POST WAR AUSTRALIA - CITIES IN HISTORY - REVIEW
Cities, By Reaktion, 223pp.
Morning Herald, 199, p.
provision of anonymity, cities have provide a found of freedom for
individuals who despaired at their isolation, sparking support for
repressive solidarities. Mein
Kampf was Hitler’s chronicle of estrangement in pre-1914 Vienna.
At the cross
road between discovery of the self and the loss of community can be
found the city’s impetus towards modernity. A spatial history of
Modernism in the arts could trace its isobars from Dublin, across to
Liverpool and St Petersburg (more than London or Moscow), with tremors
recorded in Alexandria, Shanghai and Tokyo, and major eruptions in
European capitals, on to Chicago before landing in Los Angeles, a city
we can all visit for the price of a movie ticket.
As a source
of wonder, cities are as varied as any creativity displayed in nature or
art museums. The neons of Tokyo are shamed by neither coral reefs nor
Abstraction Expressionism. The tonal range of trees is more limited than
those of concrete, terracotta, brick and bitumen. Hence, the ideal of
travel is to stay put in one city for three months, exploring its
streets, to become more than a tourist though always less than a
past 40 years, an extravagance of conurbations,– with several leaping
from 1 million to 8 million – have presented preconditions for social
revolution, as in Tehran in 1978-79. One amazement is that such habitats
thrive, with potable water available alongside fresh vegetables and
fish, while millions traverse them each day.
For all these
reasons, the publication of four books about cities raises expetations
that are met by Jacobs, and then only in part.
treated “Marvellous Melbourne” as one of his Victorian
Cities (1963) whereas Christopher Hibbert wraps up his album of
pretty pictures with a skim across the origins of Sydney. Despite his
title, Cities and Civilizations,
he has not learnt that both are built on drains.
The texts in
Burgin’s Some Cities are
extended captions which drag his images further down to he naturalism of
a black-and-white slide evening, relieved by cross-references to the
“reality” of feature films, especially cinema
appears, not as a city, but as the European’s dreamtime of the exotic
and primitive around Coober Pedy and Woomera – except that the
book’s sole example in colour is its frontispiece of Sydney with two
passionately lemon raincoats against a wet plate of Pitt Street, an
image which should become as iconic as Dupain’s Sunbather.
of Empire, by Jane M. Jacobs, a
geographer at the University of Melbourne, gives four case studies, two
from London and one each in Perth and Brisbane. Her aim is to “create
a productive encounter between new theorizations of imperialism and
post-colonialism and the specific space of the contemporary city”. She
succeeds in provoking ideas for further consideration by someone less
afraid of fact-grubbing.
opening survey of the literature never engages in argument but
paraphrases theories in a way which is anti-theoretical, As a result,
her fear of falling into the empiricist fallacy of letting facts speak
for themselves is nowhere more in evidence than in this
“theoretical” chapter, the language of which is an unintended parody
of the higher nonsenses. As a geographer, Jacobs should know that a
parameter is not a perimeter.
lumbering 40 pages, the beat changes as we encounter “The City” in
London, long the financial heart of the globe but today as alarmed at a
single European currency dominated by Frankfurt as Londoners were by the
astute when drawing such parallels. Britons took the survival of the
dome of St Paul’s during the Nazi bombing as a sign that they would
muddle through. After the war, town planners determined that
redevelopers would not profit where Goering had failed and so blocked
the erection of office towers that would disrupt sight-lines to the
second study is of heritage-building in Spitalfields, long a refuge for
immigrants, most recently Bengalis, trying to acknowledge their class
divisions without exposing themselves to ethnic prejudice because of the
building schemes by the entrepreneurs among them.
Jacobs is to uncover the flaws in each reform, she has next to nothing
to suggest about how to proceed. Instead of playing judge, she might
consider how real landlords and tenants make their way through
contraries and so are never free from ethnic, class and gender biases.
As living conditions are redirected by globalising investors, reformers
must also juggle the always less-than-perfect responses disparaged by
For a student
of postcolonial themes, Jacobs comes close to reproducing the classic
account of Australia as the primitive. Here studies of London deal with
the concrete jungle. In Australia she cannot wait to go native, even if
only in the contrived bush of city parks.
and Brisbane are treated as sites for testing race relations.
Notwithstanding this preference, Jacobs is as ignorant of the burden of terra
nullius as Pauline Hanson, believing it to have asserted that this
continent had been uninhabited before 1788, one among a tangle of
mistakes and omissions.
about the Swan Brewery dispute are persuasive when she shows why claims
for land rights appear ungovernable to settler Australians who apprehend
the sacred most readily in a title deed. Like the track of the serpent
in local legends, Aboriginal sites are more like precincts than
references points on a map.
Jacobs concentrates on Mt Cootha, with its outdoor Aboriginal gallery
built for the two-day tourists. Her fixation on the primitive means she
does not connect this municipal dream-world to urban renewal in
Fortitude Valley, where art spaces are contributing to a dispersal of
Aborigines from the Mall along Brunswick Street, around the corner from
which the Aboriginal organisation that provided the artwork on Mt Cootha
now pursues Koreans by the busload. Like Hibbert, Jacobs leaves a sense
of having spent longer in the library stacks than walking the streets.
historian Chris McAuliffe belongs to the generation for whom the Boys
Next Door were the exotic brought home to Camberwell. He opens with a
declaration about the meaning of motif, such as suburbia, being found in
its social placement, not just its internal trajectory, but soon falls
for t notion of thee artist being merely “attracted” to sucy
processes from the outside.
confuses leisure with the rest needed to renew energy for work and
misdates the arrival of zoning by some 20 years in a procession of
errors which intertwine with banalities. Paraphrasing the surfaces of
research by others, his text is as shallow as suburbia was alleged to
be. The usual trick for the ill-informed is to plaster over their
blankness with jargon, but McAuliffe writes clearly. Well before the
end, the book degenerates into a sequence of reviews and recent work.
returning to this theme he should decide what a suburb is. Can it be the
inner zones such as Fitzroy for Danila Vassilieff or Surry Hills for Bob
and Suburbia is worth dipping
into for its images, which extend from land sale promotions to Brack’s
painting New House (1953),
which could also be a commercial illustration. Despite the domestic bias
of the theme, works by men outnumber those from women by three to one.
do not clarify or specify so much as expostulate disputable notions
while paraphrasing arguments elaborated, though not always explicated in
the text. For instance, McAuliffe interprets Dickerson as showing a
vacuousness in his street scenes, but quotes the artist’s writing to a
friend that “Our street is full of poetry”. Did Dickerson fail to
depict this richness or has McAuliffe failed to recognise it?