CITIES, policy & design, spatial poetics, things I have liked, travel notes

Rijeka, or on the meanings of architecture

Whoever is regularly in my vicinity, gets a certain amount of lecturing on how beauty is a function of proportion, not decoration. The building above is a fine example of what I mean by that, proportion, but it is also something else, something entirely more.

Being in Europe, and low-cost flights also being in Europe, it has now become possible for me to do the unthinkable-in-Australia: to fly back to my hometown for a two-day roam-around. And once I was there, it dawned on me immediately (it exploded upon me, even) that I need to do this more, that I need to do it regularly, because having access to Rijeka I have access to my own history. Those two days left me feeling grounded in a way indescribable: they have made me remember where I come from. Losing the sense of my own history is inevitable when I live in Melbourne, Australia, because Australia is the end of the world, far far away from Rijeka. But it takes so little, a few days, a few thorough walks through my hometown – because Rijeka is a distinct place. Very, very distinct.

I have had the good luck to live in some very particular cities: Rijeka; Venice; Berlin. Melbourne was the only place I lived in that could in any way be called normal, a city from which one can extrapolate conclusions that apply to one or more other places as well. But I come from Rijeka; and I don’t come from Venice, Melbourne, or Berlin. Generations of my family have lived in and around Rijeka, but that in and of itself means nothing – Rijeka is a distinct place, as I say. It marks you far faster. It is enough to arrive, get off the bus or train or car, and start walking up and down its steep streets and stairs, and it is as if I suddenly remember how to walk again. It is in this act of walking, in the distinct rhythm of steps that shapes one’s life in a place, and life-in-a-place always being life itself, that I remember who I am (where I have been walking, why I set off). Six years on another continent mean nothing. I have never felt like a stranger in Rijeka. I cannot imagine the number of years I would have to spend in another place (and I have, so far, spent 10 outside Rijeka) before I stopped being from Rijeka and became from somewhere else. Nothing like K, who stops being from Brisbane every so often and becomes from Melbourne – whether because of personal identification, for simplification purposes, or simply because of time invested elsewhere. The city of Rijeka, with its history, geography and culture, is like no other, and my own being-like-no-other starts sitting better within me the moment I start climbing its rocks and jumping over its creeks, cutting rubber soles of my trainers on the shards of limestone, running down its hills through private gardens and along historical staircases.

Rijeka was a part of six different countries only in the past 100 years or so, including a period of 18 months it spent as a self-governed, pirate-anarchist city-state. It has its own dialect, its two winds (bura, the northern mountain wind, bringing cold and dry weather, and jugo, the warm and humid sea wind); its karst landscape, with soft and poround limestone forming tall mountains and deep canyons; and its culture of extreme tolerance to difference, focus on one’s own affairs, and frankness which would be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

The living landscape of Rijeka is one half Mediterranean urbanity, tight stone towns ranging from sizeable to small, built by the sea, between cliffs and gullies, connected with medieval roads that were even then a feat of engineering; and one half complete and utter wilderness, forests and mountain tops and islands and the Adriatic Sea. When our bus stops on the side of the road cutting through makija (or maquis, as it tends to be known in English, the low Mediterranean forest), to drop off a frail old woman seemingly in the middle of nowhere, on a cliff, K is incredulous and concerned. Where is the lady going? I point to the town at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of metres below us, by the sea. But how is she going to get there? There will be a road or a staircase, I say, but K’s good Australian heart is not at peace until he really sees the road, going down the hill at an angle of a ski slope.

This is a cityscape without suburbs. A city can sprawl unchecked and unplanned only on relatively flat land – not when urban growth requires feats of engineering. Among the many distinct topographical formations of the karst landscape, not one is flat. There are 200,000 people living in Rijeka, but one can start walking from the national theatre, with its opera ensemble, ballet ensemble and orchestra, and arrive to the forests in 15 minutes.

It is a city without suburbs. What looks like suburbs, technically is just a lot of edge: city here, nature there. The insistence of Melburnians of all kinds that they are ‘just a suburban boy/girl/family’ is something I cannot relate to, because to me all suburbs look and feel like pitiful wasteland of both nature and culture, and Rijeka has never had any. In our teenage years, we have been known to go hiking on the hills outside the city for hours, then bush-bash our way down the hill and proceed straight to a punk concert or theatre performance. To have to walk, on flat suburban wasteland of houses and petrol stations, for 30 minutes just to get a carton of milk, is to me a personal, non-generalisable tragedy – not so much because it clashes with my values, but because it confuses my sense of walking.

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But I wanted to talk about something else – about architecture and beauty.

We walked up and down hills, through the city centre, and arrived at this building, the so-called Mali neboder, ‘Little Skyscraper’. With its 10 1/2 storeys it is hardly a skyscraper, but it was a tall building when it was built, and so the name stuck. I am generally a fan of early modernism in architecture, buildings built not in cookie-cutter repetition, but as thought-through one-offs. The promise of modernism exists in them still: buildings as a promise of the more efficient future, signals for how to make things rationally and intelligently, lighthouses of technological enlightenment, of engineering which makes life better for everyone.

There are many such buildings in Rijeka. They fit in with the Mediterranean sense of beauty (on which hopefully more later), they are unadorned and simple and truthful to their materials. ‘Mali neboder’ is a building made for its location: it respects the curvilinear street and the slope of the hill it sits on; its balconies open up to the view of the bay and the city centre; its colours are muted, and its windows have (FFS) the kind of blinds that buildings in hot climates need. It is a good building in every sense of the word: high-quality, honest, unpretentious, sensitive to the environment, modest. It did not demand changes of context – it was designed to slot in nicely, and yet it has a beauty of form that is distinct, unrepeatable. It is just that bit higher than other buildings on the street to say, hey, this is what human species can do now, let’s discuss where to go from here!. It neither pretends to come from a time before industry, not does it insist on ignoring the entire city before its time. It doesn’t pretend to be in Paris or New York. It simply makes as much New York on that corner as Rijeka can honestly work with. The story goes that the owner built it as tall as he could sell apartments: the building was finished when the market demand ran dry.

Stendhal said nicely: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” The promise of this building, in 1939, was of a future that would be different, and perhaps better, without pretending to forget the past. There are many such buildings in Rijeka, and there has never been any discontent with modernist architecture there. The people of Rijeka never blew up any buildings on the grounds of ugliness. Today, they don’t build medieval-looking houses for a comfortable fantasy of a better past. It is an honesty which could be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

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A Queensland house is called a Queenslander.

CITIES, spatial poetics, travel notes

Moving houses of Queensland

According to my boyfriend, Queensland houses, timber-framed and built on stilts, can be moved as desired. It is not unusual for whole houses to be moved. They can be pushed forward, pulled back, or raised up if they sink, or to be built in underneath.

There are special cranes to move it, although more often there are special trucks, with big arms that come out of the side, to lift up one side of the house. That way, the stilts can be replaced one side at a time. This is called ‘restumping’.

It is not unusual on a freeway to get stuck behind a house. Or half a house, because sometimes they get cut into two pieces to fit on the truck.

Boyfriend maintains that none of this is unusual. He once lived in a house that got lifted with such a special truck, because it was sinking into the ground.

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CITIES, spatial poetics

It is a strange thing to love a city.

I always had a sense that I would fall in love with Tokyo. In retrospect I guess it’s not that surprising. I was of the generation that had grown up in the ’80s when Japan was ascendant (born aloft by a bubble whose burst crippled its economy for decades), and I’d fed on a steady diet of anime and samurai films. Tokyo for all sorts of reasons spoke to me. By the time I was ready to start having fantasies about any city other than New York, Tokyo was already “the default setting of the future”—Blade Runner city!—and whether because of my childhood poverty or personal inclination, the future was where I longed to be.

It took a while—I wasn’t the kind of kid who could afford to just up and go wherever he liked—but I did finally make it to Tokyo. My best friend, a Japanese-American who’d relocated back to the home country after college, was hosting me. It was a strange time, really. My friend was scheduled to have open-heart surgery the following month, which was part of the reason I had flown over when I did. You know: just in case. He had pretty much decided that no matter what the doctors said about the risks, he was going to be fine, and all that really mattered at the moment was showing me as much of Tokyo as possible. His way of dealing with it. So that’s basically what we did for the next three weeks. Saw Tokyo. Lived it. And predictably I fell in love.

With what? The typical stuff. All the bells and whistles of its modernity. The strangeness of it, the impossible overwhelming scale. With the ramen shop behind my friend’s apartment that served the greatest gyoza I’d ever eaten. With his hip neighborhood, Shimo-Kitazawa. With the last trains back from Shibuya, everybody smashed. With the curry shops that were a revelation to me. With the ginkgo trees and the parks that, despite Tokyo’s insane urbanism, were everywhere. With the castles and the temples and the costume tribes that gathered in Ueno Park on the weekends. With the fact that you couldn’t walk five feet in Tokyo without being tempted by some new deliciousness. With the eyeglass-washing stations. With the crows and the wooden crutches propping up ailing trees. With the glimpse of Mount Fuji from the top of the Metropolitan Government building. With the salsa clubs in Roppongi. With my little train book that I carried with me everywhere.

I could go on. We all can when we talk about the cities we love. Tokyo just did it for me the way London or Rome or Paris or Barcelona does it for other people. My childhood self with all his longings resonated with Tokyo’s futurism. My immigrant self grooved on the familiarity of being an utter stranger, of being gaijin No. 1; it was not so long before that America had been as incomprehensible to me as Japan. My apocalyptic self (highly developed after an ’80s childhood) froze at the scars of Tokyo’s many traumas.

It is a strange thing to love a city. In the end because no city is entirely knowable. What you love really are pieces of it. You are like Dr. Aadam Aziz forever peering at sections of his beloved through the perforated sheet. In Midnight’s Children the sheet was finally dropped and the beloved revealed, but with cities that never happens. That is perhaps part of the allure, what brings us back to the cities we love: our desire to accumulate enough pieces so we can finally have it whole within us. But to love a city is also to love who we were at that time we fell in love. For me, my love for Tokyo is intertwined with my love for my best friend, who did, in the end, survive his surgery.

Cities produce love and yet feel none. A strange thing when you think about it, but perhaps fitting. Cities need that love more than most of us care to imagine. Cities, after all, for all their massiveness, all their there-ness, are acutely vulnerable. No city in the world makes that vulnerability more explicit than Tokyo. In the last century alone Tokyo was destroyed two times. Once by the Great Kanto Earthquake and again by the bombings of World War II.

Each time Tokyo has risen anew.

Today, as radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station drifts toward Tokyo, I am again thinking about the vulnerability of cities and of our love for them. Perhaps cities provoke so much love because they know that in that love lies their own endurance. After all, isn’t it true that for all their vulnerability, as long as a city is loved by someone it will never truly disappear? Isn’t that what it really means to love a city the way I love Tokyo: to carry within yourself the possibility, however faintly, of its rebirth?

Junot Diaz, Tokyo

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CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics, travel notes

A note on violence

13 June

As I’m writing this, the first gay pride parade in Split (second biggest city in Croatia, biggest coastal, smack-bang in the middle of the area that was heavily bombed during the war, therefore, somewhat predictably, somewhat right-leaning) resulted in a violent riot, as the parade (of 200 mainly non-gay people – activists, intellectuals, supporters) was met by a rock-hurling counter-protest (of about 10,000 by the police estimate). Croatian media are exploding with commentary, all condemning the violence in the harshest possible terms. This is great improvement since the LGBT issue was first raised, only about 12 years ago, when no one spoke about it, and the general opinion was not far from an assumption that there are no homosexuals in Croatia. But, in a very strongly masculine culture, homosexuality is, of course, destabilising for a whole series of cultural paradigms. As one journalist wrote: Continue reading “A note on violence” »

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CITIES, spatial poetics

Contemplating Hell

Contemplating Hell by Bertolt Brecht
Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,
My brother Shelley found it to be a place
Much like the city of London. I,
Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,
Find, contemplating Hell, that is
Must be even more like Los Angeles.

Also in Hell,
I do not doubt it, there exist these opulent gardens
With flowers as large as trees, wilting, of course,
Very quickly, if they are not watered with very expensive water. And fruit markets
With great leaps of fruit, which nonetheless

Possess neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of autos,
Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than
Foolish thoughts, shimmering vehicles, in which
Rosy people, coming from nowhere, go nowhere.
And houses, designed for happiness, standing empty,
Even when inhabited.

Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks.

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CITIES, spatial poetics

Journalism, exquisite journalism:

Michail Gorbachev did not make a public appearance until nine days after the accident. Was this embittering?

You know, journalists always ask the same thing. Were you lied to? The Soviet power never told the truth. That was nothing new! What interests me is something else. The pause.

The pause?

In the zone helicopters were taking off, technicians were running about in their thousands, but no one had any explanations. It was a new reality. It was forbidden to sit on the ground. It was forbidden to stand under a tree for any length of time. Fishermen said they couldn't find any worms, that the worms had bored a meter and a half down into the earth. Nature had obviously received signals. I find this fascinating. People reported they'd not only seen a fire, but also a raspberry-coloured glow and that they'd never thought death could be so beautiful. Former Afghanistan fighters were flown in with helicopters and machine guns and were asking: What good are our helicopters here? An entire culture collapsed, the familiar culture of war.

(…) There were no boundaries after Chernobyl. Spaces dissolved.

I continue to be amazed that people have failed to understand Chernobyl as a new way of seeing the world. Chernobyl changed space, but politicians still talk about things in terms of today, there, nearby, foreign. It's so strange. What does near or far mean when the cloud was hanging over Europe on the second day and over China on the fourth? Even a country that doesn't build reactors will be hit by the fallout from another country.

You can read the complete conversation with Svetlana Alexievich on signandsight.com.

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CITIES, spatial poetics, theatre, travel notes

on form and theatre; vignette

My most cherished discovery has been a generation of very young Croatian theatre-makers, absolutely fearless. This year, Gordana Vnuk, the iron lady of Eurokaz and an uncompromising believer in new forms of expression, pulled out these kids that haven't even graduated yet, and what beautiful things they have shown. I have seen so much brave, crushing, beautiful form on Eurokaz 2008, so much of it absolutely riveting.

Point one. Marina Petkovic.

Black box. Four actors wearing black. They describe exactly who they are, what they do. I am Gertrude. From here to here is my bed. It has four pillows on it. I sleep here alone, when I'm not performing my marital duties, in which case my husband, the king, sleeps here too. There is a double door here, a window over here, and a long red curtain covering it. I am wearing a white nightgown. I am Hamlet. I am wearing black, with a dagger hanging here. I am Polonius. I am hiding behind this curtain.

Gertrude and Hamlet sit down, chair to chair, holding pages of Shakespeare's text, reading as neutrally as they described the setting, the costumes. Hamlet gets up, stabs Polonius, and comes back. Gertrude, still neutrally: Oh what you have done? Argument; neutrally. Meanwhile, Polonius is dying in a most naturalistic way, shaking and curling on the floor. About five minutes. Hamlet is getting upset: he stammers, misreads his lines, sweats, has to repeat the words multiple times. Slowly, minutes passing, Polonius drags himself to the two chairs, grips Hamlet's leg. Hamlet chokes, tries to shake him off, still reading from the pages, very upset. Gertrude gets up, pulls, sits on Polonius, keeps reading. Both very upset now: words are mangled, phrases interrupted, repeated. Sweat. Polonius dies. It takes them time, cooperation and physical combinatorics to carry him out, through the double door. End.

Point two. Same performance.

Claudius, Gertrude and Horatio describe the setting of a ceremonial hall in great detail, each focusing on the parts that matter the most. This is my throne, because I am the king. Here hangs my portrait, 7×7m… No, 9×9. My throne is made out of gold, with a big sphere here, all covered in gems. My throne is a bit smaller. It's made out of wood. It has a golden sphere here. My portrait hangs with the king's. 6×6m. The hall is really big and spherical. If I stood here , and the actor leaves the performance space through the side door, walks out in the middle of the courtyard, I would be in the centre of the room. It feels good and comfy, like a church. Here is where Hamlet and I used to play when we were little. Now we're not allowed anymore. Then Ophelia. There is a river flowing through here. Break. She creates, with words, a natural landscape on top of the ceremonial hall. She describes her daydreaming in the forest. End.

This is all fantastic to watch. The rise or fall of this kind of theatre – of any kind of theatre, I believe – is in the extent to which they can engage their audience. Not merely for entertainment value: engagement improves attention, concentration, focus. Yet to qualify why something is engaging theatre, and something else fails to engage, is near-impossible. Finally, Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it was a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secret of the universe.

I am sure that these two essays did not attempt to give the answers I found. They were results of a workshop around Gavella, a Croatian theatre theorist and maker, whose writings I have never read. The first was almost certainly not a critique of text-based performance as promulgated in Anglophone countries, although it was the single most powerful critique I have ever seen. The second could not have been a reply to the West End Whingers, regarding the absolute mimicry of life in the direction of the ugly one by Ramin Gray, performed at the Royal Court in London. It may have been a demonstration of how little theatre needs to create setting, a mise-en-scéne, and how easily the audience can juggle in mind multiple, contradictory sets of signs, but it probably responded to Gavella instead. And yet, I cannot forget these two scenes. They were simple, minimalist, and unforgettable.

My sister, a 14-year-old with no experience of experimental theatre, not only sat through the 120 minutes of this black narrativeless experiment, but excitedly quoted moments from the performance days later.

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