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.