Suburbs as a Representation of Diversity (and a Consumption Inducive Machine): The Australian Ugliness at 50
This post is selected from a forthcoming article tentatively entitled Consumption, Immobilisation, Aspiration: The Australian Ugliness at 50 celebrating 50 years since the publication of Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. The article challenges Boyd’s argument about “featurism”—meaningless and “non-intellectual” decorative misdemeanours—as a product of Australia’s lack of “design education” and suggests, rather, that a series of suburban traps have coordinated its proliferation.
As both the common mode of living and the physical indicator of Australia’s cultural diversity, living in suburbia means one is obliged to participate in consumption. They are spatial paradigms: obscured versions of their original promise of farm-style living1, bearer of rubik’s-cube demographics and Avon Lady territory. They now smell like Calcutta, Hanoi or Khartoum.
The outbreak of prewar depression meant postwar domestic architecture emancipated the individual. Enlightenment came with a backyard, a frontyard, a stud frame, a carport, and a can of paint. A choice. So ‘[featurism] involves the strange sort of possessive love with which people have regarded their shelters’2.
But Boyd speaks very little of Australia’s love-affair with consuming, only that it is a product of the late 1950s ‘“the do-it-yourself” era, chemical advances, and the keen competition of the largely British-owned paint companies’3. And yet it could be argued that featurism is a byproduct of an anxious free-market liberalism, lubricated by fervent consumerism bound between the Old Country and America. It is now more global. Capitalism has been let out of the bag.
But before suggesting remedies to our exorbitant consumption, something of which eluded Boyd, we should ask why it still persists. The sustainability of consumption owes its thanks to three revelations: one is a reason derived from the individual, another is a construction of the social sphere, and the other promotes consumption through an urban manifestation.
Dematerialisation forms the first of the reasons. It is a phenomena that exists in the domain of our conscience, tightly linked with desire and wholeheartedly irrational. It occurs at that fateful time when we have fantasy invested in desired material objects, but the actual ownership of the object causes the fantasy to die and renew itself in other objects. Dematerialisation leads to the consumer on a winding path, while the material destination remains perpetually intangible. Left in its wake are undesirable objects not representative of rational choices nor necessity.
Boyd paints a picture we know all too well where ‘buildings disappear beneath the combined burden of a thousand ornamental alphabets, coloured drawings, and cut-outs’4. But it is not just the means to incite consumption, but also the ubiquity of production which involves the participation of a buyer. This brings us to the second revelation in the sustainability of consumption: Thorstein Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption, a claim that buying is linked with social status. Because we relate to each other through the products we own, this entices people to buy so as to reflect a certain persona, often exceeding their true reflection and forming as it were, the last battleground for capitalism.
Consumption persists, thirdly, because we all live in the suburban homes that are an extension of the template site that is the bourgeois home, the original site of fervent consumption5. The Australian Government understood how vital suburbia is to the development of consumption and that urbanisation is key in the absorption of surplus production. Coupled with both how Karl Marx showed that capitalism’s perpetual increase in productivity, brought about a reduction in the value of wage goods and fordism’s triumphant revelation to give these ephemeral “savings”6 to the working class—to make them the market—makes suburbs the epicentre of a growing home economy through the promotion of consumption with a vengeance.
A most eloquent Marx also proved that the rate of exploitation increased alongside productivity and while the suburbs became the home of the working class where ‘fresh young lovers [plan] the shape of their togetherness’7, they also became containers of lives, where the public have the misfortune of being relatively economically stable but trapped in a consumer black hole, forced into relating to their neighbours and friends through their home and its contents.
Consequently, the home, while occupying a central part of our cultural consciousness, becomes the bearer of unnecessary featurist trappings, container of the totality of consumer products and suburbia becomes a carnival for the “you’ve-never-had-it-so-good” credit-affluent and regrettably, the only accessible way the working class can realise this. The emergence of featurism is then correlated with a populist struggle for bourgeois-style living, and a heartfelt quest for identity which only ends in imitation.
Bunning, W., 1945. Homes in the Sun - The Past, Present and Future of Australian Housing. Sydney: W.J.Nesbit
Featurism’s role is reaching viability, however. In a death-defying feat it has landed on two feet and is now a means of identifying oneself. It nestles, in synchrony, with the industrial conditions that try their darnedest to create individuality out of mass-production. According to Boyd ‘Australian design…is not a fundamental original quality’8 so featurists try to find their own identity in the sea of products, fighting against the generic. Commodification has molested everything: culture, nature, the body and social relations. In some hauntological farce, featurism has become the spectre of identity and culture.
Plastic colonial decoration of doomed but noble indigenous (savage) Australians returns as a spectre of culture and identity.
1See Riverside (outside Chicago). The prototypical suburb.
2Boyd (1963, pp.251)
3Boyd (1963, pp.)
4Boyd (1963, pp.46)
5Walker & Buck (2007, pp.50)
6However much can be extracted in the midst of the coercive laws of competition.
7Boyd (1963, pp.110)
8Boyd (1963, pp.10)
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