“Man has always loved his buildings… but what happens when those buildings say ‘no more’?”
In the leadup to the 2019 federal election, a friend visiting from India remarked that Australia has “the highest number of ridiculous political moments per capita”. A settler colony with a deathly fear of foreign boats, an immigrant nation which cracks down on dual citizenship, a highly educated coastal country with a near-mythical reverence for farmers and ‘the land’, and an everyman distrust of authority running hand in hand with imperial subservience. This country has an unremarked-upon sense of irony which is downright dangerous to overlook – history has a sense of humour after all.
So it is that Sydney, a city whose one and only identity marker – and conversation topic – is houses, apartments and their prices, has been shocked by the spectacle of its precious developments being revealed as completely unliveable. What first began with a spectacular crack down on Homebush’s Opal tower soon descended into an unimaginable farce, with apartment owners across the city sharing previously unimaginable stories about sewage leaking and running down the hallway and trendy apartments uninhabitable due to lingering asbestos. It’s one of those things that you couldn’t get away with in fiction – a perverse counting game in which each week seems to bring a new crumbling apartment. Call it renter’s revenge, the spectre of development over Sydney, or plain incompetence, but you can’t pretend a city full of crumbling, shit-infested apartments isn’t a poetic declaration. Every worst fear, every sneaking suspicion Sydneysiders have had about the state of development in the city has been shown to be not only well-placed but, compared with the reality, entirely lacking in imagination.
Unfortunately, those who still reside in buildings facing safety hazards are living in constant emergency, even as many of them refrain from disclosing such hazards due to non-disclosure agreements or fear of seeing property prices fall. Within this capitalist realism, the real crisis is the inability to control or transform one’s circumstances up until catastrophe proper has materialised. Even those who have been forced into temporary housing while their homes are being retrofitted hold little certainty or voice in the management of their apartment blocks. Revealingly, these residents have expressed concerns that their very lives have been put on hold, with some saying that their plans to start families have had to be deferred. It is easy to read this as a projection of the way we all use the future to underwrite our visions of what our homes are worth. A future which, we hope, will contain better conditions for our children and in which our current efforts will be redeemed, or their fruits repurposed for a new age. Yet that future seems increasingly unrealistic in an Australia of harsh summers, stagnating wages, and now housing which, even if you can afford it, has no guarantee of lasting more than a few years.
It’s hardly a coincidence that the suburbs home to the offending apartments are all former industrial areas, whose redevelopment into urban residential areas has offered working people the promise – or perhaps more appropriately, the bait – of secure and affordable accommodation in the areas where previously they may have worked. But there is a difference between this kind of promised redevelopment and the form which gentrification actually takes, such as the transformation of the Rozelle tramsheds into yet another pitstop on the yuppie cafe crawl. Calling something “gentrification” at least implies an alternative path of development - a more democratic repurposing that reclaims the physical and geographic shell of formerly working-class areas and redeems the former promise of a fair and equal society. The complete redevelopment of the suburbs of Redfern, Waterloo, Erskineville and Millers Point (among many others), historically Aboriginal and working class areas of the city, by apartment developers, the University of Sydney and Crown Casino is demolishing this path entirely. How realistic is it to expect that anything built on this foundation could ever be egalitarian, let alone a sustainable, long-term solution for most of the people who actually live in the city? The fragile architectural regime of towers such as those rising in Mascot and Rhodes, Sydney’s former industrial heart, are a sign of a future whose possibilities are being rapidly foreclosed.
As we have seen, this kind of redevelopment – a pillar of our neoliberal cities – is plainly no longer capable of even housing its core constituency of upwardly mobile or ‘aspirational’ middle class families, which leads us to ask how long Australian capitalist democracy is capable of reproducing itself. With our suicidally overconfident ‘she’ll be right’ approach to climate change (for now), one can imagine future archaeologists trawling these abandoned apartment blocks to document the remains of 21st century architecture (we apologise in advance for the 3D printed faux-brutalist aesthetic that was all the rage in our time). If the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin implored us to see the contradictions of today’s society in the ruins of tomorrow, perhaps he did not mean it so literally.
Given that the first reports warning of combustibility issues in the building materials used in Australia came out in 1995, this crisis is severely out of time, characteristic of our stillborn century. In this way, it is a dress rehearsal for how society will respond to the impacts of climate change, led by forces simultaneously frenetic and paralysing. A recent report by the Climate Council estimates that the value of Australian real estate could plunge hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade unless future governments develop a political will to deal with climate change. Many local councils have already declared climate emergencies, while on the other hand real estate agents and the media are openly discussing the ethics of fully disclosing the climate change vulnerabilities of their seaside properties to potential investors. And yet this yearning for a little home to call our own persists in our collective consciousness, in that thin line between dream and reality.
There was a time when the driving motto of the Australian Dream sounded like the line somewhat erroneously borrowed from the film Field of Dreams: if you build it they will come. But the movement of people in today’s property market more resembles the photos of people queueing to reach the summit of Mt Everest (as it’s reported that increased numbers of people are dying in avalanches), or the infantile colonial mindset behind the surge of people climbing Uluru a month before it disappears beneath the tourist horizon. People are desperately pushing against the tide, trying to get a final slice of the pie before the bakery shuts up shop for good.
The contradiction of the American Dream – ‘you have to be asleep to believe it’ – and its less ambitious, suburban cousin down under is that though you might have to endure years or even decades of exploitation by your landlord, employer and financial institution, there is an incredible lottery of wealth and opportunity that will bless you with enormous fortune, provided you can squish every single hope and dream you’ve ever had into a small, stand-alone house - with a garden or balcony if you’re lucky - and continue showing up at that job long past the point where your hands are arthritic, your back constantly in pain and your brain numb to the outside world. What we’re witnessing, however, is the crumbling of even this lottery system, whereby those who have abandoned every scruple and compressed every desire for self-fulfilment into the measurement of square metres have been shown that there really is nobody looking out for them, that ‘Aussie battler’ is only a constituency during election time, that their small fortress against the outside world is really just another crumbling castle.
It’s not just the Gen Xers or older Millennials wanting to settle down who are caught in this trap. It’s not even just a Sydney problem – capital cities around Australia are seeing a huge boom of dubiously occupied apartments, something that the mainstream media can only diagnose as a problem when tinged with anti-Chinese racism. Canberra in particular has seen a huge eruption of development along its main thoroughfare, with the largely empty edifices of high rises leering over the new and charmingly quaint light rail. There is an attempt to give each building a bespoke feel, with names like ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Manhattan’, which woefully oversell the bush capital, contrasting with others such as ‘Embark’, ‘Soho’ and ‘Midnight’, indicating the kind of high-flying, jet-setting, ‘seize the night’ professionals that these developers are appealing to. While the public service is increasingly starved of funds, the skeleton closet that remains can ghoulishly party on into the night.
Back in Sydney, there are more disturbing ramifications of this story beyond the huge personal inconvenience and potential loss of livelihood for families invested in these Jenga towers. London’s horrific Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 was a singular reminder of the ways in which capitalism devastates its superfluous population, something which should no longer surprise us, but spur us to immediate action. Let alone the thousands of people who can never access accommodation more permanent than a park bench, and the millions more for whom genuinely affordable renting – not even ownership – is still a pipe dream. This moment makes accelerationists of us all, as we goad our general dissatisfaction onwards in the hope that a more egalitarian social order will rise from the ruins. The problem is that when capitalism literally crumbles, you and your family are still the ones who are left catching hell from the falling debris.
At the recent election, a moderate but inadequate social democratic agenda was firmly rejected in favour of a dystopian conviction to run out the clock and make the most of Australia’s natural resources while we still can. After all, there’ll be a white-picket fence or a trendy apartment in a new post-industrial neighbourhood for everyone to enjoy for a few years at least, won’t there? So as a result, we get to explore the depths of an increasingly punitive zombie capitalism without the bulwark of a genuine left-wing alternative. We’re riding the wave that the UK would have enjoyed had Jeremy Corbyn not checked Brexit triumphalism in 2017, or had Bernie Sanders never risen the banner of democratic socialism in 2015 for the US, with a woefully impotent political and intellectual class unable to do anything except appear publicly embarrassed at Australia’s climate nihilism and penchant for Pacific gulags. New approaches in our political space are vitally necessary to make up this vacuum, something which encouragingly groups like the Climate Justice Collective and Extinction Rebellion are beginning to do.
So the electoral contest is over: the rich have got their tax cuts, the opposition is tamed and the option to effectively disband any union that the government disagrees with is being actively pushed through. But these crumbling castles of Sydney’s dreams show that the rot has set in deep, that any attempt to build anything out of this broad coalition between ‘aspirational’ voters and the very vampires who are sucking them dry is destined to founder, as if to repeatedly shove the only jigsaw piece left in the box into a misshapen hole.
We’re beginning to see how the brave face that politicians have put on for two generations - claiming that the redevelopment of formerly industrial areas is a win for Australian workers - is crumbling in the most staggered and public way possible. The building is shaking, the foundations are unstable, and people have been told that the one thing they’ve given up everything to achieve is a cruel joke at their expense. This isn’t the kind of thing that creates political stability.
The artist Sam Wallman says that the climate crisis presents itself “as a tear in the fabric. We can rip that hole wide open and decide collectively what we want the world to look like on the other side”. What we’re seeing in the building crisis is a profound absence of will, and perhaps capacity, within any sector of Australian society to rip that hole wide open. In this moment, political movements need to ask themselves whether they are prepared to withstand, let alone capitalise on, the next crisis to hit, because whether it’s political, economic or ecological, it’s coming.
Angus Isador is a Canberra-based writer and unionist who thinks a lot about Sydney. He writes about politics and philosophy at https://sovereigntyinspace.wordpress.com/
Edwin Daniel is a writer and lawyer living in Sydney, and a member of the Sydney chapter of the Climate Justice Collective. He writes on a range of topics within critical theory, politics, aesthetics, the environment, and law, and his writing can be found on Notes From The Wreck.