Such an interesting feel, this city. At times I think, it seems to have picked up the most lovely aspects of Latin and of Northern Europe; of Catholicism and Protestantism. It has the elegance, charm and that slightly creative chaos of France, and then also the simple, humble practicality of Flanders or Germany. But it is so much more beautiful than Germany, because Germany is rarely ever truly beautiful.

But here it is, in no particular order: a particular combination of light blue and light brown; a particular combination of dark blue and dark red; straight lines (sometimes); floral curves (at other times); rectangles that are almost squares, but aren’t; eclectic combinations of texture and material; and every so often, an unusual and unexpected touch of Tokyo.

spatial poetics, travel notes

The poetics of a city: Brussels style.

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travel notes

Croatia & Slovenia, June-July 2011.

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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.

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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.

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spatial poetics, travel notes

A Small Collection of Obnoxious Public Writing

In 2011, I started taking photos of public writing around Australia that I noticed was characterized by a particular TONE of overt, dictatorial nastiness. Of overstatement. Of non-negotiation. I was reminded of this project recently, while reading this post on Copenhagenize.com. Mikael wrote:

When I was in Australia last summer I was surprised, daily, at the tone of the signage. I’ve never seen such strict, nanny-like texts on warning signs. Sure, in the States there are warnings on everything but in most cases they are just “Coffee is extemely hot” kind of stuff. In Melbourne, the Authorities are keen to play headmaster, it seems. But thank god they have signs explaining in detail how to operate a pedestrian crossings. Because people are too stupid to figure that out for themselves. I got a kick out of all these warning signs in restaurants and bars. Penalty: Intoxication! $13,000!

Trying to define what sets the tone of this writing apart from what one might get in other countries, here is a tentative list:

1. THEY ARE ORDERS. They are not, technically speaking, warning. There is no appeal to common sense, individual judgement, or assessment of risk, and there is no discretionary element to your decision. ‘Heavy traffic. Cross with care’ is a warning. ‘Crossing tracks is strictly prohibited’ is an order.

2. THEY DON’T EXPLAIN THEMSELVES. When they do, it is simply to say that something is ‘AN OFFENSE’ or ‘AGAINST THE LAW’ or that ‘PENALTIES APPLY.’

3. THEY ADVERTISE A LAW, NOT GOOD CITIZENSHIP. And because of that, they don’t explain themselves, there is no argument behind these regulations other than ‘this and that is illegal.’ ‘IT IS IN BREACH OF HEALTH AND SAFETY REGULATIONS TO PARK YOUR BIKES HERE’, rather than ‘don’t inconvenience your co-workers’. When rules of conduct are advertised in Berlin, they tend to be little illustrations of why you should behave in certain ways: ‘Don’t make other people have to listen to your private phone conversations’ or ‘don’t make your heavy luggage other people’s problem.’ In Melbourne, the equivalent is ‘NO FEET ON SEATS. PENALTIES APPLY.’ Why? ‘IT IS AN OFFENSE TO BE…’

4. THEY ARE LEGAL ICEBERGS: there is often much more to the law than is said. For example, the invisible nine tenths of ‘NO FEET ON SEATS’ is that ‘anything other than the floor’ classifies as ‘seats’ for the Melbourne transport system. You would never know that from the sign. Let me speak here as an employee of a Faculty of Architecture and say that ‘anything but the floor’ is NOT a common-sense definition of a seat. But these signs do not explain themselves. Indeed, demanding they do is often seen as extremely disrespectful attitude. One issue arising from the hidden 9/10 is that one often feels defeated in advance.

5. THEY ARE OFTEN UNNECESSARILY BROAD. Sometimes it’s unclear how you could live without breaking some of these regulations. ‘Intoxication: Penalty $13,000′ is an example. Is one always guilty when drunk? Are you guilty if you haven’t been fined? Is one guilty everywhere, or only in some places and at some times? Whom to ask? Is it disrespectful to ask?

6. THEY ARE OFTEN VERY PETTY, BUT IN OMINOUS LANGUAGE. For example, ‘HOLD THE RAIL’ on public transport. Or the signs telling you how to use a zebra crossing, or how to leave a bus. Is that necessary? Is that a law? Can I be fined? Am I allowed to choose?

7. THERE IS NEVER, EVER AN APOLOGY. I have never seen a ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE DELAY’ sign on a train schedule screen, or ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE’ on a sign blocking off a footpath.

8. EVERY SO OFTEN, THEY ARE PATRONIZING AND RUDE. For example, the ‘swap your stop and walk part of the way’ sign, apparently to prevent one’s risk of chronic illness. There is an incredible wealth of scientific evidence out there showing that people who regularly use public transport walk much more than those who don’t (because they walk to and from the stop). When I’m on a tram that’s running infrequently and is often late, I don’t want anyone to worry about whether I’m walking enough. I would much rather be reminded of the efforts to improve the public transport system. There is no possible excuse for that sign (or for that campaign).

So here is my growing collection.

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre, travel notes

The Museum of Broken Relationships

I remember when this opened, some years ago, under the name ‘Museum of Failed Relationships’. I liked that name better – it echoed of wars, revolutions, fallen heroes and honour in defeat. Broken… eh… anything can break. I visited it in June 2011. I was at the end of a relationship, that moment when all sadness gets a bit grimy already, and I was in the right mood to read about the ‘ex-axe’, and similar exhibits. In anyway, it was one of the most enjoyable museum visits I’ve ever had in my life, and I recommend it to anyone.

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