There are quite a few subjects that intelligent commentators know to leave untouched. Mentioning these will simply provoke a virulent reaction from readers who, by definition, know more and possess deeper insights than any columnist possibly could. That's why I never write about Canberra.
Criticise the city, and those who don't understand how wantonly Walter Burley Griffin's original plan was bowdlerised - purged and castrated of life and community - will leap to the defence of the dreary, narrow-tie-wearing clerks who turned his vision into dreary blocks of detached fibro housing. Praise the city, on the other hand, and anyone who knows the place will (if you're lucky) simply raise an eyebrow and make a mental note to never trust anything you write ever again.
That's why it was so interesting this week listening to the host of the top-rating architecture program Grand Designs. Nobody gets to become a star by being stupid, and Kevin McCloud has virtually invented a whole television genre all by himself.
You know, long beforehand, exactly how every show will end. The program's concluding minutes begin with a close-up, as the camera focuses in on McCloud's thoughtful, craggy, yet slightly puzzled face, just the hint of a self-aware smile playing around his mouth. Yes, despite all the initial design brilliance, the builder's effort, and the hopeful enthusiasm of the owners, the result is nothing more than obviously a disaster. He walks, slowly, across the windswept hill/little stream/inner-city laneway, while the camera pulls back to reveal the sort of house only an architect could love.
The viewer knows it would be a nightmare to live in, full of echoing chasms and useless nooks, but that's the point. We don't have to live there, and another program will be on in a second; in the meantime we can explore, voyeuristically, the mistakes of others.
McCloud's not a real estate agent. He's engaged, instead, in selling us a product we really want to buy: our hopes and dreams for a better life. We eat up what he's promising - that good architecture can solve our far more elemental needs. And it's true, because beautiful design does offer hope. It hints at a space where we can create real meaning by engaging, sharing and building a larger world, a place where we can really live.
That's why we happily watch as McCloud continues walking and talking through each big reveal, completely unsurprised as the once tiny building project grows into a monstrous edifice and the months turn to years.
"Yes", McCloud might as well announce, "it's true that this house ran three times over budget and the loving couple who began this project so hopefully are now divorced and separated, and yet..." Here he pauses, just for a second, long enough so we're never really sure he's not making fools of himself and us all. "It's all been, somehow, completely worthwhile."
Fade up music; roll credits; end show.
Finding a way to frame the parameters of our lives is vital and it only begins with the built environment of our houses and cities.
That's the wonderful thing about television. If you don't like a program, you simply flick the channel. If you don't like your house, however, you're up for tens of thousands in marketing, conveyancing, auctioneers' fees, banks, movers, etc. By the time you've finished you may as well kiss goodbye to a year of your life. Much better to watch TV than do it yourself, and that's why McCloud gives us exactly what we want, in a medium designed brilliantly for exactly his type of program. His edge - and it's sharp, very sharp - was recognising this and fulfilling our need. It also explains why McCloud's a glass-half-full kind of guy.
His comments about Canberra offer the perfect mix of admiration (for the city's design), sympathy (for occasional failure in execution), and hope (for future improvements) and show exactly why so many people have fallen in love with his show. He's interested in what works; not in what has failed. Instead of attacking the way the city's turned out, he recalls Griffin's original dream. He gets excited about the 90 percent that's terrific, and not the 10 percent that's such a failure.
But life isn't television. Our lives won't abruptly be truncated when it gets close to the hour, and our ideas don't depend on having shots with just the right camera angles to illustrate whatever particular point it is that's being made.
And this, perhaps, explains the vague feeling of dissatisfaction that arises as a result of some of the understandably positive words McCloud's been uttering. Canberra is wonderful and how great is Australia, eh? It's just that things could be, quite easily, so much better. We face, today, new challenges, ones that hang like a pall of smoke over our future.
These are the questions that McCloud understandably dodged. They're also questions we could never expect him to answer.
The way we build shapes the way we live. Unless it's intimately responsive to the land around us, our environment, the result will corrode our future and transform our hopes and dreams into ruins and deserts. Finding a way to frame the parameters of our lives is vital and it only begins with the built environment of our houses and cities. Tragically, alas, this shows no sign of happening. Our political class isn't prepared to address the big questions - population; sustainability; resources; environment - let alone find some solutions. How can we find a way to live so we can all share the sun and delight that should accompany living in this wonderful land?
The recent bushfires are simply a spark, a harbinger demonstrating the dystopian future that's approaching so rapidly if we fail to make the right choices. We'll only find the answers if we begin asking the right questions. Let's start now.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.