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Off the plan: shelter, the future and the problems in between

Are the millennials doomed to be nomads, locked out of the home-ownership market forever? sharon_k/flickr, CC BY-SA

Off the plan: shelter, the future and the problems in between

This piece is republished with permission from Millennials Strike Back, the 56th edition of Griffith Review. Selected pieces consist of extracts or long reads in which Generation Y writers consider the issues that define and concern them.


It’s early 2017, and the first lists of the most unaffordable housing in the world have dropped. Oh boy. I’ve been waiting for this since the great smashed-avocado-versus-home-deposit showdown of 2016. It’s gratifying. There’s my current city, Melbourne, holding sixth place for third year running. Go!

And there’s my old city, Sydney, right up at number two. Other Australian capitals might not make the top ten but they are each awarded a rank of “severely unaffordable”.

Reading lists like this gives me a shot of serotonin straight to the soul. There it is now: pleasant smug! Validation! I feel like I will never be able to afford a home because I will never be able to afford a home. It’s not millennial whinging. There is data. There are studies; lists.

In Hong Kong, the city that has topped the lists for as long as I’ve been reading them, a think-tank alleged that it would take a couple under 35 14-and-a-half years to save enough for a deposit on a small apartment. The government, the think-tank advised, should get out in front of the crisis and build “hostels” for young people to live in while they save.

It’s an evocative real-estate dystopia: rows of young people prostrate in bunks, exhausted, saving every cent of their income for their own tiny box in which to teeter on the edge of one of the most densely populated islands on earth.

I can close my eyes and picture myself there: earplugs and herbal sleeping tablets lined up beside my bunk where I lie reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer with a torch, before drifting off to dream of warehouse conversions.

At its most basic level, real estate is code for the amount of private space you can draw around your body. Owning a home also has deep cultural and economic connotations. A home owner is a member of a street, a community. They are a successful adult human. They own a piece of the pie, the dream.

Desperation behind the dream

In the era of late capitalism, the American dream throws around words like liberty and freedom and insists that, in America, a person who works hard can achieve anything. The home emerges as a site in which to exercise those freedoms.

In Australia, we have a more recent and explicit version. Our great Australian dream ditches the appeal to higher values and insists that hard work and real estate are essential for a good life. It goes so far as to predicate success and happiness on a steadily appreciating quarter-acre block with a brick veneer on top.

Every Australian of my parents’ generation seems to have a story about a terrace home with water glimpses they almost bought for 20 grand and a hand job. These stories – monotonous, formally identical with those of lottery tickets lost or found – bubble up with the warm beer at intergenerational social events.

They sour the coleslaw and cause sausage chunks to stick in the throat. “Did I tell you about the three-bedroom terrace on the harbour that your mother and I…” says Dad, again. I plug my ears with indignation.

Some people his age bought those houses and are now wealthy. In Australia, real-estate investment is class consolidation. Being locked out of the house market is, for middle-class young people, like having the privileges your status implied suspended indefinitely. Stamped with some official line:

The middle class is currently under review. Check back later.

In 2014, Australia’s federal treasurer stated, like a dullard commenter on an online op-ed, that “if housing was unaffordable, no-one would be buying it”. He advised entitled young people that the first step to buying a house is “getting a good job that pays good money”.

Right. Yep. Got it. I’ll make a list of great advice I’ve been given regarding home ownership and put this pearl right up next to “move somewhere cheaper” and “don’t eat out”.

Then-treasurer Joe Hockey says if housing was unaffordable no one would be buying it.

In Australia, as in many parts of the world, population growth has led to housing shortages and high purchase and rental costs. Unsustainable sprawl creeps from the perimeters of capital cities into the scrub and farmland beyond.

We suffer from a lack of housing diversity: four-bedroom McMansions are out of reach for lower-income families; tiny apartments in toaster buildings are suitable only for students, singles and short stayers. Inner-city real estate is unaffordable; outer-suburban life isolated, unless you happen to be one in a growing number with multiple families in apartments on the outskirts of the city, in which case your troubles are bigger than mine.

Unsurprisingly, homelessness is on the rise in cities, and yet the view that the fault for this lies with the individual still holds prominence. In Melbourne in January 2017, while the mayor reportedly began talks about the forced removal of the homeless, the Victoria Police chief commissioner insisted that the people who are sleeping rough are not homeless at all but “choosing to camp” because “there’s more people to shake down for money” in the summer, when the tennis is on.

And in winter, the Herald Sun insisted that homeless freeloaders were flocking to Melbourne for “free food, clothes, showers and dental treatment”.

Housing unaffordability is not limited to capital cities. Australia also achieves a global ranking of “severely unaffordable” for areas outside these cities: Wingecarribee and Tweed Heads in NSW, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast in Queensland are all brightly decorated. In 2015, the median price for a house in the Bendigo suburb of Ascot rose 31%.

And there are other problems in the regional centres too. A friend recently came back to the city from a desert town where she had been living for more than seven years. She wanted to reconnect with city life, needed the infrastructure that was there, but also, at 35, she wanted to settle in her desert home but fracking is affecting the groundwater. “I just can’t afford to buy a house in a city that will have no drinking water in five years,” she said.

She wasn’t referring to her bank account. Sometimes buying a piece of land brings a whole new insecurity. Officially declared “affordable” places like Karratha, Port Hedland and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, and Gladstone in Queensland, quake in the aftershock of the mining boom.

What kinds of investments were these places before, and then after their minerals were extracted from the area? What kinds of homes are they now?

Seeking escape from rental

Increasingly, we rent our homes. As a renter, your life is intensely scrutinised and regulated. As a landlord, not so much. Rent is unregulated, expensive and getting more so. A Harvard University-run study predicts that by 2025, 15 million North American households will spend more than half their income on rent.

My own experience as a renter is of begging and hustling for small repairs, being treated as a suspect and an enemy by the people I pay a third of my income to, and finally, inevitably, being booted out unceremoniously when the market looks tasty. Sometimes it’s humiliating. When I got the keys to my first rental in Melbourne, there was a shrivelled roast chicken in the oven.

Sometimes you have to do low-level crime. We all know that bidding on rental properties is technically illegal, but we also need a place to live and will pay whatever we can. Above all, the renter must treat the real estate agent like a high-ranking government official. I wear high heels when house hunting, I carry a smart black folio full of documentation. I lick arse and smile “thank you”.

It’s unsurprising then that the dream endures. To have your own space. To be free of the rent grind. To put nails in the wall and plant a garden. To have a pet. These are seductive adult fantasies we have been training for since we were children playing house.

Despite my lack of a stable income, I have been obsessively monitoring the real-estate websites for years, typing in search words like wishes on stars. I was surprised one morning when I discovered that my bank – lack of stable income and infamy of the sub-prime mortgage crisis notwithstanding – was more than happy to pre-approve me for a home loan.

My jaw dropped in disbelief when the hold music cut out and the kind young man on the other end of the phone line said:

Good news, Miss Doyle: we can pre-approve a loan of $330,000. You can go and start bidding today!

It was a Saturday. I was hungover. Melancholic. Looking for distraction from the adult fantasies of others being beamed at me via my Facebook feed. I had been despondently browsing real-estate sites and called the bank on a whim. I flushed with a strange pride when the operator evaluated and praised my “good financial conduct”.

He was not concerned with my smattering of casual employment. He could see all the way back to the school banking program, to those dollar-coin deposits. Back then, I used a bank-supplied plastic moneybox. It was a space alien, squat, not grey but orange, descended from far-flung intergalactic civilisation to recruit six-year-old terrestrial banking customers.

The man in the call centre could follow my financial life story from these coerced beginnings all the way to the overcautious adult I had become. He could see, at a glance, the ten-dollar bottles of red, the vast sums spent on rent and my tricky method of never letting my credit card debt exceed my savings, carefully balancing the two so that I have both the illusion of thrift, and of largesse.

He could see enough to surmise that I’m the kind of gal who could service a fat loan. Doesn’t that sound dirty? Service my fat loan.

Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? I take a third job to meet my repayments and avoid homelessness? I’m forced to sell early and the bank takes the property price along with my repayments? I give up one set of illusions about my freedom to feed another? I would merely be joining the vast majority of my peers who carry debts they cannot pay down.

Blowing the budget at the auction

Full of adrenaline and aspiration, I dragged my partner to an auction.

“Welcome to Edgewater Towers,” declared a framed print advertisement from the 1960s. “Fabulous Manhattan living comes to Melbourne.” The print hung strategically in the lobby of what must have been one of the first high-rise housing developments in inner-suburban Melbourne.

I had just finished watching the final season of Mad Men. To me, it was a pop-cultural omen. The apartment for sale – three conservatively valued rooms with views of a rollercoaster – had shag carpet on the wall. In my mind, I was already rubbing up against it singing “Zou bisou bisou”.

A small crowd squeezed into the lounge room-cum-kitchen.

“I think you should buy it,” my sweetheart whispered.

“I don’t even know how to bid.”

“Do you want me to do the bidding?”

Neither of us mentioned how the last home-ownership conversation we had involved living on a boat. All at once we were ready for a new life. We were ready to make our own great Australian dream come true.

The auctioneer opened the bidding at a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

My sweetheart squeezed my hand. “Should I?”

I felt the sweaty pressure on my hand. Ignored the expectant look.

“$450,000,” said a voice from the back.

Annnd, we’re out.

Our hands slackened. We giggled foolishly as the rollercoaster rattled and crashed like nothing you would find in Manhattan. I suddenly remembered that in 1979 it came right off those brittle wooden rails and crashed into playground lore forever.

Perhaps someone stood in this very apartment and watched it splinter and fall, listening to the screams, unable to finish their aperitif. That person probably bought the joint for 20 grand and a hand job.

“Five hundred thousand.”

A gasp went up.

I looked around at the auction contenders. A woman with a flash handbag and a severe hairstyle, gripping a black folder, refusing to smile at her eager 20-ish daughter. A 50-something couple in his-and-hers boat shoes. A young woman who, when the auctioneer goaded her by suggesting another bid might secure a beach lifestyle in time for summer, admitted she “already owns one in this building”.

“Even better – buy this for a higher price and your own goes up in value,” said the auctioneer. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is one smart investor.”

Finally, a couple in their late 30s secured the place. She looked pregnant. He looked shaken. They may just have gone $200,000 over budget but you have to follow the dream.

All in it together

Some young adults are taking ingenious routes to secure their piece of the dream.

My friend Liza, her two sisters, their parents, partners and children all went in on the mortgage on a huge stucco palace in a rapidly gentrifying inner-western suburb of Sydney. The home, with its columns, fancy brickwork and outdoor pizza oven, was probably built by a successful Italian family some time during the disco era.

Liza’s family have split the house into multiple apartments. They all live together, sharing babysitting duties and gardening in a way that is sometimes utopic and sometimes smothering.

“There are downsides,” she says. “Like, I look out my window and there’s my whole family standing there. I don’t really get the option to not engage. It can be hard to establish boundaries. But the pros outweigh the cons for sure.”

“Were you into it from the start?” I say.

“I was pregnant. I was also alone. It was kind of a case of having a plan versus having no plan, you know?”

I do know.

“I couldn’t afford to buy, or even rent anything on my own. At least not anywhere I would want to live. I probably would have brought up Henry-Lee in a share house rather than move out to the middle of nowhere,” she pauses. “That probably sounds really bourgie.”

I understand this cringing feeling. There is something yuck about middle-class people in Australia whining about housing, insisting on living in the suburbs we like to socialise and work in.

There is something yuck, too, about newspapers insisting that Australian children need backyards and that apartment living is totally unsuitable for families. But the idea of Liza and her child in an apartment hours from her friends and family, her work and community makes me anxious.

“I was just thinking the other day how lucky all our kids are. They get their own space, but there are always other kids around to play with. Plus my sisters and I help each other with the domestic stuff, and we all chip in for a cleaner,’ she says, washing that feeling away.

Multi-generational households are becoming more popular globally. In 2012, The Independent reported there were more than 500,000 households containing three generations or more in the UK. They predicted another 50,000 to be added by 2019.

Arrangements like Liza’s are not wholly innovative, of course, but hark back to other places and times. The "nuclear family” is, tellingly, a term that came to prominence during the postwar prosperity my parents came of age in.

It’s all a matter of spin, though. Inner-urban millennials with the resources and skills to turn the shed into a tiny house can be celebrated for their ingenuity and ethics. Well-heeled siblings who pull together to buy together are adapting to a cut-throat market.

Meanwhile, people living in public housing, squats or on the street are treated with the disdain our culture reserves for the poor. And adults who live with their parents for too long are lambasted as “kidults”.

In Japan they are dubbed the parasaito shinguru, “parasite singles”, and scapegoated for social problems ranging from the ageing population to the recession. In the US, they are “boomerang children”, because when you throw them out they come right back to you. In Italy, a cabinet minister described adults who live with their parents as bamboccioni, translated variously as “big babies” or “big dummy boys”.

At 33, Alex is a bamboccione of the Melbourne suburbs, though his mother would never use that term. He is a conscientious person. I met him singing in a community choir, to give you an idea. I did not know then, as we reached for Justin Timberlake harmonies, that Alex was still living his in his parent’s brick home on a Ramsay-Street-from-Neighbours-esque cul-de-sac along with his two younger brothers and, at various other times, his older sisters and their partners.

He explains:

I did move out for a little while. The rent was huge, and the house was cramped and kind of a dump. At some point I had to come home for financial reasons and then I just stayed. I mean, it’s really nice out here.

Alex shows me his bungalow at the edge of an extensive and neatly trimmed lawn. He has a bed that looks too short for him, an old lamp and a La-Z-Boy recliner. There are books piled up in neat stacks. He has tacked a couple of newspaper prints to the wall above an old upright piano. It could be the room of a studious teenager.

“I don’t know if I’m, you know, infantilised, because my mum is just over there,” he laughs, pointing to the big house behind us. ‘I suppose it took me a long time to find myself. I was in my late 20s before I started to understand who I was and what I wanted, or what I didn’t want, which is sometimes an easier place to start.“

Alex doesn’t want the same things as me. He doesn’t want to work full-time. He doesn’t want kids. He doesn’t want to pay rent. He embodies every reason the media exploits in labelling my generation as irresponsible kidults. I ask Alex what he thinks about that and he laughs.

"I think ‘fuck off’! I have been responsible since I was 17. I just happen to live at home because that way I can save. And because I like it here. My brothers are here too. We all get along. We look after each other.”

In the big house, Alex introduces me to his family for the first time. His mother, Kathy, gives me a broad, warm hug. She has a wonderful smile. There’s a cheese platter. There’s champagne with strawberries and some kind of flower in the bottom of the glass.

It’s warm and gorgeous here. Like a TV family. A window above the dining table looks onto a reserve where neighbourhood dogs chase sticks and roll jubilantly in the cut grass. A soccer ball bounces against a fence.

“I told my neighbours you were coming around and they said to send you over to them,” says the matriarch. “No-one can get rid of their kids round here.”

A heavily pregnant daughter and her partner pick at a plate of crudités.

One by one, sons emerged. Healthy, suntanned men. They work together as electricians and their new vans are parked on the front lawn. One just returned from a hiking trip with his buddy.

“Do you think you will ever move out?” I ask the youngest.

“I think Mum might be giving me a nudge,” he smiles, cutting another piece of smoked gouda.

Kathy’s face contracts into a happy wince.

“You should get a sense of it,” she says.

I get the feeling that in this family moving out is an important experience, like travelling. Something you can always come home from.

We plate up four kinds of barbecue and switch from champagne to shiraz. I joke about wanting to move in too and Kathy laughs, pleased. Then her face settles into a look of utter seriousness.

“You are always welcome.”

She tells me about how she was shipped off to boarding school from the farm and never went back. After high school, she trained as a nurse, living in dormitories, guarded by nuns until she and some friends could afford to rent their own house.

“It was all so much fun!” she said. “But these are different times.”

Kathy graduated from nursing school into marriage and moved from that house into this one. I don’t covet this life, of course. It feels so far away from my reality. When, at 11pm, I start to say goodbyes, Kathy looks hurt.

“Do you have to leave?” she says.

I wish I didn’t. If this was my family, I might get myself another wine, another bowl of ice-cream and nap on the couch in front of the tennis. Though I also might not. I was out of home at 17, aching for life to start.

At that age adulthood meant independence; it’s only now that I see it also means connection. How do you find this sense of permanence and community when the most pragmatic part of you life – your home and neighbourhood – is leased to you on a 12-month basis?

Taking the communal route

Seeking my own alternatives, I take off early one Sunday in December and drive east to the oldest intentional community in Victoria. I found out about the open day on the community website.

There is a manifesto there, which talks about the isolation of the suburban nuclear family. It talks about pollution, crowding, unaffordable rent, lack of public infrastructure and loss of community. It was written in the ’70s, but still resonates today.

On arrival, I find I am not the only millennial this picture of boomer-era radicalism appeals to. Frankie, a 30-year-old from the affluent bayside suburbs of Melbourne, is commune shopping. She has known “since high school” that she wanted a different kind of living arrangement. She’s single, polyamorous, optimistic and scathing of nuclear families and suburban life.

Perhaps “scathing” is too strong a word. Her opinions are all tempered with careful university-learnt defensiveness that reminds me of interviews with Lena Dunham. She prefaces every opinion with disclaimers like, “I hear what you are saying and I totally respect that but…”

We wander around the grounds of the commune with three residents: John, Emma and Ethan, whose ages range from mid-40s to 60s. Clusters of houses, organised by personality and lifestyle, are dotted in clearings in the bush. One cluster belongs to young families with kids, another to single people in their midlife, still another to retirees.

“This is the best cluster,” declares Ethan, waving his hand across a small glen like a wry lord. “For this is where I live.”

He shows us the mudbrick and straw-bale homes favoured by the community members. They remind me of the house I was born in, an architecture of mid-century optimism. The houses ostensibly share a garden but they are separate dwellings. No commune members toil there à la the paintings of socialist realism. Frankie looks disappointed.

“Do you have much time all together?” she asks.

The communalists exchange searching looks.

“I think we had a thing last Christmas?”

Frankie looks destroyed.

“At the beginning all we did was build. We kept saying to one another, won’t it be great when the building is done so we can get down to community building? What we didn’t realise was that working hard together like that was the community,” says John, summing up the plight of all utopians: once you build your paradise, you have to live in it.

We women hang back as the tour continues. We bash our way through the scrub and casually get to the core of each other’s lives, with the skilled precision possessed by most female outsiders.

Frankie, so earnest she sears my corneas, reminds me of Julianne Moore’s character in the movie Safe with her sensitivity to city toxins and her yearning to be sucked into a pristine bubble. Emma, on the other hand, is pragmatic, tempering her New Age affirmations (“you have to be the change you want to see in the world”) with some refreshing frankness. She tells me, confidentially:

I’m not one of these vagina worshippers. A lot of that menstrual moon goddess stuff goes on up here but you can leave me right out of it, that’s for sure.

If I lived here, we would be BFFs in no time.

“What’s your story?” Frankie asks me, breaking the morose silence.

I feel a flush of guilt. I know that I will probably write about this. I’m an exploiter! I want to say. A parasite! Don’t talk candidly with me.

But actually we three have a lot in common. I’m drawn to this kind of arrangement for similar reasons to Frankie and Emma: I want a community; I don’t want to work three jobs to service a city mortgage; I don’t want kids of my own but I like the idea of having them around, especially the teenagers. Emma is proud to have become a confidant for many young people here at difficult times.

I want long evenings talking politics, literature and floor plans while the possums scurry through the scrub and the dogs bark in the valley below.

And I’m an uncomfortable mass of contradictions, as they all are. I’m territorial but desperate for connection, like John, pragmatic yet idealistic like Emma, competitive and irreverent, like Ethan, 30 and searching for a satisfying life, like Frankie. Oh please love me, shelter me, have me at your collective table!

“I want to find out more about the alternatives,” I say instead.

Frankie nods enthusiastically.

A car pulls up to us, the occupants smiling broadly, sizing us up.

“Are any of you interested in the Deans’ place?” the driver asks.

“We’ll talk about that later,” John mutters.

It’s as though we’ve been suddenly and unceremoniously undressed. Ezmay tries to cover by making a joke about hawkers but it falls flat. The beast of real estate has run a sharp claw through the scrim of ideals. A tiny tractor moves a flock of sheep through a green square below us. Rows of olive trees stand to salty attention.

“So there are vacant houses for sale here?”

“Yes,” says John. “We have one that has been empty for almost five years. There was one family who were interested but the cluster has to vote unanimously in favour of them. The last buyers didn’t get the vote.”

“How much is it?”

John stalls. He talks about shares and full membership petitioning and how moving onto the commune is a process. He talks about the future and the past, and about the philosophy of the place.

Finally he gives us a number.

Annnd, I’m out.

Building the Base

Later, safely ensconced in the unintentionality of the city, I wonder what my generation’s model for intentional living would be? Are we too jaded and locked out for utopian aspirations?

Al doesn’t think so. I read about the 20-year-old “entrepreneur and change-maker” in an article on a real-estate website. Al believes in the power of our generation. He insists we are at a better moment in history than we think we are.

Currently, he is focusing his change-making drive on the way millennials arrange their lives. His newest business endeavour is Base, a “project which seeks to create and invest in spaces and experiences to cultivate communities, culture and personal growth”.

What this means is that Al has found a way to capitalise on both the need for young people to share space in an increasingly expensive rental market, and their need to feel as though their lives are making an impact in a time when activism and getting involved in the community are a matter of clicking “Share” on Facebook.

Al’s vision for Base is a “curated share house” for “nomadic change-makers”. Think of a cross between Big Brother and a commune in an inner-city warehouse. And all the locks on the doors will open with an iPhone app. That’s an important feature. Al repeats it twice.

The idea for Base came to him when he was doing the festival circuit, introducing crowds at Rainbow Serpent and Burning Man to his vision for “living onely”, that is, “coming together, alive”. In his TEDx Talk, he asks an audience of 14-year-olds:

What if we could work together to create the abundance, the sustainability and the love that we truly are? We are a rainforest, the sun can be a shared vision … My mission is to become the mycorrhizal fungi that the trees use to communicate.

In my experience, share houses usually communicate via notes and suggestively placed cleaning products, but that is the past – the future is Base, abundant, onely, fungal.

On the phone, Al comes across as an ardent young man with a tick-like propensity for dropping nonsensical motivational platitudes. “You only see the wind when it causes a disturbance,” he tells me, as he multitasks, fielding my questions while driving to his next appointment. “That’s a quote I like to use.”

Al believes in the power of the internet. In sharing. He likes diagrams and permaculture. He took the idea for Base to an incubator, one that “incubates people rather than ideas”. He toured similar ventures in the US, then came back to Australia, looked for a corporate sponsor and began curating the Base applicants.

“They had to be hungry and driven. With a clear idea of where they are going. Being driven towards something. Or away from something.”

“We asked them, ‘If you had the wealth of Bill Gates would you drive it in a particular direction?’ We asked them their favourite colour, why they are wearing the shoes they are wearing. All these choices are important. You drive the car you drive for a reason.”

I swallow.

“We want to use the space as an incubator. Some of the profits will be to develop the space. But a portion will go into a hedge fund to invest in the ideas that come out of the space. The ideas that come out of Base will be a lot more heart-centred,” he says. “We want to create exponential impact … And residual impact.”

After a spate of press coverage (an article about Base went minor-viral in a look-at-this-douchebag kind of way), Al is making connections that are less about social change and more about real estate. If he can play his cards right, he’ll become a new kind of ideologically packaged pseudo-landlord, a real estate “curator”.

“We want to create a culture,” he insists, as though he was actually born and raised in an incubator and emerged just yesterday, sticky feathered and tweeting. “The culture can be seen as the wind, we want to create the wind. That’s just a little analogy I use.”

“Cool,” I reply. Because what else can you say?

It’s easy to rag on Al. He is, among other things, his very own real-estate dystopia. The one where young people are so desperate to control their space and make money from it to boot that they are willing to draw up minor cosmologies and enlist everything from ancient ritual to actuarial principles to make it seem meaningful.

But like all canny investors, he also has some insights into what is trending – in this case, the way that younger people live now, and will in the future.

Al insists that his generation (it’s my generation too, though I feel curmudgeonly beyond belief) are more nomadic and more connected, via the internet, and that living arrangements need to make space for this.

Base will have “nomad rooms” for short stays because the occupants might have “collaborators” across the world who they haven’t met in real life. Its occupancy will fluctuate, a continual flow of new ideas and perspectives filtering through the space, incubating everything, fungal and otherwise.

I’m fairly sure that Al has never read Neuromancer, with its evocation of youth in storage, renting their bodies and minds while they save money and energy through induced hibernation. I soon realise that for Al, sleeping, flesh and living-as-we-know-it are increasingly temporary burdens.

Al’s future is post-human, not in the Gibsonian sense but in the way anticipated by Ray Kurzweil, who insists that soon we will reach the singularity – a point where technology hits the exponential curve, nanobots self-replicate and we can saturate the universe with intelligence.

Ray Kurzweil discusses the coming singularity.

“Living is life,” Al says. “It’s not just where we actually, uh, sleep. Living is exactly that: life.”

I hang up the phone. A feeling of desperation rises in my gullet. Another dystopia emerges from the echo of the interview. I close my eyes and see scribbled diagrams of the concept of onely unfurl across the sky, blocking the sun (“a shared vision”), the stars and every private thought you ever had. The whole universe becomes real estate for our asinine self-contemplations.

I need to get out of the house and into the anonymous streets. I want to interact with the world as it is, as it appears to me immediately. I want to experience the kind of connection I find in being just one more human trying to get along in an imperfect but pleasant day to day.

Dystopia on display

I ride my bike through the backstreets of my increasingly gentrified neighbourhood. There is a development site every couple of blocks. Lately it seems that the advertisements for these off-plan apartments are aimed particularly at my demographic. They show happy bearded men on bicycles and long-haired women in bespoke tunics at cafes, reflecting the neighbourhood back at itself, insisting that you – yes you – belong here. Buy-in now.

A few years ago, a study of water usage revealed how many new apartments are empty, owned by investors who would rather wait out the term of appreciation rather than bother with renters. “Ghost Tower Warning”, ran the headline.

I ride past an old warehouse site with banners out the front. It looks like a display suite and I am drawn in, despite myself, yanked through the doors by my real-estate obsession. The warehouse is actually filled with a local university’s interior architecture graduate exhibition.

I wander around, looking at the models and plans, struck by the depressingly urgent contexts they take on. Projects cite increasing urban homelessness; the need for public space in the face of diminishing residential area per capita; the need for meaningful intersections between architecture, the body and everyday life. Architecture as a way to endure increasingly volatile environmental conditions: scourge, scarcity.

The images and models, however, all look oddly similar. Greyscale figures in their 20s and 30s – some alone, some in couples, a few children – stand in and walk through stark, minimal, hyper-functional spaces. The labels read, “Toilet Pavilion”, “Bathing Pavilion”, “Meditation Alcove”. It’s the design equivalent of a “Keep Calm and Carry On” sticker.

One project shows a skeletal substructure of a building in a catastrophe-ravaged scene. Fortunately, the architect had the foresight to anticipate this calamity and the blackened core of his building is a perfectly pleasant, usable space. In the drawing, a young couple gaze unthinkably at an artwork hanging on a steel beam. We know it’s art (presumably flood and fire resistant) because it’s in a frame.

In other images, people are just staring at the exposed brick as though this, in view of events, has become an anchor for calm reflection. Through all of these stark, designed worlds tramp lone, youthful figures wearing headphones – suggesting rich inner worlds, even though they live in a bunker and must wander forever through the ruins of the city.

Looking around the actual space of the exhibition, I see we are performing a very similar reality. We are young people alone or in pairs. Staring at beams and exposed brick, listening to something privately through headphones. Contemplating shelter, the future and the problems that arise between.

We are all anticipating, aestheticising, buying and selling our crisis.


This is an edited extract from Briohny Doyle’s forthcoming book, Adult Fantasy, to be published with Scribe in June 2017.