decolonising design in the built environment

Oh, Vonnegut x

"All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies."
Verse 1: The Book of Bokonon

I’m not usually one to indulge in fantasy, yet I recently caught myself in hyper-imagination whilst reflecting on my experiences of the past few weeks. (The white-washed KHT forum, the conversations beyond, the all-Black UTS forum and ABC Radio discussion, everything in between.)

The fantasy: that my dead, unrequited love, Kurt Vonnegut, is alive (again) and writing a short story framed around the last couple of months in Australia’s archi-sphere, the black-white intersection. 

///The imagining///

My speculation began: where would Vonnegut place the story? Melbourne, 2015 would be too literal, too non-fiction. Maybe it would be set on another planet, elsewhere in the Milky Way, some place invaded by Earth’s mankind, a strategic imposition, a land grab. Set in the future. Or set in Australia, with a time-travelling character from the future. The year 2050. 3000. 3500. Future-whenever.

Who would Vonnegut choose as the protagonist? Would it be me? Would Kurt research the fuck out of me, and would we share mutual admiration for each others work? Probably not. More likely, Vonnegut would caricature a lonely, depressed man in the archi-sphere. Maybe somebody who is desperately striving to become part of the archi-dialogue, the granfalloon. Maybe somebody specialising in archi-PR. Or somebody seemingly removed. A passer-by. A fringe-dweller. A nobody. (Pick me..?)

Excited by the prospect of such character development, and accepting that the lead role would not be an Aboriginal woman, I began to project from this yet-to-be-defined character’s loneliness and desperation, imagining the ridiculousness that Vonnegut would integrate into the character’s position, the order of events, the back story, the commentary. 

Would Kurt be keen to include some hand drawings, to animate the story? Would he consider a collaboration? If I drafted a quick sketch of KV's asshole drawing alongside LK’s cunt sketch, could I persuade him? What would he say about the change in wide-open-beaver cosmetic preference since Breakfast of Champions?

Would Vonnegut delve into the over-arching politics of race-relations in Australia? The power plays? Or would he consider it a personal story, a reflective narrative, the journey of an individual. A story based around an archi-apocalypse? Archi-anarchy? All of the above..?

I imagined Vonnegut’s inclusion of dialogue beyond verbal communication, some empty poetry via a future-comm-tech that he would propose for the story. Some comical private messages between characters. Many cringe worthy moments of embarrassment, shame, honesty, pride. 

After each few paragraphs, would Kurt highlight these “moments” with a repeated motif as he does in Slapstick (“hi ho”) and Slaughterhouse-Five (“so it goes”)? Maybe he would choose something more architectural, something to the effect of: “wank, wank”.

///Reality check///

Vonnegut is dead. The closest links I have with Kurt: he had a respectful appreciation for extended family, kinship beyond bloodlines, and his father was an architect.

My unrequited admiration for KV is not perfect. Vonnegut referred to Indigenous peoples several times in his work, none of which I am particularly fond of. A few that I question: a graduation speech at Fredonia College, New York (1978), published in Welcome to the Monkey House: Palm Sunday (1994, p. 489);  Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1987, p. 190), and; God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian (1999, pp. 33-5). 

The themes are too close to home for me to uncritically accept his social commentary. In God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian, KV tasks Dr Kevorkian to administer near-death experiences in order for Vonnegut to access heaven and interview its occupants, including Shakespeare, Hitler, Trout, and one such meeting which refers to Aboriginal people massacred in Tasmania. On one hand, I respect that he framed a whole chapter around the genocide of Aboriginal people in Tasmania, that he acknowledged the contemporary struggles in Australia: “Only in 1967, practically the day before yesterday, were the surviving Australian Aborigines granted citizenship”. Yet it is so ignorant to subscribe to the Truganini-was-the-last-Aboriginal-of-Tasmania mindset by stating:“There were no survivors on Tasmania”. 

Am I consciously blind in awe of KV's work that I don’t want to consider the possibility that he was misinformed? Ignorant, even? That he didn't do his best? That he is projecting his ignorance to hundreds of thousands of readers? Or am I expected to let this slide in order to "appreciate" the over-all point he was trying to make? Is this any different from architectural gestures with “good intentions” that simplify and exploit Aboriginal themes of history/culture/identity in built form? 

A difference: KV’s literature is not a physical imposition. As a reader, I have the liberty to stop reading, to close the book. God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian is not a building-sized novel, shouting its views all over the place.

Aside from these few references, Vonnegut’s work inspires and reminds me to see the ridiculousness and humour in times of frustration and in the world of ignorance and arrogance. A reminder that we are all human. 

If you haven’t come across any of Vonnegut’s work before, it is well worth the read. My favourite KV book is Slapstick, followed (in no order) by: Cat’s CradleThe Sirens of TitanBreakfast of Champions, and all his other works. 

To close with a KV quote from his “Palm Sunday” (humanist/agnostic?) sermon, 1980:

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward - and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner."

Linda KennedyComment