Donald Horne’s epithet, “The Lucky Country” may have been ironic and the campaign slogan, “The Clever Country” may have been political hubris, but that Australia is indeed the ugly country, there can be little doubt.
From the necrotic sterility of outer suburbs, to the frenetic visual assault of arterial roads, where the harbingers of commerce demand homage to their jealous God; the automobile has moulded our built environment more convincingly than the people who designed both.
Motor vehicles are like the European occupation of this country: the more land that was ceded to them, evermore more was demanded. However, unlike indigenous Australian’s response to invasion, we have willingly accommodated these mechanical imperialists and their appetite for space. We don’t just fill our streets with them; we fill our homes as well. The double or even triple garage increasingly dominates our domestic architecture. Car parks, car yards, car accessory shops, petrol stations, wrecking yards, account for a significant share of our living space.
The contrast between the diverse and often stark beauty of this continent’s natural landscapes and the unsightly jumble of our built environment is profound; more than profound, it is unreasonable and invites reflection.
Whilst there are, undoubtedly, many factors behind the choices we have made, two come immediately to mind. The first is that we have never placed much value on land. Why should we? We have always had so much of it, why wouldn’t we use it?
“Hey Blue, how wide shall we make the main street?”
“Dunno……. 50 yards should do it.”
The other reason is that aesthetics are simply not a priority in our culture. We place much more importance upon economic imperatives and convenience. The obvious retort to this outrageous assertion is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is not the prerogative of an elitist aesthetic tyranny. A persuasive argument, but only to a point; which is that very few people decorate their living rooms with images of car yards or supermarket car parks, or freeway overpasses, the choking chaos of peak hour roads or even that suburban paradigm: the double garaged bungalow. Why not? Why are we more likely to find images of babbling brooks, itinerants camping under trees, bijou cottages to suit handyman? If we really admire the visual pollution that dominates our existence, why don’t we celebrate it rather than persist with a romantic nostalgia for less sophisticated vistas?
This admittedly harsh judgement is the consequence of a perspective that can only be observed from a considerable distance; say, …for example, France. The aesthetic manifest on French walls reflects a reality that is not very different to the one outside the window and this includes a disturbing number of photographs of bicycles.
Whilst France is certainly not immune to the various forms of urban blight suffered the world over, the bulk of the French people live in communities no larger than provincial market towns.* These communities tend to be quite old and very beautiful, but whether they are a tiny hamlet or a bustling industrial centre, an inordinate amount of effort is made to preserve both heritage and aesthetic values.
Cars are second-class citizens and enjoy few concessions from architecture or town planning; commercial signage is severely controlled and supermarkets, car yards and fast food outlets are relegated to the industrial estates, where they belong.
It would be easy to conclude that French towns are as they are, because of historical happenstance; that they are quaint anachronisms forced upon a deprived population. The reality is that the French take an immense pride in their culture, and great pleasure in the agreeable environments in which they more often than not live. The maintenance of this environment does not come cheap however. The financial cost and inconvenience of servicing and maintaining two, three or seven hundred-year-old architecture is enormous. In addition, there are the frustrations of living in a highly regulated and beaurocratised society which stifles the wilder flights of individual fancy.
We Australians have imbibed a rather different spirit, one that would churn unhappily in the belly of such a constrained society as France. We would decry the cost and resent the discomfort; much better to leave aesthetics where they belong, on the living room wall.
Australia? Pretty as a picture.
*NB. Although 76% of the French population live in urban areas, less than one third (approx 18 million) live in the 13 largest metropolitan areas. Of these, Paris dominates with nearly 10 million people. The remaining 47 million live in urban areas of less than 200,000 people.