Category Archives: people

Happy Birthday, Mr Darwin


” Charles Darwin ” 1840. Chalk and water-colour drawing by George Richmond (1809-96).

Today, February 12 2009, is the bi-centenary of Charles Darwin‘s birth, a fact that cannot have escaped our educated readers. We’re glad to see there are no shortage of celebrations and we’ve already paid a visit to our monument in our local Charles Darwin Park.

Darwin is important not only as one of history’s greatest scientists and not just because  the theory of evolution explains human origins. The theory also provides crucial pointers to the necessary action that may, just may, save humanity (and millions of other unwitting species) from the perfect storm of multiple disasters we have created.

Among the many things he told us, remember,

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

and you can add

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”

– an appropriate thought as the contemptible era of extreme capitalism draws to an ignoble close.

Happy Birthday, Mr Darwin.

The Grinning Smithsons

As their greatest and most heroic project is about to bite the dust after decades of slow demolition by neglect, Alison and Peter Smithson’s remaining body of work increasingly looks like the Cheshire cat’s grin – exactly at the point when they seem to be vanishing they are also achieving a prominence they haven’t enjoyed in decades.

Irony just isn’t a strong enough word to describe the situation where two highly influential architects who devoted most of their lives to developing models for social housing will end up being represented by a school, a number of delightful but unrepresentative middle class houses, an office building and finally a shed.

But it’s a great shed, and it’s for sale. The whole project is near to, and reminiscent of, their own weekender, the refreshingly ascetic Upper Lawn Pavilion. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting prospect for adaptive reuse – beautiful (in a rustic brutalist way), spectacular pedigree, fashionably tiny – it’s got it all.

It’s in the garden of the Levitt house, pretty spectacular in its own right. We found it through one of our favourite (architectural) porn sites, materialicious.

And meanwhile Owen Hatherley of sit down man you’re a bloody tragedy has taken a holiday to visit the Smithson’s Hunstanton Secondary Modern School, an enlightening but bleak experience by all accounts.

Reviving Newcastle

It can take a heroic effort to bring an ailing city district back to life but often all it takes to spark it off is one person or one small group. Marcus Westbury‘s efforts to revive Hunter Street, the ailing main street of the Australian industrial city of Newcastle (think rustbelt if you are not in Australia) have certainly been heroic. He is staging a “Renewing Newcastle” information night tomorrow night Wednesday 10th of September at 6:30pm. The venue is the Lock Up (next to the now derelict Post Office) at 90 Hunter Street Newcastle.

Vacant shopfronts in the Newcastle CBD should be opened up to community arts and not-for-profit groups, under control of a property trust that assists building owners with tax concessions.

The idea is simple enough, it’s worked before, but can it work here?

It was pretty amazing to watch the numbers rising on his facebook site when he sent out invitations so here’s hoping it will work. If you are anywhere near there make sure you attend.

Charles Darwin was here

It’s the 150th anniversary of the first public exposition, to the Linnean Society, of Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species by natural selection, or at least it was on July 1 and we are just running late as usual (we’ve been working on a couple of large projects that we’ll talk about later).

It’s an important anniversary for us because this blog is an investigation of a less biological version of the theory, an accumulation of examples of technological memes in the process of evolving.

But there is another more immediate reason for its importance, the unlikely fact that Darwin’s first thoughts on the subject occurred only a few hundred metres from where I’m writing this blog in Wallerawang, a small town west of Sydney.

charles darwin in wallerawang

It’s one of those hard-to-believe facts, that something so earth shattering could have originated in what is now an ugly and ruinous industrial gothick landscape, a completely insignificant place to most people although it delights us because of its almost post-apocalyptic weirdness.

Darwin visited Australia in 1836 during the voyage of the Beagle. His only inland trip was to Bathurst, 50 kilometres west of here. On the way he stopped here for several days to make observations of the local fauna, particularly the platypus, our local icon that can still be found living its secretive life in nearby creeks. How could there be a better symbol for adaptive reuse than the platypus,

we are platypus
Snorgtees We are platypus t-shirt

the animal made from leftover parts, we love em.

Anyway it was here on the 19th January 1836 that he wrote in his diary about his observations of ant-lions:

…I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country compared to the rest of the World. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object is the same & certainly the end in each case is complete”.

This comment is considered the first indication of the line of thought that soon led to the theory of evolution.

darwin first tree of life diagram
Darwin’s first tree of life diagram from his 1837 notebook

Of course ironies abound. The site of the sheep station where he stayed is now submerged beneath the waters of a dam that supplies a nearby coal fired power station – so we are now manufacturing the end of species here – and the lake is delightfully named Lake Wallace, although not after Darwin’s great rival, the fascinating and under-rated socialist Alfred Russell Wallace.

lake wallace wallerawang

And we have convinced the local council to rename the shabby adjacent park and erect a monument to the event (although the local National Trust branch had to pay for the plaque which was promptly stolen by the local scrap metal thieves and is currently awaiting a replacement).

charles darwin park wallerawang

So one thing only has not changed, the character of the animals, particularly the humans, remains strange to this day.

The joy of apocalypse

Recent announcements by Exxon-Mobil and George Bush indicate that we are now moving out of the climate change denial phase and into the sabotage-and-delay-by-spurious-solution phase (with a good dash of solutions-that-are-worse-than-the-problem like nuclear power and sunlight blocking). It all means that serious catastrophe looks increasingly likely.

We don’t really believe it will end in apocalypse but it’s worth thinking about complete apocalypse if only to get the full range of possible consequences clear in your head. After all, right now much of the developed world, particularly the US, is behaving as if the slightest change (eg less cars, more public transport) will be equivalent to apocalypse.


(Havana. Photo unpeuplus)

The reality is that even genuine and enormous catastrophe is not the end, humans are amazingly adaptive and some places have already had to face the problems that still lie ahead for the rest of us. Cuba has already had its peak oil crisis with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. Ironically, almost 40 years of US economic embargoes may have made it the society most likely to survive intact, with lots of empty highways ideal for cycling.


(Photo Lauras512– check out her Cuba cycling holiday)

Culture change discusses the Cuban example and suggests Plan B for survival where adaptive reuse will be the order of the day

Depaving is a vast opportunity to free up land. There is more paved land in the U.S than officially designated wilderness. There is unused pavement even with the vast numbers of unnecessary motor vehicles today. Driveways and parking lots are easiest to remove. Tearing up roads is harder because of the deeper and harder road bed. However, trees can still be planted in roads and former roads.

On the other hand Dmitry Orlov is grimly hilarious on the lessons the US might learn from the Soviet experience of national collapse and the adaptation necessary to survive.

In all, I expect drugs and alcohol to become one of the largest short-term post-collapse entrepreneurial opportunities in the United States, along with asset stripping, and security.

And while we are talking about hilarious, the Anthropik Network‘s advocacy of primitivism and survivalist tribalism is whacky if not downright sinister but their 30 Theses make for a thought provoking read. One bit we can agree with is their catchcry that “First, civilization is fragile, and second, humans are not”. Of course, as they point out, we all see these things through our own prejudices

He isn’t alone in seeing what he wants to see of course – the Viridian camp sees a shiny green future awaiting us in the post oil world, old school oil guys like T Boone Pickens see a exploration and drilling bonanza, energy industry investors like Matt Simmons and Henry Groppe see soaring energy prices, gold bugs see rampart inflation and soaring gold prices, ferals and hippies see a return to living closer to nature, socialists see the revival of marxism, conspiracy theorists see government/elite conspiracies and the rise of the new world order, primitivists see the collapse of industrial civilisation and human dieoff, libertarians see an opportunity for the market to bring new energy sources and technologies to us, fascists see an opportunity for a return to authoritarianism and some of the uglier approaches to population control used by their ilk in the past, economists see supply and demand issues being resolved by energy prices, military-industrial complex members see the need to militarily dominate the energy rich regions of the planet, end-times Christian fundamentalists see another symptom of the impending rapture and survivalists see an opportunity to say “I told you so” and finally get to use the skills and tools they’ve spent their lives practicing for.

You’ve just got to remember that whatever you are being sold

it can sometimes be hard to tell if it’s a joke

or if they are serious (from the National Atomic Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico, photos by Life on the Edge). Have a happy apocalypse!

Don’t waste your energy

Part One


There is nothing new about pedal power electricity in Australia, in fact throughout most of the twentieth century the adaptively reused bike pedal was essential to two of the mainstays of outback life, the Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air. Both relied on radio powered by a pedal generator invented in 1928 by Alfred Traeger, shown above with his first working prototype. It continued in use until late in the century when the “Traeger” was replaced by diesel generators and, more recently, solar power.


But that doesn’t mean the idea disappeared. You can still buy similar generators


including one that is hooked up to a normal bike.


But what of this Chinese version, clearly based on the adaptively reused exercise bike?

We’ve had a few laughs in the past at the uselessness of the exercise bike and at the whole sport/exercise culture, one of those delightful examples of capitalism selling a lifestyle that destroys health then making more money by selling a supposed cure for the poor health it is creating. It’s tragic that the history of human physical exertion has come to this absurdity although some slight sanity is reappearing, like redesigning cities to make them more walkable.


Now it may just be post-holiday-season dyspepsia, or our ingrained tendency to always look for the unintended consequence, but something about this exercise machine made us suspect that in a dystopic sustainable future we could be seeing rows of prisoners exercising away to generate the power to run sustainable prisons. Plus ça change.


Strangely, the prison treadmill (the hard labour part of “Sentenced to hard labour”) was common in Britain but it never took off in the US where it was viewed as a profligate waste of labour already in short supply (the chain gang was preferred). The treadmill’s exhausting, mind-numbing futility is credited with the final destruction of Oscar Wilde, yet throughout the developed world the obese, and the merely narcissistic, regularly subject themselves to a similar regime at the gym. Go figure.

Part Two

Just before posting the above, while checking something, Notions of Expenditure turned up in a search.


It’s a proposal to hook gymnasium equipment up to the grid and use all that exercise to generate power, but it’s much more than that and deserves a future post of it’s own. It’s a great site, a bit hard to decide whether it’s completely serious or not, but it’s got lots of info, proposals and interesting links – go and check it out in depth. But ya gotta laugh, because prisons and gyms are equally places of futile suffering we felt like saying great minds think alike…until we found this exasperated editorial comment on yet another “great idea” along the same lines. Originality 30%? Maybe that’s a sign that the adaptively reused gymnasium’s time has come and someone should do it.

Have a Merry Izzy Stone Day

One way to adaptively reuse Christmas would be to move it back a day. December 24 2006 would have been the 99th birthday of Isidor (Izzy) Feinstein (Stone),


probably the greatest investigative journalist that ever lived and a birthday far more worth celebrating than Christmas – after all, at least we know Izzy Stone actually existed. He is now justly recognised as the proto-blogger, the journalist-activist whose relentless campaigning exposed Maccarthyism and racism and the fraudulence of the Tonkin Gulf incident that was the excuse for US intervention in Vietnam. As Wikipedia says

as an outspoken leftist journalist working in often hostile environments, Stone’s stories needed to meet an extremely high burden of proof to be considered credible.

He was often wrong but admitted it, more often right but suspicious of himself when he was and always willing to revise his opinons when more facts became available – as a youthful communist fellow traveller he later criticised Stalinism and as a zionist supporter of the foundation of Israel he later developed sympathy for the Palestinians. He was a man who tried his best to never be blinded by ideology and wishful beliefs of either the right or the left. Truly a figure for our times.

He was also a modest self-critical man distrustful of honours, but he had a great sense of humour. (see Jerry Brucks 1973 film I.F Stones Weekly). He might have enjoyed the joke of being honoured with his own day as long as the right presents were given. What presents would it be appropriate to give on Izzy Stone Day? Well, we’ve found just the place to get them, Individual Icons whose adaptively reused hardware is described as “jewellery that works”.

There is the magnifying glass necklace for close examination,

the plumb bob necklace to help you stay upright

and the spirit level necklace to keep you on the level,

a ruler bangle to help keep things in proportion,

thermometer earrings for when the heat is on

and a compass ring so you don’t get lost.

Some odds and ends like grommets and Phillips head earrings can come in handy too, just to hold everything together.

And in case it all turns nasty,

you should wear a bullet proof rose.

Made of black heavy-weight ballistic grade nylon, this “bulletproof” bloom will protect your heart and love in times of conflict.

You can get it from Generate. Have a Merry Izzy Stone Day!