Blubberland and Suburbia

Last week I rattled on about Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s critic of architecture, Farrelly has been a strident (and much maligned) voice calling to account the quality of Australia’s suburban development. Though sometimes overwrought, Farrelly’s words are worth considering.

In Blubberland, Farrelly describes the mutual human longings for enclosure and openness. ‘Humans crave interiority,’ she writes, but that craving is matched by the longing for connection. Ideally, she says, the home offers a protective arena–a refuge for those within–but in times of bewilderment and uncertainty, we’re tempted to withdraw completely into refuge and remain there. Before we know where we are, ‘the refuge becomes a prison’ and we are no longer connected in any meaningful way to anything beyond.

With this in mind, Farrelly is critical of both contemporary suburban homes and the developments in which they’re built.

On the suburban home: when our homes are fronted by two or three car garages with no clear sign of relationship to the street, there is cause for concern. According to Farrelly, such ‘faceless architecture’ offends on three levels: behaviourally, connectively and symbolically: (i) where neighbourhood interaction is discouraged, behaviour is modified ‘equal to foot binding’; (ii) where flow between neighbourhood homes is prohibited, connectivity is broken; (iii) when the expressive and relational persona of the resident is denied, there is an unspoken contempt for public culture that denies humanity itself.

On suburban development: when our new masterplanned–even gated–communities are built around the logic of avoidance, the neighbourhood itself becomes a place of exclusion. And when architecture becomes a tool to this end, it fails: ‘Fear makes us turn things like beauty, materiality, architecture—gifts, if you will, of transcendence—into weapons of exclusion. Exclusion, of course, is the essence of tribal lore; we are us by virtue of being not-them.’

Whatever we make of Farrelly’s criticisms, she has a point. Where community becomes a code word for the exclusion of difference, we should be wary of its promises. Chances are it can’t deliver.

‘… today’s developers flog not houses but homes; not estates but community. Community, though—real community—is not about rules, exclusion and conformism. It can’t be made overnight, and it can’t be sold. It requires common goals, civility and above all that most precious of commodities, time. In a pluralist democracy this kind of cohesion can be hard to come by, but one principle should be non-negotiable: if community means sacrificing pluralism, openheartedness or democracy—in other words, if it enforces conformism, prohibits dissent, or declines to be inclusive—it’s a fake.’


  1. Hi Simon Interesting comments.Martin & I had just been speaking about if we move to inner Melb where would we live and why? In a townhouse, because we want to live near the city or in a house with a front porch so we can connect with the neighbours and walk to the local shops?


  2. Or an apartment in the CBD! Having live in inner Melbourne for nearly 15 years, six of those in its heart, I’ve actually found that the simple contrast between inner city living as a place of anonymity and the suburban home with neighbours and local shops just doesn’t hold. I’ve actually had much more significant experiences of neighbourhood here in the CBD than I’ve had elsewhere. I shop locally, talk regularly with the neighbours — even have dinner or drinks with them routinely — and get to know the locals in the area with little effort because I walk everywhere. So come on in!


  3. Hi Simon and Kirsty, I live in a “low-rise” apartment complex near the CBD built around a communal garden area. Over time and with active effort to be involved in decision-making related to this complex, we’ve developed a “village” feel, where we greet each other, collectively work on the plants in the garden through the drought, and enjoy monthly informal ‘drinks’. It does take effort and a bit of boldness and organisation, but it’s worth the effort.


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