from The Sartorialist
Cruel but kind – a precise description of one element in the pervasive ambivalence of the national character. Here also are vitality, energy, strength, and optimism in one’s own ability, yet indolence, carelessness, the ‘she’ll do, mate’ attitude to the job to be done. Here is insistence on the freedom of the individual, yet resigned acceptance of social restrictions and censorship narrower than in almost any other democratic country in the world. Here is love of justice and devotion to law and order, yet the persistent habit of crowds to stone the umpire and trip the policeman in the course of duty. Here is preoccupation with material things – note, for example, the hospitals: better for a broken leg than a mental deviation – yet impatience with polish and precision in material things. The Australian is forcefully loquacious, until the moment of expressing any emotion. He is aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for Black Australians. He has high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of confidence in anything he thinks.
Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, first ed. 1960
The ugliness I mean is skin deep. If the visitor to Australia fails to notice it immediately, fails to respond to the surfeit of colour, the love of advertisements, the dreadful language, the ladylike euphemisms outside public lavatory doors, the technical competence by the almost uncanny misjudgement in floral arrangements, or if he thinks that things of this sort are too trivial to dwell on, then he is unlikely to enjoy modern Australia. For the things that make Australian people, society and culture in some way different from others in the modern world are only skin deep. But skin is as important as its admirers like to make it, and Australians make much of it. This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, of brick-veneer villas, and the White Australia Policy.
Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, first paragraph in the book
I am very interested in the interplay between one’s experiential reality and their ethics, as you might know. And, while writing the previous post (about the experience of performance from the point of view of someone who has to reflect on it), I came across this very interesting short article, titled ‘why riding bikes is the key to better cities‘.
This should be of interest to anyone creating experiential performance, but it’s also immensely interested to someone who tries to teach people to understand their cities. At a level of sufficient abstraction, I don’t think there’s much difference in the approaches.
On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities.
In a car, the world is reduced to mere equation; “What is the fastest route from A to B?” one will ask as they start their engine. This invariably leads to a cascade of freeway concrete flying by at incomprehensible speeds. Their environment, the neighborhoods that compose their communities, the beauty of architecture, the immense societal problems in distressed areas, the faces of neighbors… all of this becomes a conceptually abstract blur from the driver’s seat.
Yes, the bicycle is a stunningly efficient machine of transportation, but in the city it is so much more. The bicycle is new vision for the blind man. It is a thrilling tool of communication, an experiential device for the beauty and the ills of the urban context. One cannot turn a blind eye on a bicycle – they must acknowledge their community, all of it.
Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle.
“These cars are going way too fast,” they may mutter beneath their breath.
“How are we supposed to get across the highway?”
“Wow, look at that cathedral! I didn’t know that was there.”
“I didn’t realize there were so many vacant lots in this part of town.”
“Hey, let’s stop at this cafe for a drink.”
This is something we both know and don’t know. Many people (James Kunstler, Robin Boyd, Dan Hill) have noted that the ugliness of suburban sprawl is largely caused by its need to be legible at 50km/h:
But, at the same time, we (all of us) do forget the importance of lived experience in making people care. Barrie Shelton, in one of my classes, showed a series of mental maps he had the residents of a small British town make. The men, who drove, made large-scale maps of streets and sports facilities. The women, who took public transport, drew detailed maps of the town centre, with names of all the shops. The teenagers, who weren’t allowed out much, had a very fuzzy sense of town outside of the main train station and the few bottle shops around it. Had there been a proposal to demolish a 19th-century shopping arcade in the centre of town, how many do you think would care?
We learn the world by experiencing it. The more I try to teach young Melburnians about the world around us, the more I crave the ability to set them experiential exercises of the bike-riding sort. In geography and built environment disciplines, we already put a lot of emphasis on fieldwork and mapping, both kinds of travel to a place for the purpose of recording information. I wonder if these shouldn’t be enriched with tasks of way-finding, game-playing, and similar.
Dear reader, I have been busy beyond description. I have had no time to tweet, let alone post considered long-form writing on this blog, which is still incredibly dear to me. Instead, I have placeholders in my mind, things I think about when I’m running up and down Melbourne (literally, physically running), and things I can list here as a sort of physical placeholder:
– criticism as judgement and as philology;
– the role of the audience, and critic as an audience member;
– short taxonomy of live art;
– on Christoph Schlingensief (I have recently submitted by interview with Anna Teresa Scheer on the book she has edited with Tara Forrest on Schlingensief, of which I am tremendously proud – I will re-post here when RealTime publishes it, but I was going to write a few other things too).
However, I’ve been also itching to write more about cities. I’ve realised I don’t publicise the other half of my life enough – many people don’t know that I have spent 14,600 hours (I calculated tonight) studying and working on cities, which makes me at least fluent in urbanism. I am a geographer, there’s about half of an urban planner in me, and I’m also being trained in urban design. I research, I design, and I write about urban problems to almost the same degree as I write about theatre. And it was only recently, when I realised that my ex-boyfriend had somehow managed to sell himself to the world as the theatre and urbanism expert who just happened to be going out with me, that I started wondering about whether I am perhaps too reticent about these things. I mean, I do have this whole other area of interest, if not exactly expertise.
So, I’ve spent the best part of this semester completely engulfed in urban design (when I wasn’t completely engulfed in the break-up with the said ex-boyfriend) – urban design which, in Anglophone countries, has been detached from urban planning since about the 1960s, which has resulted in some important problems. I’ve been grappling with those problems, as well as learning to master the expectations, the tasks, the problems and the opportunities of the design-based teaching process. It has been absolutely hectic, but extraordinarily rewarding so far. I am very fond of the design teaching process, which is studio-based, which is to say problem-solving and creatively oriented, but at the same time homework-driven and hugely demanding of the student. It seems to me that almost any discipline or area of knowledge could be taught that way, and that the practical component (the having to make something and present it in class twice a week) enhances one’s knowledge in a fairly significant way.
I have also been offered to teach studio-based subjects, which is humbling and incredibly exciting at the same time. I am getting interested, very interested, in combining performance training practices with design practices, in one way or the other (in performance exercises being used to generate design, or design exercises being used to generate performance). And when I say design, I really do not mean buildings, but solutions.
You see, the divorce between urban planning and urban design in the Anglophone countries has resulted in a peculiar state in which neither the left nor the right hand have the tools to effect change, and are, on top, working in mutual hostility. Urban design has gone the way of architecture (on which I will say only: I am yet to meet an architect who isn’t incredibly ignorant of most of the world, yet smugly convinced of the superiority of his discipline over all others – other than my friend Pouria, who doesn’t count because he’s Iranian). Urban planning has gone into public policy. The result is that urban design is only interested in shapes from bird’s eye perspective, and urban planning in equitable processes of consultation, and policies. The latter has no interest in Really Existing urban conditions, not as far as I can see. The former, while it has an appreciation for Really Existing urban conditions, has no understanding of the social processes that form and perpetuate such conditions – which makes it essentially unable to replicate them through design. The result is the deep stasis we see in Australian cities, a failure of imagination and governance.
Dan Hill has recently published an extraordinary article on this failure of imagination and governance in Architecture Australia, and re-published it on his excellent blog, City of Sound. I recommend the article even if you never cared about a city in your life: it’s very thought-provoking. Dan makes a point that governance isn’t simply management, that it needs a vision for the future (which is what design could give urban planning); but also that ocularcentric (pretty-pictures) design, of which we currently have bucketfuls, cannot give us the solution. This is why I previously made a distinction between designing an object and designing a solution: the latter can be invisible, yet it has to work. At the same time, paradoxically, it is urban planning in Australia that has the ‘strategic’ epithet in front of it, the long-term thinking and acting. Design is short-term and product-oriented, while strategic planning is without vision. No wonder we’re fucked.
In another, recent blog post, Dan also addresses this, somewhat obliquely:
“Helsinki Design Lab helps government leaders see the “architecture of problems.” We assist decision-makers to view challenges from a big-picture perspective, and provide guidance toward more complete solutions that consider all aspects of a problem. Our mission is to advance this way of working—we call it strategic design.”
It feels (and is) quite different to design thinking, which is a term and way of thinking I think will fade quite rapidly, for some good reasons (the incorporation of its basic tenets into everyday processes) and bad reasons (the lack of rigor, awareness and responsibility on the part of many who have been actively pushing it in recent years). Either way, strategic design feels like something else, and its careful, integrated and thoughtful focus on meaningful, systemic challenges like health care, education, and climate change is particularly relevant. It’s also sketched out well here.
I have seen ‘design thinking’ appear in many places recently, even creeping into the world of theatre (through people such as Esther Anatolitis and Ming-Zhu Hii, who are very interested in design). I am quite wary of the term, because I am under no illusion that designers have the general knowledge needed to find solutions to problems. I work with designers, and I can attest to the inordinate focus they place on packaging, as opposed to function. But what design disciplines do have is a method of ploughing through a problem – a process.
What is needed, however, is greater emphasis on learning how a city works, what a city needs, how a city changes – in an abstract, non-targeted way – before a designer has actually gained enough knowledge to put their drawing skills to good use. See, for example, the eminently reasonable curriculum offered at Delft university (the Dutch are particularly good at teaching this stuff right). (ADDENDUM: I didn’t want to be mean when I original wrote this, but now I think it may make sense to compare this to the similar curriculum at Melbourne University. As you can see, the design subjects are strongly focused on design methods, such as digital modelling; while the planning subjects are mainly concerned with legislation. The focus on actual processes shaping the city is just about negligible.)
On a related note, I saw Timothy Morton give a lecture last week, at Melbourne University. The gist of it seemed to be that the age of theory is over, and the age of doing has begun. This is a peculiar thing, coming from a theorist, who in the question time admitted that all he knows how to do is sit in libraries and think, and that there must be a place for such activity too. Of course, yes. But I’m finding it interesting that this sort of thinking has been creeping into humanities and philosophy: a sort of glorification of the doing, of labour, of the physical, unthinking world, over abstract synthesizing of the world. The problem is that it very easily slips into glorification, precisely because it comes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
Similarly, there has long been an interest among designers in philosophy; but this is always in the most utilitarian, de-abstracted terms: ‘let’s design smooth and striated space, as theorised by Deleuze and Guattari’.
It seems to me that neither of the two is particularly smart as an approach, and that the trouble comes from a certain lack of general knowledge, or specific knowledge, on both ends. There is a place in this world for abstract thought, and for creative problem-solving. They can be immensely useful to each other. But it is only in their non-compromised forms that they are actually what they are, and only as such can they be useful to each other…
I wouldn’t mind ANZAC Day one bit, if there was ever any mention of the other dead, of the dead that weren’t ours. If there was ever any mention of the fact that Gallipoli was a carnage, not just a demonstration of the valiant spirit of young Australian men. That contemporary young Australians, indeed, throw their mourning party on the land of those who have suffered ten times as many victims.
As it stands, the discourse surrounding Gallipoli throws a shadow of doubt on all the usual claims about the magnanimous and even-handed spirit of Australians.
[Nigel Thrift’s] theoretical propositions suggest at least three crucial elements that any accounts of everyday life must contain if they are to be plausible and interesting. First, they must be respectful of the social practices through which the everyday unfolds. They must recognise that much social practice is different (but certainly not inferior) to more contemplative academic modes of being in the world – embedded as they are in the noncognitive, preintentional and commonsensical. Second, they must contain a sense that practices (and thus the subjectivities and agencies of which they are a part) are shot through with creativity and possibility (even though these are ‘constrained’ and limited by existing networks of association). Third, the everyday should not be viewed as a world apart from more rationally grounded realms of social action such as ‘the state’, ‘the economic’, ‘the political’, or whatever. Rather, what needs to be recognised is how all elements of social life, all institutions, all forms of practice are in fact tied together with the work of getting on from day-to-day.
Seen through the filter of these criteria we can begin to make more sense of the substance source of Thrift’s unease with human geographic work about the everyday. Cultural [turn] was largely built upon a commitment to a particular politics of representation, and it remains obsessively focused on representation. This obsession not only implicitly downgrades the importance of practice, stressing as it does the symbolic over the expressive, “responsive and rhetorical” dimensions of language. It also has an alarming tendency to a slip into simplistic (and often exaggerated) narratives based on highly romantic stereotypes of both politics and persons. Thus, to take an example close to the concerns of this paper, white professionals living in an ethnically diverse area of North London, and eating out at its ethnic restaurants, are not reaching out towards some kind of engagement with the existing community (ambiguous, limited, and inadequate though that may be). No! They are ‘eating the Other’, and are implicated, despite their protestations, in a process of cultural imperialism intricately bound within a complex historical geography of racisms!
Alan Latham, 2003, ‘Research, performance, and doing human geography’, Environment and Planning A, vol.35, pp.1993-2017.
“There are four big problems that emerge from aid. One is the obvious one: the corruption, the fact that you’re giving somebody something for free, no strings attached. The second problem is aid dependency, which is the whole notion that you create a society heavily burdened and laden with bureaucracy, which is very inefficient and essentially kills off the entrepreneurial culture. The third problem has to do with this economic term called ‘Dutch disease’, although they usually call it the oil curse. It actually applies to aid as well, where you have these large inflows of capital which really kill off the export sector. Then finally, disenfranchising the middle class; governments become beholden or responsible to report to donors and they don’t have any obligation to report to the domestic citizenry.
-Dambisa Moyo in The Africa Report
“In addition it was clear how little say not only the citizens have, but the governments have. You hardly ever saw participation from domestic policymakers in designing and discussing what was, essentially, our future – Africa’s future. I mean, there are so many classic examples of people’s lives essentially being shaped and designed by policy that’s not domestically constructed.” She cites the donor who refused to give any aid unless an entirely new town be built in Zambia, despite the government’s protests that they would be left holding the baby, as indeed happened; or George Bush’s requirement that two-thirds of the $15bn he was giving to fight Aids had to go to pro-abstinence programmes, and none could go to any establishment that provided abortions. ”
– The Guardian interviews Dambisa Moyo
Partly, of course, it’s about power, and purse-strings; partly, she believes, it’s a PR issue, “there are many well-spoken, smart African leaders who should be on the global stage”; very largely, given that so far not many are, it’s a case of who gets to do the talking, and increasingly, it is people like Bob Geldof and Bono, the most visible representatives of what she calls, in a thrillingly withering manner, “glamour aid”. “There are African policymakers who are charged with the responsibility of creating policy, and implementing policy. That’s their job. Long, long lines of people have stood in the sun to vote for a president who is effectively impotent because of donors or because glamour aid has decided to speak on behalf of a continent. How would British people feel if tomorrow Michael Jackson started telling them how they should get out of the housing crisis? Or if Amy Winehouse started to give the US government advice about the credit crunch? And was listened to? I think they would be perturbed, and worried. I mean, they’ve completely disenfranchised the very people we’ve actually elected!”
– The Guardian interviews Dambisa Moyo