Even a genius has their mind shaped by their environment. I’ve just spent a week in my home town of Newcastle. I own a terrace house there. The next door neighbour, a very smart lady, sees damp on the wall of her basement. It’s coming from the direction of my property. Clearly I should be doing something about the rain that falls from the sky on my land, or passes through the ground under my land. It was a famous guy, Glenn Murcutt, who I remember telling me years ago that people who cut houses into the ground eventually lose their minds in this way. (But then Glenn had his office in Sydney and his weekender more than 400km to the North up in Kempsey, so I guess he can’t talk). My point though, is that thinking is shaped by sensorial data from matter that is accepted in the form it is found.
It was Winston Churchill who said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us.” How often though do we shape our buildings? What I see is architects copying buildings that have gone before.
Glenn Murcutt is of my mother’s generation, a generation who all lost their minds at the same time, in the same way. It was the fifties and early sixties. The all embraced the promise of transport machines to let cities spread out. During my trip this week to the home town my mother informed me that a lot more car parking will be needed in inner city Newcastle when the train line is ripped up to make way for apartments in a few weeks from now. Should Glenn Murcutt and my mum ever be driving about in post-rail Newcastle looking for somewhere to park, I guess they would both agree. Moar parking. Give us moar parking!
Two nights ago I stayed with a friend in the suburbs. I’m talking about my closet friend for 30+ years, who has helped me brain storm half of my theories before you ever were bothered by blog posts. He and his young adult children, despite a true interest in bicycle transport, are habituated to driving, partly by virtue of their location, partly because of australian tax laws that create a proliferation of company cars, but partly too in the way that I am habituated to drinking way too much coffee. Press me on why I drink five espressos a day, and my answer would make sense at all (especially not after the fifth). Press my friend and his wife on their opposition to redeveloping every inner suburban lot with 20 apartments pressing to the side and front boundaries, and the answer is a garbled string of references to 1920s communist Russia. (I’m still wondering Scoop, how we got onto that tangent).
Maybe each of us needs a helicopter ride over our city. Pilots could memorise commentaries that would show each of us how the food is delivered, how that food is then used to give each of us the stamina we need to make and raise babies, then how that food is passed with our urine and faeces into the oceans. Transport, labour, resources, wealth, and the likes could all be explained form a bird’s eye perspective.
That’s the device used in this song by Talking Heads. I was 17 or 18 when I first heard this. Being a Talking Heads fan I was naturally receptive to its invitation, to look upon a model of urbanism that we take for granted as just an arbitrary arrangement.
I mentioned geniuses at the start of this post. In my professional life I deal with a lot of smart people. Their minds nonetheless have been shaped by an arbitrary arrangement of space. Take the town planner who refers to a “balanced approach” to greenfield development and urban consolidation. That’s like saying you can drink as much vodka as you jolly well like as long as you mix it with equal portions of freshly squeezed orange juice. Take the urban theorist who is late for a meeting because he circled the block in search of a parking space. I could show him how a Brompton would fit in his boot, but I can tell you right now the look he would give me: the same look I would give old-buddy Scoop if he offered me tea.