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Architects and their childhoods

The constructive influence of childhood on an architect’s design philosophy.

Is it possible to understand the relevance of childhood experience in relation to the development of an architect’s design and professional philosophy? The creation of Architecture is often attributed to a set of skills learnt during a formal program of education and the philosophy of an architect is often attributed to their schooling or apprenticeship; whether it is with another architect or within a particular architectural environment.  However, the development of an architect’s professional philosophy potentially begins much earlier with an image, an emotion or an experience from childhood. The accumulation of these experiences, be they architectural, social or environmental, forms the basis of what Malcolm Quantrill calls a person’s “environmental memory”.

The experiences of architecture that occur during childhood are often associated with the way in which a person senses a place and, as a result of this, much has been written about phenomenology and memory in relation to the formation of design theory. It is phenomenological experience that first starts to educate, shape and inform a designer while they are a child. Scholars argue that these childhood memories and images heavily influence the architectural direction taken in later life and will often inform the basis of a person’s professional philosophy: an architect may recall them to try to recreate a place that evoked an emotion or sense of place.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that phenomenology reveals our experience in a context and our more basic way of relating to some things is in a practical manner.   The experience of architecture as a child is phenomenological as our knowledge of the world is limited and so we experience a building or an environment in isolation. The experiences of childhood are stored as images, memories and atmospheres. Steven Holl, American architect and theorist, states that the experiences of childhood are the beginning point of the development of a pre-theoretical ground for architectural knowledge, inferring that the images and experiences the architect is exposed to as a child become the basis for an architect’s professional philosophy.

British architect and theorist Malcolm Quantrill, in his 1987 text The Environmental Memory, discusses the significance of these images a person stores and suggests that childhood is the starting point for the development of what he terms an “environmental memory”.  The significance of childhood manifests itself in the formation of an architect’s “environmental memory”; memory begins in our first room, we climb into it on our first stair, we nourish it with views from our first window. Images of these beginnings of consciousness are the basis for our dreams and aspirations…environmental memory begins in our first house, our first field, our first street and library. [i]

Individual architects have been discussed with regard to the way in which their childhood experiences have shaped their architecture in a way which recalls Quantrill’s ‘environmental memory’. Australian architectural critic and author Philip Drew records that for architect Glenn Murcutt, it was the similarities between the landscape of the Upper Watut and the Maria River at Crescent Head which awakened slumbering memories from his childhood and thereby contributed a powerful tropical character to the Marie Short house.

Glenn Murcutt is an Australian architect who is internationally renowned for his environmentally sensitive designs which have a distinctively Australian character. Immediately after his birth to the age of five, Murcutt lived in the coastal area of the Morobe district of Papua New Guinea, which in the 1930’s was both primitive and somewhat dangerous. Murcutt talks of the environment of his childhood:

[I] grew up in the highlands of New Guinea on the Upper Watut River. The lower end of the highlands, a very wild place with huge grasslands of Kuni grass, huge rainforests. […] We lived amongst the Kuka Kuka people, now known as the Manyamia people. […] at that time, fearsome people. And they actually attacked – now, at the time, we thought this was just terrible – and they killed”[ii]

This environment of his childhood is depicted in Arthur Murcutt’s photograph of Murcutt’s childhood home in Papua New Guinea, Figure 1.

Figure 1: Arthur Murcutt’s house on the Upper Watut, N.G., January 1936

Murcutt attributes his approach to architecture and his association with nature to his childhood in Papua New Guinea and Australia.[iii] Murcutt often refers to ideas similar to Quantrill’s concept of the “environmental memory” throughout his design processes, attributing his sensitivity towards the site and environment to his childhood education of place. Murcutt talks about the experiences, observations and lessons taken from the environment during his childhood as being with him for the rest of his life, and how this understanding of place has guided him in the design of his architecture.[iv]

The significance of Papua New Guinea is explained by American architect and academic Steven Holl as he explores the idea that sense perception is the basis for knowledge.[v] The degree of influence Papua New Guinea has had on Murcutt can not be measured in numerical terms, however it must be thought of as part of his basic understanding of space and architecture.

When looking at Murcutt’s varying projects it is not uncommon to wonder about the similarities between a Murcutt house and the Australian vernacular, however Murcutt rejects that this “provides any sort of formal model for his homes” which opens the discussion of the inspiration and design of many of his buildings.[vi] It is Philip Drew who draws the parallel between the Papua New Guinean long houses and Murcutt’s designs.[vii] He suggests that Murcutt has inherited the “striking combination of primitive and cultivated or refined qualities in the same building” from the buildings of his childhood. These similarities are obvious in the depiction of the long houses in Figure 2 and the Marie Short house, Figure 3.[viii]

Figure 2: PNG Long Houses

This project, the Marie Short House in Crescent Head, NSW clearly articulates Murcutt’s design philosophy and high regard for the Australian environment. The Marie Short  is considered a turning point of Murcutt’s architecture and the beginning of an identity for Australian architecture.[ix] Drew suggests that the Marie Short House “initiated a primitive treatment of form, a Miesian hut” of Australian architecture, this is echoed by Francoise Fromonot who describes the Marie Short House as “cross fertilization between an essentially modernist architecture […] borrowing from vernacular building”.[x]

Figure 3: Marie Short House

The influence of Murcutt’s childhood “environmental memory” can be traced through the site and climate specific building solutions of the Marie Short House. This building responds to the site through the simple use of limited and practical materials in a way that accommodates the natural environment. This attitude towards practicality and minimal decoration is similar to the vernacular long houses of Papua New Guinea, Drew discusses the “new conception of the house, […] a lightweight pavilion lifted off the ground and open along the sides [being …] closely related to a Pacific Island hut or tent”.[xi] These long houses are elevated simple long rectangular huts with steeply pitched saddle back roofs. The roofing and walls are traditionally made from thatched Kunai grasses and more recently corrugated iron. (see Figure 2)

One of the most interesting aspects of the building is its location on the crest of the land far away from the protection of any trees or other natural elements. The building sits exposed and visible to all aspects of the site. It can be argued that Murcutt’s fear of the dark and residual fear of attack lead him to place the building in the location of the site which had the best vantage point. Murcutt describes the Kuka Kuka people of Papua New Guinea snaking through the Kunai grasses, signaling trouble for his family, “it gave me a sense of fear, all my childhood, the evening, the darkness was when it would strike. And that fear lasted a long time”.[xii] Murcutt says it was only recently, when he returned to Papua New Guinea, that his fear was overcome.

Murcutt’s fear is explained by Heidegger who writes about the phenomenology of place and environment being attributed to the experience of a ‘thing’, in this case the feeling of insecurity and fear, exposing itself to a person.[xiii] He suggests that the phenomenological experience of childhood is powerful enough to carry itself throughout life despite the length of time exposure. Pallasmaa writes that there is a central theme in architecture, “the unconscious fear of death, or the fear of the insignificance of life”; this fear is evident in Murcutt’s design as he deliberately places the Marie Short house on the part of the site with the best vantage point.[xiv] These two views rationalize the significance of Murcutt’s childhood fear on his design philosophy.

Murcutt’s childhood is a significant influence on his design Pallasmaa and Heidegger make clear how the events of one’s childhood can have an unconscious impact on a person. One thing to note about Murcutt, the Marie Short house and his design philosophy, is that he does not consciously look to his childhood for inspiration; it is embedded in his being.

The influence of his life in Papua New Guinea, although short in duration, has clearly had a significant impact on Murcutt, partially rejecting Quantrill’s proposition that “[a]n environmental framework is not only one of space and form, it is also one of time: […] the environmental memory depends upon a “time exposure”.[xv] The siting of the Marie Short house is an emotional response to an experience from childhood which has manifested itself in his design philosophy. Murcutt’s use of “environmental memory” does support Quantrill’s theory in respect of the idea that a single “environmental memory” holds something that appeals to emotion, the fear of being attacked; and something that appeals to reason, the siting of the Marie Short house in the position where the chance for survival is highest.[xvi]

For Murcutt there is a strong and direct connection with his childhood, it is an unconscious knowledge of place and architecture which comes through in his design. For Murcutt there is some conscious knowledge of the influence his childhood is having on a specific design project, Pallasmaa concurs with this idea stating that “our actions are neither accidental nor arbitrary; they contain both conscious and subconscious motives”.[xvii]


[i][xv][xvi] Quantrill, 1987. The Environmental Memory

[ii] Murcutt, Glenn 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads, (Australian Broadcasting Company, Aired June 2nd)

[iii][viii][xi] Drew, 1985. Leaves of Iron

[iv][xii] Murcutt, 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads

[v] Holl, 1996. “Pre-theoretical Ground”

[vi] Farrelly, E. M. 1993. Three Houses: Glenn Murcutt

[vii] Of interest is the fact that Murcutt threatened to sue Drew over the misrepresentation of facts in Drew’s Leaves of Iron publication, however as Murcutt had approved the copy nothing eventuated.

[ix][x] Fromonot, 2003. Glenn Murcutt: Buildings and Projects

[xiii] Heidegger, 1993. Building, Dwelling, Thinking

[xiv][xvi] Pallasmaa, 2001. “The Mind of the Environment”

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Bricolage and the Open Toolbox of Culture

This brief bipartite sojourn is a story about the peculiar nature of one of the most commonplace (yet subversive) forms of visual culture and artistic production: collage. It goes without saying that it’s a common tool amongst the creative literacy of artists / designers / illustrators / musicians / writers, however when one drills a bit deeper, it appears that this very human form of artistic representation and production has more to it than meets the eye. The first part is specific art-historical snapshots (as a bit of background) before arriving at the heart of the matter.

Part 1: Bricolage: Assemblage and Collage

In the case of Dadaist artists and poets, the protagonists were a mere handful of people committed to the same umbrella purpose of protesting against the mass carnage of the first world war – by exposing society’s moral decay as a form of political radicalism. Dada was essentially a movement that was anti-art, as it attempted to reduce the process of creating art to the primacy of spontaneous activity or stream of consciousness thought in order to mock or ridicule as an assault on established conventions in society.

Instead of just deploring the war, the Dadaists took an ideological stand. Theirs was an assault on the complacency of their audience, an introduction of chaos into a life in which mass slaughter was being carefully undertaken by warring nations. The movement was founded in 1916 in Zurich, a neutral city in the middle of a war-torn Europe, by a group of exiles from countries on both sides of the conflict. Some were draft dodgers; most were pacifists; all found refuge on Swiss soil and were outraged by the slaughter-taking place on all sides. The centerpiece for all this artistic activity was called the Cabaret Voltaire, which was founded by Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings.

Dadameise

Some two months later, under circumstances about which the participants themselves have never agreed, the name “Dada” was chosen for the movement, which was growing out of the cabaret’s activities. The most popular version of the story is that the word was picked at random by Richard Huelsenbeck from a French-German dictionary after sticking a knife into it[1]. This assault on logic by Huelsenbeck was to typify the chaotic process in which the artists used to create their work. As Tristan Tzara had revealed, the word ‘Dada’ has various meanings across a number of different languages; it’s most common usage derived from French, which is a child’s name for a hobbyhorse.

It would be hard for us to find much that was overtly political in the early Dada performances and publications, but from the beginning the movement dedicated itself to attacking the bourgeois cultural values of the time, which its members believed had led to the world war. The tools for this attack, radical at the time, are familiar to us all as the most basic concepts of the modern arts, which are: chance, collage, abstraction, audience confrontation, eclectic typography, sound and visual poetry and simultaneity. This was attempted through experimenting with automatism, modern technology, anarchism, oriental philosophy, Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian psychoanalysis, eroticism, Marxist dialectics, (investigations into truths of philosophy by systematic reasoning) as well as many other approaches. Essentially Tristan Tzara’s ambitions were nihilistic in nature, as they involved the abolition of all traditions. Some would argue that he was utopian in his beliefs, as he may have thought that all of these efforts ‘may wipe the slate’ clean so to speak, as a form of political liberation.

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Turkish Mockbusters from the 80’s!

I was first introduced to the genre of Turkish blockbuster spin-off movies by a French friend – a mustachioed punk rocker who worked as a blacksmith in Southern France.  He also displayed a penchant for good humor and bad taste. To be precise, doom-metal and sludge-core which he deemed to be the heaviest and slowest music around; his aunt’s extreme chilli sauce which he treated like a dangerous explosive weapon (“just one drop will do, and no more”); and of course C-grade and exploitation movies from the the Philippines, Turkey and everywhere in-between.  This guy was not a man of half measures, and his passions were many.  On one of our occasional swap-meets of strange music and stranger films he gave me a copy of Turkish Star Wars and warned: “It’s so bad it’s good!”  He is also a man that does not lie.

This was my awakening to the world of Turkish films and sequels bent on riding the wave of popular 80’s Hollywood films. Turkish Star Wars (otherwise known as The Man Who Saves the World) crudely moves between original scenes of the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star, before cutting to low budget shots of desert monsters in cardboard suits and tin foil alien-bots fighting what can only be assumed as Turkish-styled Jedi.   To accompany the blatant use of the Indiana Jones soundtrack is a ridiculous plot that confuses the ‘hard-to-understand’ with ‘makes-no-sense-whatsoever’.

Turkish Superman’s low budget and god-awful special effects transform the hero in to a pervy strongman who prefers to go it on foot more than fly (to cut costs of course).  The fight scenes render him more like a stone cold Terminator than an agile superhero.  The film’s plot ends up featuring more kidnappings, henchmen, and suspense than you would otherwise expect.  It’s a story where the villain makes that painful mistake of setting up a trap for the hero, revealing his plans, and then not sticking around to make sure he is successfully exterminated.  With this in mind it would only make good sense to use that spy vs spy tune off the James Bond soundtrack.

Years later I am still making my way through the psychedelic world of these foreign fakes and movie mash ups.  The range is extensive.  The content hilarious.  Recommended for summer mooching. These films are a friendly reminder that the world is not so boring and that strange and colorful things can emerge out of every circumstance.

If you don’t know where to start, I’ve made some recommendations for you to begin your journey.

 

Turkish Star Wars (The Man Who Saves the World)
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7069307816427160377

 

Turkish Superman

 

Turkish Rambo
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMnSX4lmbdk

 

Turkish Star Trek

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7185067049150068960

 

Turkish Exorcist

 

 

 

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Civility and Food Trade

The recently proposed food bill and its consequent public backlash have once more reasserted how important the basic trade and distribution of delicious goods is to society. The general concern being that small scale food growing and trade operations will be hindered. More than this, it also inadvertently hurts the community sub groups which cluster around such operations. For me, things like community gardens aren’t just about growing some food to cut down your food bill, or taking on knowledge from green-fingerd gurus (as important as these things are), but also largely about forming small collectives around something which is central to our existence.

Things like growing and trading food are examples of what Italian architect Aldo Rossi called fixed activities. They are activities that have always existed in cities and always will due to their primary importance in sustaining the dense populations who reside in cities. It is no coincidence that food trade spaces were also the seat of political and festive life (i.e civic life) in ancient cities.

Allowing simple bottom up food trade to continue is of importance for cities to have the kind of public and civic life which nurtures sub groups within the greater collective of a city. It seems when the government considers the laws which govern how we grow and trade food they give very little thought to how food features in the public life of our cities. The city, in a sense, is what it eats.

The following extract is from a masters thesis I wrote last year on the topic of food trade infrastructure with a particular focus on urban markets and supermarkets and how these as urban typologies give form to cities and its public life. This particular piece looks at the links between civility and food trade space.

Hopefully it exhibits how food growth and trade is important to the public life of the city. Furthermore, I hope it will highlight that to over regulate something as elemental to society as food growth undermines bottom up initiatives which generate important variety within our civic world.

Without further ado…..

 

 

Civility and Food Trade

A lot of our public institutions – public libraries, public transportation, public parks and recreation

centres – are only partly for the sake of looking after those who couldn’t afford those services left on their

own. They are also traditionally sites for the cultivation of a common citizenship, so that people from

different walks of life encounter one another and so acquire enough… sense of a shared life that we can

meaningfully think of one another as citizens in a common venture.”1

 

From the above passage we can ascertain the faceted role that public institutions have in cities. These kinds of infrastructures have always hosted the practices of public life: they are the vital organs of cities.

Common ground is vital to fostering a sense of community for collectives, yet somehow food trade structures slip out of that circle of common ground when they take the form of supermarkets.

Due to factors such as market initiatives (intentional removal of the social dimension from the first self-service food stores to cut overhead costs), morally questionable atmospheric conditions (intentionally cold interiors to

push customers through faster), consumer demand for convenience (once a week bulk shopping supported by private motorcars) and monopolisation of the food cycle (companies controlling multiple stages of food industry from production to sales) food has receded from the public forum. So strange for something so vital to the existence of cities.

Food is presented to us like we are consumers, rather than citizens in a community:

“…the time may be right for a new kind of politics – a politics of the common good. What might such a

politics look like? Unlike market-driven politics, a politics of the common good invites us to think of

ourselves less as consumers, and more as citizens… when we deliberate as citizens, when we engage in

democratic argument, the whole point of the activity is critically to reflect on our preferences, to question

them, to challenge them, to enlarge them, to improve them.”2

 

Citizenship engenders coming together as strangers with awareness that the collective share a common destiny in the quality of the city and its society. Yet market driven societies and their cities have disconnected private life from public. That is not to say public life has ceased to be important, but the chemistry between public and private has been altered:

Today public life has become a matter of formal obligation…The stranger himself is a threatening

figure, and few people can take great pleasure in that world of strangers, the cosmopolitan city…We have

tried to make the fact, of being in private…an end in itself…to know oneself has become an end, instead

of a means through which one knows the world…Masses of people are concerned with their single life histories and particular emotions as never before; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation.”3

 

How we act impersonally to each other as strangers is just as important as how we maintain personal relationships with those closest to us. Food space has always offered a fertile forum for such interactions – markets, restaurants, bars, cafes, street vendors – these are venues in which strangers have happily coexisted:

These establishments also straddled the boundary between public and private, with chambers available

for more than culinary pleasures… Condemned by moralists as the haunts of drunken men and

disrepute women, cafes actually became a place for workers to socialize and for families to spend a quiet

evening; Balzac described them as the “parliament of the people.””4

 

Unfortunately supermarkets don’t offer such exchanges. The space of supermarket shopping can offer stressful conditions, the bringing together of people in these privatised commercial circumstances is reminiscent of the interactions experienced by motorists in overly congested streets.

The intentional curtailing of any activity except shopping ensures the separation of the supermarket from the civic sphere, yet common supermarket typologies assert themselves as prominent nodes in the urban fabric. The business of supermarkets gains every economical benefit of this exchange but offers little in return.

Fixed activities such as food trading and the sites they occupy are ideal places for individuals to come together as citizens in a common venture. This is not to imply that every food shop must be accompanied by political discussion, but that such an opportunity might exist: this would also provide the opportunity for bottom up community activity ranging in scale from sub groups to the greater city collective.

Creating public space for the sake of creating public space can often result in its emptiness and lack of activity. Historically and currently, citizens frequent public realms in the search for an event. Events which may be minor or major in scale, casual or formal in tone. The joy of coming upon unsolicited events is one of the defining virtues of dwelling in cities, and one that food markets historically accommodated, they engender suitable grounds for the cultivation of civility. The need for this cultivation is question of moral significance, and one that the compelling economical efficacy of supermarkets has crowded out. If we are to truly value food we need to reassert its moral significance with its presence in civic space, not as an economical commodity housed in privatised conditions.

 

1 Sandel, Michael. Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizeship ? Lecture 1: Markets and Morals. Transmission on 9th

of June, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kt7rg.

2 Sandel, Michael. Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizeship ? Lecture 4: A New Politics of the Common Good.

Transmission on 30th of June, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kt7rg.

3 Sennett, pg. 3?5. The Fall of Public Man. Published by Cambridge University Press, London, 1974.

4 Pilcher, Jeffery M., Food in World History, pg. 65.

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A nation of sheep?

It has been a fantastic year for unoriginal ideas. First Wellywood, then Happy Feet, and most recently Sonny Wool – the psychic sheep who predicts the winner of Rugby World Cup matches. Could somebody please just hurry up and sue us for plagiarism?

There once was a time when we were proud of our creativity – our ‘no. 8 wire spirit’. From splitting the atom, to jet boats, to medical respirators, New Zealand boasts a long history of science and discovery that has really put ‘kiwi ingenuity’ on the world map. Looking back, I see the likes of Richard Pearse, Burt Monroe and John Britten, all of whom took on and beat the world with extraordinary creations from the humble back sheds of their quarter acre sections. I think we can agree that invention and innovation form an important part of who we are as New Zealanders. Given recent events, however, I feel we could now be on the brink of losing this long standing emblem of cultural pride.

But rather than despair that Hollywood does want to sue us for plagiarism, or that sheep-shagger jokes are now being augmented with straight-out sheep jokes, I recently decided to jump ship and embrace our unoriginality. Once I did, a world of possibilities opened up before my very eyes. Indeed, I soon realised that New Zealand has something quite unique staring it in the face just waiting to be harnessed and tapped. Something so unique, in fact, that it has the potential to put New Zealand right back in the driver’s seat as a world leader in its chosen field. This idea has been quietly brewing for several years now, but it wasn’t until I read of Sonny Wool that the penny finally dropped. Are you ready for it? I propose… that New Zealand become a world leader of unoriginal ideas.

Think of the possibilities! We could become a tourist hotspot of unoriginality! People would come from all over the world to see what we copied next.

But can we achieve such a lofty target? In consideration of the Wellywood, Happy Feet, Sonny Wool trifecta, I suggest that we are already well on track. That being the case, only minimal financial investment will be needed to turn this vision into a reality. Plus, that money we do invest will multiply many times over in return due to increased tourism.

Of course, before we can start making grandiose claims about being the world leader, we will first need to develop our unoriginal infrastructure. On top of our already existing exact replica of Stonehenge in the Wairarapa, I figure we’ll need three more attractions. Here are my suggestions. One: the Golden Straight Bridge – we build a suspension bridge across the Cook Straight. Two: the Leaning Tower of Hamilton. Three, and this will be the most expensive and politically divisive: Palmerston North, Venice style – we flood the streets of Palmerston North so that people can commute by boat.

To a large extent, our choice of attractions will determine the success or failure of our strategy. But that is not all that will be required. To complete the transition to a nationwide culture of unoriginality will require a firm resolve and a steely-eyed determination to dumb ourselves right down. As we have proved to be quite a smart bunch in the past, we will have to really go for the throat – or the brains, as it were – of our nation.

But what does this mean in practice?

Much of our nation’s brains reside in the scientific research institutions scattered about the country. If we want to harness our unoriginality, we are going to have to stop those pesky scientists from coming up with their new and interesting ideas. In short, we will need a publicly funded science and innovation (S&I) system that stifles the creative spirit and hinders innovation and invention. Now, anyone familiar with the level of discontent our scientists hold towards the S&I system since Rogernomics will be well aware that our system is actually not too far from this already.

The success or failure of our publicly funded S&I system is, to a large extent, dependent on the decisions of the Government which, it seems, could swing in either direction. On the one hand, it appears the Government is opposed to unoriginality and is instead tracking towards a more effective S&I system. Actions such as the establishment of the Ministry of Science and Innovation; the development of a national science and innovation strategy; the appointment of a Chief Science Adviser; and incentives that recognise outstanding achievements in science will all shift us closer to that vibrant, collaborative model that would see us truly realise our intellectual potential.

On the other hand, there are still several aspects of our publicly funded S&I system that foster unoriginality and hinder creativity. The following list is informed by two open letters from hundreds of scientists to the Government; informal interviews with scientists and scientific stakeholders; literature review; and unpublished research from the Sustainable Future Institute in Wellington. There are five key aspects of our S&I sector that will see unoriginality prevail.

First (and most importantly, in my humble opinion), the competitive funding model that pits scientists against scientists in a desperate scramble for scarce research funds. Instead of a culture of sharing and collaboration between the greatest minds of our country, scientists protect their ideas from each other like precious bullion.

Second, investment of public funds in S&I remains low compared to the OECD average.

Third, instead of doing what scientists do best – science – our best scientists waste vast amounts of precious time filling out tiresome forms to meet the requirements of public research funding proposals. The Foundation of Research Science and Technology (FoRST) weren’t nicknamed the Foundation of Really Serious Timewasting without reason.

Fourth, the commercial imperative of the Crown Research Institute Act 1992 that requires CRIs to make a profit each year.

Fifth, a lack of opportunity for postdoctoral scientists due to the replacement of FoRST-funded Postdoctoral Scholarships with the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships. Couple this with low overall postdoctoral funding, and you have two important elements of the ‘brain drain’.

To recap, New Zealand is poised between two futures: a return to the creative spirit and a re-establishment of our no. 8 wire culture; or forward to a loud and proud future of unoriginality and mediocrity. I’m all for unoriginality! Who’s with me?

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Children, theatre, death and climate change

I recently went to see The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, an award-winning one-man children’s show that blends puppetry, multimedia, animation, technology, projection, and live and recorded music.

Alvin Sputnik tells the tale of one man’s journey to save a post-apocalyptic world in which rising sea levels have killed billions of people, Those who are left live in a sort of uber-Venice, where farms perch precariously on top of skyscrapers and their inhabitants sit on their verandas and fish the seas all day long. Scientists have tried everything to ‘save’ the earth: floating islands (sank), space-probing the universe for inhabitable planets (we are alone), giant sponges (rotting), chemically altering sea salt (epic fail). In a last effort they believe there may be a ‘second earth’ inside the earth’s core, an idea reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The scientists recruit crusaders to journey into the sea and activate a volcanic eruption that they believe will force the second earth to the surface.

“Many of you will die,” the brave crusaders are told by their Commander; “In fact, you will all probably die, but that is a risk I am willing to take.”

Alvin signs up as a crusader, so that he may swim in search of the soul of his dead wife, which, represented by a bobbing light globe, has slipped into the sea and down into its depths, away from Alvin’s life.

Alvin Sputnik is cute and funny – a little foam ball atop of the puppeteer’s hand, with fingers for limbs. He can swim, walk, dance, hug, and even do the moonwalk – he is the perfect hero for a children’s show.

And yet, despite the charm of the central character, the issues this show is dealing with are profound, particularly given its status as a children’s show: climate change and the extinction of much of the world’s population, the death of a loved one, the continued living presence of a soul, the self-sacrifice of an individual, and lack of acceptance of death of a loved one.

One of the interesting things about attending artistic shows with children (and live theatre certainly has more resonance here than a pre-recorded film) is that they have not developed a ‘theatre-etiquette’ of behavioural rules while watching a show. As such, they often vocalise feelings and questions which most adult-going audience members internalise. Normally, I find vocalisation from audiences frustrating and distracting (self-entitling and self-righteous members of artistic institutions, complaining or doddering elderly, or too-cute children) but in this instance I was fascinated to see how much of the youthful audience (about one third of which was under the age of ten) responded to these themes.

I was particularly moved by a small boy sitting behind me – let’s call him Tom, for the sake of ease.

At one point Alvin rows from house to house, trying to find the scientist’s headquarters. Tom asks, “where is that”, to which his mother replies, “that is earth”. “What is earth?” “That’s where we live.” “Why is there so much water Mummy?” “It’s just pretend, honey.”

Although really, with the ever-present and increasingly-accepted reality of climate change, island states preparing for their eventual submersion, and the creation of new human rights laws to deal with environmental refugees, how much of this story really will be just pretend by the time these audience members have grown up?

Further questions arose from Tom as to why Alvin is crying, what the bobbing light is and how it relates to Alvin’s wife. The mother explains that the light is the soul of Alvin’s wife, but that although the soul continues to live, Alvin’s wife herself is really dead. “It’s just pretend,” the mother repeats.

Tom’s response perfectly captures way art can blur the boundaries between what is real, what is ‘pretend’, what is a depiction of what is real, and how to tell the difference between these, or indeed whether there even is a clearly defined difference.

How confusing would it be, at eight-odd years of age, to discriminate between an alive person, a dead person, and an alive soul; an earth where we live that is simultaneously a pretend version of where we live; and why you would accept to go on a mission in which you will probably die.

Probably, at eight years of age, many of these concepts are beyond one’s immediate comprehension. While I am no psychologist, I would hope that recollections from this performance would perhaps be stowed away for future grappling, or as reference points for the inevitable dawning realisation of the meaning and impacts of death.

There have been many studies and documentation about the role of entertainment to educate children about death, and in particular the reaction children have toward death in Disney movies. Certainly in my own experience I have vivid memories of crying profusely during Bambi at the point in which Bambi’s mother dies, and of the relevance it had for me in coming to understand that my own mother would one day die too. I remember that it was not the way that Bambi’s mother dies (spoiler: she is shot) that particularly got to me, but rather the very extended amount of time it takes Bambi to realise that his mother has been shot. He thinks his mother is also escaping with him, running just behind him, and is elated upon reaching a hiding place. When he turns around to share his excitement with his mother it seems an age before he finally comes to realise that his mother is dead.

While I was doing some research for this blog I re-watched this scene in Bambi, and his dawning realisation only lasts for a couple of minutes. Nonetheless, to me as a child the points of realisation appeared to take forever: the mix of excitement at reaching safety, of the expectation of sharing a feeling of happiness with your mother, the confusion at the absence of your mother, the excruciatingly slowly dawning awareness of what has happened, and that he must come to his own realisation without the guidance of another loved one. It was that slow and detailed process of Bambi’s realisation which really hit home on the reality of death and what kind of an impact losing your mother could have. In fact, from the research that I did it, Bambi and The Lion King are costantly referenced as the two hardest-hitting Disney shows for young audiences, and which seem to have most resonance for those in their twenties. All of which is to say, that entertainment and performance has a crucial role to play in educating children about the reality and inevitability of death.

While much of this post is a review of Alvin Sputnik, I particularly wanted to explore the importance of performances such as this for children: not only to understand the reality of death, but also its educative and preparatory value in exposing children to the reality of climate change, the changes that may happen to the planet, the ceasing of the earth as we know it, and the deaths which are likely to occur as a result of this change.

It seems to me that in a world in which the extent of climate change is still much debated, and in which at a political level the establishment of measures to mitigate climate change is glacially slow (pardon the pun), it is really in the arts and in performances such as this, particularly those which reach a young audience, in which education about and preparation for the reality of climate change is able to happen. This will hopefully make some difference to the way humanity develops response measures during this coming generation’s life-time.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is created and performed by Tim Watts. It is a Weeping Spoon Production, currently produced by the Perth Theatre Company.

http://www.weepingspoon.com/AlvinSputnik/Welcome.html

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a-Pathetic

In a weekend of depressing news, the discovery that around 1 million New Zealanders failed to cast a vote on Saturday really takes the cake, no matter your political persuasion. So many attempts have been made to get to the bottom of voter apathy and yet no single explanation seem capable of shedding light on the phenomenon. Certainly in this election it can be assumed that the surety of National’s success and Labour’s demise kept some people away, thinking their vote would make little difference either way.

I must also not be alone in despairing at the almost complete lack of political coverage during the Ruby World Cup, save for the odd scandal or new polling data. From memory it wasn’t until the Wednesday following the nail-biting final that a combination of grinning jocks and slippery handshakes disappeared from the front page news, to be replaced by the sudden realisation that the election was a mere six weeks away. Is the turnout so surprising when so few could muster the energy to talk politics over the deafening roar of rugby fever?

Young people have come under even more fire for their particularly dismal turnout, an outcome that the Electoral Commission sought to avoid with its campaign to highlight the low enrolment rate of 18-24 year olds. In 2005 the Commission released a research document on young peoples engagement in political life, finding that a combination of disengagement, naivete, and distrust prevented young non-voters from making an effort. While there is not much to be done about the percentage who thought harder about the weekend than they did about their future, the dismaying revelations that many of those surveyed felt that making no choice was better than making the wrong one (or an ill-informed one) speaks to the scale of the problem.

Veteran commentator Brian Edwards had a thing or two to say on the subject earlier in the election cycle, making a strong case for the relationship between apathy and the glaring lack of civics education in the New Zealand high school curriculum . Having tutored first year politics, I can attest to the astonishing lack of knowledge that many of my fresh-out-of-school students displayed about elections, parliament and the whole democratic shebang. Many were eager to learn but it was certainly an uphill battle for those coming from a position of surprising ignorance. For the vast majority who don’t take a path through law or politics, that basic political education may never arrive. This year’s double whammy election choice (parliamentary and electoral system) may have been the final straw for those who feel overwhelmed by the many choices before them, and perhaps we can’t blame them.

Even as someone who was always going to vote, some of the commentary on this years electoral contests was off-putting to the point of nausea. Specifically, the ‘Battles’ between so-called blokes (John Key and Phil Goff) and babes (Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye, in Auckland Central). It’s almost too depressing to dissect. Key and Goff’s attempts to ‘man up’ – recalling fist fights, revealing an unlikely love of Tui, claiming superior navigation skills –
merely reveal the tragic absurdity of the bloke stereotype. As Marianne Bevan over at Eleven Hours Ahead pointed out, these ‘real men’ which our would be PM’s are desperately trying to mimic never really existed. Moreover, their attempts to buy into this outdated cultural trope serve only to entrench the most harmful stereotypes for men that do linger- be strong, be the everyman, don’t think too hard about anything. Or else. It is difficult to back up my suspicion that few, if any, New Zealanders respond well to this kind of targeted pandering. Even if they did, there is zero justification on the part of both the leaders and the media for promoting the bullshit values that bloke culture perpetuates, at the expense of a legitimate discussion on real challenges that face the nation.

On the flipside, Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern seem to be doing their best to rise above the tidal wave of insulting references to babes, jelly wresting and their martial status’ that have featured so prominently in coverage of their electorate. One particularly appalling article by Johnathon Milne at the Listener insisted their good grooming obviously meant they were vying to out-babe each other, and the only reason he was writing the article (and why we read it) was because the candidates were both young and attractive. And we wonder why female candidates still only make up 33% of Parliament?

Dodgy attempts to generate political controversy are not new. Nor, obviously, are double standards: me strong, you sexy. But let’s not pretend that by accepting shitty reporting and lazy stereotyping we aren’t doing more and more to turn off young people (and old, for that matter) from a crucial process that does so little to include them as is.

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Why I’m voting Green in the New Zealand Election.

(Disclaimer: I’ve been doing a small amount of unpaid volunteer work for the Green Party this election.)

In less than one week in New Zealand us citizens get the chance to share in the once-every-three-year opportunity to action on democratic right to vote. This is important. Representational democracy has lots of problems and is far from perfect, but if nothing else it plays a critical rule in ensuring we don’t ever have to live in a dictatorship.

Compared to going out and ‘doing good things’ in the world around you, voting probably isn’t the most important democratic thing we do. But it is the most symbolic, and like the occupy protests occurring around the world, you somewhat lose your moral right to have an opinion if you don’t participate.

There is a bunch of freedom’s that we have and often forget about, one of these is the freedom to express political views. I think in New Zealand political discussion is treated a bit like religion, something we avoid so as not to accidentally offend. Today, I’d like to use this freedom to write about why I am voting Green.

I’m deeply suspicious of branding, and the green brand is like any other in that one needs to scratch beneath the nice posters, smiling politicians, and nice niceness that branding creates. The Greens are a made of people whose reason for getting into politics is because they give a fuck about certain issues and since these issues are the volition, the reason for them acting, they continue to take precedent. A journey with the Green Party has never been a journey to the seats of power so the lure of ‘being-on-the-end-of-the-phone’ is a lot less powerful. So, yes the Green brand is a brand, but fortunately when this is brand is examined there is a healthy depth of knowledge and policy below the surface.

There are three policy that important for me at the moment, and the Green’s Position on these that is deciding my vote.

1. Urbanism.

Design literacy in this country is sadly lacking. It’s the curse of being a frontier country without thousands of years of built precedent and trial and error of built form. As the Green party is part of an international movement, it understands that public transport and well designed public space are integral parts of the good citiy, healthy society, and an innovative economy. The often cited need to choose between cars and public transport is a false one. We will always need and use cars, however the last 40 years of international research and precedent (London, Copenhagen, New York) show us that planning cities around cars instead of public transport is a failed idea. We fail to recognise this because we alway view the problem from the viewpoint of the individual rather than the city. There is an idiotic article in the NZ Herald today arguing that rail will always fail in New Zealand. What this fails to appreciate is transport decisions don’t just respond to the present needs of a city, they powerfully alter the behaviour of a city in a future and how it grows and changes.   Increasing roads, esp to marginal areas of land leads to low density of housing, which leads to inefficient infrastructure, high rates, destruction of important agricultural land, and an unsustainable reliance on cheap oil to move around the city.   Improving public transport, through all means, bike, bus, rail leads to increased density, this is better for business, and more diverse business, more efficient service delivery, protection of agriculture and natural systems.   All the cities in the world need to re-invent themselves in the next 50 years, and the battle for Auckland and Christchurch is very much on at the moment.

2. Child Poverty.

That a country as rich as New Zealand has a significant poverty problem is an outrage.  That this problem is allowed to affect thousands of children is even more outrageous. That the large majority of these children are Maori and yet we claim to be a healthy post-colonial country is outrageous.  That the solutions to the problems of child poverty exist and are evidenced based and affordable and not enacted is even more outrageous.  This isn’t a political issue, it’s a moral one.   A curse on the houses of both Labour and National for allowing this to happen, and good on the Greens for having the most comprehensive strategy to work with this issue.  For more in depth information about this topic please visit the Every Child Counts website. 

3.    Other

I was going to discuss that I like the Green movement because, popular to contrary belief, it basis it’s humanist policy on evidence and research not by fulfilling the wishes of cashed up lobby groups like the truck, farmer, and alcohol lobbys which write most of the current governments policy.  But actually, I’d be happy if a government could just fix the first two no-brainers on this list.   If we can get agreement on things like 21st Century transport and Child poverty issues, then after that perhaps we can start talking about the more difficult areas of governance, until action is taken on the easy and important issue the Government is a farce.

The fact that the Green’s consistently and patiently argue for these sensible solutions to  long term problems is why I am voting for them on Saturday.

 

 

 

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Can Paris burst its bubble?


Three years after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his plans for ‘Grand Paris’, how are things coming along? Announced in 2008, Sarkozy conceived of the ‘Grand Paris’ (‘Greater Paris’) project as an urban renewal plan which aims to improve transport links between greater and central Paris, to increase housing and produce a cohesive blueprint to take Paris into the 21st century.

While there was never any doubt that Sarkozy would follow his predecessors and leave his mark on central Paris, most assumed it would be with a monument – a la François Mitterrand’s Louvre pyramid or Georges Pompidou’s Centre. But Sarkozy set his sights much higher, asking ten different architecture groups from around the world to re-imagine the entire city of Paris and project it 20 years into the future. While he gave them “the absolute freedom to dream” he demanded they come up with concrete proposals to create the world’s most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis.

The Paris that most of the world knows – the elegant, romantic world of famed tourist attractions, endless glasses of wine, berets and baguettes – is a time-warped bubble of tourism and cliché. The real Paris is a far larger, far grittier and more socially problematic affair. This pervasive romantic notion of Paris is the result of one of the greatest — and most influential — urban achievements of the 19th century. When the city was destroyed during the Napoleonic era, civic planner Baron Haussman staged a vast and ambitious  remodelling of Paris. The wide boulevards, formal gardens, and beautiful sandstone buildings were a testament to civic order and his plans has often been emulated but never bettered. So good were they, Walter Benjamin once famously described Paris as being “the capital of the 19th century”.

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Broome to Port Augusta, Not in a Straight Line

~Dem woman’s understand~

“Hooshta” is the call as the lone Camel man prepares his string of hard workers for unloading.
Three days and nights before the sight of his girl and their new born baby, yet             to be seen by his own eyes.
As time and distance fall, thoughts of his appearance come to mind, preparations are in order!
That piece of soap stone that clings upon the saddle tree is manicured to remove its windswept razor edge, a most important job as
such an edge is capable of circumcising a galvanised water tank.
He fights the camels for the juicy bottle brush,
as a little sweetness under the arms won’t spoil the night.
As the homestead comes into sight,
the green camel far behind loses his step as the cheeky dogs circle,
Steady boys, Steady a strong yet firm command from the camel man gives his team of workers comfort as they carry their delicate load of provisions and mail towards the awaiting Mrs Boss, governesses and all the kids.
Pleasantries are kept to what needs to be said,
nothing more, nothing less.
His forever spoken love lay working beneath the floor boards,
amongst the heat, sweat and promise.
Another marble lands in the billy, that’s the call from up above,
Tea, sugar and fresh milk is in order quick, quick!!!
Ting! Another marble, two pots six cups.
That night amongst the camels, saddles, stars and a full moon he was holding his newborn, a prouder man yet to be seen, his joy alone was enough to light the night, and was well spoken in many a camp for months to come.
Their love was tolerated, but far from understood!
For years their love was coded from the slouch of a hat, 
As crude as it was it was theirs for the keeping!
It was spoken that whites wanted it easy, but that wasn’t the truth at all! Men from the land need dem woman’s that understand, an understanding that need not be explained.
“Dem woman’s really do understand”

-Dean Koopman

In 2004-05 Dean Koopman walked across the Australian outback from Broome to Port Augusta. Accompanied by 3 camels (Henry, Shabby and Hussan), the quartet took 9 months to traverse 6000km of desert. This was not the extreme stunt of a Bear Grylls-esque conqueror of nature, but an act of love from a man who grew up in the Simpson desert and after some years abroad as a social documentary photographer had returned to the land he felt most comfortable with.

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