Against Hayek: The Harold Holt Swim Centre

There is something delightfully incongruous about the Harold Holt swim centre. It is not simply the naming of a swimming centre after a drowned Prime Minister (though this never fails to raise a grim smile whenever I mention it to anyone), but rather that one of Melbourne’s premier examples of Brutalism should be named after a conservative leader. Not only this but that it should be situated in one of the most conservative areas in Australia, home to two Liberal Prime Ministers (and probably three if Peter Costello was not “all tip and no iceberg”) is rather amusing.

As an unrepentant left-wing modernist, I have always had quite a penchant for the Brutalist. There is something about that clash of the clinical beautiful modernist geometry and the material harshness of concrete that appeals. With their communitarian ideals and bludgeoning aesthetics, Brutalist structures have always appeared to me as great socialist fists, pummeling an outmoded conservative topography. Of course not many people these days would view this imagery in such a positive light as I do
, and so it is the concrete fists themselves that have come to be outmoded (the family idiot for one hates them almost as much as I despise him). More reason then to cheer that the wonderful Harold Hold Swim Centre has survived. It has not clung on as a heritage fetishists' relic like the Brutalist Clyde Cameron College in Wodonga, which was built as a training school for trade unionists (huzzah!), but is now preserved with a token heritage listing as a private hospital (boo!). The Swim Centre endures as as a vital and vigorous institution. It's aesthetics may not be overly popular, (even its website doesn't have a picture of it) but still it remains undefeated.
Perhaps the distaste at its forms stem from the widespread distate at the ideals behind the Brutalist movement. Keynsianism and government investment in public works have no place in the Late Capitalist epoch, and so neither does an architecture representing such heathen ways. Yet in this particular structure we can see that there is no reason for this, that those fists are not outmoded at all but more necessary than ever.

Rather than existing as a mere curiosity, a museum piece for architecture students, the Swim Centre continues to function in providing a valuable community service. For only a small fee the public can paddle with their children, take a sauna and a hydrotherapy session, or swim in an Olympic sized pool. It is an embodiment of the state-sponsered, community-driven projects that neo-liberal zealots have spent the past twenty-five years warning us against. Here we have a brilliant and (literally) refreshing embodiment of the contrary argument, a celebration of public over private, of state investment over commercial re-development. One only has to go to a nearby gym to see how snobbish, vapid, exclusive and hideous a privatised version of this place would be.

The Harold Holt Swim Centre ought to act as a rallying call to stop felating the market and for the state to take the initiative of looking after the people. It stands as a small but supreme realisation of a noble municipal dream and a feeling of political satisfaction cheers me every time I swim there. It is tainted only by looking at my fellow swimmers and knowing that some of them voted for Howard….


Travels in the Interzone

A new job (assessing the licence for Crown Casino of all things!) and an imminent visa application have been sapping my brainpower of late. But to temporarily satisfy any readers (should there be such things), here is a superb structure from Melbourne's Ballardian outskirts.


M-C-M: Branding the City

On the corner of Russell Street and Little Collins street is a nondescript piece of luxury neo-modernism, containing yuppie apartments and a handful of high-class boutiques. This is nothing special of course, not in the teeming hub of economic rationalism that is the hypermodern metropolis. But what (literally) marks this structure apart, is that it sports a large barcode on its facade. It unashamedly embraces its architectural status as a mere commodity; not a benevolent server of a social function, not a monument of collective significance, nor a model of aesthetic wonder, merely means of accumulating capital. And why not? The (mis)guiding ethos of the age is Adam Smith's assertion that it is not the benevolence of the butcher that motivates him to provide us with meat, but his selfishness, and while this is the case why not be honest about it?

The building stands as the ultimate example of consumerist architecture in the city, not simply because it lays bare what other projects cloak in corporate speak, but because its chosen symbol, the barcode, is itself the ultimate avatar of free market capitalism.

As Michel Pastoureau illustrates in his brief but excellent book, "The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes & Striped Fabric", stripes in medieval times were viewed with extreme suspicion. The stripe, with its dynamic bichromism and implication of movement, was an aberration within feudalism both aesthetically and philosophically. The heraldic eye was trained to read images in terms of monochromatic layers (reflecting the feudal structure), to which the stripe was an aggressive assault. But this was not the only reason that the stripe was such an abomination. The medieval man was not a historical agent in the sense that we would understand, that is he did not conceive of himself as being a player in an ever-changing historical narrative. Rather he existed within a stable world, overseen by God and king, that always had been and always would be. The brash linearity of the stripe proved a disturbing and incongruous presence, and as such it was attached to those disturbing elements in the medieval world; Prostitutes, criminals, heretics, fools and the Devil himself all were branded with the stripe.

This stigma began to fade only with the rise of modernity. As the industrial revolution powered forward, taking with it an ascending bourgeoisie, so the stationary concept of history gave way to Utopian ideas of progress. A locomotive of Comtean dialectics steamed over the feudal model and into the future; suddenly the linearity of the stripe was in vogue.

The barcode thus serves as a branding of the historical narrative of laissez faire capitalism. And as Melbourne, like other Western cities, follows the Parisian model of purging the city of all undesirable (i.e. non bourgeois) elements, the barcoded building brazenly reaffirms that the city was/is the key unit in this march of consumerist triumph. It is where capitalism was born, and now that the industrial dirty work that was once done here can be passed on to lesser nations, it is where the oligarchs of late capitalism come to play. An arena of 21st century opulence.

This is underscored by the fact that the barcode on the building is not small, manageable and accessible, like that of a chocolate bar or soft drink, a product graspable by the plebs. It is large, imposing and overbearing. The masses cannot afford the product it represents, and it lets them know it. The barcode says to those who do not live in luxury apartments, "the city is the domain of capitalist power, it does not belong to you, it is ours." It stamps its ideological dialectic on the the urban sphere.

Of course, if a barcode is scratched or marked, it is rendered useless, no longer able to transmit the value of the item it appears on... see below.

Culture and Thuggery in Melbourne: Postscript

Regarding Melbourne's graffiti, I have just stumbled across this line in William Gibson's Neuromancer:

"He knew this kind of building; the tenants would operate in the interzone where art wasn't quite crime and crime not quite art."

There is a paradoxical attitude towards graffiti in Melbourne, with the embracing of it as a tourist attraction and simultaneous zero-tolerance enforcement of draconian anti-graffiti laws. Or perhaps it is not a paradox. Iain Sinclair (reputedly Gibson's favourite writer) notes in Lights Out For the Territory how he prefers the civil disobedience of a crudely inscribed tag on a tube seat to the more elaborate gallery-sanctioned 'graffiti art'. I am inclined to agree with him. Is deeming graffiti to be 'art' a means of empowering it, as implied, or a means of co-opting it into the bourgeois culture narrative, and of thus castrating its disruptive power?

Certainly Banksy is unlikely to create anything as 'confronting' as the youth who scrawled "YOU'RE A CUNT" on an empty Evening Standard headline board I once saw in Hackney. Brutal scribblings. And so the more Melbourne's glossy tourist brochures feature edgy snaps of stenciled laneways, the more wedding couples pose in front of urban etchings, the less power graffiti has as the language of the powerless and the more it becomes the language of officialdom; a codified norm requiring permits, printed on coffee mugs, hanging in exhibitions opened by politicians.

Support for a small-scale quasi-official graffiti scene does not contradict anti-graffiti heavy-handedness, but rather is the perfect compliment to it. "Why can't they just do it on a community wall or something?" cry liberal bourgeois anti-graffitist when accused of being reactionary. By not rejecting the whole form, but rather adopting a tolerably minor portion as legitimate, conservative forces (often self-identifying as liberal) are able to identify all other graffiti that does not conform to such constricting definitions as illegitimate and worthy of harsh suppression. In this way they are able to remain back-slappingly open-minded ('but we do like graffiti when it's art' i.e. when it conforms to our comfortable restrictions) whilst eliminating all illegitimate, non-bourgeois friendly markings. The aim is to strip graffiti of the status Gibson describes, a disturbing, ill-defined anomaly in traditional notions of what is crime and what is art, and rigidly dissect it into the moral (art) and the immoral (crime). There is but one response:



Australia on Collins: In Praise of Direct Action

One of the more curious cultural differences to strike me on arrival in Australia was the 'two-flush' toilet system. I had never experienced severe water shortages before and was surprised and amused at the division of the flusher into small and large flush options. Initially it seemed to make sense, but there was something rather out of joint about the whole thing. The unspoken categorisations of the system (small flush for urine, large for faeces) leave a set of taxonomical conundrums (what to do with vomit, and other forms of organic detritus?) and autocratically dictate a forced toilet etiquette that may often not be logical. Small amounts of faecal matter, requiring only the small flush, will be given the large regardless, because to abandon the division of fluids would be obscene.

A solution might include an appeal not to flush the large option unless absolutely necessary (as is attempted in the sign above) but in order to be truly effective, and to override the auto-categorisation of the flusher, it would require a discussion of, or at the least a clear allusion to, shit, and so it is unlikely in a conservative country of Anglo-Saxon anal dismissive character.

Another solution is the reintroduction of a monistic flusher, only with half the amount of water. Anything requiring more flushing could be given a second dose, and anything hanging around longer than that would necessitate brush intervention whatever the system. Not only this, but it would help to roll back a fairly puritanical piece of bodily repression and a further atomisation in an already obsessively sub-divided social structure. This is the preferable option but it could prove difficult to execute, after all once a taxonomic structure has been introduced it is often hard to dismantle it.

Joyous news then, that the Second Option (note capitals) that has been directly imposed on the toilets in the Australia on Collins mall on Collins street, which can be viewed below.

It is an excellent nugget of socio-ecological liberation. I call for the universalisation of the Second Option and more direct toilet action!


Flinders Street Station: The Death of Cerberus

I have been on something of a flaneuring hiatus over the holiday due to parental visitations and spending time in Sydney (boo! Judas! etc etc), more of which in due course. But I am back now, and one of the first things to strike me on my return to Melbourne was the removal of the previously mentioned Cerberian dog heads at Flinders Street station, due to vandalism. Perhaps their menace pushed someone over the edge?

An interesting addition in the same space is that of a collection of severed heads. It is not clear if the same perpetrator was responsible for the removal of the official art, and the installing of the unofficial, but it's certainly a triumph of romantic independence over patronage. Another interesting comparison between the two is that where the threat of the dogs was overt and menacing, the malignancy of the new installation is rather more oblique. A stencilled message simply reads: 'It's lucky for the world I'm willing to stop at one murder. Together we could rape the universe'

It is the second part of the statement that contains the threat. I assume that it's an eco-anarchistic "political" statement, but there's always the vague possibility that it's an invitation...