What was Gustave Eiffel thinking when he built the tower bearing his name? You know, that metal skeleton that sits by the Seine in Paris on the Champ-de-Mars. It has stood there since 1889 visible from almost anywhere in Paris. What would happen if it disappeared for good? Would Paris still remain an iconic destination without it?
Initially Parisians hated it. At over 300 metres tall it is ridiculously out of scale with the dimensions of anything else in Paris. Stupidly the building we know does not even carry the name of its designers, Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier, or the engineers Stephen Sauvestre, that built it.
These opening comments are to take nothing from the builder of the tower. Gustave Eiffel had a well deserved reputation as a clever builder in steel. His ingenuity in building seemingly light buildings in steel was well established by the time he bought the rights to construct the tower. By then he had constructed many daring bridges that seemed to defy gravity. Building the tower was his last entrepreneurial effort as, for a time he was partially blamed for the collapse of the company building the Panama Canal. Eventually he was exonerated and spent the remainder of his life on scientific study, including wind tunnels and practical uses for the tower.
Each year the tower now attracts seven million visitors a year. It is the most popular single destination in the world and it has remained so long after the twenty years it was initially licensed to stand. By the time is was due to be removed it had become a favourite of Parisians.
Such is its popularity other cities around the world thought themselves important enough to have one too. Budapest, and other European cities have replicas. America boasts several. In Melbourne the Victorian National Gallery is wearing its second tower. The first one’s engineering failed. Neither of them pretended to be a replica but a tower was chosen to indicate the presence of the gallery among the Victorian buildings of the city. That hasn’t worked because the former height restrictions were lifted and now it is dwarfed by skyscrapers.
The Eiffel Tower is an impressive landmark but it was only built when the bare, practical lines of the design were altered with simple period embellishments. Koechlin’s first drawings were rejected possibly because the lines illustrated something far too practical – like a modern electricity pylon.
That is the difficulty with design, Stripped of all but practicality like something from the Bauhaus, where form follows function, the masses are quick to condemn utilitarian design. That is why simple design lines are often embellished to the point of ridiculousness.
This brings me to the motor car design of the Austin A90. I was ten when the Austin A90 Atlantic Sports Saloon was introduced. I thought it was the most beautiful flowing form ever to grace the roads. As soon as I could I visited the local car showrooms and was given a brochure of the vehicle. The brochure pictured a blue car in a rural scene.
The years fall off me as I remember the care I took to capture the lines and the details of this beautiful car. To keep me quiet Mum suggested I draw the car while she entertained her spinster guests, Miss Philpott and Miss Lucas, in the garden. I became so absorbed in what I was doing I forgot the task to draw was set as a diversion. My obsession was to recreate, in two dimensions the beauty I saw in the brochure,
The beautiful car is lost in history. Long ago I could see the over dressed nature of the design. Having used weekends cleaning our cars In the years since, I realised the impractical nature of its chrome features. The body had insufficient rust treatment and they rusted away like many post war English cars. To a point where very few of the cars now survive.
When it comes to iconic design of status – very vehicles few pass the test of time. Some say the Jaguar E class is one such car. However I do recall a one time lover of them saying how hard it was to turn the steering wheel without power steering so I suppose even great designs miss out on practical improvements.
Cars, of all types, changed the scale of the world last century. Before the mass use of cars people travelled infrequently. My great grandparents migrated to Australia from England by brigantine ship for economic reasons the century before. They were not unique but most people rarely ventured far from their place of birth before cars. As I observe, cars allowed more people to move about freely. By the end of last century they were so ubiquitous the sheer number of them clogged the roads in all corners of the world.
Tourism became a problem everywhere. France was no exception and a century after the Eiffel Tower was built the engineering capabilities of Eiffel were called upon to build the tallest bridge in France.
The Tarn valley in France became a bottleneck for traffic in the summer holiday season around the township Millau. This little village came to a halt when the domestic traffic got caught in the through traffic on the Larzac plateau each year.
So the French government spent decades deciding on how to keep the traffic flowing and not disturb the village life in the valley. This is how the company that first built the Eiffel Tower got the job of building the longest continuous steel bridge across a two and a half kilometre gap on concrete piers taller than the Eiffel Tower itself.
The story is long and it is not my intention to retell it here.
The other day it was very hot. Cook an egg on the roadway hot. It was a day the advice was, “Make sure you get plenty to drink today, it is going to be very hot.” Locals, and their holidaying couch – surfing friends, went to the beach. So many went there it was impossible to park the car within a kilometre of the shore.
Jac asked if I would drive the car to Cosy Corner, and drop everyone off to have a swim – and collect them all in an hour. This I gladly did. I couldn’t think of becoming desiccated on the sand myself. When I returned we saw a man helping his intoxicated partner to somewhere safer to sleep off the alcohol she had consumed. She had taken the radioed message to drink plenty the wrong way.
To find a man lying in the gutter dead drunk was a common sight in the 1950s. Six o’clock closing encouraged people who had worked all day to swill down as much beer as time allowed after work and before six. War babies like me saw this too often when we walked past the overcrowded, noisy pubs. We smelled the beery odour as it filled the air outside. Additionally we heard the rowdy arguments that spilled from the houses when the men returned home.
Janice was the last born in our family and she became one of the cohort called the baby boomers. This was the generation born after the war. They filled the houses. They filled the schools. By the end of the 1960s they entered the adult world, and they filled the jobs.
Their numbers continued to grow and by the mid 1970s they were the dominant crowd.
They had political power and they used it for their own betterment. They were dissatisfied with the status quo. They tore apart the rules of work. People were once promoted on their seniority. They changed that. They argued and got the right to free tertiary education. This time of prosperity meant they pushed for and got many other social benefits and they pushed back on tax and saw that constantly reduced as government liabilities grew in their wake. They didn’t exclude alcohol but they turned to psychedelic drugs, sex and rock- n – roll as their cultural expressions.
Here we are these many years later with the problems their policies have left behind. As the influence of this retiring group reluctantly diminishes a new world order is emerging. It is more terrifying than the influence of beer, and psychedelic drugs.
Throughout the world the world is turning to fundamentalism.
Speaking, as I do, as someone who grew up in a Judea-Christian tradition I can see this drift to fundamentalism plainly. Those familiar with the bible stories of Revelations see the signs of the forecast plagues; earthquakes, floods, fire and famine and have joined churches promoting , The Rapture. Their belief that in speaking in tongues it will deliver them from the perils before the world is their release. They have no need to do anything. God will solve their problems for them.
(If your belief is different you may recognise other fundamentalist traits. I cannot speak knowledgeably about them. All I can see is that is what has happened, particularly in the last half decade, is a right turn to fundamentalism.)
In my three articles – Time to set things right – I highlighted just three areas where I see capitalism has let us down. (My socialist attitudes on how society would work better if the state provided the services it once did may jar with you. Horribly as soon as people see the world socialist they think communism. (Are you one of those?)
I do not propose that at all. If the state looks after security – military services – other services like water, energy, health, housing for the needy, are just as important. These are the social things it needs to do. To do them it needs cash in the form of taxes to fix thing up.)
Back in 1978 Rod Goode and I introduced a new program in social science to teachers in the Ballarat Region. The course of instruction lasted a week. It was a big ask to get teachers to leave their classrooms for a week of introduction to the course of study. In time we saw all teachers from about 70 schools. In one session , through the week, we touched on the work of Viktor Frankl. I have borrowed this explanation of his work from Andy Forcena quoted in “The worst of all possible worlds” he wrote
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, the Psychologist Viktor Frankl posits the necessity of meaning for survival. As a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, he has a unique and first-hand perspective on suffering, horror, and evil. He notes that many of the prisoners who died in the camps (that is, those who weren’t executed outright) had lost all sense of meaning. For them, life was suffering, because they dwelt on their past experiences in the camps rather than cultivating a sense of hope for the future. Given their experiences, who could blame them for this? Frankl claims that he survived the camps because he stayed oriented towards the future, finding meaning in hope for a better tomorrow. This future-oriented outlook is inherent in all of the world’s major religions, whether the heaven of Christianity or the Noble Eightfold Path as a means to ceasing craving in Buddhism.
In my mind we have a choice. We can remain hopeful or despairing. I think it best to remain hopeful and not to give into fundamentalism. The world certainly has some intractable problems but they will not solved by fear or hatred.
I think it is best to turn to the philosophers. Like the major religions Frankl posits, they teach us not to fear and not to hate but to reason. We also have to keep our eyes and ears open and test whether we are getting fake news.
Thank you. Please take the opportunity to comment and give me a chance to broaden my mind.
When I started this blog I never thought one person would read the letters I touch to create the words and paragraphs I write. I did think my family might one day read my thoughts posthumously. Thus proving the nuffie they know actually was capable of them.
Today I reached the unexpected milestone of twenty strangers (19 of you) who have chosen to follow me. Remember I am not your leader but please continue to read my disjointed lines. You are helping me to write more meaningfully. Thank you.
Many year before the world read, or listened, to Alain de Botton or Kevin McLoud you had an interest in architecture. It started when you were at school and it was heightened when you commenced tertiary study. At that time you found the most effective way to study was to swot in the civic library because it was only a few block from your dorm.
But you are no swot and you were too easily distracted by the variety of books, and magazines available.. You spent too much time on those magazines; Architecture Today , and Design. So much that the intention to swot and assemble the information of the lectures of the day was forgotten. Perhaps it was your academic interest however you had the sense to recognise the limits of your poor record at school and you dabbled at the edges in these publications rather than commit to certain failure.
In the sixty years since then you have remained interested in good design and style as an interested bystander and you are incandescent with rage at what is happening.
The source of most fundamental of human rights is found in the UNHCR. On housing it states,
“The human right to adequate housing is more than just four walls and a roof. It is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity”
“I love you.” These were the first words spoken to me by a girl in grade 4. She said them as I walked around on playground duty on my first teaching round. (I am reminded of her words a few months short of sixty years ago.) The school was overflowing with children. I am now guessing the Tate St Primary School in East Geelong class had children from thirty different language groups then.
This child lived in an area of social housing. Geelong was an industrial hub for the greater western district of Victoria. The city was a distribution centre for wool, wheat, timber, oil refining, tractors, carpets and cars. Victoria was the centre of the country’s wealth in post WW11. Consequently it had an insatiable need for workers. These workers needed immediate housing, and the State stepped in to help.
The need for housing and classrooms was overwhelming. Holmesglen Technical School, later to become Holmesglen technical college, taught building. This place developed new building processes that enabled the government to quickly build new suburbs of social housing. East Geelong had its share of mid height brutalistic flats built in the Baurhaus style. It also built hundreds of independent bungalows of light timber construction and concrete kit homes.
The residents, from all corners of the globe, became the backbone of the country because they worked in repetitive factory jobs others rejected. It happened, regardless of their previous occupations, because an absence of skills in the English language held them back. The government took a small percentage of their wages as rent – so they quickly became financially secure as many families had both parents working. Some even worked two or more jobs.
What their suburbs did not have were centres for socialising. Life for our migrant cohort was relentless. It was isolating and this caused family disruption, and in time, social problems. Certain suburbs became notorious, are still notorious, for antisocial adult behaviour. (For instance, in Geelong people still think badly of Corio, Norlale)
That was yesterday. In the past government played a leading role in housing. It accepted it was best equipped to fill this basic need quickly. Times change – the government sold off much of its stock over the years. This was because most had become dated or uninhabitable. Once most Victorians (around 80% owned their own homes. The state, and some charities, now provided housing for around 3 – 3.5% of all housing. Alarmingly many people are homeless today.
The rental market is mainly in the domain of private investors. Government policy has allowed tax breaks for investors and they invest with self interested motives. Cheap rent is a thing of the past. Tenants have fewer rights than owners so many people pay big rents for unsuitable premises.
It has reached the stage the breaks given to investors have the effect of locking out new homeowners from old suburbs.
The upside is interest on loans have never been cheaper. The downside is the affordability is steeper. (Once a family could pay off principal and interest on a home loan in twenty years with the initial loan taking about 25 – 30% of the average weekly earnings. Today with at 20% deposit it will take 55 x-60% of the average weekly wage and 45 years to own a home.
Today a new home buyer can (usually) only buy a home in a distant suburb. Profit is the motive at every level of what comes next. This new suburb is the sole responsibility of a developer who has purchased a tract of farmland. Before any development starts the developer denudes the topsoil, installs drainage and basic infrastructure and commences a scheduled selloff of home allotments. The actual building is done by a bevy of selected national builders.
Despite all I read, all I understand is the motive remains profit. Although it is designed to become a new city unlike Corio or Norlane once were. It will take fifty years to assess whether it has worked any better than the government plan did years ago. Housing persons is a first right, nevertheless once they have a roof over their head they need to feel loved as that loveless child once made clear to me.
Armstrong is really just a dot on the map. Australia currently has hundreds of similar dots all over the country. Pick a city and it will be being developed this way.
Is the new way going to end with the horrific results of another Grenfell Tower Fire? Many of the buildings look fine but are they? Few if any meet the design factors the owners really want because the house they buy is a compromise of affordability and style.
Don’t get me started on (largely) unoccupied city towers that are basically vaults for the surplus capital of the wealthy. Capital has no interest in the unmeasurable things like style, structure, design and substance found in magazines like Architecture Today and Design.
If I had become an architect I would be like many of today’s architects. I would be caught trying to satisfy the greedy wants of my clients instead of the humble need for aesthetics.
Alain de Botton and Kevin McLoud have tried to teach us good architecture is worth the investment and not to count the cost of anything less.
Thanks for reading. Now please have your say. You can educate me to open my mind.