An Australian classic

In the last three weeks, He Who Likes to Drive and I have been in three different Australian cities.  Despite two of the cities often being lauded as wonderfully liveable or visually spectacular or both, I can’t help thinking that the places us modern first-world humans are creating can only be considered one thing – ugly as sin.  First you have to navigate the outer nowhere lands which are neither rural nor industrial nor suburban – they are quite simply empty, they have given up.  And then the ubiquitous suburbs start.  Always there are power-lines, looking like the skeletal remains of alien invaders.  If you’re lucky, you jump on a freeway and ignore it all.

Sure, eventually you’ll arrive at your destination and the comfort it offers, in our case the inner areas where the streets narrow to a human scale, where crumbling old abuts throwaway new, where trees have grown (as much as they can), where there is tangible evidence of life. But what you have to traverse to get there.  Of course there are flashes of brilliance – Melbourne’s inner-city lanes where cafes overlap one another, and Sydney’s Circular Quay (although it’s starting to feel like an open-air shopping mall) – but in the scheme of things these are just little sparks out of the dying coals.

How is it that we have created such horrific places?

In his great work The Australian Ugliness, the architect Robin Boyd offers this conclusion: ‘The Australian ugliness begins with fear of reality, denial of the need for the everyday environment to reflect the heart of the human problem [and it] ends with betrayal of the element of love and a chill near the root of national self-respect.’   I think Boyd is right.  When we persist in creating such ugliness, what does it say about how we feel about ourselves?

Boyd agrees that Australia’s built form does need ‘an injection of emotion and poetry’ but admits that if we could learn to turn out Frank Lloyd Wrights (and perhaps we have turned out just one – Glen Murcutt), there still wouldn’t be enough architects to do all that’s required.  But are architects the problem?  In A Pattern Language, another seminal tome on the human environment, the American Christopher Alexander suggests a way of creating places that have the elusive ‘quality without a name’.  The goal must be to produce places that evolve directly from the human experience, and it’s not all about physical beauty.  Us humans can be ugly sometimes so it’s only right that we have ugliness mirrored back for us.  However, we are more beautiful than ugly, more good than bad, more alive than dead.

So what to do?  In The Timeless Way of Building, his companion volume to A Pattern Language, Alexander tells us this: ‘There is no skill required.  It is only a question of whether you will allow yourself to be ordinary, and to do what comes naturally to you, and what seems most sensible, to your heart…’  How everything comes back to heart.  And love.  Or maybe I just like returning home to a place which is more landscape than anything else.  Even Boyd, who from my reading of him was a pessimist, admitted that ‘Canberra set out with good intentions and may yet succeed’.  Oh my city, please succeed.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, January 17 2009)