Don Greer and his wife, Helen, hid in a tornado shelter. Only he survived. Now, a team of engineers has committed to doing the impossible: building a structure that's stronger and smarter than the merciless, random powers of nature itself.
Not long ago I dreamed of a shopping mall. It was not a mall I had ever visited before, or even a mall I had heard mentioned in casual conversation while standing in line at the grocery store or post office. It was a secret mall, hidden from sight within the labyrinthine expanse of the old Westinghouse Electric building near where I live in the Churchill Valley. Still the mall was familiar in the way common places register in your mind: hotels, schools, hospitals, and banks. Its bland architecture was reassuring, so much so that it was almost invisible.
The secret mall had no glowing marquee to signal its existence, and no streams of automobile traffic leading shoppers to its front doors. It existed unseen by the outside world; within a mysterious building I had spent a lifetime associating with bespectacled men in white lab coats and clandestine government projects. These were the same men whose homes I visited when they died and their belongings were liquidated at estate sales. Leafing through books in their personal libraries and ephemera left behind—a well-worn copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, corporate letterhead with the iconic Westinghouse logo designed by Paul Rand, tin toys that their children once played with—I tried to decode who these men were. Men of science and great intellect, I assumed. Men of means who could afford to live in large houses that boasted studies and dens. Perhaps even men who kept secrets from their wives and children and friends.
The use of public space in cities around the world is an effective way for both governments and citizens to express themselves. These uses include: exercising authority, as well as challenging it; celebrating and mourning; and casual recreational activity. These ways of engaging with public space have never quite translated into the Australian context.
This is because the architecture of public spaces provided the environment for colonial dominance to be achieved. While towns and new suburbs in the young colony were deeply influenced by European urban design, a key feature was excluded – the piazza. Governor Richard Bourke made very clear to surveyors that new towns in New South Wales (which at the time encompassed present-day Victoria) must not include public squares as these could promote rebellion.
In times of national crisis, it sometimes helps to put things into words. In 1941, declaring that “highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”, George Orwell sat down to compose The Lion and the Unicorn, a classic essay on “the English genius”. He observed, with his usual astringency, that “We call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion”, and wondered how to make sense of this patchwork. Orwell also painted a sentimental picture of a prewar world: “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of early morning”, a description that’s become the butt of satire.
Almost 80 years on, with Brexit battles raging across the airwaves, there’s a mini-boom in books about Englishness, including this follow-up to Robert Winder’s acclaimed Bloody Foreigners. Well-crafted, reflective and quite personal, The Last Wolf is also original and deeply researched. Not that this guarantees anything when it comes to analysing those “hidden springs”. As Winder rightly observes: “trying to nail down any national character is like trying to grab smoke”.
These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.