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:


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.