“This is incredible! She looks like a normal woman!” said Robin, who comes from Belgium.
“What do you mean, normal?” I asked.
“She wears no make-up and her clothes are normal!” Robin was very surprised. “Do men in Australia have no problem with having women on TV who look like that?”

I showed it to her trying to explain something about the feel of the city, though, of inner-city Melbourne.

policy & design

Vale Paul Mees

Paul Mees, distinguished transport scholar, and one of Australia’s most important living academics, died at the unfairly early age of 52, following battle with cancer.

This is a terrible loss for Australian urbanism and urbanist scholarship. Paul was a tireless, absolutely tireless advocate for public transport, and fought using impeccable logic, world-class research, and brilliant rhetoric. Only shortly before passing away, he recorded this address to the Trains Not Toll Roads campaign launch:

Continue reading “Vale Paul Mees” »

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policy & design

The extremely depressing news today

The Victorian government announces funding for yet another massive road that doesn’t even have a positive benefit to cost, and shelves a rail tunnel project that has been green-lit by every funding and economic assessment body, because we are all hostages to two-party politics in this country, and being asked to participate in one massive culture war, instead of getting anything resembling concern for the public interest.

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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.

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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.

Gallery
policy & design

Abnormally Wide Streets of Melbourne #01: North Melbourne

In my 7 years in Melbourne, I have lived mainly in the popular inner-city suburbs of North Melbourne and Carlton North. These two neighbourhoods are in many ways typical inner-city Australian suburbs: built in the 19th century, built right from the start with a fairly strong separation of uses, intended to be predominantly residential, with single-storey detached and terraced houses that were not particularly desirable when built (although Carlton North had upmarket bits right from the start), but now command absurd, astronomical prices. North Melbourne has distinctly industrial parts, but a good residential core. Gentrification has come to both neighbourhoods a long time ago, mainly because of their proximity to the city.

But what distiniguishes Carlton North and North Melbourne, not just from other inner suburbs of Melbourne, but from residential neighbourhoods worldwide, is that they have insanely wide streets. They were largely built, right from the start, with insanely wide streets, streets that were, for all intents and purposes, never intended for anything other than purely residential use. Why? I don’t know. Does anyone know?

Rathdowne St in Carlton North, had a tram line going through, which has since been covered with an astronomically-sized nature strip. The rest didn’t. One colleague of mine speculated that the streets were laid out with much taller buildings in plan. We don’t know for sure. They were built before the car even existed, so they certaintly weren’t designed for the amount of parking they provide.

In any case, I am prepared to assume that these two neighbourhoods currently sport some of the widest residential streets in the world. Streets in Melbourne are generally wide, certainly wider than in Europe or Asia, and even wider than in slightly older Australian cities (Sydney or Hobart). But these are the oldest abnormally wide streets I’ve encountered. They are also significantly wider than in other inner suburbs (Fitzroy, even Carlton), which were also more mixed-use. To put this in perspective, the grand grid of the historical central Melbourne has 30m-wide main streets, and 15m-wide laneways, wall to wall. These suburban streets, with hardly any shops on them, all hover around the 30m mark.

What is the benefit of such wide streets? Well, I leave that to you to judge. Here is North Melbourne.

Abbotsford St, corner Queensberry

Arden St, close to Abbotsford

Chewynd St, corner Victoria

Howard St, corner Victoria

Leveson St, corner Queensberry

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CITIES, spatial poetics

spatial poetics: Graffiti Featurism

The extent to which graffiti is not an aesthetic, but a mode of cultural production (with its own materiality, process, social embeddedness, but also ethos, and an ethics), a whole and living thing, is exactly the extent to which this building is pathetic and vulgar kitsch.

Robin Boyd defined featurism as the subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features, so that something always looks like a bouquet of lots of somethings. Boyd considered it the most representative characteristic of the national aesthetic of Australia, particularly of its ugliness, and I wholeheartedly agree. Once you have trained your eye, you can see featurism leave its mark on everything: from our plays (a little bit of comedy, a little bit of drama), to our policies (always treading the middle ground between USA and Denmark, as one of my students once remarked, approvingly). For Boyd, featurism is a symptom of Australia’s “unwillingness to be committed on the level of ideas. In all the arts of living, in the shaping of all her artefacts, as in politics, Australia shuffles about vigorously in the middle – as she estimates the middle – of the road, picking up disconnected ideas wherever she finds them.

More clarifications on the building below (please note that the ‘walls of the apartments are inscribed with these letters and other hip hop iconography’):

The Hive Apartment was designed by architect Zvi Belling of ITN Architects.This site was specifically selected for a graffiti/architecture project. The ideas in the building have been refined over time by the designer in prior competitions, publications and collaborations with street artists. The architect developed the project with his neighbour (aka Prowla), a respected old school Melbourne graffiti ‘writer’ who contributed the design of the graffiti letters. The external precast concrete walls of the apartments are inscribed with these letters and other hip hop iconography.

The graffiti relief panel spells HIVE written in ‘wild style’ with some initiation into the cultural codification of letters being required to decipher the words. These external geometries directly determine the interiors and have been extruded into living spaces in bulkheads and wall shapes. There are inherent tensions in the building where graffiti complete with spray drip effect has been created without any paint and an anti-establishment art form has been situated in an exclusive inner city residential suburb. These tensions are resolving over time as respect for the building spreads within the graffiti community and the local residents begin to claim ownership of their new street art. The outward presentation of robust public art fortifies the internal spaces into a calm refuge that is adorned with street art frames and canvasses. The notion of hive as home has been extracted from the facade and reappears through the fitout in various guises.

The concrete relief façade containing shapes such as letters, arrows, swooshes and drips has been slotted into the exposed brickwork shell of an old Carlton tailor shop. It was important for the street art, graffiti in this case, to be essential to the experience of the building inside and out. The 4m high concrete letters are load bearing with the weight of all four stories transferring to the footing through the oversized letter ‘E’ and simultaneously creating a dramatic visual entry to the apartment. Similarly the punctuations in the facades allow interesting views and natural light opportunities within the habitable spaces.

via The Hive Apartment | competitionline – Wettbewerbe und Architektur.

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CITIES, policy & design

Planning the 'creative city' – forum announcement

A wonderful discussion about the role of the arts, particularly performing arts (such as music and theatre), in shaping our cities, and the role of our cities (particularly inner) in shaping our arts, will be taking place soon in Melbourne, and I hope many of you will get to it.

A few years ago, I worked with Dr Kate Shaw, one of the smartest and most well-spoken critics of both the existing arts policies, and the patterns of development in Australian cities, that this country has at hand, on a research project called ‘Planning the Creative City’. It was one of the most interesting periods of my life, and it opened up questions that I am, in Berlin as much as in Tokyo, Istanbul or Brisbane, still attempting to answer. We were looking at Melbourne’s self-branding as a ‘creative city’, at Richard Florida’s urbanist propaganda (in which the creative class meant growth and prosperity), at graffiti tourism and clusters of architectural bureaus and live music, the relationship between liquor licensing and the vibrancy of a music scene in a city, the relationship between housing prices and the arts, and cross-tabulating all of that with hard data. Some of it made it into newspaper and magazine articles even as the project was progressing, but, as with most research projects, there was a lot of data to crunch.

The project is now finally finished, and its findings are being presented next week on Thursday, 27th September 2012, at something called Yarra Living Arts Forum. I would love to tell you more about it, but from a quick google it doesn’t appear Yarra Council wants anyone to know about it, because there is no website, and no online announcement about this event – all the more reason to go, I would suggest.

The details are below, as is the summary of the event. I would love to be there, not just because I feel great love for this particular project, and because I think it’s hugely important for artists in Australia to understand both the social power they possess, and the structural forces that shape their lives – but also because Kate is a fantastic public speaker. You are most cordially invited to go.

Yarra Talking Arts Forum
Planning the ‘creative city’ with Dr Kate Shaw

This forum will present findings from research into the idea of the ‘creative city’. Creative city strategies are often used as economic development strategies, with the intent of decreasing vacancy rates and increasing land values. The effect is to displace lower than best economic uses of land, including low and no-profit cultural activities. The contribution that alternative cultures make to established city cultures is well documented – the City of Amsterdam calls it ‘No Culture without Subculture’ – but few Australian governments accord creative subcultures a place in their planning policies.

The presentation uses time-series maps of inner Melbourne to show the location of independent cultural activities from 1991 to 2009. These are overlaid with maps that track shifts in demographics, land values and voting patterns. Small cultural producers are being pushed into tighter and tighter clusters, but rather than going to where the land values are lowest, some are concentrating in the CBD and parts of Collingwood and Fitzroy. The presentation discusses the particular conditions that support the clustering in these areas.

The forum will conclude with an analysis of ‘creative city’-inspired urban renewal strategies, and a discussion of possible local and state government policy initiatives to encourage creative subcultures. The audience is invited to participate in this discussion.

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