Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Beauty of Structural Failure

The taxi driver dropped me off at a cul-de sac in the industrial area.
“That's twenty-three bucks.” The puzzled look he fixed me with was entirely palpable. I wasn't entirely sure about my purpose here either. I approached the chain-link fence, double checking the address on the flyer:

STRUCTURAL FAILURE APPRECIATION SOCIETY
23 DAVIDSON ROAD
SEVEN HILLS

This was the place.
There was a neat rectangle cut in the fence, lined with fluoro green tape. A clear path was made through the damp grass which led up a hill. I crested the ridge and was presented with an awe inspiring sight. It was an old, abandoned factory, but it had been arranged in such a way that I felt that I had stumbled upon the ruins of Persepolis. The path ran between towering smoke-stack stelae, with their operational details etched upon them in efficient industrial cuneiform.
The factory cafeteria served as a kind of lobby. Bizarrely named interest groups and associations had set up shop there sporting logos such as “Creating A Better City Through Arson” and “Residents of Industrial Districts United”
We filed into the conference hall

“On our first slide we see the collapse of a freeway on-ramp outside Ekaterinburg in Russia”
The chairman walked across the stage into the projector's beam, continuing to orate. The grey colour of his suit replaced the cascade of broken asphalt on screen, marred by dark stripes of twisted metal railings. The dramatic Cyrillic lettering on the roof of an ambulance etched an incomprehensible but oddly poignant acronym into his forehead.
“Events like these, my friends are what bring us together tonight-they highlight the unappreciated aesthetic potential of structural failure”
He took us through a series of slides: A collapsed office building in Guangdong, crumbling highway embankments outside Baku. One particularly striking example was two apartment buildings collapsing against each other in Chennai. Lounge rooms pressed up against each other and staircases concertinaed at insane angles: a bored giants attempt to realise an M.C Escher drawing.
The Chairman licked his lips with nervous excitement “Marvellous, isn't it? I feel it really illustrates my point. You see, the world is obsessed with order in the built environment. We cocoon ourselves in the false assurances of blueprints and specifications only to be struck dumb when an unforeseen stress fracture brings our assumptions crashing down with the architecture it was supposed to hold up.”
As the passion of his rhetoric grew, a slide depicting an exploding oil refinery in Nigeria. The glare of burning petrochemicals bathed his face in an apocalyptic glow.
“This is something we are unable to reconcile ourselves with. We rebuild, we reconsider our approaches to material, to structure. But all is futile in the face of inevitable decay- concrete becomes cancerous; steel rusts; housing market slumps desolate neighbourhoods with the same force as natural disasters. So I bring you here to ask you this one question: why do we continue to live this way? Why not re-appropriate? Why can't we live in the twisted remains of skyscrapers? Isn't this a better way of changing and adapting?”
“My last project as an Engineer was building a suspension bridge near Adelaide. I was given a pathetically meagre budget and my designs were repeatedly rejected by the idiots at the council office. The end product was structurally unsound, but what they wanted. Sure enough, it collapsed halfway through its construction. After nights of tense uncertainty, I felt relief when I heard the news, and now my house overlooks the valley where the ruins of the bridge still lie. The day after that happened, I turned on the TV: the date was September 11th, 2001.”
“When I saw the flaming ruins of the twin towers, I knew my career as a more conventional Engineer was over.

“That is why I implore you to join me in bringing my dream to life”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fish in a Barrel: A Literary Snob's 30 Minutes in Dymocks

I step into the Dymocks on George Street. I clutch the fifty dollar gift card in my pocket like a sidearm, ready to expel its purchasing power at the first glimpse of a Haruki Murakami novel I haven't read. Usually there are only two bookshops in Sydney I regularly go to: Abbeys, behind the QVB and Kinokuniya, in front of the QVB. I haven't set foot in Dymocks for a long time, but as I'm spending someone else's money I have allowed myself to indulge in a cautious optimism. Upon entering, at least fifty per-cent of my suspicions are confirmed: the Self-Help section is worryingly prominent, and stands carrying the new Dean Koontz book stands beside the entrance like the snarling guardian statues outside Buddhist temples.
Undeterred, I begin with a brief scan of the literary fiction shelves. It isn't good. All the literary bad-guys are here: from kitsch romance novels to the wannabe Clancys and Kings. Wait, what's this? Ursula LeGuin in the Children's Literature section? Oh dear.
Imagine my surprise then when I notice the Philosophy section. At first glance things are looking good: there's Hume, Kant, even Bertrand Russell. From here however the intellectual quality deteriorates rapidly: the following books border on self-help books, and at the bottom shelf (the middle shelf actually: the lower two are empty) are books on astrology. Astrology.
One book in particular catches my eye: Philosophy in Anime. I read the blurb:
Professor of Philosophy at Wisconsin State University James Douglas explores the deep philosophical undertones of Anime classics like Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Cowboy Bebop.
My amused disgust gives way to a familiar pang of regret. I really should have worked hard at uni. Then it could be me sitting in the Humanities faculty of an unremarakble university in the mid-west watching Anime and getting paid for it. It could be me writing a book about it that would delight Anime fans and piss off bitter graduates on the other side of the world with half-arsed Arts degrees. I slink away from the Philosophy section toward the safe haven of the Penguin Classics section. You win this round, Professor Evangelion.
I find some Hemmingway and some John Irving and call it a day. They're good books, but the people in charge here don't know that. All they see are stock lists, and all they think is we need to find space for that other metric ton of Dan Brown we ordered.
I get tired of shooting fish in a barrel, and set off toward Sussex Street for something greasy to eat.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Arboreal Interior Design

I got a rather unusual phone call from my friend while staying with my parents in Brisbane last year. It was unusual because of how calm and collected he was. His girlfriend had gone on one of her regular trips overseas, this one being longer than most. Normally when this happened I would receive an anxious phone call from him asking what I was doing that weekend. A lot of people find being alone quite boring, and will dredge the depths of their phonebook in search of someone to talk to. My friend Toby on the other hand, seemed to become seized with an anxiety that came on as soon as his girlfriend's plane lifted off the tarmac. So naturally, when he asked me to come over and hang out "whenever" in a laconic, calm voice I began to wonder if he'd finally caved in to medication.
It's funny though, you wouldn't have picked him as that sort of guy. He was a graphic designer, and looked the part completely: wardrobe full of t-shirts with ironic slogans, skinny-leg jeans, perpetual 5 o'clock shadow and thick rimmed glasses. In public he radiated an almost smug self-confidence but as I said, this is something he could not sustain while he was alone.
I met him at uni, when he was in his second year and I was in the final year of my degree. Before that we'd been at high school together, but being two years his senior we travelled in quite different circles. We ran into each other at the bar after class, and after the initial "hey-I-know-you-from-somewhere" we struck up a lengthy conversation. We clicked pretty well, and his flat in Petersham became a regular haunt of mine. It was a cosy little place in a typical red-brick 70s apartment block, on a typical tree-lined Inner-Western Sydney avenue. It had been a complete bargain; the rent was under three hundred dollars, in an area in which property prices were skyrocketing.
Toby claimed that when his girlfriend left the place had an "oppressive" quality to it. Given that I lived with my family on a housing estate outside Blacktown, I had little cause for sympathy.
Besides that, I've never really had a problem with being alone. I used to envy those with flourishing social lives, whose facebook page would always have a visual account of their exploits. But eventually it came clear that they sought to cultivate their social lives with a zeal that bordered on desperation. It seemed that being surrounded by legions of boring acquaintances was a small price to pay for being able to say that they Did Something On Friday Night.
I fell prey to this way of thinking, but eventually I grew up and cut my more freewheeling social networking back to a tight-knit group of friends.
I work as a freelance translator, so my social life has always been subject to a certain degree of ebb and flow. A lot of the time I work from home, but sometimes I've picked up a regular job at a business that's seeking to expand into South America. Once I worked for a company that marketed cleaning products, and it was here that I had one of the most eventful social lives. The boss was one of the most anal people I've ever met, and hired a squad of ten janitors, all Indians.
He would make them clean the whole office at hourly intervals, and personally drilled them until they did it to his meticulous standards. Feeling sorry for the poor guys, I would chat to them during my lunch breaks. Eventually I ended up going drinking with them regularly. We would start out at a dingy RSL outside the business park, and then wind up out the back of a restaurant someone's uncle owned with a case of Extra Dry.

I stood outside my friend's house. After a week in Brisbane I could feel the late autumn air acutely. Toby's street was lined with London Plane trees, giving one the ability to suspend their disbelief and pretend that Australia had a proper autumn instead of a warmer version of winter.
The huge rust coloured leaves crunched under my feet as I made my way up to the amber tinted glass of the stairway door. A noise in the distance began to permeate the still April air; running water. Not like someone had left the shower on or the bath running, but a mighty roaring deluge that got progressively louder as I climbed the stairs. My friend's flat was at the top, and the final flight of stairs were slick with water. His door was slightly ajar, and I stepped in, curious as to what I might find.
"Toby?" I called out. I stepped forward and found myself knee deep in rapidly flowing water. I took in my surroundings. A vast body of water flowed through the middle of his flat, like he'd somehow managed to alter the course of the Rhine. The walls of the flat had become two huge canyon walls covered in moss. The couch sat on a sandbank in the river, one side sunk slightly into the silt. The TV sat opposite it, and despite all possible odds, was switched on.
"Sam!" came a voice from the shore. He was seated on the sandy river bank, a grove of pine trees behind him.
"Toby!" I cried, splashing over to him. His designer stubble had become a full grown beard, and his expensive jeans and casual jacket were filthy and tattered. My socks were drenched, but my sense of humour was still intact.
"I quite like what you've done with the place"
He grinned "Thanks". Despite his dishevelled experience, he was a picture of calm.
"C'mon, I've got dinner on"
He led me through the grove of pine trees. He had set the kitchen up in a clearing, the stove leaning up against the trunk of one of the trees. The kitchen light hung down from the ceiling high above, the incandescent glow seeping eerily through the canopy. He ladled some minestrone into my bowl and we waded out to the loungeroom. After watching a couple of DVDs, I began to feel sleepy.
"Where have you got your bed set up?" I wondered. He pointed up. High above was his bed, perched on a slab of rock protruding from the mossy cliff face.
"Goodnight" he said, and began the arduous climb.
I wandered back to the kitchen, and fell asleep on a bed of pine needles

A Cubicle in the Sky

Once more he joins the procession of commuters in their steel-and-glass boxes, dragged southward down the highway.
The bus is full. He stands, holding on to the overhead strap, an action that rouses protest from his shoulder. As if sitting at your bloody desk all day isn't bad enough. Have a muscle spasm you insensitive bastard. A twitch runs through him, sharp intake of breath causing the guy in front to shoot him a puzzled glance.
His other arm holds his book, but he isn't reading it. Camoflaged behind a paperback hide, he peers out at his fellow commuters. David Attenbrough of the public transport system.
Out of the corner of his eye he watches a woman in her early thirties. He can just see the edge of her frilly blouse, betraying a hint of cleavage. Her breasts and face are the same mole-pocked landscape of ill-conceived sunbaking. Her voice invokes the ghost of cigarettes past. In these tobacco-stained cadences, he can hear the hopes and fears of a lady with her 20's lying dormant behind her and the iron-wrought gates of her autumn years less than a decade away. In her conversation the recreational oscillates back and forth against the mundane . Tickets to Good Vibes segue into getting the new air-conditioning installed. Domestic realities gradually encroach on her sunkissed realm of solipsism.
His attention wanders, omnipresent but arbitrary. The woman's voice becomes a husky murmur in the distance. The bus begins its journey across the harbour bridge, diesel hydraulics groaning like indentured mechanic slaves. The clouds are opaque over the metallic-blue grey water, overshadowing the shore of the Eastern Suburbs. Two dark entities gliding in tandem.
The bus doors hiss open.
Office clothes are the perfect disguise. They allow him to stride through the metropolitan canyons of glass and steel, his subversive traits buried deep beneath millimetres of silk. The confidence is fleeting though, and is swept away at the next intersection.
She stands waiting for the light to turn green. Artistically tousled hair, baggy flannel shirt that somehow manages to flatter her lithe frame, black jeans (skin tight, of course). White headphones in her ear and there's a one in three chance it'll be Radiohead, Nirvana or Jeff Buckley. Her Woolworths bag is full of thick books on their way back to the State Library. He catches the word HEIDEGGER on one of the spines.
He implores her mentally. Please little bohemian girl, use your x-ray vision. Look into my bag and see my well worn Kafka paperback next to my packed lunch. I read Dostoevsky yesterday, honestly. We can talk about phenomenology under the neo-classical arches of the library. Its right near my office. Please.
She shoots him a wary glance, probably oblivious to the wistfulness behind his gaze. She looks suspiciously at his work clothes: a barely-adequate straitjacket for unbridled corporate chauvinism. He wants to tear his off, and show her his pasty, scrawny Philosophy-class body. I'm not like them. I'm on your side. Suddenly, she turns down a side-street, morning sun catching the purple highlights in her hair.
He comes to the final intersection. A five meter stretch of road is all that seperates him from work. An epoch passes from pressing the button to crossing the road. He evaluates the successes, failures, romances, tragedies, hopes and dreams of his life one last time. He casts them aside and steps through the lobby doors, then ascends to his cubicle in the sky.