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The most extraordinary thing happened this weekend. Around 3am, we left the club to get some food. On the way back, in front of Alan’s Music Store on Bourke St, we came across a group of girls dancing in front of a busker. We sat nearby, to have a smoke, when three guys walked past and joined in. They seemed nice, and the song was good, so we joined in, too. As other people were walking by, the guys started motioning them to join. After a while, it became an organised move: someone would point and say: “Get them!” Or point outwards, saying: “Get more! Get more!”

At the height of it all, there were around 50 people, strangers to one another, dancing on the street, clapping their hands in the air, and singing along. There was a group of Middle Eastern men, some guys with medals on their chests, many girls in very high heels, two Frenchmen, some older people. The busker (Tony) played RHCP, Wonderwall, The Beatles, Australian hits I don’t know, and anything by request. We never returned to our club. We stayed there, dancing.

What almost spoiled it was that this is enforceably illegal in Australia, because any group behaviour on the street here can be classified by the police as one of many kinds of nuisance that the police has the right to intervene in. And there was a palpable sense of potential illegality in the crowd. But, although there were 6 police vans just a block away (there had been a fight), and although two police cars passed by very slowly, strangely, miraculously, they ignored us.

It was the first time I saw a crowd of Australians self-regulate, especially on a Saturday night, and I was amazed at how good-natured it remained, how lovely. Even when the (inevitable) rowdy men went past screaming or shouting, they were neutralised quickly by people smiling, waving at them and shouting: “Join us!”

It was very beautiful, and extremely moving. It made me think of Europe, particularly of Berlin, where such incidents are relatively commonplace. It made me realise that, were there less regulatory intwrvention into every aspect of life, miraculously beautiful things would happen in Australia all the time, because people here clearly have every ability to self-organise, self-regulate.

The party lasted about 2 hours, beginning to end. Tony played Under the Bridge and Wonderwall twice. (Towards the end, a man walked past shouting: “Chilli Peppers!” The crowd shouted bqck: “Duh! Where have you BEEN?”

In the end, Tony played Here Comes The Sun, and Norwegian Wood. We all said goodbye, and went home, talking all the way about how this was the best party ever, still amazed at how the police never came.

poetics of life

The most extraordinary thing.

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Wuhan, 2010: Chinese farmer Yang Youde fires his homemade cannon on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province. Yang uses the cannons, which are made out of a wheelbarrow, pipes and fire rockets, to defend his fields against property developers who want his land.
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

Wenling, 2012: A house sits in the middle of a newly built road in the city, east China.
Photograph: Imaginechina/Rex Features.

Chongqing, 2007: A house, whose owner refused to accept a compensation deal by a property developer, is surrounded by the ongoing excavation at a construction site.
Photograph: China Photos/Getty Images AsiaPac.

Hefei 2010: A partially demolished nail house, the last house in the area.
Photograph: Jianan Yu/Reuters.

Hefei, 2008: A nail house at a construction site being developed for apartment blocks. The banner reads “strongly requesting the government to punish the developer who demolished my house, give back my home”.
Photograph: Jianan Yu/Reuters.

Kunming, 2010: Zhao Xing, 58, collects water near his partially demolished house at a construction site in Yunnan province. Zhao refused to move because of unsatisfactory compensation for his property, even though the water and electricity supply had been cut.
Photograph: Reuters.

The Guardian writes: “Land seizures have been a problem for years in China, and have given rise to the term ‘nail house’ to describe a holdout tenant or occupant, likening them to a nail refusing to be hammered down.”

CITIES, spatial poetics

spatial poetics: nail houses

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Kid’s Wear Magazine.

CITIES, poetics of life, spatial poetics

kid’s wear magazine, or why Europe is beautiful.

I was leafing through the magazines and my hairdresser’s, waiting to be called for hair-washing, my first pile of European fashion magazines in six years, when I found this treat. Kid’s wear magazine is one of those things made out of advertising; a good 95% of the magazine was fashion editorial. But between the images of children’s clothes, hidden in the middle, was a spread of perhaps 10 pages about the childhoods of a number of people, a few paragraphs for each person. Elfriede Jelinek, forced into music lessons from a young age, starting at the Conservatory as a very small child, the beginnings of her mental illnesses starting show by puberty. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father who supported the arts, but not his children. Pina Bausch who, as a child of a bar owner, learned early how to play alone and amuse herself, and who was taken to dance classes by family friends, her own parents being too busy with the bar. Andy Warhol; Thomas Benrhard; Ian Curtis. Margot Tenenbaum.

I used to love magazines, when I was a European teenager, but then all but stop reading them as an adult in Australia, for the relentless shallowness, cruelty, tedious lack of substance.

What makes Europe beautiful is these small surprises, these moments of care, these stabs of realisation that people here think seriously, almost all the time.

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CITIES, spatial poetics, things I have liked

In this spore borne air,

Edit: I almost forgot to assign this artwork to Anna Garforth. Oops.

Why is this beautiful? Because it’s moss, yes, and so it has a third and fourth dimension over and above normal graffiti or wall writing. But then, after, chiefly because of the comma.

All images tend towards invisibility, and all phrases tend towards noise. In five or ten years, perhaps dangling clauses (or prepositional phrases) will be the primary gimmick of advertising copy, and this just an annoying piece of self-conscious quirkiness in trendy typography. For now, though, periods vastly outnumber commas, and a graffiti of this sort still has the power to follow me round the corner and until the end of my day, uncurtailed by any finite punctuation.

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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.

+++

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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CITIES, travel notes

Stray cats of Malaysia

The kittens of St Paul’s Church in Melaka were two; both completely black, tiny and underfed. Stroking them, I could feel all of their little ribs. They were both very still. One looked asleep on its feet, perhaps enjoying the cuddle, perhaps about to die.

One never sees abandoned kittens on Australian streets, and is thus spared from having to think too often about the cruel, simple indifference of the universe in the face of life (what is there to do? Take all stray cats home, the whole billion of them?).

Stroking the little thing, I started wondering about whether cats have emotional responses in any way analogue to humans. Does a stray cat, when cuddled, feel anything like, any feline equivalent of, the frightened and blissful warmth of rare intimacy? Does it enjoy it as a special treat, without planning to get used to it, for experience tells it all intimacy is short-lived, its promise of security ultimately deceiving? Cats don’t think, of course, but they too learn from experience. Does a cat also find a bittersweet, lonely joy, or at least some sort of existential contentment, in total freedom? Stuff like that.

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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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from The Sartorialist

CITIES, things I have liked

Fashion inspi; spring into summer

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‘Kvart’ is a Croatian word that only really lives in Zagreb. ‘Kvart’ means ‘quarter’, 1/4 – as in quartiere, quartier, viertel; in other words, district, neighbourhood, part of town. Continue reading “Ville Radieuse; Croatia.” »

CITIES, travel notes

Ville Radieuse; Croatia.

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Drawing and Painting class in ŠPUD.

ŠPUD is Škola Za Primjenjenu Umjetnost i Dizajn, or School of Applied Arts and Design. In the Croatian high school system, divided between the general academic gimnazije, and academically much more lax trade schools, ŠPUD is an oddity. A lair of self-selected weird kids, of an academically suspect, but artistically rigorous curriculum. Not least, it generates a very strong sense of belonging.

“This is the best school ever!” they hail me in the Interior Architecture department. “Well, in Croatia at least.”

Some final works in Grafika.

Chess set made in glass (?) by a student in Interior Architecture.

I am here as a delegate from Australia, and as my sister’s sister. She introduces me to each one of her classmates, and each one shakes my hand. They are finishing up their semester duties, and spend most of their day at school. The school is a maze of classrooms, lockers, bathrooms, workshops and exhibition spaces. They stay overtime and hang around. I come and go; nobody asks (“With your lip ring and hair and camera, you look like one of us”, the students are adamant). Some classrooms have loud music coming out; all the doors are open. I snoop.

Girls bouncing balls during class time.

The graphic design teacher finally comes into the class.

“Am I allowed to be here?” I ask. The girls laugh.
“Just don’t try to take his photo. He won’t like it.”

I am photographing their work, hopping around while he is inspecting their final drawings. The students are sending text messages, talking, arguing, and pulling out their maths homework. The teacher gets to Dora as she is in the middle of an animated conversation with her friend Jasna, and pulls her back onto her chair, holding her by the shoulders.

“Lean back.” he instructs her with a deep voice. “Relax. Breathe. Di-a-phragm!”
She giggles. He looks at me.
“Good morning!” I say. “I am from the Ministry!”
“Good.” he nods. “I’m from New Zagreb.”
We shake hands, too.

Dora’s pencil drawing, next to the original.

Illustration homework.

Discarded jewellery.

Sopija (Josipa) + Hitchcock.

Students during class.

“When’s your recess?” I ask, waiting for a fag break, and unsure of the high school time-table.
“Oh, it’s almost over…” the girls grumble, reassuringly.
“Shall we go out for a fag while we can?”
“Oh god, not now!” they exclaim. “Wait until the recess is over. The first years will be throwing snowballs at everyone!”
Only once the recess is over, am I allowed to go out with them.

Croatian National Theatre, the stronghold of mediocre performance and a very fine building, outside the school window.

A ‘general’ classroom, the sort I had in my non-artistic school. The board, cryptically, says “black and white technique”, followed by “socio-political situation in Croatia” and “struggles between feudalism and the bourgeoisie”.

The next day, I visit the girls in their Graphic Techniques class. They are doing their final linocuts. I like Dora’s.

“No, it’s crap!” she answers. “We have to make five, and this is zero. Zero! An attempt!”
What’s wrong with it?
“Everything! The outline isn’t clear, it shouldn’t have these smudges, and the colour should be more consistent!” she is fixing her design, very concentrated. “I will probably have to stay in for the rest of the day.”
The teacher walks through, and looks at one of the finished works:
“This is very good. The colour is solid, the parquetry floor has turned out great. It wouldn’t hurt if you had more going one here”, she points at the centre of the print, a solid dark bookshelf, “it’s very monotone. This guitar in the centre doesn’t do anything for the composition. But the rest is very good.”
She leaves again.

Graphic Techniques class, with the best linocuts exhibited.

Textured surface that used to be a desk.

Despite the complete lack of disciplinary effort (at the parents’ meeting the day before, some parents complained about teachers leaving the classroom so often), student life is strongly ordered. There doesn’t seem to be more than a very basic code of behaviour in place, but the amount and the level of work they are expected to accomplish is demanding enough to structure their life very firmly around the school. Apart from nine academic subjects (Croatian, English, Music, Mathematics, History, Geography, P.E., History of Art and a choice of Religion/Ethics) they have professional subjects, which vary depending on the department. Grafika (which can be very, very loosely translated as ‘Print’), Dora’s department, has six: Painting and Drawing, Graphic Techniques, Graphic Design, Illustration, Script (which will be followed on by Typography in the years to come) and IT, in which they learn to work with design software.

Final works in the Typography class.

Grafika is an elite department, I am told, and so is Arhitektura (which is really Arhitektura Interijera, or Interior Architecture). Theirs is a separate, small building, and my guide is a charming young man called by his surname. (Generally speaking, I find these children both charming and interesting: they are funny, articulate, and independent, which is more than I can say for most Melbourne University students, many years older. During our conversations, I never feel particularly older.)

Final years’ graduating works.

I am intrigued by the fact they do their technical drawing by hand, which my faculty has abandoned – the fact of which some of my colleagues bemourn. Ivek introduces me to one of his teachers, who confirms that they only start working with AutoCAD in third year (out of four).

“But there is no individuality in computer sketches”, she says. “Hand drawings are artistically much more interesting.”

All architecture and design schools seem to have thriving bulletin- and pinboards. We have more than a few in my office alone, and Ivek’s department is no exception:

“I’M BUSY I’M BUSY I’M BUSY…”; in the hand-written explanation above the photo, the girl lauds some competition she travelled to, saying: “I FINALLY LOST MY… CAMERA :)”

The answer, I suspect, is in the problem-solving nature of design, and the multi-step lateral thinking it requires.

“You know what I’ve realised?” my sister tells me on the street that day. “A designer is actually very much like an inventor. He invents new things to solve problems.”

They are making a simple mortise and tenon. The teacher, needless to say, is not there.

“My Australian audience will be dying to know: do you guys get injured?”
“Yeah! Like, she’s injured now…” says Ivek, hugging his friend.
“Just pinched my finger!” she’s protesting, jumping on the spot and shaking her hand.
“No, really injured?”
“Oh, once a week. Once a week someone cuts themselves.”
“No, really injured. As in, someone cuts their finger off?”
They look at me baffled:
“We pay attention to what we’re doing.”
“I’ve heard it happened once, but to someone from Carpentry, many years ago…” the girl helpfully remembers.

I took a photo of the ‘injured’ girl. She hid her face, but it only made her look more aching.

“Look at my mortise and tenon!” one girl jumps in to show. It’s perfect, compared to Ivek’s, which has also chipped.
“Hers is much better.” I point out.
“Yeah, well, I decided I wouldn’t pay anyone to do it for me.” he pouts at the girl, who starts beating him, with joking anger. As I leave, Ivek is shouting: “I wouldn’t get naked just for homework…!”

Since Grafika is the elite department, their toilet is labelled (in free translation) ‘the most elitest water closet’.

CITIES, travel notes

Tell me how many laws I'm breaking, I'll tell you what country you're from

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