My reaction to the release of what Infrastructure NSW calls a 20 Year State Infrastructure Strategy was what I am going to call an epiphany. It was almost nothing, certainly born as much out of laziness as principle, more the morbid blue glow of the florescent lights in Sydney’s new made in China train carriages than an incandescent halo centered over the head. To decide ‘I shall have a cheese sandwich for lunch’ would be both more useful and more profound than my realization that I can’t, or won’t, or don’t want to write about Sydney’s boring and intransigent problems anymore.
In summary, I am sick of repeating myself. I agree with the consensus that the only kind of architecture critic worth having is a politically-engaged one, but we are blinded indeed by our smugness if we think that engagement does not come at a price paid by the reader, the writer and the city. Engaged criticism is burdened not only by the heavy, repetitive, smoothed-out language of political advocacy but, because most of what happens in urban politics is bad, by the limitations of any negative review, be it of a building, a Pauly Shore film or an exhibition of iPhone photos of people’s feet. I much prefer to write about Hector Guimard than Sydney developers. The difference between praising something and condemning it resembles the difference between a conversation with a kindred soul and a job interview, the difference between a salon with Bergotte and dinner with M. de Norpois in À la recherche du temps perdu. Thoughtful praise, praise which is more than the grafting together of adverb and adjective — I’ll have that ‘flawlessly winsome’ one over there — builds on a foundation of shared sensibility which allows time and space for an exploration of ideas which can sometimes even be genuinely unpredictable. A pan can be eloquent, but shorn of its entertaining bile, the ideas underneath are often obvious. To write that Ozu is a better director than Michael Bay, that global warming is not a hoax or that it is a bad idea to tear up farmland to build McMansions is kindergarden stuff. The New York Times’ architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, did more than a good deed in bringing to the world’s attention the imminent demolition of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Phoenix. Every engaged critic dreams of writing something which actually does good in the world and Kimmelman’s article likely played a big part in saving the house (at least for now) but are we seriously still arguing about whether or not Frank Lloyd Wright houses should be preserved?
The engaged critic needs to suss out, Robert Caro-style, where the power is. In Sydney, a feminine city by nature, the power lies with blokes, or at least with the blokey. A typical ‘path to power’ might go like this:
Shayne/Madison is born in a middle class Sydney suburb and enters day care at the age of six months. An excellent, though thoroughly unimaginative student, he/she graduates high school after the usual quotient of sports injuries and emotional trauma, tends bar in London for six months and, as though cities were bullet points, races through bucket list Europe, USA, South America and Asia for the rest of the year (London is “dynamic,” Paris “romantic,” Barcelona “awesome,” Rome “historic,” Venice “mysterious,” Berlin “fun,” Gallipoli “moving,” New York “dynamic,” Las Vegas “iconically nauseating,” Rio “amazing,” Singapore “dynamic” but Sydney has the best latte). After two weeks in which ‘what happens in Bali stays in Bali,’ Shayne/Madison begins a combined commerce/urban planning degree at university. Upon graduation and after a second, shorter round the world trip, he/she enters the New South Wales public service. From here the trajectory might vary. For a few years the bigger paycheck of a private sector consultancy job might entice over the ‘work-life balance’ of the public service. Elected governments come and go as Shayne/Madison, butt to chair, one finger always to the wind, mastering, in iron-free shirts/blouses, both the idées reçues of his/her profession and the “whatchoo doing this weekend?” banter of the modern white collar workplace, rises faster than average through the hierarchy. Soon Shayne/Madison is an expert. More overseas trips are taken, in business class even. Mortgages are signed, apartments bought off the plan traded for renovator’s delights and eventually an ‘architect-designed’ dream home with slightly heavy eaves in which little Shayne-o/Ashlee enjoys a digitally remastered version of his/her parent’s unsentimental education. One day in 2012 Shayne/Madison, Lance Armstrong-style, leads the team which writes a plan which determines the next twenty years of his/her city’s life.
Among the team, the contents of the plan are simply understood, its underlying ideology never discussed and therefore non-existent. Most of the work goes into presentation. Artist’s impressions, in innocuous watercolor, are revised dozens of times, sometimes minutely. The first person to say “public-private partnership” is instantly promoted. When it comes out, Shayne/Madison and the team do not respond to those critics who call it disappointing, depressive, depressing, destructive, primitive, retrograde or a sub-optimal outcome, but if they did their response would consist of two simple five letter words bound and balanced by a hyphen: “world-class.” The City of Sydney and its Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, may have spent years carefully planning and building consensus for light rail down George Street, but the team much prefer, as a bloke prefers his leaf blower to his wife’s rake, a two billion dollar underground tunnel for the city’s diesel buses. World-class? The engaged critic searches for a different adjective. Many come to mind but which would persuade or at least convey the anger that he feels in bearing witness to such manifest stupidity?
Maybe the critic chooses to withhold his adjectives this time. Silencio.
In the report is an ‘artist’s impression’ of what Parramatta Road, currently one of the ugliest on earth, would look like under the plan. New ‘development’ lines either side. In between are two surface lanes either side of an open “slot” in which the new ten billion dollar WestConnex freeway runs. No light rail, not even bike lanes, but everyone grooves to their inner Baudelaire when they think of a ‘Parisian-style’ boulevard, even if the only boulevard in Paris in which a freeway runs in a slot is the Boulevard Périphérique. Just think how much money those fastidious Parisians would have saved if they hadn’t gone to the trouble of burying their Métro. Why it might have prevented this whole Euro crisis thing!
In the city the temperature is approaching ninety degrees one global warming spring day as the engaged critic, that ‘artist’s impression’ bruising his mind, steps onto a train in which the heat is turned on. In spite of the inferno which heightens the vague, fundamentally vomitory textile filthiness of the Sydney train carriage, some passengers remain, calm, seeming not to notice. They put up with things, these Sydneysiders. The engaged critic, like a modern appliance always on standby until it dies, never turns off. In his mind a stream of criticism accompanies the city which unfolds beyond the train’s window — laid, moche, laid moche moche laid. He realizes that if the passengers around him knew what he was thinking, they would call him a whinger. That this word is meant to end arguments around here can be mistaken for a virtue by those who want to believe, in spite of appearance and reality, for their own vested reasons perhaps but possibly for more innocent ones, that they have found in Sydney a better new world city, a city which gets on and puts up with things; but what happens when a city gets on with things and things only get worse?