17 May 2014

Writers Festival: Shocked visitor offers city tips

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Auckland’s tall buildings and urban sprawl stun architecture critic.

When one of the audience asked British architecture critic Jonathan Glancey what he thought of Auckland’s Unitary Plan, he pointed to the example of Barcelona.

During its 20-year renovation project, he said, its people were involved at every stage and instead of talking to planners, the mayor went out and talked to its citizens, house by house.

The project used architects, not “jobsmiths”, leading to “little developments throughout the city” and the result has been a beautifully restored city that honours its past.

“If you involve the people, you start to win,” he said, to a round of applause. “Putting plans up on the internet is not good enough.”

Glancey brought up the subject of the super-high-rise building planned for Victoria St, to be financed by a Chinese developer, and comments he had read on the Herald website that “it’s nothing to do with us because it’s being built by a foreigner”.

“You lose your soul if you don’t care. Auckland is a shock. It doesn’t have a sense of city-ness. I was totally unprepared for its sprawl. And what is going on in all the tall buildings? It’s all about making money … politicians love tall buildings. You need to create New Zealand buildings using your light and wind, your wonderful plants, and combat the banal globalisation of architecture.”

A place where there are not many tall buildings is North Korea, completely dark at night when viewed from space, said John Sinclair, who hosted Jang Jin-sung, one of the country’s most famous defectors. Via a very good translator, Jang told us how he grew up with only two emotions: loyalty to Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and hatred of America.

Recruited as a propaganda poet, he explained that the leader liked poetry because it didn’t use as much paper as a novel. No one writes novels in North Korea anyway because that should involve thought. Thinking is forbidden, although writers are elitists “at the frontline of creating fear and propaganda”.

The tipping point for Jang came during the famine of the 1990s that killed three million people.

He met Dear Leader, who had elevated shoes, spoke very poorly and cried over a song, “pretending to be human”. All the generals dutifully started sobbing too, and Jang decided it was time to leave the country ruled by a tyrant he had been brought up to believe in as a god. He got out in 2003 and has just released his memoir, Dear Leader.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Adam Johnson also talked about North Korea, a place he visited for a week as part of six years of research for his satirical novel The Orphan Master’s Son. He gave a reading describing the “interrogation chair” in which an elderly professor was tortured despite his interrogator having no more questions.

But then, he pointed out, “when I was writing the book there was a debate in the US over what was torture”.

Johnson was an engaging speaker. Can you imagine living under a regime which installs a loudspeaker in every house? Or where, if one member of a family transgresses the leader’s latest whim, like forbidding looking up at the stars, three generations are sent to the gulags?

A fascinating start to the festival, all these sessions were very well attended.


Published: New Zealand Herald – 17 May 2014
Written by: Linda Herrick