Somatics of Space

Another weekend in Sydney (Australia) my original hometown, that’s three trips in
the last 3 months. Sometimes the flight into Sydney from either north or
south can be breathtaking. We tracked in from Melbourne along the line of
the Blue Mountains, part of eastern Australia’s Great Dividing Range. The
serpentine basin of Sydney’s main watershed Warragamba Dam passing
slowly by. Then the precipitous honeycombed sandstone of Kanangra Walls
National Park clearly in view. All this enveloped by blue-green haze – a
phenomenon which is created by the transpiration of vast eucalypt forests.
The plane turns right and heads out to sea. Remarkably remote beaches
appear below with clear sightlines of surf, sand and little evidence of major
human habitation. We are in a holding pattern and clearly see where the
continental shelf falls to the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The high coastal
cliffs of Royal National Park appear, disappear and reappear before we finally
turn to the city that awaits and come into land…

I’m finishing some postgraduate study at University of Technology Sydney
(UTS) which I have meandered through for nearly a decade. The fact that
UTS has allowed me to meander for this long says a lot about them as a
learning community. Other places might not be so patient, flexible and at
ease with my pause-play path.

I really like UTS, I’ve been a student there through 5 different postal codes.
Some had 4 numbers some had 9!? I’ve worked out that I’ve lived in 13
different post codes, 15 different houses and apartments at last count. All
those places – slept in, showered in, bathed, cooked at, made love in, raised
children in, gardened, lawn mowed, snow shovelled, driven, ridden, walked
away from, loved, loathed, longed for, left.

There have also been a lot of Universities. I don’t have a particularly sound
explanation for why there have been so many – I’ve been a student at 5,
taught at 2, lived on campus for a summer at one. Gone to the library on a
regular basis at another. Used all their facilities even though I wasn’t going
to that University and, they even gave me an ID card so I could borrow
books! I mean please, that seems pretty generous and accomodating.  Now
don’t get me started on the all-encompassing benevolence of public libraries
that deserves a separate write-up.

So I am at UTS for the third time in 3 months, and anyone who knows
downtown Sydney well, will know UTS, whether they are a student or staff
member there doesn’t matter. They will know UTS Building 2 Broadway
campus. When you step off the train at Central Railway Station you’re
confronted by a towering poo brown phallus festooned with assorted ITC
bling – ariels, microwave links, mobile phone pods and “UTS” in enormous letters
emblazoned at the top. Pre-unification East Berlin public architecture never
looked so benign. Still scratching my head as to why so many Australian
Universities sent their consultant architects off to communist Eastern Europe
to source their design aesthetics. The UTS tower is on par with Melbourne’s
renowned but thankfully demolished Gas & Fuel Corporation Building another
poo brown smudge on that city’s skyline which made way for the popular
civic spaces of Federation Square.

For the past two visits to UTS for weekend intensives our classes have been
located in UTS Building 10. The design history and story of Building 10 is
fascinating in its own right, the place has even won major architectural
awards. Now I don’t profess to be architecturally literate but I have to say
that my felt sense of being in Building 10 and working there was really
striking. It was a pleasure to walk into the light filled atrium of this
refurbished and retrofitted space. It was a joy on both occasions to work in
this environment, to actually hang out there. The University in its wisdom
has recognised that hard working students need some soft spaces in which to work.

Now soft spaces is a term used in early childhood education to mean spaces that are literally soft: inviting, relaxed, full of cushions, pillows maybe blankets, soft toys and perhaps books. Spaces where children can curl up on the floor with a book, a doll, a teddy or maybe go and have a little nap, highly civilised I might say and conducive to self regulation,  relaxation and learning.

UTS’s version of this was lounge areas with over-sized comfy armchairs where you
could curl up with a tea, coffee, breakfast, lunch or dinner, your laptop and
of course wireless internet service. But there are also breakout rooms for students to work together with whiteboards, tables and get this big cushions, soft squishy stools and chairs! My student colleagues
and I spent a whole day in one of these rooms. I sat on a squishy stool most
of the day and came out with no back-ache or stiffness – remarkable.

Now all of this might be an emerging trend. First signs for me was rocking
chairs in transit lounges and high quality jazz being broadcast at Chicago’s
O’Hare Airport some 5 years ago. More recently the Moroso Lounge in
jetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK International Airport NYC. Our family arrived on
a red eye flight from Oakland California in June of this year and enjoyed lying
and rolling around the soft and inviting furniture of the Moroso Lounge
waiting for our final flight to Portland Maine. The recognition seems to be
dawning that people have to stuff themselves into a certain shape in order
to travel or work in certain situations and this is not always conducive to the
wellbeing of their bodies. Perhaps a recognition or regard for embodiment?

It is exciting to think that there are people who are putting their hearts and
minds to these questions. Articulating the importance of the somatics of
space and the embodied dimensions of design in the contemporary
world. Italian doctor, psychotherapist and Body-Mind Centering®
practitioner Jader Tolja has written eloquently on this subject more broadly
described as body conscious design.

It is 6:30pm on a Saturday night I head out the door of UTS Building 10 and wend my way to Sydney Airport on the train then into terminal-transit-lounge-land, no soft spaces in sight.  My plane to Melbourne (Avalon Airport) is delayed, finally taking off, sleep beckons, we land, doors disarmed cross checked, opened. I walk down the gangway onto the tarmac, the darkened sky surrounds, the smell of grass and earth saturates my nostrils. I expand with this momentary infiltration of nature. Smiling at this contradiction I walk away from the solitary towering shape of the parked but still noisy Airbus jet. Ahead of me the long bus ride, the short tram trip
and home – two more shape shifts before bed.

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The Body Issue

Every year The Age Newspaper (Melbourne,  Australia) runs  “The Body Issue” of the Sunday Age Magazine. Every year I hope for something more from the big investment The Age seems to put into this special edition devoted to the contested territory of the post modern human body.  Every year the story of peoples bodies, the mysterious complicated vessel from which we see, feel, know and locate ourselves in this life gets shrink-wrapped into dualities: fat, thin, beautiful, botoxed, worked-out, boob-jobs or not, well fed, over fed. In short the ‘body’ becomes another place where living experience can be neatly boxed, cataloged,  updated, looked over with your Sunday morning coffee then popped in the recycle bin.

Every year this magazine serves up the same semi-comatosed superficial  investigation of what people in this culture are thinking and feeling about their bodies.  The body becomes another form of materialism, another forum for unquestioned aspirationalism next to real estate, cars, careers, sex.  Another place for humans to compare and quietly suffer. Suffer the all-pervasive misunderstanding that there is never enough, more is better and if only I did this or did that to myself then,  I would finally be happy. Another place where we can all be told that there is some pathology which needs a fix.

If only a good newspaper like The Age could for a few moments take off the veil of certainty about the ‘body’ and allow the unpredictable, edgy and nebulous experience of being embodied, being in an animal body shine through the clouds. What our bodies are according to this world view is what can be seen by others, what can be judged by others, what can experienced vicariously. Where is a discussion of the felt-sense of our bodies, the territory of the interior (hmmm, doesn’t sell newspapers does it?). Ahhh that potentially vast space, a vast and beautiful universe,  sensations, emotions, pleasure of movement, pleasure of pulsation…life circulating…breath…breathing…living like all other sentient life on this planet. Whoops sorry need to get back to names and categories for the body, objects, keep the whole thing at arms length, avoid rubbing up against something resembling living. Until next year I’m gonna keep wishing for something that goes beyond fine grained suffering into enjoyment and gratitude with what we”ve got: a precious human body!


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