CH2: The Stain of Atavism

Melbourne City Council likes to promote itself as the loveable alternative authority to the Victorian State Government. It is green and progressive (approving an experimental scheme limiting motor access to the CDB) where the State Government is outdated and reactionary (over-ruling the council and quashing said scheme). It is friendly and accessible (the ever-smiling "world's most popular mayor" John So) where the State is cold and distant (the pugnacious and increasingly unpopular Premier John Brumby). Little surprise then, that down the road from the State's faceless power-structure, the Council has built a pioneering piece of eco-architecture. Where the Justice Building is all glacial coldness, the Council building is a Pompidouesque Mechano set writ large. Cuddly constructionism.

Winner of many industry awards, Council House 2, or CH2 (sounds a bit like CO2 and is also the chemical formula for Methelyne, do you see?) is the jewel in the Council's eco-friendly crown. Reflecting the preoccupation with sustainability in contemporary planning, CH2 is a carbon-neutral, auto-recycling, self-sustaining Gaia-structure. It is a technologically impressive project. Yet, as is the fashion with many green skyscraper projects, the Council and its cheerleaders do not promote the building in technological terms. Instead we find hippyish justifications and celebrations of the buildings being 'in tune with nature'. Who are they trying to kid? Are we expected to think that if nature were allowed to dominate the environment freely we would find neatly clipped hedges in window boxes and self-sustaining air conditioning systems? These projects are the ultimate example of man's domination of nature, the taming of it to meet our needs. We largely want to tackle climate change not because of concern for the earth but rather for concern over our reliance on it to survive, and these kinds of buildings offer the possibility of a sophisticated mechanical means of doing so.

These buildings do not deserve the epithet 'natural' by any means, on the contrary they are utterly artificial, a glorious fusion of the organic and the inorganic. We should not shy away from this but rather embrace it unashamedly and reclaim our dreams of the future. This marriage of the synthetic and the natural should be touted as a testament to humanity's genius, yet it provokes widespread discomfort and this technological masterpiece does not celebrate its own achievement. Instead it hides behind a facade of pine, looking like a 19th century Scandinavian woodcutter's hut, shielding its true nature from the public. But why do we not wish to see this structure in all its magnificent mechanical nakedness? Why does it not display a proud techno-aestheticism but only an atavistic pseudo-natural appearance?

In our new century the concept of the organic has been fetishised to such a degree that technology itself is forced to cloak itself in order to be accepted. Scientists used to be our heroes, and now they are the ultimate villains. Issues such as GM crops (boo!), nuclear power (boo!) animal testing (boo!) and cloning (boo!) have turned people against science. We now treat 'Science' as a pariah, the evil opponent of the morality of the organic. There is an element of Heidegger in this, who famously declared after the war "Agriculture is now a motorised food-industry - in essence the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers". There is truth in this statement, yet coming from the Nazi-supporting Heidegger in the late 1940s it smacks of a squirming passing of the buck; 'It weren't me guv, it was the machines what done it!'. But there were men operating those machines and Heidegger lent them his moral authority as a philosopher. He spent the rest of his days bemoaning technology, pining for an imagined agrarian past and drifting into the realms of mysticism, promoting an anti-modernism that was in actuality an attempt at vindication through denial. It was essentially a philosophical elevation of the 'I was only obeying orders' line. This is what we are now seeing with regards to climate change. Able to accept its anthropogeneticity only at face value we instead pass the buck to a usefully ill-defined Other: Science. Like Heidegger we tut tut, and wag our finger at technology for harming Mother Earth, taking the moral high ground where we ought to be taking responsibility. 'How could I, with my fair trade coffee and organic potatoes be responsible for that?' we ask incredulously. In a sense we are all climate change denialists, denying our own culpability.

Unlike Heidegger though, rather than abandon faith in technology we are able realise that it provides our only hope of reversing the effects of climate change. Moreover, aside from a few hardcore feudalists who would be happy to live in a treehouse with just a spliff and a banjo for company (the only honest perpetrators of the anti-science orthodoxy) people overwhelmingly like technology. How else could one get to organic supermarkets and self-help workshops? And so we take a spectacular and paradoxical leap of bad faith to a state of affairs where science is both the redeemer and the devil incarnate, where a highly technological achievement is swathed in the language of anti-science.The hypermodern Western man lives in the luxuries of technology, whilst simultaneously lambasting them, and pompously propagating obscurantist teleologies. We must put an end to this morbid and masturbatory posturing and wholeheartedly embrace our technological future. There has to be a realisation that the fusion of the organic and the inorganic is not undesirable, but indispensable. That the ideals of the Viridian Design Movement and others are necessary for a stable future.

The forms of CH2 are not displeasing in themselves, I actually find its IKEA-architecture quite attractive. But for its purpose the structure is simply too timid. What we should see in a project such as this is not the self-conscious restraint and 'naturalism' of CH2 but something more akin to the biotopian eco-science of the Eden Project or the recently launched Earthrace eco-ship, both purveyors of a striking futurist vision.

Technology helped us get into this mess, but it is the only thing that can help us get out.


Curtin House: The Dictatorship of Irony

Curtin House is Melbourne's ultimate beacon of vicious irony. Often referred to as a 'horizontal laneway' it was built in the 1910s, originally named the Tattersalls Building and housing an upheel gentleman's club inside its walls. One of the components of the modern laneway, The Toff in the Town bar, with its top and hat monocle logo, is a conscious nod to the building's early century incarnation, a simultaneous revelling in and mocking of the snobbish grandiosity of the gentleman's club. The idea seems to be to replicate the splendour of those clubs (the private booths, a lift operator) but with a distinctly 21st century accessibility (serving cheap(ish) beer, the lift operator is a biker). And yet the Toff in the Town does not point to a new egalitarianism, but to a new and subtler form of socio-economic exclusivity. Bouncers man the entrance to the building in the evenings, ready to turn away anyone simply because they don't like the look of them (a privilege they share only with officials in military dictatorships) and the crowd is overwhelmingly white, young, middle class and painfully hip. Cultural codes of music and clothes make sure that those who do not belong are aware of it. The building has been claimed by a elitist cliche of fashionistas. This phenomenon is not new of course, punks, skins, glam etc all operated a similar ethos, but in this case it is not a banding together of the powerless, but a junta of Gen Y funkster yuppies; skateboarding CEOs, investment bankers with i-macs, PR executives who take pills and various forms of the same Nathan Barley wanker from the "creative industries". Cashed up and clued up with quasi-degrees (Master of Retail Management, anyone?) the new breed bourgeoisie are much more effective than their Toffish predecessors, and they keep their hands clean too. Of course you can come in, if you want to, technically, its not our fault if you don't want to or the bouncers won't let you, we're not exclusive.

Below stairs, while the neo-Toffs get off on their ironic displacement of the old order and social ascension, the wankery continues in the uber-trendy Cookie. Cookie looks like the half-baked brain bastard of a mouthy, over-the-hill promoter and a Media Studies undergraduate. While the bar serves ridiculous and expensive drinks alongside laughably pretentious snacks ("Hmm, what to have with my $10 beer? The Bettel Bliss Bombs DIY or the Drunken Prawns with garlic, coriander and Mekong whisky?") grating Latino house music seeps from the walls and silent films are projected without a soundtrack, serving only as preposterous decor, devaluing them almost beyond rescue. In the midst of all this, the dancing clowns strut in their Soviet kitsch shirts and badges. Quite what the building's other former tenants, the Communist Party of Australia, would make of this we can only imagine.

In 1940, the Australian government outlawed the Communist Party as a subversive force (this was before Uncle Joe was attacked and had a change of heart) and pitched battles were fought on the stairs of the building, as government agents tried to force their way in to arrest organisers and confiscate literature. It was a bitter and vital collision of political principle; those who saw themselves as the defenders of civilisation from Asiatic barbarity versus those who saw themselves as the servants of history, wiping away oppression. Neither position means anything now, not to the nu-aristocrats of cyber-capitalism who can appropriate the top hat and monocle or the
hammer and sickle just as easily as each other, because they view both as below serious consideration. The re-naming this former-Communist HQ after a Labor prime minister was a point of political ownership (social democracy over Stalinism), but it made the mistake of taking its opposition seriously. By so overtly suppressing the past it gave political credence to that past. The power of the new masters is in their ability to co-opt the once potent symbols of potential enemies and drain them of meaning. Neither patrician nor proletarian symbolism denotes a serious political reality any longer, and so neither can begin to challenge the media oligarchy; the future is a pair of Vans stamping on a human face forever.

I for my part have decided to salute the forgotten idealists of Curtin House with a tribute to the tragic dream of the Mighty Soviet Union. Watch in admiration or disgust, but please, without irony.


As I write, the agents of ironical fascism will be preparing for the new season at the Rooftop Cinema on the top of Curtin House. Ready to chatter like apes and bask in semi-fictionalised nostalgia with screenings of The Goonies (SOLD OUT!!), Labyrinth and The Breakfast Club. While genuine classics of cinematic art (Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin) serve only as amusing wallpaper, the 80s fetishists gawp with brainless giggles at average documents of a barely remembered decade, manufacturing memories in their Mr T-shirts. Baudrillard was right, fool!


High Street, Armadale: Encountering the Ghosts of History

"Shh! Under the paving stones, the ghosts of history are sleeping."

So read the poetry on the train. A tad morose compared to the Situationist catch cry of "Under the paving stones, the beach!", but then Melburnians are less inclined to the beach than their counterparts in other Australian cities, and they are more inclined to wear black.

I was reminded of this piece of "public poetry"when walking across the paving stone below on High Street, Armadale.

For those with less than perfect monitors/eyesight, it reads A CURSE UPON THE REMOVAL OF THIS SLAB AS IT FINALLY LAYS TO REST WITNESSED 1ST DECEMBER 1989

This mysterious artifact is casually inserted into an otherwise rather dull stretch of road. I have walked past it many times and don't recall ever seeing anyone except myself stop to look at it. A tentative questioning of locals has wrought no answers (disappointingly my questions were met with blank looks rather than a Wicker Man style suspicion of outsiders) and Google has drawn a blank.

In a sense though, I am satisfied to remain intrigued. I hope that it is the work of some anonymous magic-maker, embedding mystical anomalies in the fabric of a rational world. A city without mysteries, without magic, is barely a city at all. With its unknown origins and talk of curses, the paving stone is a magnificent avatar of gnostic urbanism.

In a churchyard near to where I grew up in England, there was a nameless grave with only a skull and crossbones and date on it (sixteen-hundred and fifty something I recall). I was similarly fascinated and perplexed by this oddity and conjured up for it many exotic tales. In the end made no attempts to find the details of its origins, for concern that they could not live up to my fantasies.

What I feared was a minuscule reflection of Zizek's "revolution which consumes itself". I did not want my stone to echo the libertarian "sexual revolution", which in the end destroyed sexuality itself, leaving in its wake only a dispassionate and unerotic void of simulated images and surface-level narcissism (a recently published survey, for instance, found that Australian men are more body fixated and attend the gym more than men in other Western nations, and yet they have sex less often). I could not bare the idea that my liberation by truth might, like the naked body at the end of a striptease, purge the stone of all that was seductive about it. The aura of uncertainty is why this paving stones stands as a perfect mythical fragment of the city.

Although we are condemned to inquisitiveness (jouissance aside, the exquisite repression cannot be self-administered) the true beauty often lies not in the truth, but in the mystery.


Brachycera Diabolica: Rubbing Your Face in the Vomit

I have often noticed that as summer arrives and warm weather sweeps in, with it comes a palpable animal sexuality. Places of public congregation seem to be permeated by an ethereal fornication and one is almost choked with hormones. All around, rational Homo Sapiens recede to become slaves of tertiary biological drives, abandoning themselves to the frenzy of being 'on heat'. It is, a friend of mine once observed, as if evolution is only half-finished (something of Konrad Lorenz here, who posited that the elusive 'missing link' between beast and man, was humanity itself). This same friend was also convinced that humanity's future depended upon the removal of base urges. Having observed a marked increase in serenity in his neutered cat, he would often threaten to "evolutionise" himself, especially after heavy drinking bouts, whereupon he would bang dementedly on the table crying "It's coming off! It's coming off! It's coming off!"

This hormonal phenomenon has seemed somewhat less distinct in Australia (might this have something to do with an incongruous imposition of the European four seasons where Aboriginals identify six?) but nonetheless it exists. Which brings me to the object of this post; the bush fly.

These infuriating creatures invade the city from early December and for a short but glorious reign they claim it as theirs. Humans cannot walk anywhere without these pea-sized bullets of hyperactivity swarming around them, colonising their flesh. They fly into your hair, land on your lips, crawl near your nostrils, and all you can do is flap your arms frantically in a desperate fit of flailing violence. You cannot ever find satisfaction, the flies are too fast. This leaves an aura of unrealised aggression in the city. Suited businessmen and blue collar workers alike waft their hands insanely, their faces reddening with rage. Women in high heels stumble as they swing their desperate arms and children spit and punch the air. All are left angry and victimless.

This unsatiated violence must find an outlet somewhere. Violence demands catharsis, and it is interesting to note that as Australia's mean temperature (and thus the amount of flies) has increased there has been a correlation in the increase in Melbourne's violent crime rates.

But why do the flies torture us so intently? The flies swarm around humans because we provide them with easy access to the necessary conditions for reproduction. To female flies, sweat glands act as protein vending machines, while a pile of faeces is the perfect incubation unit. It is for this reason that the females are keen to crawl all over us, and for that reason that the males are keen; the humans are where the chicks are. Your whole face is a microcosmic horny disco floor.

The human animal is at its most repulsive and ridiculous when it engages in violence (inter-species violence especially) and when it engages in public copulation. The presence of the flies reflects and encourages both such behaviours. This, rather than mere annoyance, may be why there is such disdain for them. JG Ballard once claimed that he wanted to "rub humanity's face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror". This is what the flies achieve, and we hate them for it.


Toorak Squash and Fitness Club: The Seeds of Disease

As befits its status as one of of Melbourne's (and Australia's) wealthiest suburbs, the streets in Toorak are long, wide and tree lined. Like Haussmman's Paris, traffic flows through them as blood does the veins, and like the good Baron's boulevard's, the whole thing is meant to convey an ambiance of healthiness. Not the kind of pleasant healthiness that means a brisk walk in the morning and a glass of red with dinner, but rather the healthiness of the chest-pounding schizoid yuppie and the fanatical treadmill junky. That is, a healthiness of obscenity, which takes on a moral, political and ethnic dimension.

The wideness of these streets means that in the unlikely event of popular revolution they would act as a facilitator of social cleansing, allowing a smooth passage for suburban armies to defend their privileges against insurrection. Behind closed doors, middle-aged housewives long for the day when they can baptise these streets with the blood of their enemies. I envisage them hidden in their twitching curtains with shotgun in hand, like Flaubert taking pot shots at the Communards from his balcony, using his opera glasses for a sight (has there ever been a more dynamically bourgeois gesture?). These curious women already patrol and dominate the streets in their reinforced four-wheel-drives, all they require is a mounted gun and they can (politely) unleash carnage.

Given all of this, it is extremely satisfying that just past Toorak railway station, in midst of this aggressive smugness are the decaying remains of a fitness centre. Not only that but a squash and fitness centre. Squash, that most smug of yuppie fads, stinking of privilege and snobbery. And here is its decaying corpse, bang in the middle of all the hideousness it represents. A sign, announcing in nanny-style hectoring "Keep fit, play squash", is now surrounded by mould and pornographic graffiti. Windows, through which one might have once seen WASPSish dullards thwacking their balls, are now smashed in by blunt objects (presumably not squash rackets, though the thought that the yuppies themselves did this is intriguing).

It may simply be that better facilities have arrived but to me this incongruous aesthetic of the post-apocalyptic in such an affluent area is a strangely beautiful beacon of class aggression. It says, "yes, you aren't as healthy as you think are you? Renounce your faux-patrician heirs and graces and admit that you are as unhealthy as the proles you despise!"

It's not exactly a hoisted black flag, but it makes me smile nonetheless.


121 Exhibition Street: Inside the Geometry of the Beast

The Justice building at 121 Exhibition Street is a post-Seagram behemoth of steel and glass. These materials are particularly apt for this building since they embody the judicial principles of power and transparency. But the building is not transparent, it is faceless and exclusive, simultaneously imposing and anonymous. As shown in the picture above, on sunny days it almost camouflages itself into the skyline completely, leaving only a vaguely perceptible outline of its monstrous form. Embodying the judiciary it is invisible and yet always present.
Anyone attempting to enter the building and witness for themselves the machinations of justice will soon by stopped by the electronic gates in the entrance lobby, which keep out the proles. And so your average person's experience of the Department of Justice is a benignly authoritarian building, a set of electric gates and a uniformed guard escorting them from the premises.

Too bad, for if they were able to enter they would see that what lies inside is not a sinister cliche of power-tripping, pen-pushing quasi-Nazis, but a workforce as constrained and controlled by the geometry of this totem of justice as they are. The inside of the Justice building is an inversion of the outside.

Everything in the building is based on clean lines and the antiseptic gleam of steel. There are no Mark Rothko paintings or outlandish restaurants here, just ascetic intersections of the linear. Definite lines that express a geometry of the absolute; right and wrong, guilty and not guilty. I don't think there is a circle in the whole structure. The same forms of the right-angle occur again and again, sterile and hypnotic like motifs in a minimalist symphony. There are 36 floors but only one floorplan. It is replicated identically again and again. A worker from the 2nd floor could find his way around the 32nd without even realising he was on a different level.

The curious thing is that everyone is the slave of this aesthetic power. There is no puppetmeister in a luxury top floor office/twatpad laughing evilly; power exercises itself autonomously. Free of human-hands it resides in the lines and angles bending all to its will.

Small relief to those outside I'm sure. See below for examples from the heart of the panoptic beast.


Culture and Thuggery in Melbourne


Give the bastards a medal


Architectural Fragment: A Vacant Spectacle of Simulated Death

One of the more acclaimed pieces of public art in Melbourne is Petrus Spronk's 'Architectural Fragment' on Swanston Street. Crafted in the same bluestone from which the streets are constructed, this oddity springs suddenly from out of the ground in front of the State Library. The piece has been widely praised for its implied symbolism, which warns us that our civilisation, like those of the past, will inevitably become a dead fragment of its current self, an archeology of the future. But how prescient is this apparent message?

Although it purports to provoke, the fragment ultimately fails to convey the supposed sense of dread, of apocalyptic doom-saying, because of its painfully anachronistic geometry. Its classical form reflects not our own society but that of the already buried past. It slots neatly into the established Western archetype of the dead culture, that of the Parthenon and the Roman Forum. It is not a challenging image but a familiar, reassuring avatar of age-old romantic notions of the past. One could almost imagine Goethe sitting contemplatively nearby. Of course the geometry is not entirely bound to antiquity, Melbourne has its share of Neo-classical buildings, not least the State Library itself, (which the fragment echoes with a semi-obscured "Library" emblazoned across it in pompous Latin font) but even these are symbols of an already extinct past, co-opted and comfortably quantified. They were not built within living memory and do not present themselves to us as vital objects. They are not our buildings but those of a long dead, alien generation.

What would be truly scary would be to have the form of a contemporary building emerging as a symbol of destruction. Not a simulacrum of the familiar Greco-Roman ruins, but, for instance, the brash laissez-faire positivism of the corporate skyscraper. To see our living, breathing cosmopolitan lifestyle reduced to a skeleton, that really would be an uncomfortable exposure. But we shy away from this, and so the concept behind the sculpture loses all power. The difference between what the sculpture is and what it is supposed to be is the difference between knowing one is going to die, and really knowing one is going to die; that is, the difference between the formal, rudimentary knowledge that all living things must die, and the gut-wrenching realisation that this animated being that is 'me' will one day be annihilated. The skulls in the catacombs of Paris are horrifying only if you picture them as human heads and if you force yourself to accept that, under the skin, one's own head is nought but a stained, yellow skull. Otherwise they are no different from the decor in a second-rate Goth club. And here is the flaw in the Architectural Fragment; it is not a real warning, not a genuine sign of horror, but merely a titillating spectacle, playing by the established rules of apocalypse porn. No more haunting than Bruce Willis' pathetic death in Armageddon, it similarly raises the spectre of total oblivion, while ultimately reassuring us that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK.

In this sense the Architectural Fragment is a distillation of our timidity in acknowledging Thanatos and of our blind confidence in survival. We are petrified of climate change yet make no real efforts to curb it. We are all familiar with images of melting ice caps and simulations of flooded cities, yet cannot truly imagine them impacting our daily existence. Looked at this way, the sculpture may well transpire to be an architectural fragment, just not in the way originally envisioned.