Modern Ornament

There is a landing, on the river side of the Queensland Museum, and above the Queensland Art Gallery, which is reliably mostly empty. It faces a large, busy cafe, often full of daggy and aspirational Brisbane parents and their noisy, curious kids. It is near walkways and stairs for people walking either way along the river. This corner landing repels people. People stop there for a moment, wanting to do something, and move on quickly.

The museum and art gallery is a reinforced concrete structure, built 1982-86, according to the style at the time, echoing the Barbican in London or the Lincoln Centre in New York, a monumental grey and light brown culture production machine. The staff make clever and lively use of the cavernous spaces inside. There is an enormous fossil of hundreds of mud footprints, capturing a dinosaur stampede, against one cliff-like wall. Nearby, outside, full-scale models of humpback whales hang overhead, while whalesong pipes through discreetly placed speakers.

The whole building is a bit like that landing though, at least on the bare concrete outside. It has a striking concrete slab geometry, all rectangles. It is unshaded in the glaringly hot summer sun and humidity, and open to thunderstorms. In the bright Brisbane winter, the glare remains, but the heat is substituted for a chilly draft, seasoned with city grit and dust. You can’t talk to people, read a newspaper, eat a sandwich, or even check your phone, really. So on busy days, there is a steady stream of people needing a moment’s rest, not finding it, and disconsolately moving on. Perhaps I am misreading the building, and this is by design, like the seats in McDonald’s that are placed a distance from the table precisely determined to make you uncomfortable after five or ten minutes.

Queensland Art Gallery and Museum

Queensland Art Gallery and Museum by kgbo (cropped)

There’s a part early on in The Timeless Way of Building where Christopher Alexander meditates, in a somewhat angst-ridden way, on how problematic he finds contemporary (1970s) architecture. Very well, he relates, I must face that I am a conservative. (Horror of Berkeley horrors.) He then talks himself out of it, deciding that he is not against new buildings and materials so long as they learn from the beauty of old patterns, and that their design is in the hands of the communities they house.

Alexander has had an influential career, including inspiring the design patterns movement in software, but was never quite embraced by the mainstream of the architecture profession. He did get an award from the arch-conservative US National Building Museum. And there is that not-all-wrong, definitely reactionary, article by Rennix and Robinson on ornament and modern architecture that does the rounds on Twitter every few months. The article highlights a 1982 debate between Alexander and Peter Eisenman on beauty. It’s a debate that seems more important to conservative partisans (alt-historical 1980s youtube videos on how Alexander DESTROYS Eisenman flick before one’s eyes), but really is about technical expertise and the way it causes pain, the way we overwhelmingly live in an ecosystem of industrial creative destruction.

From the very beginning it is clear that Alexander and Eisenman don’t really even share a common frame in which to debate. Alexander’s early work, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, is highly mathematical, and Eisenman also makes heavy use of repeated geometrical forms. But Alexander, as always, advocates for a sense of wholeness and harmony, like the way the senses are comforted by detail related at different scales, which he thinks can be got at mathematically. Eisenman is fonder of ideas of deep structure from literary postmodernists like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida, and distrusts these feelings of comfort.

My design sympathies are with Alexander – it’s certainly a better default – and yet, if we zoom out, Eisenman isn’t all wrong. Sometimes technical experts need to inflict pain. The Hippocratic oath doesn’t stop surgeons from using a bone saw, just when they decide it’s worthwhile.

Peter Eisenman: Moneo’s courtyard … was taking away from something that was too large, achieving an effect that expresses the separation and fragility that man feels today in relationship to the technological scale of life, to machines, and the car-dominated environment we live in.

Christopher Alexander: Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony.

PE: What I’m suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything’s all right, Jack, which it isn’t. And so the role of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn’t all right.

So sure, art does need to do that, sometimes. It sounds like an awkward place to live, though. The residents of Eisenman’s House VI thought so, too – they even wrote a book about it.

The point of inflicting this pain – disharmony is pain – is usually that you go through it in order to become something else. The danger of a disharmonious building is surely that it is so permanent, that on even a generational timescale, it is a destination, not just a transformation. All pain and no amputation. Let alone the prelude to a cyborg prosthetic upgrade, or whatever mutant response to machinic modernity you might need.

Arizona State Football Stadium

Arizona State Football Stadium, by MCSixth

Eisenman is a prolific theorist, though I haven’t dived deeply into his writing. He has had a successful commercial career, too; it’s not all frozen museum pieces like House II. The curves of modern steel and autocad construction have been kind to his later work. His firm built the Arizona University football stadium. It’s a blobby magic schoolbus shape; a cutely monstrous gladiatorial arena.

PE: [Palladio’s Palazzo Chiericati] … makes me feel high in my mind, not in my gut. Things that make me feel high in my gut are very suspicious, because that is my psychological problem.

I guess he got over that. Of course you don’t live in a stadium, either, and they’re not meant to make you comfortable.

Eisenman is probably most famous for another late work, the 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. The design was selected by competition. As described by James Young, one of the reasons the previous round of competition had failed acrimoniously was the previous winning design was too much of a kitschy ornament. The very concrete elements: the giant tombstone, the specific numbers of boulders, and so on, all become points of disappointment and interrogation, inadequate symbolism under the scale of industrial murder; an enormous snow-globe of death.

This piece by K Michael Hays, part of a lecture series, gives a sense of the project and its institutional reception.

It is a field of many abstract and minimalist stone pillars, without a single defined entrance-exit path, variations in the height of the pillars and the gradient of the ground creating an uncanny, disturbing, maze-like effect amongst the tallest pillars, at the centre. 

It’s hard not to connect the earlier criticism of Eisenman with the strengths of the memorial: “reminding people that everything wasn’t all right”. The memorial to industrial genocide is human-repellant, unheimlich, uncanny, un-home-like. That’s the point. Though when pressed, Eisenman doesn’t even commit to a meaning that concrete; he even considers it might be used by skateboarders, or in a spy film.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have a favorite monument?

Eisenman: Actually, I’m not that into monuments. Honestly, I don’t think much about them. I think more about sports.

(Spiegel Interview)

The Mall

This is not one of 50 Posts About Cyborgs, but it owes much to the series.

The mall is a cybernetic garden at the crossroads of suburbia. It exists as a reconstructed island of metropolitan density in an environment hostile to it. Suburban houses are on a relatively human scale, but suburbia is not. Suburbia in the large is the domain of the automobile.

The city and the mall are cybernetic in that they are self-regulating human structures which take on environmental management in a way that makes it unconscious to users. The mall air conditioning is a clue. With cybernetics we change our environment; as cyborgs we change ourselves.

An informative exercise for those wanting to discover this island of density is to cross a shopping mall car park by foot on a summer’s day. It is striking what a brutally awkward space it is. It is at the intersection of car and person, hostile to both.

The most excellent mall entrance from a carpark I have seen is at Suntec City Plaza in Singapore. As in many Brisbane shopping centres, the underground carpark leads into a large stairwell for the escalators up into the main set of shops. At Suntec City they have expanded the space and included a massive pond. Large Chinese goldfish and carp swish through the water, easing the stress of bustling and queueing that is mall and carpark existence. Small waterfalls provide white noise cover for engines revving in low gear downstairs and muzak upstairs. The water garden of lilypads and shrubs scrub the air of exhaust fumes. The glass of the automatic doors reflect the tranquility into an imaginary middle distance. Fish ponds are not unusual in Singapore, but the enervating context makes this one an underground Hanging Garden of Babylon.

I have more affection for the entrance than the rest of Suntec City, which is otherwise a graceless sprawl of one way escalators and cavernous halls segregated from the metro system (until very recently). It is a confusing space, twisty but without organic paths of use, where assistants have to be paid to accompany the standing maps, as a rescue service for beleaguered shoppers.

More common is placing a mall above an MRT station. Crossroads are common precursors to markets. The intersection of needs is already in place.

City is a recurring suffix for malls in Singapore – Great World City, Turf City, Vivo City – which is a curious intensifying suffix to use in a country which is already a city-state. City in Chinese is 城市, literally a wall plus a market. A mall, too, is that.

To conclude, or perhaps, to make manifest:

The city is a self-regulating human modification for surviving hostile environments.

The mall is a type of internal city which attempts to modify humans to survive the hostile environments of cities.

The inner city and the outer suburbs can both be hostile environments.

Where the city itself is a savannah for metropolitan cyborgs, the mall-spaceship can be dismantled.

The natural environment of man is yet to be built.
John Powers

The Well-Ventilated Cage

There’s been a brief algal bloom of discussion on urban blogs on the historical roots of anti-urbanism, particularly Ryan Avent and Stephen Smith. It seems as good a time as any to mention the Brisbane experience. Brisbane is a nineteenth century city, and like most Australian cities, a casual attitude to earlier hunter-gatherer settlement meant it suffered from no shortage of land.

Brisbane has a strikingly sparse density for a city of two million – 918 people per square kilometre. That’s about a tenth of the density of New York city or an eighth of Los Angeles. Though it’s worth noting the city limits are drawn to include more suburbs than many other cities, it’s a pretty obvious feature of the city for even the first-time visitor.

The culture of sprawl certainly runs deep in Brisbane, buying a house on land is the conventional wisdom, and new suburbs have been ever unfolding throughout my life and before, while commute times soar ever upwards. It’s a city that demands a car, but where the ubiquitous suburban blocks are often green. I’ve been in forests overseas with less trees than the Brisbane suburbs. It may be one of the few places to deliver on that part of the garden city vision. Perhaps because of this, I had always assumed that the development pattern was driven solely by cheap land and human nature, despite my own frustration with driving for hours to do anything, or the inconvenience of taxi-ing home to the middle of nowhere after a few drinks.

In fact, much like the US examples Stephen cites, the roots are as much regulatory as organic, and they date back to the Undue Subdivision of Land Prevention Act 1885. This set a minimum lot size of 400 m^2 with a ten metre wide block. The population, though going through a boom, was only a few ten thousands at this time, and it had a huge impact on the development about to occur. The house I am writing this in is on a block of exactly the minimum size and shape specified in the act, even though it was rescinded in 1923. The motivation, as wiki notes, was slum prevention. The cost of not letting people choose smaller houses, if they wanted them, was a city that was too expensive to comprehensively sewer until the 1970s. It was also much hard to keep services like trams economic when cars emerged. Residents were trapped by sprawl, in a well-ventilated cage.

2010: A Zed Odyssey

Community radio station and Brisbane institution 4ZZZ celebrates thirty-five years of existence this year. To celebrate, or maybe just for the heck of it, they painted their offices with a three storey high mural. In keeping with the general idealism and radicalism that emanates from the place, the 4ZZZ offices are also the former HQ of the Australian Communist Party.

4ZZZ was originally a student station, started at UQ under a liberalization made possible by the Whitlam government (though National Peter Nixon amusingly ended up signing the paper). It moved to the current office in the valley after a formative struggle which has an almost mythological status. A change of power at the UQ student union put the Young Nationals in power. Under president Victoria Brazil, they cut costs, including kicking 4ZZZ off campus. The National Party had been in power in the state of Queensland for several decades straight, leaning well over the line towards a thuggish police state at the end, rigging the electoral system and intertwined with corrupt police. Though in retrospect it seems obvious the Nationals were on their last legs, at the time occupying the radio station in protest must have seemed proportional resistance to a semi-fascist regime disturbingly willing to use illegal or paramilitary force. By John Birmingham’s 90’s account in the UQ student newspaper, Semper – he rather gleefully described punching Young Nationals in the face – the station occupation wasn’t exactly a model of Gandhian non-violence either. (Semper archives are still dead-tree based, unfortunately.)

It may appall every other subscriber, but I think kicking 4ZZZ out of the uni has been good for it. Certainly it was a Thatcherite kill-or-cure solution, and probably intended with more kill than cure. The content is still flavoured by a student aesthetic. The title of this post comes from the anniversary booklet of the same name, and it’s very reminiscent of Semper, the UQ paper. It’s not a bad paper, but the programming itself looks beyond the somewhat self-absorbed venue of the campus. The result of eviction, even if unintentional, was creating an independent pillar of civic society, that stood on its own terms, not beholden to any parent organisation. You could call it an institutional expression of anarcho-syndicalism at the centre of a modern corporate city, or you could just say it’s like the local cricket team. Not too large. Fit to purpose.

4ZZZ programming mostly displays the glorious, fractious diversity of the left, but it’s also a distinctly local voice. It doesn’t have playlists, and though there is a kind of consensus 4ZZZ reality, its shows become windows into the Brisbane community, and communities within that community, in a way other stations cannot, simply because of their central corporate or national organisation. Triple J, for instance, the national youth broadcaster, and not a bad one, if you’re going to have such a thing, simply can’t give as many local bands a break as ZZZ, because of its size. And because of its no playlist policy, you get a delirious skittering around during the week, from Nothing But The Blues, to Zed Games, to the New Zealand Show, to Dykes on Mykes. It has an amateurish charm. It resists a mere demographic averaging in a way that anticipated the internet, and is as old as free speech and songs without words. It’s a week late, but happy birthday.

Subtropical Lawn Care For Green Incompetents

In late 2009 we moved back to Brisbane, and in keeping with the low density suburban vibe that predominates in this city, acquired responsibility for a lawn. It takes up the remainder of a 400 m^2 block after a small worker’s cottage, a largish shed, and a few small gardens and trees are taken out.

I am not a huge lawn fan. We might convert some of it to garden, in the medium term, but even after that some sort of lawn seems inevitable. B floated the idea of letting it return to meadow, and sowing wildflowers. It’s a wonderfully romantic notion, but there are a few drawbacks. In Out of Control, Kevin Kelly describes a person who restores meadow environments in the US, and it is actually pretty hard work. In the same book, he quotes Freeman Dyson’s critique of Biosphere 2: that the great successes of a closed system like that will be weeds. (It was not exactly the original experiment parameters, but that’s just what happened). Rather more prosaically, typical scrub grass in South East Queensland grows to about a metre high. That’s taller than my son.

So rather than invest in tracking technology and snake wrestling lessons for the youngster, I resigned myself to participation in the ritual cleansing of the yard using a lawnmower.

I don’t really like lawnmowers either. Never have, they are coughing, loud, awkward things awash with fumes that always need filling up with petrol. Plus we have, with varying degrees of seriousness, been trying to go through what Alex Steffen describes somewhat derisorily as The Swap:

Many of these ideas are still being presented as support for the idea that we can conveniently retrofit North American 20th Century suburban life for the 21st Century. We still see hundreds of stories a day promoting the Swap — the idea that we can change the components of suburban, high-consumption, auto-dependent lives without have to change the nature of those lives — but that idea itself is non-reality-based.

To me the Swap is not sufficient but it’s a good start. And anyway, where does The Swap end and The Solution begin? So instead of another petrol lawnmower I bought a push mower off Ebay with $25 and an armful of enthusiasm. That’s push mower as in with your arms, not electric. It’s an old Flymo 5/40. Electric mowers have their place but require more financial commitment. And a really really long extension cord, or you take another big leap in expense.

We had a push mower when I was a kid so I was not entirely ignorant of its pros and cons. But here are some lessons learnt.

  • Consistency. These push mowers work best on short grass, so a philosophy of little and often works best. Once the grass grows a bit it will wrap around the internal axle, and also just stop the rotation of the blades. To make progress you then need to do many short sharp pushes on the same segment, rather than a relatively smooth walking pass. The effort increases in a brutally non-linear fashion relative to the length of the grass. When the grass got long, I ended up spending nearly a third of the mowing time on the most lush 5 metres square patch
  • Summer will beat you. We had record rainfall this summer as a long drought ended. Together with a few weeks away on business, bone idleness on my part, the wet ground and summer sun-fuelled grass vaulting ever skywards, I had to resort to borrowing a petrol mower a few times just to reset the playing field. Ok, what actually happened, even more humiliatingly, was my retired father just came and mowed it when I wasn’t home. Now we are on the edge of winter I am keeping up pretty easily. It’s still a net carbon win, but a bit frustrating to have to cheat in this manner. I suspect that without forking out for a lawnmower bike a few passes with the petrol mower will still be needed each Christmas though.
  • Grass types make a difference. For a lazy lawnmower like myself, broad short kikuyu grass is great. Shorter thinner grass like cooch or other even snobbier varieties used down south are dense pains in the neck (and back and shoulders).
  • Whipper snipper. It is harder to fudge edges with a push mower, as you can’t lift one wheel and push with that dangerous but widely used tilted petrol mower technique without losing almost all cutting power. Once I had established to myself that this push business wasn’t just a fad, by mowing for a month or two, I bought an electric whipper snipper. We recently switched to 100% green power at home so the carbon footprint is restricted to the manufacture and transport. Since I never did the edges properly before anyway, the place actually looks better now.
  • Profile. Our lawn is pretty flat and rectangular. Even so, there are a few dips and holes in it from trees removed long ago. They are a pain as well. We are trying to fill in the holes, but so far everything put into them has trickled down out of sight in a few weeks. They must have been big trees, possibly with roots in another plane.

I figure some people pay for the gym to get their exercise. I hate the gym, and this way we can still traverse our yard without a compass.