how the world works, policy & design

In the (local) news today

There is a short article in The Age today about the scheme to revive the Docklands, Melbourne’s notoriously unsuccessful waterfront development, with temporary shops. The scheme is managed by Renew Australia, who founder, Marcus Westbury, has a longish think piece on his blog about the progress so far. Very interesting piece, although with a slight error worth correcting: Docklands isn’t really a testimony to the problems of masterplanning, because there was no masterplan for the Docklands. As even Wikipedia knows, Docklands was developed with the minimum possible coordination between the different developers and their building plans – in fact, only insomuch as to make sure there would be infrastructure, because (in a wonderful summary of what it means when a ‘small government’ doesn’t interfere with citizen freedoms)

It did not take long for the realisation that the lack of government coordination in infrastructure planning would create problems. Developers would not invest into public infrastructure, where benefits would flow on to an adjacent property. This was corrected by allowing developers to negotiate for infrastructure funding with the government. The Docklands Village precinct was planned for a residential and commercial mixed development, but, in late 1996, that plan was scrapped when it was announced a private football stadium would be built on the site.[10] The site was chosen for its easy access to the then Spencer Street Station (now Southern Cross Station), and it was intended to be an anchor for the entire project and provide for a clear signal to the long awaited start of the Docklands project. However, this would create a huge barrier between the City and Docklands.

On one level, it’s hilarious that the Docklands authorities are now employing the power of creative makers to rejuvenate the failed redevelopment. Remember what was there before the redevelopment? Oh, yeah: hugely popular underground dance parties. Wow, maybe that didn’t really need to go…

Meanwhile, Alan Davies reports that the cement truck driver who killed a cyclist in Brisbane in 2011, when he attempted to take over without changing into the right lane has been found not guilty. The cyclist was struck by the rear wheel of the truck. His helmet was shattered, and his body, found 25m down the road, had to be disentangled from his mangled bike. The lane which was asked to contain the cyclist and a cement truck was 3.1-3.6m wide, thus slightly wider than the recommended width of a two-way bike path in Victoria.

However, the Australian society apparently doesn’t think this kind of driving is a problem.

Meanwhile, in The Conversation, emergency doctor argues that helmet protection is absolutely necessary for cyclists. Apparently, studies of cyclists brought into emergency hospitals show that the ones wearing helmets survived more & better than the ones that didn’t. Sure. You could make the same argument for pedestrian armour ®. But no one ever, ever, researches cyclist deaths and injuries in Australia by looking at how many involved collision with a motorised vehicle. Say, a cement truck pushing for space in the same lane.

The idea that motor vehicles might be the really important part of the public health issue here just seems so far from anyone’s agenda. No wonder Australian cyclists often speak in such enraged tone. Different European countries have legislated minimum safe distance that cars need to take from cyclists, as well as automatic assumption of driver guilt, should a car strike a pedestrian or cyclist. The commenters under the helmet article point out that probably saved more lives than any mandatory or non-mandatory helmet. Because I would like to know how many lethal cycling accidents in Australia DO NOT involve a motorised vehicle.

policy & design

Falling in love with the jazz age

Frank Tate Building at Melbourne University is making me fall in love with the first moderne all over again, despite the occasionally kitschy all-angles-at-once featurism of the renovation.

I often wonder if modernist architecture would be more popular internationally if only it had high ceilings (I genuinely do: when people sing praises to 19th-century buildings, you might notice that about 80-90% of the content of their appreciation centres on ceiling height. Conversely, people who hate 1950s architecture almost always hate the boxiness). Frank Tate doesn’t quite answer my question because the dwelling rooms’ ceilings are very high. But the staircases, while low, are so perfectly proportioned, one feels so very happy ascending them (indeed, hanging out in the staircase area gives me pangs of memory of happy small spaces: kindergarten, primary school, my childhood clinic), that it is almost confirming something.

poetics of life

Sei Shonagon’s Lists

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is one of the strangest and most delightful works of literature in the entire human history.

Shonagon (966-1017) was a Lady-In-Waiting serving the Japanese empress Sadako in the peaceful Heian era. She authored the Pillow Book, a “collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court.” In other words, while the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was creating Beowulf, Shonagon was writing a blog. Pillow books (Makura no Soshi) were a genre of personal writing of the time, and it wasn’t unusual for court ladies to swap and read them: the one that survives to our time is the one that was most fun to read.

And it is fun to read; and not just compared to OTHER 1,000-year-old books. Shonagon describes the trivial, everyday minutiae of a world extremely alien to us, that of a totally secluded Heian court: one in which people rarely walk, but rather crawl; in which women blacken their teeth; in which polygamy is normal, but men and women hardly ever see each other’s faces; in which professional posts are obtained through poetry contests; and in which referring to a woman by name was considered so rude, and thus so thoroughly avoided, that nobody knows what Sei Shonagon’s actual name was. You read Pillow Book, and you really get a sense of who these people were, these people who lived a thousand years ago: what other book does that?

And you can very quickly become immersed into the spatiality and the temporality of their life: the seasons, the festivals, how people’s careers progress, what to wear when, what to never wear, how to find a husband, what is uncool, what happens to the dead, the spatiality of flirting and romance, the spatiality of old age and abandonment. And I suppose that’s why I love it so much: for the way it is eschews grand themes. Everyday life is an incredibly under-appreciated thing. How it works, why it works, why it fails, why we’re happy or miserable living it. As Chris Marker said, “I’ve been around the world several times, and only banality still interests me.”

The most famous thing about Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s lists. Here are some:

16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shatters.

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

25. Infuriating things
A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.
A hair has got on to your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. Also, the grating sound when a bit of stone gets ground in with the ink.
[…] A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.
[…] A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamoring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
[…] I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.
Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all. This is quite infuriating.
[…] Continue reading “Sei Shonagon’s Lists” »

how the world works

Urban news

Richard Watts at ArtsHub announces a new arts precinct planned in the former Collingwood TAFE. Australia loves ‘precincts’, which seem to be largely understood as a single-use mini-neighbourhood (and which I would argue is a quintessentially suburban concept of how a city works). Besides, Collingwood TAFE is essentially a single building; why not call it a hub?, or a centre? However, it’s a very large site, occupying almost an entire city block, and any provision of land at sub-market rates currently does good for diversity in the uber-expensive Australian cities, so precinct away.

The Atlantic Cities has a wonderful article on the pedestrian staircases linking up Cincinnati. The stairways have, apparently, become hubs of crime and many have been closed, while neighbourhood groups have sprung up to restore them. The photos warmed my heart enormously, because my hometown is full of staircases like these, just as narrow and steep, and one of the favourite things I do with my expatriated friends when we’re back in Rijeka is literally run up and down them (up is for stamina, down is just pure joy). It is interesting how social problems in Cincinnati have caused this slightly extreme urban landscape to be so quickly declared off-limits and unsafe. It made me wonder if social inequality has some kind of inverse correlation to landscape beauty: the more you have of the former, the less allowance can be made for the latter.

In the corner where we fight for children’s independent mobility, the British National Trust publishes a cute little list of things to do before you’re 11 3/4. It’s a sad thing that this needs to be stressed, but heck: children need independent exploration. It’s important for their intellectual, physical and psychological development.

Meanwhile, Chinese scientists create the influenza virus in the lab. The pressure is mounting on the US to close Guantanamo Bay as the total hunger strike of the inmates continues. The US also rejects the idea that the pesticides, banned yesterday by the EU, have caused the collapse of bee populations globally and suggest it’s better not to do anything until we’re sure. The collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh, which has claimed 429 lives as of this morning, has sparked a pressure campaign on fashion multinationals to force their subcontractors to treat their workers better, through better pay and more control. Very interesting, as fast fashion has become a global industrial force, and created entire landscapes of mass labour, production and accommodation in near-slave conditions. The images of this landscape are likely to remain a mark of our time the way industrial slums defined the 19th century.

In the ‘cool new things happenin’ corner, here’s an article on iFixit, a company that teaches adults and kids how to fix electronics, in order to boost science education in the US (they say kids are even more interested than adults). Improv Everywhere design a performance/reality theatre service in which they help texters walk on the street while they text. Global Press Institute is an organisation trying to replace clueless foreign correspondents with local women reporters, on the grounds that they simply know more, and should be given a voice. As a literate woman who once dated an aspiring foreign reporter dude, who told me he wanted to write about my country (of which he knew nothing) in order to give me and my people a voice, I say: go Global Press.

Here is also a little essay on Berlin’s Stumbling Blocks, the best public sculpture and also memorial I have ever experienced.

Meanwhile, on the more trivial side of things, IBM makes a nano-animation with atoms, which is very cute. And Warren Buffett opens an account on Twitter.

policy & design

Annoying drivers

In Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy (NY Times), Elisabeth Rosenthal tries to explain the last 50-or-so years of European transport planning as a mission to “make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation”.

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.

Around Löwenplatz, one of Zurich’s busiest squares, cars are now banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail’s pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.

As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”

Well, yes and no. This may look like pure meanness, but there is a management word for it: disincentivising. European cities would have never been able to accommodate car as everyone’s default mode of transport without razing half of the houses to the ground, and so they just haven’t. (I remember one urban planning tutorial I had, freshly migrated to Australia, where we discussed car use in cities. One student made the garden-variety logical error of saying: “Yes, car ownership is lower in Europe and Asia than in the US and Australia, but it started rising later. So, eventually it will catch up.” I pointed out it can’t work that way, because WHERE would the Europeans and Asians store and drive their cars? After a certain level of saturation, the city gets so congested that people don’t drive anymore. Simple. I have seen this numerous times, across many cities, and the example I quoted for him were my friends in Lisbon, who once said: “Only stupid tourists think you can get somewhere downtown in a car.”)

Meanwhile, Australian and US cities apply the same meanness, but to pedestrians. It feels very unloving to be a person walking in a city like Melbourne most days. Green crossing lights don’t come up automatically, and often there is an invisible window of time to press the light-request button. Every day I stand waiting at the red light while parallel car traffic flows by, because MY green light inexplicably hasn’t come up. Green lights are often shorter than the crossing time. Crossing Nepean Highway to get from Elwood to Elsternwick – something I had to do every day a few years ago because the Highway separated my home from the supermarket, train and tram, and the local library – was always an adventure, because the green light to cross twelve (TWELVE!) lanes of traffic was about 15 seconds long. If you started crossing the moment the light turned green, and you were young and healthy and quick, you could just about get to the last pedestrian island before the light went decisively red, and then cross your fingers and run across the last few lanes. Then there is the strange crime of jay-walking (practiced in cities with pedestrian-unfriendly design more than in Zurich, I must say). The planning demand to provide parking whatever you build, which tends to overcompensate (in Europe, the opposite is true: parking places are capped). Then the way in which the landscape and public manners change as you move from the centre towards the edge of the city: footpaths shrink, then disappear; driveways extend, and cars start crossing the footpaths with a more marked sense of ownership; and, finally, by the time you reach the outer suburbs, the roads are enormously wide, houses have no fronts other than garage doors, and there is not a pedestrian in sight.

But, the times are changing: in Washington DC, traffic engineers are linking speeding to trigger red lights for cars. This is not even particularly punitive: cars, after all, shouldn’t speed. Since it is often assumed than anything other than a state of high and constant alert justifies cyclists’ deaths, certainly some waiting should be distributed as punishment for drivers breaking road rules.

And in New Jersey, police had a flash operation, giving tickets to drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians on zebra crossings. The interesting thing reported in this article is that many drivers apparently don’t understand that they were committing an offense:

In this TV news segment showing an “investigation” into a recent crosswalk enforcement action in Orlando, Florida, you can see what the cops are up against here. As they walk out into four lanes of traffic on what looks like a suburban arterial road, some drivers just keep coming – in one case, almost striking the undercover officer who is crossing. “They have actually got a weapon in front of them that they are driving,” Orange County Sheriff Sgt. Tony Molina said in the segment.

The drivers may be aware of the destructive potential of their vehicles, but many seem to think that just means everyone should get the heck out of their way. “I thought the guy was crazy for walking across like that,” says one guy from behind the wheel, shaking his head.

“Pedestrians are idiots, especially in New Jersey,” said Julie Mendelowitz, of Hoboken, who vowed to contest her $230 ticket. “If someone jumps out into the walkway, what makes you think that that driver can stop in enough time to not strike that pedestrian and not get hit by the cars behind them? Are the pedestrians not endangering the drivers just as much? Where’s their ticket?”

Well, no. Pedestrians (and cyclists) are far less dangerous than a moving ton of steel. And also less polluting. And less noisy. In fact, there is nothing but good externalities to pedestrians and cyclists, while car traffic comes with so many that it really is good public policy to curb car use. Which is what many European countries have been doing for a long time. Why is that even news?

how the world works

Urban matters in the news

The Age reports that the $680 million dollar plan to redevelop the back of Federation Square (in the centre of Melbourne) into a unified design (a park with a conference centre, assembly hall, hotel, school, and underground car park) is under threat. The Napthine State government will instead on Tuesday release a “request for industry submissions”, a signal the site could be opened up to a range of private developers, instead of the State Government commissioning LAB studio (the company behind Federation Square). It is not entirely clear from the article if the reason is in the lack of funding (at $680 million, the entire development costs about a third of what Myki did). However, the comments below the article raise fears of yet another Docklands fiasco.

To remind the short-memoried and inform the non-Victorians: the redevelopment of the former docklands of Melbourne into a waterfront precinct was conducted without top-down planning as we know it. State Government sold the land, often below market prices, to private developers and gave them free hand with the design. The resulting space, although expensively put together and supplied with public transport quickly and well, has been so universally unloved and unsuccessful in attracting people that it has been given over to Renew Australia for a revitalisation through temporary use barely a decade since completion. Federation Square, on the other hand, has become the symbol of the city.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott, the leader of the Opposition and the man some think will become Australia’s new Prime Minister in September, has asserted that his government will not fund any urban rail projects, saying that Australia has no tradition of federal funding for urban rail, only roads. Abbott has vouched support for an urban road project in Victoria, however, despite it costing more, being a significantly unprepared, and having flow-on benefits estimated at only half of the costs (as opposed to the 1.3 benefit-to-cost for the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel Abbott is promising to shelve). He is taken to task for policy lunacy by a number of analysts, most comprehensively in The Conversation.

The Age reports that much of Australia’s coal reserves may be prohibited from burning, given the global climate change policy constraints, and the increasing likelihood of limiting the rights of energy companies to mine their known fossil reserves (the same issue was discussed in great detail in Rolling Stone in July 2012). This would mean an effective write-off of large assets for energy companies, and a serious shake-up of the Australian economy. But then, as the Rolling Stone article notes, it is in the nature of markets that companies have their value tied up in unmarketable assets like polaroid cameras or typewriters, all the time. Simultaneously, The Conversation reports that the global demand for coal is dropping.

EU is debating a biopiracy law which would force pharmaceutical companies to compensate indigenous people for using their traditional knowledge in creating new medicines. This comes days after EU introduced a limited ban on neonicotinoids in order to protect its bee population. For those of you who don’t know, bee populations have been collapsing around the world, causing huge concerns for our food safety. The ban is limited, and there are other threats to bees, but this is a step in the right direction. (As an aside, EU has been encouraging urban beekeeping for years to counter this same beenocide. Bees thrive in urban conditions, and many small and large users have put beehives on their roofs – most notably the Paris Opera.) Chief Science Adviser to the UK government, meanwhile, thinks it’s a mistake.

The Conversation proposes that Australia change its current model of healthcare funding (per patient visit) to the one employed in the UK, and most of Europe, which is based ongoing care provided per patient per year. Inadvertently, it explains to me why the primary medical care in Australia is so poor compared to what I was used to in Croatia, why no doctor keeps your full medical record, and why it is so hard to get a GP to listen to you: there is huge systemic incentive for “six-minute medicine.”

In Croatia, however youth unemployment hits 51%, making me very sad. Slavko Linić, the Minister of Finance, however, meanwhile claims it will take 10 years for the country to recover from the crisis.

Cyprus parliament accepts a hugely controversial €10bn EU-IMF bailout, which brings a levy on bank customers, fierce austerity measures, and effectively destroys the country’s economic model.Paul Farmer at GOOD has an interesting personal story of treating people with asthma in Haiti, Eric Garland reports on the dismal condition of towns along the iconic Route 66 in the US, The Morning News tries to explain a whole bunch of global cities in New York terms in order to explain to New Yorkers where they might want to live should they move there. A solar plane flies over San Francisco. And Eric Garland explains when you should and shouldn’t work for free.

And this is what happens when you wring a washcloth in zero gravity. Video straight from outer space.

spatial poetics

Australian public signage: Brisbane edition

Just like in Victoria, the pure excess of these signs, with their attempts to regulate public behaviour in intrusive detail, creates confusion, because one is not used to being regulated like that. It feels like either (a) the signs are being written in a foreign kind of English, assuming a great deal of local knowledge, or otherwise one sinks into a feeling of fatigue: maybe (b) it’s better not to try to use these spaces at all.

For example, what could it possibly mean that “the playground is designed for children aged 2 to 12 only / Children must be supervised at all times.” What kind of regulation is that, what does it actually proscribe? Are people older than 12 allowed on the playground only as long as they supervise other children? What are we allowed to do, within the limits of our supervision? Are adults allowed in, if they’re not supervising children? If they are, what is the point of the sign? Who is actually banned? Is it to make sure nobody older than 12 tries to play? Are 13-year-olds allowed in if they’re supervising younger kids, or are they just blanket-banned until they have kids of their own? Are 12-year-olds allowed to hang out without playing? Is a 12-year-old allowed to supervise a 6-year-old, does that count as supervision? What kind of regulation is that anyway?! Who in the world cares? And what are the sanctions? Who is even capable of policing that amount of behaviour in an entire playground?

And yet, the tone of the Brisbane signage is slightly different to Melbourne. While Melburnian signs always seem a little more hostile than strictly necessary, that points to the likely existence of opposition. In Brisbane, on the other hand, the most impractical demands are made on the pedestrian without so much as a blink. It doesn’t appear that anybody thinks that being told to KEEP TO THE LEFT and NOT BLOCK THE PATH is slightly too much control for a pedestrian&cycling-only path in a large leisure zone.

how the world works, poetics of life

What Brunetti can teach us about social class

Brunetti, the cake institution of the Italian community around Lygon St in Melbourne, has moved from its large and beautiful premises on Faraday St to its historical premises right at the centre of Lygon St. The resulting make-over, if anything, makes Brunetti more Brunetti-like: larger, blinkier, more marbled, more noisy, more over-the-top and Italo-glammy, more resembling of a train station, and more confusing. Cakes, coffees and food are still ordered and picked up at different places, and coffees still lose their patrons – but there’s now a greater bar surface on which lost coffees will accumulate.

But I should make it quite clear that I may sound unkind, but I LOVE Brunetti to tiny bits. Multiple visits ensued, as did some vigorous discussion between Carl N-P and me, centred around a very simple issue: we love Brunetti, quite unironically, and we can feel the disdain it earns us from our more Aussie, less woggy, hipster friends. This hipster disdain is real, and its judgement clear-eyed: Brunetti is too large, too un-intimate, too train stationy, too mediocre in its offer, to really have a heart. There’s nothing exclusive about it. It’s for tourists and suburban visitors with no taste.

But we know from Pierre Bourdieu that all taste questions are class questions, and no taste question is more loaded with class than the choice of food in Melbourne today. And what’s really interesting about Brunetti is that it doesn’t fit with the Australian notion of class (which is an essentially British notion of class, transplanted). Brunetti is profoundly Italian in its general business functioning, and thus fundamentally a product of the Mediterranean class system.

The two are quite different. The British upper classes have always been imported into the country, and so have the products they consumed. As one rises up the class system, one has a greater ability to travel, to import ingredients and cooks and expertise, and this knowledge, which is hard to access, validates their class position. The Mediterranean (although perhaps I am also speaking of European societies with a deeper democratic tradition) has been fundamentally peasant for a longer time (mass urbanisation only occurred in the 1950s), and its peasantry and artisans have always produced all or most of its food. (This, it may be worth saying, is much more common than the British way, which is globally exceptional.) And, if the lower classes are growing, killing, preparing and cooking the food of the upper classes, they need to have very fine specialist knowledge of this food if it is to be any good. So no specialist knowledge could possibly be assumed. Indeed, the opposite: the lowly peasant and artisan are specialists in their field.

The British/Australian class system assumes that, as you rise progress from the lower to the higher classes, you consume totally different products – you move from spam to leg ham to jamon iberico – because, in this system, class is understood as marked by taste, which is fundamentally related to access to imported goods, and the change of taste which occurs as you travel through society is understood as a progressively higher level of civilization. So, as trends trickle down, good taste (which is to say, civilisation) needs to find rarer goods: as previously unavailable foods spread downwards, they lose their currency as markers of civilisation, and become tainted with plebeian tastes. Just look at the short-lived glory of sundried tomatoes.

The Mediterranean class system is not related to civilisation at all, because there, taste is not related to access: because all produce, good and bad, is commonly grown local plants. As you progress through the classes of the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian or Greek society, there is no fundamental difference in WHAT people eat. They eat the same things, but people with more money eat slightly better versions or larger quantities. Whereas the poor man might buy 100g of cured ham and make carbonara, the rich man will buy a kilo and bake it. The differences in classes, therefore, are largely defined simply by income, not by access. What there is of taste is related to the ability to appreciate and recognise quality, not the product itself. And the relationship between class and civilisation is nowhere near as unambiguous because, as said before, the peasant and the artisan will know more about food than the wealthy eater at the end of the process. To return to those sundried tomatoes, an educated Mediterranean person would quite impatiently point out by now that there are sundried tomatoes, and then there are sundried tomatoes – because the ability to tell the good ones from the bad ones carries much civilisational baggage. (*)

* To understand better this nexus between income and quality of ordinary things, here’s an example. A few years ago, in Vogue Italia I read one of those short-form generic questionnaires with creme de la creme of the Italian fashion industry, about their summer holidays. One question, I remember, was ‘what is luxury for you’. A large percentage of answers (from the likes of Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Rosita Missoni, etc) was ‘linen bedsheets’. I remember this to this day, because linen bedsheets seemed eminently achievable, and still do, whenever I forget about how much they cost.

I would argue that this unity of taste prevents the creation of entire closed-off worlds, stratified by income, as social classes are in Britain. It permits to see them much more clearly for what they fundamentally are, which is income brackets, unrelated to moral or civilizational outcomes. It also puts a brake on the constant trend-chasing that characterises the British popular taste – also because definitions of quality don’t change all that much. What was good in 1970s is still good today.

To return to Brunetti: what it is, in all its train stationy splendour, is something very Italian, and very un-Australian: it’s medium. It might look big and brash (if you hate it), or bold and beautiful (if you love it), but it is very consciously medium: it offers consistent range and quality, it’s not too expensive, it’s not bad, it hardly ever changes, and it serves a standard range of products made with care, but without fetishing them. Sure, it is entirely made in marble and busier than a train station, but so is almost every bar and cafe in Italy. You can buy delicious, expensive cakes in Brunetti. You can have some very good pizza. But you can also buy freshly ground coffee and freshly baked bread – and I buy both, because Brunetti sells them at best value for money by far.

The ‘pure’, upper-class alternative would be Baker D. Chirico around the corner, whose bakery looks like a Bauhaus spaceship and whose bread retailed at something ridiculous even before the commodities boom. Or single-origin, $4 coffee at St Ali. But that’s exactly what Brunetti is NOT about. Brunetti is a happy medium: it has mass appeal, and its products are reliable. Its aesthetics seem nouveau riche, but that’s just because it’s Italian.

That’s why we Mediterranean people love going to Brunetti. It’s urban democracy in action. Brunetti is entirely class un-differentiated, thus immune to snobbery. One day you will sit next to the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, and on another night next to a Lebanese gang. Your coffee will never be single-origin, but it will never be bad either: and you know you will be able to get the exact same short macchiato in 50 years’ time, by which time St Ali will have moved on to selling moon water.

And there is respect in that, we concluded after a long discussion, a respect for the taste of people on medium and below-medium income. If that seems like an ordinary thing, imagine had an Aussie bakery gained mass appeal in the 1970s, instead of Brunetti. Imagine what that bakery would be like now. It would have 10,000 franchises around the world, all the size of Bunnings warehouses, cakes would be made in Chinese factories out of corn syrup and dead cows, and there would be a buzzer on every table, to let you know when your thickshake is ready to pick up.

But Brunetti is Italian, Italian culture assumes that people on different incomes have attained the same level of civilisation, and it maximises its market appeal by aiming in the middle of what-it-perceives-as a taste continuum. And phew for that.


I am doing a small research on interim uses (also called temporary, meanwhile, pop-up), and researching the work of organisations such as The Gap Filler in Christchurch as a part of it.

What makes this video so lovely, so so very lovely, is in how Ryan Reynolds, a performance scholar, brings together a fundamentally urbanist practice and performance theory. And how he is able to explain the meaning of one through the concepts of the other.

Every so often, I feel very at home in someone’s thinking, and this was one such instance.