Sunday, November 23, 2003

Auckland: Return of the Repressed

I have been working in another virtual space recently, setting up a site for my partner and I to show our friends back home what our life is like in New Zealand.

There's nothing like trying to find good pictures for a site like that to make you start to wonder about the place you live. And about Auckland, in particular.

Most people in New Zealand already know that Auckland is one of the most awful cities in the western world. It's not news. Occasionally, some international group insists on ranking Auckland as one of the top cities in the world, but you have to wonder if these people have ever actually been here.

Why is it so bad? Simply put, Auckland is not a city. It's a giant small town surrounded by suburbs. Beyond the confines of Queen Street, Auckland presents itself as an unending sprawl of villas and "haute" cafes. As Matiu Carr, from Auckland University's School of Architecture, Property and Planning has said of the villa:

A villa in my opinion expresses an attitude on the relationship of the occupants to nature...a villa...I believe attempts to exercise control
on the landscape [and] nature...

The modern suburban villa nostalgically points back to the Roman dwelling, an architectural form only possible in a slave-owning and strongly patriarchal society, where the family unit contained in such a dwelling was typically a large, extended family. Contemporary villas specifically exclude (because of their size) the possibility of an extended family. They also represent the domination of feminine ( see Beatriz Colomina: Privacy And Publicity, Modern Architecture as Mass Media) space by patriarchal power; thus the nostalgic reference to Roman times.

If anything, Auckland is anti-urban. It lacks difference, cosmopolitanism and diversity. Much of it has to do with the reasons why New Zealand was colonised in the first place.

James Belich, an historian of New Zealand, points to the fact that much of the impetus to emigrate to New Zealand was fueled by a middle-class horror at the rise of urbanism in England. Although the 19th century saw the rise of different class precincts (the first suburbs as well as worker's neighborhoods) it simply wan't good enough for many. Arcadian New Zealand offered people the chance to live in a specifically non-urban, monoclass environment.

Meanwhile, Jock Phillips, in his book A Man's Country: A History of the Pakeha Male points to a revulsion with what was precieved as the effeminate nature of urban experience. This essentially homophobic and misogynistic horror with the city is a significant feature of New Zealand cultural life. He quotes emigration activist Charles Hursthouse:

rather than grow up [in England] wanderer of the earth with no better chance than that of finding myself some day behind the counter with a bonnet on, measuring tape and bobbin to morning misses, or becoming the snubbed clerk with the pale wife and the seedy children, nailed to the dingy desk for life for 60 [pounds] a year, I would turn and breast the current; pull off my coat, take six months at some manly handicraft, and then, spite the dark warnings of Aunt Tabitha, spite the twaddle of my male friends in petticoats, I would secure cheap passage to Australia or New Zealand and...achieve a good deliverance from that grinding , social serfdom, those effeminate chains, my born and certain lot in England.

In this respect, it's no wonder that the closest that Auckland comes to urban experience is K road. K road is the one part of this city that has diversity. And it's also the one part of Auckland that harbours the feminine within the masculine: drag queens, gay culture and prostitutes. Call it the return of the repressed.