The anatomy of an urbanist
Scene 1 The Bar: A row of succulents in terracotta pots hang from the ceiling against the Frida Khalo inspired mural which fills the back wall. The place revels in culturally appropriative design tropes that innocuously slip into the fabric of cities where distinct histories have started disappearing. Mesa Verde a Mexican influenced bar in Curtin House reminds me of a café in Darlinghurst, which reminds me of restaurant in Portland, Oregon which is similar to a plaza in Barcelona and a street market in Kolkata as ethnic identities collapse into each other in a stream of globalized capitalism. In the confines of the exposed brick walls and shelves filled with imported tequila in ceramic bottles I don’t know where I am anymore. I could be in any number of cities, indistinguishable spaces that those of us with mobility move between for work, conferences or travel. But I am here distracted by the familiar glow of my iPhone. Navigating LinkedIn requests and vague university invitations connected to Indigenous design trends that fill my inbox with frightening regularity. Trying to translate this attention into tangible benefit.
Scene 2 The Conference: I analyse the mostly white crowd choosing to begin my presentation with a poem. It breaks the strange combination of commercial business interests and academic competitiveness that permeates the landscape architecture symposium. I discuss Indigenous knowledge of place and the need to weave natural forms back into the built environment. My attraction to this work comes from a desire to readdress the dominance of Anglo-centric design. Beneath this I’m anxiously trying to understand the complexity of growing up away from country and the geographic displacement that leads to the persistent feeling of un-belonging. Afterwards I meander awkwardly around the long table where lunch is served. Increasingly unsure what the endless cycle of conference presentations mean when an academic approaches me to discuss the connections between our research interests. She explains to me that she’s seventh generation Australian and her mother wasn’t afraid to shoot the rabbits. Her mother was a brave woman who stood for this land, fought for it. She carried a riffle because introduced species were a real concern. I start eating a Finger Lime spiced Barramundi slider, which tastes like a Macca’s Filet-O-Fish, trying to decide which session I should attend next. As I turn to leave the woman grabs my arm tightly and whispers that her sister recently did their family tree and they were always friendly with the local mob, even invited them in for cups of tea.
Scene 3 The Furniture: At home I order Ikea furniture online as if the present has no relationship to the future. In an empty apartment crisply white, history is as flimsy as the planning report that states that the property is impacted by:
- DEVELOPMENT CONTRIBUTIONS PLAN OVERLAY (DCPO)
- DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT OVERLAY (DDO)
- HERITAGE OVERLAY (HO)
- LAND SUBJECT TO INUNDATION OVERLAY (LSIO)
But according to the document no tangible or intangible Aboriginal cultural heritage sensitivity exists in the land parcel. The furniture arrives and I slowly assemble bar stools, bookshelves and industrial style modular kitchen units in a space that begins to resemble Cher Tan’s ‘Worldly Placelessness.’ A term she uses to describe a cultureless yet desirable vacuum where ‘cafes, bars and living spaces start to resemble one big franchise, mediated by digital connectivity.’ I wanted to trawl second hand furniture stores and flea markets in the hope of creating a unique sense of place while slightly reducing my environmental footprint. But realized that long working hours meant that I never made it to stores during opening hours and I could achieve a similar aesthetic through ordering furniture online. After carefully reconfiguring the miscellaneous objects into furniture empty cardboard boxes pile in the corner like a mound of detritus reminding me of the wastefulness I’m complicit within. A River Mint sits on a windowsill in a recycled planter box. A living organism, which survived colonization, re-orientates me to something real, where the truth lives beneath concrete and legislation. But in the living room, which at times mimics Scandinavian minimalism or urban cafe culture, it could be mistaken for any number of introduced plant species. On Gunai/Kunai country an elder explains to me that if we don’t modify our ways there will be no water by 2030. His message reverberates in my imagination as I draft emails to colleagues whose views are formed by Grattan Institute reports and ABS data. They’ve read Bruce Pascoe but struggle to see the planning system through an Indigenous cultural lens. I see a waterless city scarcely held together by leftover Ikea Allen keys but they see western civilizations continuing trajectory.
Scene 4 The Panel: I receive a thread of technical emails before a panel, where moderators and other panelists outline their position within the proposed topic: how cities and communities are experimenting with new form in collaboration with renowned design studios from Helsinki to Stockholm. Panel themes vary across the city, from intersectional feminist imaginings, blak futurisms and alternative legal systems, seducing audiences with visions of new living. But learning from European social design studios is surprisingly popular. I read the email carefully, noticing the subtle Western centric framing while developing my own argument or point of distinction, preparing thoroughly in proportion to the rate of pay. On some occasions, meetings are arranged prior to a panel. The length of the meeting and size of the meeting room is adjusted to the level of payment received and prestige of the institution hosting. Speaking engagements above $500 at flagship arts venues often involve svelte assistants whose primary role is to provide refreshments while panelists liaise in boardrooms to examine how the future only lasts for a moment in the cycle of trends against capitalism. Turning language into objects in the hope of soothing the anticipated audiences overwhelming fear of climate ruin. In the city people move freely between dialogical experiences where panels are curated across galleries, state libraries literary institutes and architecturally designed university halls. But in the cycle of deep discussion we only ever brush the edge of change.