Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Lost highways: somewhere to ‘boil a billy and grill a chop’

Rather than an experience to bring us closer to the land that we depend on, a drive in the country is just as likely to sustain the detachment that city life is largely based upon.  But perhaps, this need not have been so. 

In the long distant past, back in the 1950s, the influential Melbourne-based garden designer, Edna Walling published a book aimed at getting our eyes off the bitumen, or gravel as was often the case then, and encouraging us to stop the car occasionally and absorb the ‘elusive beauty’ of the trees, scrubs and flowers along the sides of highways and other country roads, both the intimate detail and the broad views.*   For Walling, it was the roads near to the earth, closely following the contours of the land, and leaving as much of the native vegetation intact, that were to be celebrated.  It was these roads, where you could properly appreciate the intricacies of the land and the complexities of plant life that couldn’t be replicated in highways that are wholesale reconstructions of the landscape, with beautification schemes using unrealistic selections and arrangements of plants.  In Walling’s world, you drive as much to see and understand, as to reach your destination, taking time - ‘slow travel’ in modern parlance. 

Not that there were many superhighways, that is engineered systems detached from the land, in the 1950s, at least in Australia - that was yet to come.   Why did we fail to follow the path laid out by Edna?

We could blame Adolf Hitler (created autobahns), the Americans (developed super highways to an art form), or simply engineers (for narrow thinking) but perhaps the expectations and demands of the users may have a role as we privileged speed and comfort over insight and openness.  As we focus on reaching our destination in the shortest time, or on the entertainment alternatives inside the bubble of the car, we prefer to be separated from or simply ignore our surroundings.  We drive cars that don’t have to slow down to go up hills, let alone change down gears as you may have had to in the 1950s; cars that almost drive themselves.  When, in the near future, they do become genuinely driverless, the detachment will be complete.  The convergence with other more ideal ways of moving ourselves such as air travel will be greater: journey at the maximum practical speed, in the shortest time, in the most air-conditioned and sound-proofed comfort.  To achieve this, highways will become more heavily controlled and engineered, something approaching a science fiction notion of travel as a tube.  The image of some highways is changing to reflect this: the plastic highways with colourful transparent sound barriers or the short Melbourne sound tunnel that features in so many advertisements. 

In the 1960s, Reyner Banham, a British architectural critic fascinated by the USA, moved to a city dominated by a freeway system: Los Angeles.   With his rather abrupt change (as opposed to our gradual acquiescence), Banham saw that these roads had moved beyond being merely connections, they had become a central part of life, that nearly everyone had to use; all other roads being simply tributaries.#  The system was a separate public sphere, where you could sit for hours in a jam, or spy neighbours to be ignored or relatives that you had forgotten, perhaps like a promenade in the old towns of the old world.   The system had its own culture and even psychic state: a mesmerizing mix of speed, fear, smog, and sociability.  But above all, it endured and developed because of the promise of freedom, a promise that was mostly false, as drivers plugged themselves into a system over which they have little power, hemmed in by a complex layering of social norms, commercial and mechanical realities, and government rules.  

This notion of a highly artificial system purely serving the need for easy connection within cities, of course extends beyond the city until all cities are part of the coordinated universal scheme.  In many ways, the countryside ceases to be an open space with choices about where to go and where to stop, but a series of controlled exit points and those brown signs showing designated, not accidental points of interest. 

And there are many positive aspects that come with this high-speed, highly controlled travel on the earth’s surface.  Like flying over the land, there is a heightened sense of space and the feeling of progressing through it.  We can identify locations in the distance and quickly gain a sense of how we are moving towards these points as we speed through valleys or cut through tunnels, and over bridges.  Car journeys converge much of the way to air travel.

Of course, there are many minor roads that may remain just as they were in Walling’s day, perhaps with a well-patched strip of bitumen, instead of the gravel surface.  In this sense we have a heightened choice: we can travel quickly on the highway ‘tube’ perhaps in our computer-controlled car and then ‘choose’ the scenic route for the 1950’s experience, looking for a spot where ‘one pulls up to boil a billy and grill a chop’ in Walling’s words.   The speed and ease of the former, allows us to get to gain more of the later older roadside experiences.  

However, it is more than just a consumer market delivering more choice.  The scenic road becomes part of a packaged and planned experience.  Our on-line research, or conveniently coloured-coded satnav map, has directed us to the quaint roads marked in green as scenic.   It is not accepting the haphazard, find-out-for-yourself travel of the past, but just another scheduled experience, albeit somewhat slower than other ones of the day.  

The downside of an excess of information, is not the information as such but the packaging, mediation and presentation of this information.  It is information that is abstracted and generalised.  It is less about stumbling upon flora and fauna and more about expecting to see, based on prior knowledge.  Even the most avid bird-watchers are likely to speed quickly to a planned destination said to be teeming with the preferred range of species, rather than meander somewhat aimlessly, stopping at random roadside spots in the faint hope of being able to fill in another line in their twitcher’s diary.   Perhaps we have lost something, not just the chance to stop and let sheep pass on the Hume Highway.

* Edna Walling, The Australian Roadside, OUP, 1952.

# Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture Of Four Ecologies. Harper and Row. 1971

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