What are they?
The antithesis of the contemporary urban environment, whose sturdy handrails, warning decals and fluorescent yellow strips are tenderly coddling us in bubble wrap, anxiously protecting us from every possible bump, scrape and bruise. By dangerous, we do not so much refer to cliff edges nor shark-infested waters, rather the more quotidian places which return to us a sense of our own bodies, the understanding that our safety is our responsibility and ours alone.
Walsh Street House by Robin Boyd is one such dangerous place.
We had the good fortune to attend the awards ceremony for the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work that was held there last week (into which we entered our project, SafetyNet City, discussed here and viewable here, that did not win). At the entrance, a gracious host warned us to watch our step down the stairs, as the handrail is not enclosed, and our footing on the balcony, as its sides have no handrails at all. Later, taking the photo below, we almost fell off said balcony, but were thankfully saved by the helpful tendril of a well-placed shrub.
What did we learn?
It is true that one of the fundamental prerogatives of architecture is to protect us, to bring us in from the heat and the cold and the lions. But having achieved commendable lion-protection across most Australian cities, our national building code and local councils have with misplaced good intentions turned to making sure even the smallest of dangers is extinguished.
Our steps are festooned with fluorescent yellow strips. Our windows are adorned with warning decals. Our balconies and stairs are ensconced in handrails. Our train platforms are decorated with tactile indicators. Our swimming pools are barricaded by fences. And we suffer unwittingly as the result.
There is such a thing as too much comfort. Our overly safe Australian cities ruin us for other, foreign cities – they soften our bodies, dull our senses and reduce our immunity to the cracks, unevenness and small surprises found elsewhere. It is worthwhile noting that across billions of years of continuous evolution and refinement, good Mother Nature has not found it necessary to grow handrails.
Now, we do not suggest that you tear out your balustrades and burn your fluorescent strips in protest against this gross injustice (though should you choose to do so, we would be delighted to hear about it). Rather, we simply wish to acknowledge the pleasant respite we enjoyed from all this unrequested over-protection at a stunningly-designed house that returned to us an acute awareness of self. It is called proprioception – the awareness through one’s muscles and nerves of one’s own body. Living in so much comfort, we could all do with more of it in our daily diets.