Notes & Observations

Uncle Josef would be very pleased with us

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

Now that we have a popular Australian government that has given us approval to ignore the plight of third world countries and keep our hard earned billions at home, I think it’s timely to look at some first-world problems that we have to deal with in our own backyards, well at least, in my backyard.

Intrigued as to what a second world country might be, I went not to the official government research site of Wikipedia, but instead to One World Nations online a comfortably bolshie-looking site whose underpinnings I also didn’t bother to check. It gives the putative origins of the concept of ‘third world country’ and posits the categorisation of four worlds, while suggesting the whole concept is outmoded and faintly racist. One World Nations gives us this outline:

Four Worlds

After World War II the world split into two large geopolitical blocs and spheres of influence with contrary views on government and the politically correct society:

1 – The bloc of democratic-industrial countries within the American influence sphere, the “First World”.

2 – The Eastern bloc of the communist-socialist states, the “Second World”.

3 – The remaining three-quarters of the world’s population, states not aligned with either bloc were regarded as the “Third World.”

4 – The term “Fourth World”, coined in the early 1970s by Shuswap Chief George Manuel, refers to widely unknown nations (cultural entities) of indigenous peoples, “First Nations” living within or across national state boundaries.

Now that the cold war is over (is it getting warmer here or am I getting older?) I think Australia might like to rethink whether we are a first or second world country, while we continue adjust to the fourth world we have been hitherto trying to obliterate. My argument is we are quite engaged in a post-Stalinist phase of urban development, so why not join the warmed over remains of the Soviet bloc?

The Boroondara Bulletin is my local council’s information magazine. It tells me that Boroondara wants to introduce a planning scheme to protect the ‘look and feel of an area’.


McMansion (Photo credit: sara~)

I decided to depress my spirits and took a walk around my neighbourhood of leafy Kew. The wet spring weather has plumped up the gardens that burst with leaf and flower. Well some do. If you stand and admire one sumptuous garden it is possible to turn and have another in your line of sight somewhere down the street. In between it’s all McMansions.  Like its surrounding areas, Kew is losing its gardens to redevelopment and, not to high-density apartments, but to low-density single dwellings.

Actually, low-density is an apt description of the sort of person who puts up a faux Gracelands, neo-Georgian, French Provincial box. Only someone with little imagination and a lack of concern for local amenity could spend so much to so little effect.

I have to parade my learning here and draw your attention to a few lines from on of Alexander Pope’s Moral Essays, his Epistle to Burlington. The poem is about the use of riches, ‘The Vanity of Expence [sic] in People of Wealth and Quality’. Published in 1731, the poem demonstrates what an accomplished and persuasive hater Pope was—you did not want to be a target of his pen.  One such was a character called Timon, who was an agglomeration of all the Kew shameless of his day and Pope skewers him thus:

At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,

Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’

So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,

Soft and Agreeable come never there.

Greatness, with Timon, dwells in such a draught

As brings all Brobdignag before your thought.

To compass this, his building is a Town,

His pond and Ocean, his parterre a Down:

Who but must laugh, the Master when he sees,

A puny insect, shiv’ring at a breeze!

Lo, what huge heaps of littleness around!

The whole, a labour’d Quarry above ground’.

Ok, but for the ‘puny insect’ bit, this is more about the Clive Palmers of this world. But down here, down south in chaste Kew and environs, it’s all about ‘huge heaps of littleness’ being squeezed into blocks that formerly held good-enough homes with expansive gardens. Now there is no room for ponds or parterres, just a straightjacket of box hedging, a mini-golf sized section of white pebbles and a regiment of James Sterling pittosporums to screen next-door’s massive up your’s party wall. And don’t forget the sad stands of Iceberg roses.

So many cheaply built lumps, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and more appearing daily, it would seem. Oh I know I exaggerate: appearing weekly then.  Every time I see an empty block I wait for the huge basement garage to be dug, the massive concrete pour and the strutting concrete lift shaft and I know pretty soon the frame will come up; that blue board will be bunged on and sprayed to look like stone and polystyrene ‘architectural effects’ will be glued all over.

My esteemed colleague Holberton once observed of a similar phenomenon in Hong Kong that what we are seeing is Stalinism … if it had worked. Today’s McMansions are lineal descendants of the grand piles of socialist realist, authoritarian ‘classical’ monsters that defined public architecture for Stalin (er, and for Hitler). Stalin’s laboured quarries above ground are morbidly grand and marvellous in their own way. But their lack of architectural imagination is also the telling feature of McMansions, from Keilor to Kew to Keysborough.  It all looks like it was derived from Lego and ordained from some Central Bureau of Conspicuous Consumption Control (the ubiquitous CBCCC – it will steal your granny).

You may think Stalinism was a repressive regime where everyone was forced to live in the same nasty apartments, wear the same styles of functional clothing and drive the same cheap vehicles. Authoritarian regimes are typified in one sense by how they lay down laws in taste and strive to control the public imagination.

OK—come to Kew and see what houses we build, what uniforms of utilitarian sports gear we wear, what variants of German Sports Utility Vehicles we drive. If socialism really worked, we’d all be driving Mercedes and I have no problem with that. But we are not socialists, we simply behave like cashed-up prols (cue tirade entitled ‘We’re all bogans now’). Whatever regime we think (or ignore) we are living under, our imagination is failing us.

It’s not as if no one has pointed this out. Revisit Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle for an exquisite, sterile garden (I want the fish fountain), reread Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness, (or read Peter Conrad on it) listen to Pete Seeger singing, Little Boxes on the Hillside, though the boxes have got bigger. We can’t think outside boxes anymore because we proudly mortgage ourselves to the hilt to live in them, each box housing three people with five bedrooms, five bathrooms and a cinema lounge. And no garden, so the Great Doodle* has to stay indoors at all time. The saddest thing is, we are glad to have forsaken our imagination for status and that is the mark of the bogan: shallow and proud of it.

Uncle Josef would be very pleased with us. There will be no one knocking on our doors in the middle of the night … yet.


*Great Dane / Standard Poodle cross. Perfect household dog: just lies beside the ornamental fire-place, doesn’t shed, doesn’t bark, doesn’t knock over the furniture. It’s also the most boring dog alive (if you can tell it’s alive).


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