«Introduction In January 2005, a so-called ‘cultural terrorist’ group from western Sydney released a manifesto announcing its plan to wreak havoc ...»
Suburbs for Sale: Buying and Selling the Great Australian Dream
Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney
In January 2005, a so-called ‘cultural terrorist’ group from western Sydney released a
manifesto announcing its plan to wreak havoc and revenge on the building of oversized
homes on standard blocks of land. The houses they planned to target are of course those
that have been dubbed ‘McMansions’: large, two or sometimes even three storey houses with double or triple garages, often designed with ‘themed façades’ such as Regency, Georgian, Federation, Tuscan and Colorado, and mostly associated with the new housing developments in Sydney’s west. Over the last few years, this particular style of domestic suburban architecture has been the focus of a veritable archive of social commentary. The tone of this archive is generally and uniformly similar (this is also the charge levelled against the houses) alternating between scorn and condescension, condemnation and a shrill derision.
The manifesto released by ‘The United People’s Front of Macarthur’ (which apparently borrows its name from a left-wing Nepalese liberation movement) is a surprising and curious cultural artefact in itself and it’s worth quoting from it at length. The manifesto outlines the group’s plan to ‘destroy the existing offending suburbs and dwellings’. It
We believe that all human beings carry with them the potential to live harmoniously together without imposed authority. We regard planners and politicians as dangerous animals or worse … mechanised robots bent on destruction and personal power. We believe that sufficient wealth and technological know-how exists in the world today to provide a happy life for all people and that does not require them to live one meter apart, live in homes that all look the same and that are all the same colour and live in homes where backyards cannot accommodate a Hills hoist (sic) (Cumming 2005).
The group also announced that it was particularly concerned about many of the new housing developments on Sydney’s western fringe, especially those that were seen as ‘an attempt to maximise revenue, rather than an exercise in building sustainable and harmonious communities’. But, in this sense, ‘The United People’s Front of Macarthur’ is not alone. In fact it has much in common with other ‘grassroots’ groups that have been formed recently with the explicit aim of resisting higher-density development in suburban areas. The Save our Suburbs movement, for example—formed to contest current metropolitan planning and development strategies favouring dual occupancies, and high and medium density building policies—has also attracted considerable attention and support. These groups defend the character of suburban residential areas and local communities, and invoke the low-density suburban housing model as the ideal form for the Australian way of life. Their attacks are not only directed at the building of flats and units in traditional suburbs, but also at the new suburban residential locations which are developing in the middle and outer parts of Australia’s metropolitan areas and which combine medium and sometimes high-density development with the growth of suburban economies and business clusters.
Yet the interests of these groups also intersect with another long line of critique condemning ‘McMansion Land’ and the hyper-consumerist way of life that many have identified as synonymous with suburban sprawl in Sydney, and the western suburbs in particular. In the last couple of years, for example, a series of newspaper articles has addressed what is being called ‘the new suburbia’ found in these areas (see eg Hawley, 2003). The phrase ‘new suburbia’ has been used to describe a particular combination of affluence, consumerism, and conservative, family-oriented low-density suburban living reflected in the many new housing estates currently being rapidly established on the city’s periphery. These articles focus more often than not on what have been termed the ‘new’ or ‘aspirational’ suburbs of outer Sydney (suburbs such as Kellyville, Baulkham Hills, Castle Hill and Macarthur), and they lament the continued decentralised urbanisation of western Sydney—the so-called problem of sprawl—and the symbols of conspicuous consumption, such as McMansions, on display.
At first glance, ‘the new suburbia’—a term referring to the perceived latest incarnation of monotonous, sprawling suburban development—seems to be merely continuing a long tradition of railing against the suburbs and the peripheries of the city in general.
However, the prefix ‘new’ also suggests that there is more at stake here. The ‘new suburbia’ suggests a shift, transition or break from what has gone before. This begs the question: Is there a recognisably new form of suburbia or a new type of suburban living?
How have the city and the suburbs changed? Have they really undergone a marked transformation or has our understanding of the spatial form and way of life we call suburbia merely shifted to enable us to recognise features that have actually been present all along and to allow us to view it differently? While formulating the newness of an environment or object against a background of continuity creates a certain rhetorical power, it also tends to flatten the various continuities and discontinuities, discrepancies and differences that are, and have always been, a part of both the present and the past, the old and the new.
What I’d like to do here in this essay, therefore, is to explore some of the contours of the changing suburban landscapes across the city of Sydney, while at the same time analysing how conventional understandings and descriptions of ‘the suburbs’ have tended to implicitly endorse an assumption that the outer suburban areas contain little of interest or value, and are therefore to be either viewed negatively or simply ignored. It is on these grounds that suburban landscapes have generally been seen as both geographically and symbolically peripheral to the major dramas and dynamics of urban life. Negative terms such as suburban sprawl, blight, and McMansions follow very much in this tradition of rejection. But rather than simply dismissing these terms and ideas as simply more examples of a long-standing pattern of suburban condemnation, I’d like to see them as essential parts of the ongoing narratives or stories about the city and its diverse spatial existence. Such terms and descriptions, including the manifesto which begins this essay, not only provide important accounts of the way the city is physically changing but clues into the way in which it also being understood. These images, stories, and condemnations of the way some people choose to live their lives, reveal how we both construct and find order in the city in which we live, and the kinds of traditions of thought we draw on in order to do so. They are in this respect ways of trying to understand and to make sense of the city, that site which, according to Michel de Certeau, is ‘the most immoderate of human texts (De Certeau 1984: 92).
Ironically, pejorative descriptors like ‘sprawl’ and ‘McMansions’ are responses to a form of suburban housing and development which is seen quite literally as most immoderate, as ‘excessive’ and ‘overabundant’ and in need of some form of constraint and moderation or management. The repeated use of these terms implies that these forms, and by implication the citizens living in them, are self-indulgent, undisciplined, uncontained and uncontainable (see Bruegmann 2005: 18). The imagery used frequently slides between descriptions of physical features and moral states, fusing together an assessment of urban form and social/personal integrity and value, and finding both to be deficient and lacking.
Such contemporary depictions are not entirely new and have both a set of historical precedents and a set of historical assumptions about what the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ development mean and represent underpinning them. In his classic work, The City in History, for example, Lewis Mumford despaired of the ‘sprawling giantism’ of the twentieth-century city. For Mumford, the city should be a container with a finite and bounded space. When the container form is lost, the result is a ‘continuous shapeless mass’ … an overgrowth of formless new tissue … becom[ing] ever more aimless and discontinuous, more diffuse and unfocused … No human eye can take in this metropolitan mass at a glance’ (Mumford 1960: 619-620).
When seen in the light of such historical assumptions about the ‘ideal’ city and its form, it becomes easier to understand the deviant blurring of boundaries that suburbia has always represented (in Ancient Rome, for example, suburbium was the indeterminate space that was literally below or outside the walls of the city). My aim here, however, is to be neither for nor against suburbia; neither to bash nor to boost. Rather it is an attempt to understand the complex relationships between economic, social, and political processes and imaginative forms—the dreams of private property and economic security, the fantasies of the planner and developer—that have been formed historically, and continue to still be played out in the spatial form of Sydney. This is to shift the focus on to the intricate connections among property, identity, space and political ideology, as well as the convoluted history of collusion between public and private interests, which have together in effect produced the social and spatial landscapes of the low-density, polycentric city.
This is a history that also includes the complex relationships between real estate entrepreneurs and the wide range of suburban residents, including migrants, who have responded to and invested in the ideal of home-ownership and suburban living. It also includes the history of what M.T. Daly so aptly calls the ‘hooligan developer’ (Daly, 1982: 111) and what Leonie Sandercock has called Australia’s national hobby: land speculation (Sandercock, 1997). And finally, it wouldn’t be complete without the history of spectacular failure surrounding most of the ‘official’ urban planning schemes, from the Cumberland County Council plan onwards, and including of course the most recent Sydney Metropolitan Strategy which began with a bang but most certainly has ended in a paper trail that couldn’t even rustle up a whimper 1. In summary, then, this is an approach 1 The Sydney Metropolitan Strategy is a plan for Sydney’s development over the next thirty years, and addresses the growth of Sydney’s population, including the anticipated one million new residents who will need to be accommodated in the city and its surrounding areas and provided with housing and work opportunities. The Strategy has attracted many criticisms, with many researchers calling into question various aspects of the proposed development. These include the strategy’s focus on ‘highdensity ’living and its implications for ‘social sustainability’, and the proposed ‘new release’ areas in outer Sydney and the loss of the ‘green belt’.
that recognises that what is actually at stake are ‘much larger questions about planning and democracy, aesthetics and metaphysics, and differing class-based assumptions about what makes a good urban life’ (Bruegmann, 2005: 8).
This is also an approach that aims to connect the representations, images and symbols commonly used to talk about suburban space (the imagery of sprawl in particular), with the actual physical conditions of that space as it is lived, experienced and changing over time. It is an understanding of space that is influenced by Lefebvre’s insistence that ‘each mode of thinking about space, each “field” of human spatiality—the physical, the mental, the social—be seen as simultaneously real and imagined, concrete and abstract, material and metaphorical’ (Soja, 1996: 64-65).
The Aesthetics of Ugliness
In many of the popular newspaper articles on the new housing estates and residential communities in western Sydney particular attention is given to describing the uniform monotony of the sprawling form of development and the style of housing that has been called ‘McMansions’. In one article ‘McMansions’ are described as ‘those corpulent houses shoehorned into tight blocks of land’; and in another, as ‘vulgar and bloated’.
When the Sydney Morning Herald’s Elizabeth Farrelly chose to write specifically about the suburb of Kellyville, her portrait starts: ‘Desolation row is every street in the new mass-produced suburbs’. She then describes the ‘heartbreakingly, wrist-slittingly obvious fact that this is what people like’. But her main concern, when it comes down to it, is the ‘ugliness’ and the aesthetics of ‘obesity’, all of which serve merely to ‘leaden the soul’ (Farrelly, 2003: 14). Meanwhile, architect Glen Murcutt, renowned for his interpretation of Australian iconography and vernacular styles, commented that suburban sprawl shows a ‘poverty of spirit and a barrenness of mind (cited in Johnson, 2004).
In a similar vein, an article titled ‘The (new) Great Australian Dream’, gave a definition
of the ‘new suburbia’ in the following way:
The biggest house on the smallest block for the lowest price … That’s the rationale behind the new suburbia, complete with triple garages, faux facades and tiny backyards… Join in the mad race to buy a bulldozed-bare, handkerchief-sized lot, lay a concrete slab, build a cavernous trophy home in 20 weeks, and settle into the new heartland of the aspirational voter (Hawley, 2003: 23).
This particular piece went on to describe McMansions as the ‘slums of the future’, and concluded with a series of images not only confirming western Sydney’s status as a monotonous, problematic wasteland but as a space completely given over to the inauthentic, artificial and ersatz: ‘the sizzle without the steak’, as the article put it.