Written: 7th Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 7th Mar 2011
There’s a street in our adjacent suburb that is perpetually lined with tradesmen’s vehicles. Actually, I should say clogged with them, because you almost always have to swerve and/or idle and wait patiently while navigating the road, as it gets reduced to one skinny lane walled-in by haphazardly-parked utes, concrete trucks and delivery vans. It’s in one of the nation’s most affluent neighbourhoods, boasting glamorous abodes and lovely gardens - some rather grand colonial-style dwellings are well over the century mark...others are sturdy, post-war bungalows built with modesty and restraint...and then there are the contemporary piles that trumpet the wealth of their entrepreneurial masters. A design magazine would commonly refer to this architectural jumble as an eclectic mix.
But what’s strange about the rampant renovations and restorations is that they never, I repeat NEVER, finish. Up and down the street they go...utes/trucks/vans, sparkys, chippies, plumbers, roofers, painters, landscapers, et al...fulfilling contracts and meeting deadlines in the re-imagining and re-shaping of the street. It’s fascinating at first, let’s say for the first ten years that you observe the phenomenon...but after that it’s like watching a madwoman eat breakfast...messy and highly disturbing. It seems that changing the face, internal space and character of these homes is obsessional, and that obsession is a prerequisite for buying there in the first place; an endless duty, like the painting of the Harbour Bridge.
In stark contrast, I revisited my old home town in the USA last September (my family moved to Sydney in 1962), and to my astonishment, street after street was exactly as I remembered, with houses intact...yes, nicely painted and refreshed, but structurally essentially the same. Two-storied clapboard houses along Delaware stood proudly unaffected, sweet and simple; three-storied Georgian mansions on Fairmount remained stately and refined, yards immaculately manicured, flags flying from poles; middle class bungalows and Cape Codders looked like “Beaver” Cleaver still lived there. I felt like I was in a time warp, that I’d landed back in my childhood. Was this stagnation? Was it urban depression? Or was it something else?
Australians seem obsessed with change and reinvention; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it can be thrilling. Americans love and respect their history, and see beauty and honour in maintaining the status quo; they are proud to be caretakers. Is the answer as simple as this?
Aussies have a restlessness, a desire to “have a go” at things which transfer into always wanting/hunting for something else, something better; this is often admirable, but can be perceived as fickle or even reckless; Yanks are proud of their ancestors’ achievements, and respect what’s gone before...just look at Georgetown or most of the towns and cities of New England...they’re living history, with restoration and renovation going on regularly, of course, but with the purpose of retaining the appearance, soundness and quality of the original...not of re-imagining. The itchy-footed Aussie thinks that’s boring; the well-anchored Yank thinks it’s crazy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Who’s right?
Well, the right thing is not always an easy thing to define; culturally, emotionally, historically we’ve all gathered a different life experience, guided by unique circumstances; what’s right for one is not so for another. Australia is a young country with designs on being top of the heap as an exciting place to live, work and be; America is more mature, an incredibly diverse nation trying to maintain its position in a complex and rapidly changing world; we are like cousins who share common ancestry and common purpose, but we articulate and generate things differently because of the way our countries have evolved.
Sometimes, re-invention is wonderful, a flow-on from fresh ideas that pave the way for truly positive change. However, when it disregards wisdom of thought and form from the past, re-invention proves a shallow re-jig indeed.
The constant renovations in the street mentioned in this musing display some boldness, creativity, ambition, self-improvement and self-worth...but they also speak negatively of pride, self-righteousness, self-importance and of an unattractively smug sort of greed. Dynamic, perhaps...but in the long run, will it ever be worthy...and will it ever be DONE?