The great Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci was apparently not a fan of Feng Shui:
“What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon such trifles as a door being opened from one side or another, as rain falling into a courtyard from the right or from the left, a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?”
I’m not much of a geomancer myself, but as a hypervigilant person I appreciate the wisdom in, say, never sitting with your back to a window, or not having the front and rear doors of your house in alignment such that anyone standing at the front could see you running out the back.
But it’s not all about finding a position of strategic advantage in anticipation of violent attack; there’s also an aesthetic quality to the arrangement of buildings, furniture, and landscapes that is hard to ignore for all but the most insensitive people.
So I don’t know if it’s just aesthetics or something more deeply wrong with the arrangement of Adelaide, but coming back from interstate the dissonance is palpable.
First, there’s the plain. Adelaide was built in the middle of a great, flat, seemingly featureless plain running between the hills and the sea. It’s as if someone came in with a giant steamroller and rolled it all flat before settlement – though I’m yet to find such a myth in Aboriginal Dreamtime.
As such, Adelaide was built without any real limits on its expansion, offering our forbears the kind of absolute freedom that only dampens creativity. The Adelaide plains are like an immense blank canvas, freedom without inspiration, growth without a corresponding challenge. As such, what you get in the bulk of Adelaide is not real development but just ‘more of the same’, suburbs replicated without end, their limited character distinguished only by minor variations in age and more significant variations in socio-economic status.
What is lacking is a sense of proportion. The plain would ‘work’ if there were something more significant to offset it: if the hills were more like mountains, if the city centre was a hive of overbearing towers and economic activity.
Better still if the plain were not a plain at all, if the city were forced to bend and blend into a range of natural undulations and contours, if the land itself had demanded more of its inhabitants, drawn from them some creativity, some ingenuity in response to genuine limitations of space and shape.
The founders of Adelaide responded to the lack of limitations by putting aside imagination, planning the city in an immense grid of parallel and perpendicular roads, thus proving for all time that the geometric elegance of a habitation is inversely proportional to its innate human character.
As Adelaideans will attest, it’s impossible to lose yourself in Adelaide since 99% of the major roads, not to mention the smaller streets, run either North-South or East-West. Roads that run otherwise are the exceptions that prove the rule, at least one of which having thereby earned itself the moniker ‘Diagonal Road’.
Entering Adelaide via the hills, the grid-like feel is subtle yet all-encompassing. Look North up Portrush Rd, or West down Cross Rd and its as though you can see to the farthest reaches of the city. The front door and the back are very much in alignment.
Such flat, uniform geometry is unnatural, and if there were some other profound redemptive feature it might not matter so much. Yet in a city that struggles to find a reason for being, Adelaide could hardly afford to be so regular, so unforgiving, so clear and up-front.
This unnatural arrangement is just one of the small yet significant contributors to the strangeness of Adelaide, a strangeness I am intent on unravelling as we ponder the mysteries of my adopted home, this uncanny city with no reason for existing.