FABLE | Buildings and birds

Posted on 11/05/2013


A busy mind is useless. This morning I decided to take a longer than usual bike ride to clear my head so that I can spend most of the weekend focusing on some pressing tasks. Having reached Lemke Road, I thought I could cycle along the Deagon Deviation bikeway, which I have not ridden yet; only to find that the bikeway is closed from this month until some time next year. So I took a ride from there to Sandgate Train Station, around backstreets which I have ridden previously and crossing Cabbage Tree Creek a couple of times. At one point, there is a colony of rowdy bats in the mangrove, so I pause to record their chattering and calling, moved by the knowledge that such colonies may face dispersal due to current State Government directives and ongoing habitat destruction.

The bats prompted a trajectory from my earlier post about a proposal for a writing project drawn out of architecture fiction. After reading much of the dystopic and utopic tendencies of architecture fiction, I had wondered about the possibility of an architecture fairytale or fable (or other mythic construct), given a current engagement with fairytales. Fairytales and fables tend to be about deeds and have a kind of moral imperative woven through their narrative. The geography and architecture of fairytales is often fanciful and diverse: woods, castles, villages, houses, caves etc. In one of my earlier experimental hypertext works, racconto, I had endeavoured to explore some of these possibilities with limited success, drawing on historical, literary, mythic, philosophical and other references and influences; notably this included The Decameron and the Hypnerotomachia as well as classical mythology such as Roberto Calasso’s interpretive work and Italo Calvino’s fictional works. Reflecting on the possibilities of architecture fiction may breathe new life into this work which remains incomplete. What might an urban or experimental fairytale be? One of my favourite quotes: “What will it feel like to live in a city, where houses court each other in springtime?” But what if all buildings were imbued with that kind of desire, longing and flirtatiousness? This is a truly enjoyable image. I also wonder about reading buildings.

And then, the bats which are, of course, mammals and which didn’t so much evoke this quote but my recent experiences of birds: a canoeing trip through mangroves to go bird spotting, the tawny frog mouthed owl, the black cockatoo, other cockatoos (sulphur crested, Major Mitchells and galahs) and lorikeets. Each are inscribed with their own myths and superstitions. Then there are the birds we just take for granted like the rosella and the crows: John A says that the crows, which circle the suburb, presiding over it from the highest points like the majestic gum trees and the roof over my desk are bringing me thoughts and ideas. I hear them scratch on the ceramic tiles as I type. Not so long ago, a murder of crows had taken a dislike of my mother, a tiny and stocky owl-like woman who is becoming more stooped and wide-eyed as she ages, and they would heckle and menace her whenever she crossed their path. We were concerned that one day they might figure out how to carry her away. John learned that crows, being somewhat intelligent, can take a dislike to people and also bear grudges. When asked if she had ever done anything to the crows, my mother said that she would shoo them away from her front yard. Did you throw things at them? I asked. No, not really, just sticks, she replied. And she would recount how she used a broom to scare off the one crow, somehow different to the rest, that would come knocking on her front window and would peck at the fly screen and pick at the cat’s food.

Even though bats are mammals, I am taking some liberties with dots through these chaotic and messy joins. On a tour of the restored City Hall, cloaked in netting to repell the pigeons from the ornately carved facades and masonry, we discover a hole in the netting.  There’s a point in the Long Time, No See? walk where the participant listens to their environment and takes notes about what they hear. On one walk, through Bowen Hills, Fortitude Valley and the City, I was sitting at the Riverside Centre ferry wharf listening and hearing ferries, people, talk, clattering and all kind of sounds. After about a minute I realised there were no bird calls – working from home, birds calls are common – and feeling this as an absence, even a loss. And as I sighed, a tiny twitter made its way through a convergence of silence. Two swallows had made a nest in a tiny gap in the underbelly of the structure above and, returning to their retreat, they greeted each other in a fluttering and chirping dance.

My fairytale, as a journey through the city, might involve a tracing of where the birds roost, sing and fly, and a tracing of the spaces and details of buildings involving all kinds of metaphors and allegories. When I was in Istanbul, I encountered Serdar Ozkan’s The Missing Rose, a poetic fable-like narrative, notably compared with The Little Prince, which is a contemporary work that subtly traces mythopoeic traditions and involves us in the story of a girl whose search for her lost twin culminates in a rose garden in Istanbul. The allegory can be stretched to consider this a commentary on a city – or nation – that is searching for and confronting itself among its own jewels, that is excavating and revealing lost and new stories and connections.

Yesterday, I caught up with Ben I at a lecture on sustainable building design in which buildings were talked about in terms of operation and functionality, performance and use. While such considerations are absolutely essential as was the lecturer’s call for systemic change in the construction industry and more integrated management and design of buildings, it was a far cry from those imagined and fabled buildings that desire and long and flirt. As we walked along George St to the city under the pink and grey dusk, we heard the call of a currawong: resonant, haunting and searching. I hear this call often when I walk around the bush and creeks in my suburb though it’s more like a cacophony involving many birds, even ocassionally in my backyard. Initially, we couldn’t ascertain where it was coming from and then there was a distant reply from another. So there was a back and forth of currawong calls across the city in this fading light. Ben I tells me about the birds in his backyard and I tell him of my recent bird encounters too. As we discussed it, recognising that bird calls seem rare, even out of place in the city, I finally discerned the shadow of the bird perched on a gargoyle on the old government printers building – a lone bird taking refuge on the shoulder of a grotesque stone creature and having found another to share a song …

Posted in: narrative, story, writing