A medium is that which transmits but also, in so doing, distorts.

British media have long been my personal favourites but now, driven by survival frenzy, they seem determined to render even the most abstract stories solely in personal and emotional terms.

And certainly, the privacy parameters of British media in particular have been intensely scrutinised of late. But it’s not just about legal rights, as per the Leveson inquiry; the issue covers our entire public debate.

Potentially more dangerous even than phone-tapping is the murky and manipulative determination to reduce all public discussion to a base emotionality once considered appropriate only to the private realm.

This is especially fascinating in Britain, whose empire was after all founded so emphatically on the rigid public-private distinction of the stiff upper lip. And even more in a week when the loss of both the top Catholic bishop to a sex scandal and the prized triple-A credit-rating to a dogged deficit suggests that empire may have some way yet to crumble.

I was reminded of this again in last week’s Hilary versus Kate stoush. It was clear at the time that Mantel’s savagely funny speech was aimed not at the Duchess of Cambridge the human, but at the system – that collusion of spin-doctors, marketeers and media – that creates first the public hunger for celebrity and then the ”plastic princess” to fulfil these expectations.

Yet the press insisted on underlining Mantel’s point by repeatedly and willfully misrepresenting her speech as the first eye-gouge in a personal bitch-fight motivated by envy and spite. Even The Guardian insisted on defending first Kate, finding any number of fluffy-slippers to gush over her niceness and (prize quality) ordinariness, then Mantel herself.

But all of it missed the point, effectively depriving this two-time Booker winner of a voice in the public conversation. This is our tragedy, more than hers. It’s not about being fair to one or other woman, but about the need to establish and defend to the death a public intellectual climate of clear-eyed critical exchange.

I want the media to survive, God knows. I have a personal stake as well as a cultural one. But the reason it matters (beyond feeding my children) is the higher value of sustaining intelligent public discourse without dropping into the mosh pit. If we cannot do that, Charles I might as well have kept his pretty plastic head, and his throne.


Antipodean fingerprints smear UK

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

”It’s funny,” muses the girl on the Tube to her non-English-speaking friend. ”It’s called the British Museum but, when you go there, with the Rosetta Stone and Rameses II and the Elgin Marbles . . . there’s almost nothing British in the place.”

The friend seems mystified but I’m thinking ”yep, motto for empire”: take care whom you dominate, for they will come home to roost.

It’s not just the Egyptians and Greeks (who will be having their revenge on Europe momentarily). Not just the Americans, Jamaicans, Indians and Pakistanis, whose influence on London has long been evident. It’s also us.

Everywhere you look, London is going Australian. Antipodeans are, almost by definition, familiar with the tug of empire. For us, separation anxiety is born in, shaping us as profoundly and invisibly as gravity. If someone miraculously deemed Terra Australis the centre of the world, we would feel all peculiar and lopsided.

Sure, we declare ourselves part of Asia, strive to appease the US, grope towards republicanism and are now barely two-thirds Anglo-Celtic. Yet, still, Britain is the keeping house.

At one level, it is simply filial. We’ve grown up and left home but London is still the parental attic. It is where the memories are stashed: Westminster, the Magna Carta, Drury Lane and Bow Street, the Tower of London, Karl Marx’s tomb and every book ever written in English. Thrash as we may, in the end, it’s still home.

But tugs of war are always two-way. Every Australian knows not just the centripetal urge but also the countermanding tug to warmth and home. Snuggling up to the centre demands a readiness to trade metaphysical pluses – culture, closeness, history, ideas – for physical minuses such as cold, congestion, damp and dirt. Not to mention the stonewall snobbery of the class system.

But still that’s not the sum of it. The more you explore London, the more you notice the perceptual schizophrenia it demands.

British culture follows a clear bell curve, from the meagreness of post-Roman mediaevalism, swelling to full-on Victorian pomposity, then the inevitable slow decline.

It will surprise no one that I prefer the lower slopes – plain Anglo-Saxon and shabby decline – to the peak. But still, peak is peak, and its finest flowers – Whitehall, Fleet Street, Mayfair – are the blossoms of empire.

However lovely, they were stolen from us as surely as the Elgin Marbles from Athens and the mummies from Egypt. They were built with our blood. So for us, as for the abused child, resentment and love entwine. Weird stuff.

Yet the relationship is changing, as change it must. Reverse colonisation is, sooner or later, inevitable and in London, now, the signs are there. Australianness is spreading.

There are the household names. Rupert Murdoch. Julian Assange. Russell Crowe. Nicole Kidman. Geoffrey Robertson. Kylie. Mia Wasikowska staring from every second Tube poster.

There’s also chav culture, flooding English manners with Ugg boots and hoodies, baristas and bar girls and tracksuited faux-cockney vowels.

Of course, it is the mark of the colonial to notice these things – even to think they signify. Empire just takes the successful children, ipso facto, as her own.

But there’s also bricks and mortar infiltration. Between them, Lend Lease, Westfield, student housing developer Urbanest and glassy modernisation is making London feel increasingly like Darling Harbour or Green Park on steroids. Why are the Brits OK with this?

London’s characteristic tangle of damp and down-at-heel high streets has always made it a city in a minor key, an endurance test of sorts, all the more lovely for it. These days, it is like a face whose energy has gone but whose beauty, as a tracery, remains.

Yet a striking thing about the view from Piano’s new Shard is just how much of London’s fabric is not old at all but distinctly post-war.

Even in central London, the 20th century owns at least a third of London’s footprint, more if you’re talking volume. And most of it is bad, recalling Prince Charles’s words about modernism doing more damage than the Luftwaffe. So bad, in fact – so soulless, windswept, hostile – as to self-nominate for redevelopment.

Add brownfields such as the Lee Valley Olympic site and Kings Cross railway lands and suddenly it’s no surprise that, even in recession, London is busy with cranes.

It’s not just the new towers. Billions of pounds are being poured into massive re-modernisation programs. The surprise is how much of the intellectual property – if intellectual is quite the word – is Australian.

Debate, which in London is (thank god) incessant, pivots on two issues. One is the provision of affordable housing, in a time of desperate shortage. The other is how far new London should mimic the old.

Lend Lease’s $2.3 billion, nine-hectare Elephant and Castle redevelopment made news last week and not in a good way. After years of argument, Lend Lease gained approval to demolish the ultra-modernist and now largely empty Heygate Estate. But a secret deal with Southwark Council gave Lend Lease the land for a mere $75 million and let them skimp on the affordable housing offer – 25 per cent of the 2500 homes, instead of 35 per cent, as promised. Phrases such as ”social cleansing” figured prominently in headlines.

Meanwhile, over at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Lend Lease’s 10-storey athletes’ village is being transformed by a Qatari-led consortium into East Village; 5300 homes with their own postcode, E20. Next to it, Lend Lease’s $2 billion International Quarter will deliver a nine-hectare mixed-use development, opening next year.

The local Westfield, London’s second, is the ”biggest urban shopping centre in Europe” but feels like Nowra on a bad day, which may bode ill for the third Westfield, the just-signed, $1.5 billion Croydon Town Centre in London’s south.

Noticeably classier, with a more textured, London feel, is the massive Kings Cross redevelopment, by British developer Argent (and including Stanton Williams’s fabulous granary adaptation for the Central Saint Martins school of art).

This may be because it’s less Australian. Certainly it would seem reasonable revenge for Aussies to pock London with anonymous urban environments. After all, the Brits have been sending us their B-team for centuries.

But the differential may be something else entirely: the presence and embrace of history. From the evidence, all cultures are now equally bad at producing distinctive and pleasurable urban quarters from scratch. London yearns for a facelift but by far the best urban places, from Chur to Shoreditch to Surry Hills, are those where at least half the built fabric is old.

Urban ageism is as nasty and blinkered as its social counterpart. Analyse that.

Cool in the tube: the terrace house stands the test of time

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

The terrace house gives a whole new meaning to the idea of the London tube. London’s standout characteristic, as you trek in by taxi or train, is neither its veiled beauty nor its vile weather, though both are in play, but its countless rows of conjoined houses; mute, serried, identical.

I like London in winter. Also in recession – a city should be seen doing what it does best. But London’s loveliness, partly in defiance of these threats, is subtle and fugitive, set deep within a tough crusted carapace that is, in its way, as disciplined as a Bach cantata. The atomic particle of both the discipline and the beauty is that tube of space we call the terrace house.

It’s no accident that Sydney, too, is a terrace-house town, especially in its lovely inner reaches. But the Sydney terrace, which many consider dour and restrictive, is positively flamboyant, positively expressionistic, compared with London’s.

London is made of terraces as bread pudding is made of bread. There are raisins and custard, to entice the eating, but the basic tissue is row housing. From Bedford Square to Tufnell Park, London is the terrace house.

This wasn’t always true. Had Sydney spun off London at some other moment in history, Glebe, Surry Hills and Paddington might have comprised jut-jawed half-timbered Norman townies or semi-detached brick bungalows. As it is, Sydney’s entire centre, and increasingly its aspirational new-burbs, are also terrace-based.

It shouldn’t work. The theory of thermal building specifies lightweight, thermally responsive construction for warm, humid climates. But, having lived 20 years in Sydney terraces, I can report that they suit Sydney, if anything, better than London.

The brick terrace’s two-month thermal lag makes my terrace warm for most of the winter and cool for most of the summer. (I just have to spend February in Europe!)

This saves heating and cooling energy, makes walkable neighbourhoods (also saving fuel) and establishes a comfortable balance in the tug-of-war between the individual and the collective.

But how did this inspired device, this tube for urban living, come about? Tubes are everywhere. Guts, veins, rivers, worms, trees, tracheae, people; trains, halls, sewers, roads, tunnels and houses. The tube is one of nature’s favoured morphemes, and where nature goes, culture follows.

But history does not record the first-ever terrace house. English scholars make it Vicars’ Close in Wells, dated 1363.

But the huge preponderance of the London terrace starts, like so many things, with Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s trashing of the monasteries in the 1530s freed roughly a quarter of all England and Wales – including vast tracts of the City and Westminster – for handing out to the mates. In Sydney terms, this is the Obeids being gifted Macquarie and Bridge streets.

There were no planning statutes to speak of. London’s first building assize (or regulation), issued in 1189 by its first mayor, required neighbours to contribute equally to metre-thick stone party-walls between properties but there was little enforcement and, half a century on, most buildings were still timber.

As the Elizabethan stability allowed noble families to decamp to the countryside, London flooded with the new merchant classes from all over Europe. This influx, reinforced by Elizabeth’s opening of the new Royal Exchange in 1570, produced the cultural explosion of the English renaissance.

It also produced rampant inflation, with the parvenus jostling for Royal proximity and in turn generated the city-building force we now take as given: speculative development.

By 1580 development pressure was so extreme that the Queen banned all new dwellings within three miles of the city gates. The prohibition was well meant, but actually effected the endless rebuilding of existing wooden buildings, and their endless subdivision into ever-smaller apartments. London in 1665 – much like Bankstown, 2012 – was a disaster waiting to happen. Development, meanwhile, became the privilege of those who could afford the Royal licence – namely, nobles.

The Bedford Estate was amongst the first. In 1630, almost a century after the initial land-grant of 1551, Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, paid the Crown a massive £2000 before commissioning Inigo Jones to design Covent Garden on the old convent garden.

Jones copied his design from Paris’s lovely Place des Vosges. A church fronted a grand central square that was otherwise formed by four-storeyed terraces. But where the Vosges was a Royal palace (modelled in turn on Palladio’s 1542 Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza), Covent Garden was divided vertically into terrace houses for the nouveaux riches.

This brought benefits. It increased density and profit while giving relatively modest houses, shaped to English individualism (each having its own ground and sky) the collective look of a palace.

This set the model. When the worst-ever plague of 1665 was followed by the worst-ever fire, the first terrace house Act made that model universal.

An Act for the rebuilding of the City of London 1667 required all buildings to be stone or brick. It established four sizes, or rates, of terrace house, specified all party-wall thicknesses in relation to their height, and all building heights – up to six storeys – in relation to street width.

It also banned facade projections and load-bearing timber. Non-complying properties could be demolished and resumed and their owners whipped ”… till his body be bloody.” Et voila! The plain Georgian terrace.

Hence, also, the Sydney terrace, since our own first Building Act of 1837 closely replicated that two-century-old original.

The elegance of this new device was two-fold. Linking building height to both wall-thickness and street-width made the terrace easily scalable according to means. It also gave even the most modest street a collective dignity and drama that could never accrue from individual dwellings.

Of course, Sydney’s patience with Georgian stricture was never going to last. We were soon decorating our own with balconies and wrought-iron lacework that owed more to a 19th century sensibility and probably came via the terraces of New York.

Since then, we’ve also become adept – through adaptations by Alec Tzannes, Glenn Murcutt, Richard Huxley, Clinton Murray, Tone Wheeler and others – at flooding the terrace with light and space while maintaining the original street-making discipline.

The Sydney terrace, at once expressionist and cohesive, is our very own: one of the few housing forms that is unmistakably Sydney. We should treasure and refine it, as a sustainable city-making device of genius.

Held in a gilded cage, optimism still reigns supreme for Assange

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

I don’t believe I’ve peed in earshot of a London bobby before. When after my chat with Julian Assange last week I asked for the loo, a sign on the toilet door warned of surveillance. Being watched is now so standard in London that it registered as no more sinister than having strayed onto the set of Spooks, until a pale glow outside the window brought it home.

A copper was there, glued-in 24/7, and he was on his iPad in the cold London night. I, centimetres away, was in Ecuador. This of course is the point. Inside the Ecuador embassy, a few steps from Harrods’ high-lumen temple to consumerism, Assange pads safely around in socks. He has food, an exercise machine and optical broadband. But should he step through the mirror, even into the building’s joyless foyer, he’s toast.

It’s any old evening in Knightsbridge, yet from the street I count five police, plus the toilet sentry, who must be wedged like a whelk into one of the building’s terracotta crannies.

There’s also a van the size of a Hollywood trailer and for a moment I expect Benedict Cumberbatch to emerge, a white-haired pseudo-Australian. But no. It, too, is police.

When the foyer constable asks my name I give it without thinking. Later, leaving, I ask why. He explains that they have to keep tabs, just in case ”he” escapes.

But escape is the last thing on the prisoner’s mind. Speaking to Assange makes it immediately clear that he’s fine with the situation; unbothered by when, how and whether he might resume a normal, en plein air kind of life. Indeed, he seems to think it an odd question.

There are many possible explanations for this unconcern, including the commonly held view that Assange is a narcissist, in it for the limelight. Narcissism is not a crime, or most celebs and half our pollies would be in jail. But still, after some 90 minutes’ conversation, this is not the explanation that recommends itself.

Assange seems wholly cause-driven. And that’s where optimism reigns. Asked about his personal future, Assange says: ”It’s going great. Everything is developing. We made a promise and we were completely victorious. We’re winning.” Not a first-person singular in sight.

Asked about his personal present, he notes that he’s safe, warm, fed, connected and able to work, in ascending order of importance.

Last Sunday, Assange was awarded the Yoko Ono Courage Award (usually given to artists). Credit sanctions have folded, so WikiLeaks’s kitty is once again building, and he expects the Swedish case against him will ”drop”. The day we speak, the day of the federal election announcement, Assange quietly confirms that, yes, he will run for the Senate. From outside, to the world, Assange looks stuck. Abandoned by his own government, imprisoned in a small outpost of a regime known for its press intolerance, actively threatened by America and Britain and routinely vilified in Sweden, Assange seems to have dwindling public support, as vilification campaigns start to bite.

Even around London, it’s amazing how many people come out with one or all of the following. Count one, didn’t publishing all those names get a whole lot of people killed? Two, why doesn’t he just go to Sweden and face the music? And three, ”oh well, he seems like a bit of a wanker anyway” – as though that justified imprisonment without trial or even a grand jury.

I put these to the man at the centre of the storm.

On count one, Assange notes that ”not even the most rabid or hawkish general in the Pentagon has produced evidence or even claimed that we have led to the death or harming of any person – and if we had, they most certainly would”.

As to ”facing the music”, everything hinges on the genuineness of the case and the probability of a fair trial.

Here, it’s critical how far the two simultaneous cases – of ”rape” in Sweden and of illegal publishing in the US – are in fact separate. If the ”rape” case is genuine, the Swedish government should have no problem (a) sending the prosecutor to interview Assange in London, as repeatedly invited, (b) if necessary, charging him here and (c) guaranteeing against his extradition to the United States.

The Australian government should be strenuously advocating to this end. In fact, both governments have not only refused such guarantees but have actively maligned Assange in a way that diminishes his chance of fair trial in either country. The Swedish prosecutor has said Assange will be seized and imprisoned – potentially in solitary, incommunicado and indefinitely – the minute he sets foot there.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has never retracted her public (mis)statement that Assange had committed ”an illegal act”. The Swedish Prime Minister, Frederik Reinfeldt, has never retracted his public mis-statement that Assange had been charged with rape. Why not?

Assange points out that Sweden’s is a culture of profound conformism; a population half the size of Australia’s with a language spoken (and a culture therefore scrutinised) by no one else on earth. A country that, unlike say Germany, ”never denazified” after World War II. Never pushed the reset button.

So when the Social Minister, Goran Hagglund, publicly describes Assange as ”sick … a coward … a lowlife … a pitiful wretch”, and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs tweets ”you do not dictate the terms if you are a suspect. Get it?”, the press follow suit.

Sweden’s largest-circulation daily, Dagens Nyheter, calls Assange ”paranoid” and a ”querulant”.

A prominent journalist for the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, Martin Aagard, calls him an ”Australian pig”, linking Assange with Rupert Murdoch. ”There are many good reasons to criticise Assange. One … is that he’s a repugnant swine.”

Is this the temperate response of a modern democracy to untested allegations of sex-without-a-condom? Can we seriously trust that the two cases are discrete?

The Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, for years a grand jury denier, admitted recently that ”it appears … a grand jury has been established” in Richmond, Virginia, to try Assange in secret.

What sort of government would not strenuously resist this for a citizen innocent under Australian law?

As to the third conception, of Assange-as-wanker, I say only this. I expected to find him self-absorbed, humourless and rather vain. Instead he was warm, engaging, unpretentious, intelligent and frank. It’s not relevant, but I liked him.

The Shard misses Piano’s fine tuning

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

It takes a special effort to get architecture onto the front page of that august organ of the British press, The Sun. Yet, it seems, for our PR confreres, no effort is too great.

”Shard core porn”, declaimed The Sun’s mile-high headline. Then the subhead: ”Secret sex at the top of UK’s tallest building.” A cartoon of Renzo Piano’s skyscraper, the thousand-foot glassy splinter at London Bridge, showed a speech bubble with the words ”Yes! Yes! Yes!” leaking from its apex.

The story was of a supposed fornication in the mile-high tradition. Said fornication occurred, allegedly, during an ”exclusive party” on the viewing level of the still unfinished building, which opens to the public on Friday. The smoking gun, so to speak, was a discarded female thong (no, not footwear) discovered in the 68th-floor men’s loos.

Pretty shocking. Poor India, 21, from Reading – gracing page three – was so shocked she’d entirely forgotten to wear anything but a thong before posing for the camera. Poor soul. Luckily, India retained the presence of mind, in her predicament, to quote Winston Churchill. ”Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Or, she might have added, silicon.

Detail was as skimpy as the underwear. We do not know the identity of the in flagrante couple or, indeed, whether they exist. The photo showed only the toilet seat (up, naturally) and the floor-to-ceiling window – which I suppose is testament to the power of architecture.

Londoners are apparently agog at the prospect of getting above it all. So much so that an entire enterprise, The View from the Shard, will do nothing but sell tickets for the ride up to the 69th floor. From there, for a mere 25 quid ($37.65), Londoners will see their city sub specie aeternitas, or from the viewpoint of Google Earth.

No doubt this excitement, which feels like the 19th century frisson generated by early balloon flights, rests in the fact that London is so flat, so private, and for so long steadfastly resisted the skyscraper.

London lifted its tall-building ban in the 1960s, a decade after Sydney did the same, already half a century late. But whereas Sydney exploded into unbridled skyscraper-hood, London remained wary.

Indeed, only a handful of central London towers were built in the 20th century. Most notable were the 1966 Centre Point building on New Oxford Street and the 1980 NatWest tower, both designed by Richard Seifert and both widely loathed.

With mayor Ken Livingstone’s active encouragement for London skyscrapers there was Richard Rogers’s pretty, ringleted Lloyds building of 1986, a diminutive 88 metres, and Cesar Pelli’s soulless One Canada Square in Canary Wharf which, from 1991 until now, was (at 235 metres) London’s highest.

Throughout, the Prince of Wales’s carbuncle view of modernity, and the already powerful heritage lobby, made the London skyscraper a moral no-no. Redevelopments occurred, of course, but generally within the eight-storey, street-frontage carefully scaled and articulated norm.

In the past decade that has changed. A dozen or more skyscrapers have been built, most famously The Gherkin (or 30 St Mary Axe) by Lord Norman Foster and now Piano’s Shard, which Livingstone shepherded through a £10 million public inquiry, and many more on the way. London is being transformed.

Never mind the Secret Tower Thong Shock. It would take many pairs of furred and sequined washroom undies to shock me as much as this now routine breaching of London’s lovely knitted fabric.

I’m not anti-tower. I do not see the skyscraper as a political evil, concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the few. Indeed, a good tower in the right spot is a beauty to behold.

But I look at this town – its friable loveliness, its apple-crumble texture, its slow-cooked choreography of courts and squares with their exquisite balance of fine and coarse, burnished and matte, the subtle and the rude – and I think, you have all this, and you do that? It’s different in Sydney, where so little of what we have is genuinely to die for, and so much is still unrealised potential. Sydney has a future to build. In London, almost all loveliness is ancient.

The Shard, taller than anything in Sydney except Centrepoint (and 50 per cent taller than Piano’s Aurora Place), stands five minutes’ walk from the reconstructed Globe theatre, three from the 1000-year-old Borough Market (now foodie central) and opposite Guy’s Hospital. There’s new stuff around – mostly rubbish – but the context is venerable.

To justify such intrusion, then, a building should really be up there with Wren and Hawksmoor. So, is it?

Like most towers, the Shard has one personality for the big, public stage, and another for the up close and personal. Cynics say the best thing about the view from the Shard is that you can’t see the Shard. But actually, its far view is rather pretty, the tapering planes reflecting London’s generally overcast sky in a fractured celestial whiteness. A tad Salt Lake City, yes, with its too-white Mormon smile, but elegant and, like Aurora, surprisingly gentle.

Unlike Aurora, though, which carefully creates a handsome and welcoming ground-level room, the Shard cannot sustain this elegance at street level.

The problem is to resolve the meeting of two complexities: a ground condition that includes an ancient context, a major level change and two rail stations (underground and overground), and a building-base comprising dozens of raking white steel columns.

It needed a stroke of brilliance, such as Piano has, at times, delivered. Not here, though.

Grand global gestures, large-scale showmanship, these the Shard can manage. But close-up warmth the building finds more difficult. Its street-level personality is a jagged and comfortless mess that drives you skeetering from its self-created wind tunnel into the hugger-mugger of lanes and pubs for refuge.

There are things Sydney could learn from the Shard. Ten thousand workers with just 47 car spaces among them (and those, disabled). But in terms of civilising the obelisk’s meeting with planet Earth, Sydney’s Aurora, Governor Phillip and 1 Bligh all do it better.

As to the question of 69th-floor coupling, I guess, if it’s showbiz we’re talking, the core question becomes, did they leave the light on?


The species is doomed without a connection

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

There are many things, dammit, that I do not understand. Why flowers and plumages become brighter near the equator. How it happened that ether – the ancients’ name for ”high bright air” and later for the anaesthetic that made you feel that way – has, miraculously, a molecule shaped like a bent-wing butterfly, R-O-R.

Why, during the Leveson Inquiry, the press felt compelled to lampoon leading counsel Robert Jay, QC, for a personal lexicon encompassing words like nugatory, pellucid and condign.

But right now my most pressing mystery is this. Why, well into the age of hyper-communication, market rule and relentless, ubiquitous travel there’s still no box to tick on your customs form that says, yes please, these are my devices, here is my card, connect me. To everything. Now.

We all travel constantly. We check our messages more often and habitually than men ponder sex. We predicate entire economies on the idea that supply follows demand as slavishly as Julia follows Obama. So why isn’t connectivity simple?

It’s not like I’m holed up submontane Uzbekistan. I’m here in London’s swanky SW6, and five days in I’m still offline.

Reason tells me life is still possible under these circumstances. When I first wrote for the Herald, I’d put child in stroller and stroller in bus to deliver my hard copy, which was transcribed into type and then hot metal. It sounds prehistoric. Yet people kept breathing. Life went on.

Now, though, the absence of electronica feels like a double amputation, and not only for teens. I’m appalled to find I cannot work, or even properly think, without connection.

True, there is a generational difference in emphasis. The kids miss Facebook most – and this in itself is a worry. We can be tromping in 15 cm powder snow (and slightly less-than-waterproof boots) through the ruins of Fountains Abbey and their inner voice is clearly going not ”what must it have been like, echoing with the barefoot Cistercian prayer” or ”why is the stream running under the stone floor, here?”

Rather, their mental probe is, how will I make this chic and smart on Facebook? How will it make me look? Before the experience has even happened, they are sizing it up as an accessory.

This is all but universal, and what it means for human futures I cannot say. Perhaps nothing, or nothing new. Perhaps Socrates was accessorising Alcibiades all the while, imagining how they might look together in Plato’s re-rendering for posterity. Perhaps van Gogh accessorised the yellow chair.

Perhaps the urge to Facebook is as much creative as dissociative, and the difference is only in degree.

But in truth I, too, am e-ddicted. I may not play phone games and, frankly, Facebook makes me feel trapped in a party with too many people trying way too hard to Have Fun. But even for a bah-humbugger, life-as-we-know-it is no longer possible without Wi-Fi.

Deprived of connectivity I cannot find my train or meeting, cannot check a derivation, a quote or a recipe. Already, writing this, I have been online a dozen times (as, no doubt, have you). And although some of this is entailed in the work, its real necessity is to my sense of wellbeing.

So five days is a lifetime. And it is not like we were unprepared. First, well before departure, we had unlocked our iPhones.

This in itself is a process. It used to be simple. Now, though, your carrier won’t do it for you. Instead, he tells you to do it yourself, through iTunes. (There’s that connectivity thing).

Yet the online forums are full of people saying they tried the DIY unlocking, and thought themselves successful – until they reached their destination and found no, the phone was still locked. That is what you don’t need, so you pay someone 40 bucks to do it for you.

I’d purchased a travel router. Tired of hotels that provide cable broadband (to which light laptops like my MacBook Air cannot connect) but charge by the hour for iffy Wi-Fi, I liked the idea of a personal mini-network that can service all your devices at once.

Of course, all that means your combined e-devices, with their attendant chargers, cables and adaptors, occupy a good part of your baggage allowance. But it is worth it because, once you get there, connectivity should be as simple as a power adaptor and a new sim. Right?

Wrong. Landing at Heathrow, grey as the dawn, you watch everyone turn on their mobile and consider seeking phone help in the airport but decide it is wiser to find a High Street provider. So, after coffee and a shower, you head out to the nearest store and spend 60-odd quid on four sims, a week’s usage, and a dongle. (Yes, embarrassingly, that is the word.)

Nothing activates in the shop, of course. It could take up to four hours, so off you go on your Scottish weekend, checking your phones every few minutes for a pulse.

It never arrives. The phones stay dead, the iPad needs one of those little sim-pin thingies and the clever little modem becomes unhelpfully dog-knotted with the hotel’s cable socket, requiring the manager’s assistance.

This leaves the dongle, bless its heart. Although slow and intermittent, it does at least work, so that by Sunday night the entire week’s credit is used. Yet when you try to top up, the Vodafone system is down, and you can’t. And still no phone-life.

Of course a phone is not a phone. That is a total misnomer. Making calls is for pussies. A phone is GPS, bank manager, social club, weather-cock and high-speed carrier pigeon, in one.

Hardly surprising that we see our phones as quasi-sacred objects. Arguably if humanity is to save itself – unlikely and undeserved as this might seem, it will be via some form of emergence. Such a scenario – in which humans, like slime mould, learn to act in many-headed unison – would likely give the phone a crucial, enabling part.

Which only makes it more remiss that no such tickable box has yet made it onto the customs form. If we can’t get a few phone-providers to co-operate, what hope for the species?

Food for thought – Carr by name, car by nature in office

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

Only fear of throwing up on the ministerial shoes kept me from this week’s launch by Bob Carr of Michael Mobbs’s otherwise wonderful book Sustainable Food.

It’s a how-to book: how to change the world, literally, from the ground up. Mobbsie’s lore covers urban agriculture, soils, water, bees and and chook-whispering. Had it been general custom, rather than minority enlightenment, this stuff might have pulled the worst from last week’s ”worst heatwave in history”. It matters – which of course is why Carr agreed to do the honours.

Yet acting local isn’t enough. Even raising your personal consciousness isn’t enough, although both are crucial. We also need big, strategic, political change, and we need it yesterday. Carr is that yesterday. He spent his decade of unprecedented power enjoying a daily soak in micro-greenwash, then stomping on macro-change (and, worse, pretending not to).

My beef, then, isn’t so much about the premier who flops blithely from cabinet onto the payroll of a major developer, rakes in a few mill, then flips seamlessly back as the honourable, the minister for international travel and partay, cool as. That I could almost stomach.

Carr’s Wiki-page, clearly written by some starry-eyed staffer, boasts ”the Carr government pioneered private-public partnerships”. So maybe he just took the PPP idea a tad hyper-literally, less as a procurement model than a personal oscillation index: public, private, public, private … cabinet, MacBank, cabinet, MacBank …

My beef is this. When Carr does an eco-launch, he’s exploiting, and polishing, his reputation for protecting nature. And sure, he did stuff. But behind it, Carr brought us the sleazoids – those whose stones we are still turning, Costa (police), Tripodi (housing), Obeid (mineral resources) and Roozendaal. He let them into the trough.

Carr was a clean face behind which they could snuffle and root unseen. We detected slurping, but saw only Carr’s harmless tinkering. Thus was a massive, unassailable majority wasted, and with it an unprecedented opportunity for change, right when change was needed.

He must have known. He dealt with it by disassociating. As Frank Sartor noted recently, ”he’d sit in question time reading a book in German”.

All of which left the old power structures, the boofheaded, concrete-minded, roads-driven business-as-usual types running the show. They still do.

It was clear even then that NSW desperately needed public transport investment. Carr spent billions instead on the ”ring-road” – M5 Extension, Eastern Distributor, M2, the Westlink M7 and the dreaded Lane Cove and Cross-City tunnels. He fostered sprawl (remember Orange Grove?), exempted mining companies from pollution charges and banned Chris Corrigan’s self-funded rail interchange at Minto.

Again, Carr’s Wiki: ”Motorists can get from the northern suburbs of Sydney to just south of Geelong, Victoria – with just one single set of traffic-lights …”

This is not an achievement. It’s a depredation. The more we can drive, the more we do. And thus we burn.

The argument goes like this. Australia is the world’s most urbanised country. Some 80 per cent of us live in cities – but only if by ”urbanised” you mean ”everywhere we spread concrete and asphalt, curbs and channels”. That’s not urb, it’s sub-urb. What it does, this road-obsession of ours, is let us live where we shouldn’t.

The old people understood it. This is one fierce country. A demander of respect. Urbanism should be our refuge from wilderness, not our excuse to burrow into her heart.

To see the bush as a pal, sending bush campuses, bush burbs and ”lifestyle” acreages out into wilderness – to presume that personal happiness implies a personal quarter-acre and that this is therefore an entitlement – that’s all boneheaded 20th century hubris.

We’re living on the flank of a volcano, calling it Eden. This is a high-risk strategy, as the first 13 years of the new, fierce millennium are making plain. Gaia is going menopausal – hot, irritable, hard-to-predict. She’s no longer asking for our respect. She’s insisting.

The bush suburb is the built equivalent of swimming with stingrays, and as stupid.

It feeds on, but also feeds, the ugliness of our cities. Who’d inhabit the concrete jungle when they could live with birds and trees? It’s so worth the two-hour drive … All that.

So wrong. The answer is not to escape cities, but to reclaim and transform them. To make them our luscious oases, dripping in greenery, with vine-shaded streets and rice-paddy clad office blocks. With our help, our cities can become sanctuaries of sumptuous delight. But they need our help.

We can no longer leave our built world to the infrastructure boys, the concrete-minded and boof-headed, or soon everything will resemble the NSW central coast, one big motorway roundabout.

Try this. Ask a government exec about public transport. I guarantee you’ll cop a full-on 20-minute tirade about roads, roads, roads. You can only hope it’s the dinosaur’s dying, fossil-fuelled roar.

Which is where Mobbs’s book comes in. I love the chook-and-bee stuff, eggs and honey. But my favourite section is on leaky drains.

A leaky drain is just that. A pipe that’s meant to carry water from roof or terrace to street and sea, but doesn’t, because it has holes.

The difference is that these holes are good. In fact, they’ve been installed by you, and your mates, perhaps out in the street, perhaps at midnight. They are your guerrilla gardening, your fightback, your small step for humanity.

What they do, these innocent holes, these small absences, is let water escape. They let it soak into the ground where it belongs, so that instead of rushing out to flood the streets and pollute the harbour, it nurtures the soil, the microbes, the insects, the plants. And plants nurture us.

These are trees that shade our streets, cooling our cities and enchanting our daily lives. They are reeds and algae that cleanse our waste. And they are food. As Mobbs notes, the plant is an ingenious device for making sunlight edible.

If we are to survive, this thought must permeate everything we do. Yet the Gillard-Carr government, with its dire warnings on climate change, continues massively to outspend on road and underspend on rail, even as it exempts road freight from the carbon tax to which rail is subject.

Meanwhile, O’Farrell’s government taxes us each $300 to fight flames that all governments fan. How does that work again?

Their way or the highway: archaic plan cuts straight to heart of Berry

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

I don’t always mind being wrong. It is one of the joys of pessimism to find oneself unexpectedly disproved. (Joke!) Yet there are, still, moments when your humble columnist feels honour-bound to recant. This is one.

It’s my second official opinion-recall. The first was late last century. I had predicted Philip Cox’s ABC-TV building in Ultimo as a fine addition to the streetscape. I was wrong, and two years later, built fact proved it.

Now it’s Berry. Last week I suggested in passing that a bypass might save Windsor ”as it has saved Berry”.

Well! You’d have thought I proposed deep-frying the Royal corgis. A tsunami followed; polite, unfailingly cogent but implacable dissent. And not a form letter among it.

My Berry remark had been made in good faith but without examining the detail.

Now, having done that, I’m here to tell you. It’s a shocker.

The Berry bypass is not a bypass at all. It’s a through-pass. A bugger-up. A wrecking ball, dividing the town, and the community.

It reminds me of another regret I have as a critic, another sin of omission. A friend persuaded me to delete from a roads-versus-heritage piece the phrase ”the Baskerville hounds of the RTA”. My friend thought the analogy extreme. I thought it merely descriptive. Still do.

Berry is one of the sweetest towns you could ever hope to meet. Summer Berry, in my head, because I’ve mainly stopped there for gelato, sourdough, single malt or other life-essentials en route to some summer holiday or other. This whiff of the delicious confection known as summer pudding conjures, for me, the leafy gardens of Kent, where I first tasted it, pinching myself (after a year there) that the sun could indeed shine in England, and berries ripen.

All of which I mention only because that’s the sort of place Berry is; succulent, leafy and gracious in a slightly Midsomer Murders sort of way. Sweet.

Were the bomb scheduled for tomorrow, Berry would be in the handful of NSW towns I’d bother saving.

So imagine my shock to find that the Roads and Maritime Services, apparently all new-age and consultative, is in fact unreconstituted from Baskerville times, and proposes to run a four-lane 100km/h concrete-jungle divided highway through the middle of it.

Berry has always straddled the highway, bisected, as towns often are, by the very road that feeds it. Yet it has survived, largely because, when the road is heavy with holidaymakers, its narrowness gives a whole new meaning to Australian crawl.

This means that you can drift across with relative ease, and the bookshops, cafes and boutique butchers lining the street are kept alive.

But the hounds are restive.

Movement of this drifty, poking-around kind – the kind that sustains and invigorates towns – bores them. They want things to go FAST.

Fast backwards. You may have noticed how everything this government does to ”get the state moving again” is retrograde – from harbour heliports and towering casinos to shooters in parks and B-triples on the Hume, spewing ever more carbon into the air even as we face the hottest weather on record.

Perhaps Barry O’Farrell didn’t get the memo. Conservative no longer means old-fashioned, dead-headed, moribund. It doesn’t legitimise old-style aggro-modernism, rampaging through people’s town centres like some 20th century boofhead.

Conservative now implies conservation – protecting heritage, environment, amenity, beauty because it’s all there is.

Yet the Berry bypass looks like something out of Chief City Engineer Garnsey’s report after his tour of Europe and America 1946-47. Excited as only engineers can be over such things, Garnsey spends 683 pages documenting the highway paraphernalia he would bestow upon Sydney – parkways and interchanges, culs-de-sac and clover leafs, on-ramps, off-ramps and high-level overpasses.

That’s 70-odd years back. For the past 20, cities such as San Francisco and Berlin have been pulling such stuff down, dirty, ugly, urbanistically unsound and environmentally catastrophic as it is.

Yet, lucky little Berry. If the RMS has its way they’ll get the lot.

Government feasibilities show various options for Berry, but are overwhelmingly weighted towards the preferred town-halving one. Now, courtesy of the port leases from Kembla and Botany, they’ve also got the money.

Berry always had a lovely, open-ended feel, making its beginning, middle and end quite clear without any sense of entrapment.

Not for much longer. Skimming first along the town’s northern edge, the bypass slides the dagger under Berry’s skin before plunging straight through its pretty gridded heart.

Soon, drifting down Queen Street will bring you face to face with a great concrete road-barrier, complete with overpass, aerial roundabouts and a litter of dead ends.

Less your charming southern village, more your James Ruse Drive on steroids.

And there’s more. This so-called ”northern interchange” is just one of five such concrete fandangos that will march across the 12 kilometres of pasture-scape between Toolijooa and Kangaroo Valley Road.

O’Farrell may be right that ”half the nation’s road freight and three-quarters of all interstate road freight journeys are on NSW roads and the Princes Highway is a key freight route”. But we should encourage freight on to rail, not funnel 35-metre road-trains through country towns.

Of course, roads bring life, as well as destroying it. Some, such as Berry Chamber of Commerce president Bill Seelis, support the new road, believing it will save Berry from becoming a ghost town.

But traffic on this thundering scale, and the jack-boot infrastructure that enables it, never saved anyone’s town.

The sad thing is, it didn’t have to end like this. The RMS considered a genuine bypass.

Taking the highway south of Berry, along the rail line, is still the Berry Alliance’s preferred option.

Yet the RMS dismisses it in two short paragraphs, saying it did ”not perform well” – no detail given – and required $150 million of extra earthworks. Alternative costings, prepared by private consultants for the community and given to the RMS, reversed this imbalance, showing the southern option $12 million cheaper.

Perhaps the RMS, like me, should look again at the Berry bypass. Long enough and hard enough to understand roads are not just roads. They are our cultural conduits, way too important to leave to the engineers.

Twitter: @emfarrelly

Get connected: protection is a bridge over troubled waters

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

Sydney: five bells, one harbour, seven bridges. A bridge is the ultimate romantic symbol, crystallising in steel and concrete the yearning to connect disparate worlds – and Sydney, city of baroque waterways, is as fully (if not as glamorously) bridged as London, Stockholm or Prague.

Yet as the old year ticks over into the new, just one bridge counts. One question plays on the collective unconscious: in what crazy garb – the gold lamé´, the pyrotechnic sequins, the Zulu headdress – will the Harbour Bridge appear?

You’d almost think it was our only bridge, so strongly does it connect not just the two shores of our drowned river but our psychic selves to our global image.

But while we gaze fondly on The Bridge, many of our lesser bridge treasures suffer terminal neglect.

This is a tale of four bridges – old and new, threatened and screwed.

Oldest first, and saddest. Windsor Bridge, built 1874, is the oldest extant Hawkesbury crossing. The square from which it springs – Thompson Square, 1795 – is still older. A rare remaining Georgian space, it is the oldest public square in the country. Yet the government wants to destroy both, asap.

When Thompson Square was built, Windsor was still the village of Green Hills. The name change came in 1811, when Governor Lachlan Macquarie adopted it as one of his five Hawkesbury towns.

Windsor Bridge is individually listed in the Hawkesbury local environment plan and the state register. Even the Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) calls it “highly significant”. The Government Architect describes the project’s level of impact on a dozen or more heritage properties as “very high”.

The square, says the Heritage Council, is “of crucial importance to the heritage of the state”. The Government Architect’s office says it reflects “Macquarie’s visionary schemes for town planning excellence in the infant colony”.

Windsor is a small 1600-person town, and heritage is definitely an outré´ issue. But in July, hundreds watched a thunder of horsemen cross the bridge under the Eureka Flag to highlight the bridge’s plight, and in November the Community Action for Windsor Bridge (CAWB) group presented state Parliament with a 12,000-signature petition.

Yet the O’Farrell government proceeds apace to demolish the bridge and rebuild a high level four-lane concrete monster that will queue B-doubles and mining trucks through the town and relegate what is left of the square to a siding.

It needn’t be this way. There are options. CAWB’s preferred alternative is to move the bridge downstream and repair the existing bridge for local traffic. The government insists on costing this repair at $18 million, but CAWB’s own detailed report by Brian Pearson and Ray Wedgwood – two former state chief bridge engineers with 80 years’ bridge-design experience between them – makes it $4 million.

A bypass would save the town, as it has saved Berry, but the government would rather bypass due process, cynically declaring the project ”state significant” – you do recall how passionately Barry O’Farrell opposed Part 3A? – to preclude jurisdiction of the Environment Minister and the Heritage Council.

Not that the Heritage Council is that crash-hot either when it comes to protecting heritage, even when it does hold sway.

Take lovely Lennox Bridge, the butterfly-hinge at the heart of Parramatta. In October, the Heritage Council – our supposed big defender of heritage – ignored advice from its own expert heritage branch that proposed changes would “seriously and irrevocably compromise” the 1830s convict-hewn structure, and approved two ugly square passageways through the bridge abutments.

Far from damaging the ancient fabric, the council’s architect-chairman Lawrence Nield argued, the intervention would increase the bridge’s heritage value.

Uh, run that past me again? Two brutish square-jawed faux-functional holes whose every semiotic cue says, “enter here and invite Clockwork Orange-style violence upon your person” will increase the heritage value how, exactly?

This is a clear instance of architectural theory running roughshod over the facts.

The theory, if that’s not too strong a word, is a late-modern trope that approves intervention providing it declares its newness and does not fake historical truth. Wrong.

The opposing ideology insists that heritage remains intact, period. Wrong again.

Sadly, two wrongs do not a working loveliness make.

Parramatta desperately needs to reconnect with its river. Bankside pedestrian and cycle paths to this end are a good thing, and plenty of graceful ancient stone bridges allow just such passages through their abutments. But blind Freddie can see that any holes so punched must be arch-headed masonry and couched in the same load-bearing language as the lovely Lennox itself.

Must we spell it out? Authenticity counts for nothing if it’s hideous. And the urge to spend federal dollars by budget’s end must not be the driver here.

On the other hand, if the feds have spare dough, they could usefully lavish it on bridge three, the old Glebe Island Bridge, 1903. A marvel of late-Victorian engineering, upstaged by the Anzac Bridge in 1995 and unfunded since, it is being allowed to rot because of the plastic mega-boat push that regards Sydney Harbour as its own property.

This bridge was designed by engineer Percy Allan as the improved non-identical twin of the now much-loved Pyrmont Bridge. So innovative was its electrically-pivoting centre-span that in 1907 Allan was invited to address the Institution of Civil Engineers in London.

Yet it remains unlisted, despite the National Trust’s urging, because the Heritage Council is dragging the chain. The same arguments apply now as in 1988 when the Pyrmont Bridge was saved, and the same benefits would accrue – a lovely object, a splendid commuter path, a new urban connect.

But for years rumours have circulated – and they are reinforced by the Heritage Council’s risible reluctance to list – that the RMS wants the bridge gone. Ratbags all.

Bridge-the-fourth is that to Cockatoo Island, yet unbuilt. The idea has been around for yonks, resurfacing at the recent Sydney Biennale. Some even say – but I have yet to see hard copy – such a bridge once existed.

Certainly, arguments would abound as to level – high or floating – and route (it’s 400 metres from Balmain, 300 from Woolwich or 1200 from Drummoyne).

But the point is surely this. What an opportunity to establish a thriving sustainable-arts island and glorious transport object, worthy of the Thames or Seine, to grace our Sydney Harbour dreaming. Only connect.

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