Tangled in Webs

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Sydney spider getting fat. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

For a long time I was afraid of spiders. My arachnophobia was only cured by moving to a Sydney, a place where some spiders can actually kill you. With the potential of an evil looking funnel web spider under the refrigerator, it seemed silly to recoil at a daddy longlegs. At this time of year — mid-late summer — nonlethal arachnids begin to dominate the bush. With a copious supply of rain earlier this summer, the spiders got an early start. Going down to pick up the paper in the morning means coming back with a web across your face; the same encounter on a bike ride or run is even more unpleasant, especially if you end up eye to eyes with the angry arachnid and its demi-deliquescent protein breakfast. It is one of those moments when you wish nature spoke English — “I’m sorry, but it’s not like wrecking your web gave me any pleasure…”. As the summer progresses we adjust to one another, or they to us; the smarter spiders learn to build their webs up high, with the greatest eight-legged engineers weaving the lowest edges of their webs just above the head of the tallest human.

A spider with what quaintly used to be called a million dollar a view. Photo © Alan Miller 2011

A spider with what quaintly used to be called a million dollar view. Photo © Alan Miller 2011

The spider’s stratagem (with apologies to Bertolucci) is to build as big a web as possible in a place where it will not get knocked down. By late summer a spider — the St. Andrew’s Cross is the most common  — wants to lie on its web, waste no energy on rebuilding, get fat and lay as many eggs as possible before dying in the first cold of winter. For the runner, mountain biker or bushwalker, certain trails, even wide fire roads, become so besilked that they are conceded to the spiders. Above these trails the webs proliferate in overlapping, multi-level arachnopolises.

An arachnopolis. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

The density of spider webs should peak around the time of the New South Wales state election, scheduled for March 26. For almost the entire four years since the last election, voters have been itching to vote out the tawdry and incompetent Labor government which has run the state for the past sixteen years. The issue which perhaps crystallizes our discontent more than any other is one the spider understands well, planning, or more usefully, how to settle properly in this place, this strange place where property developers are apex predators, scarier than funnel webs.

Urban planning is a funny discipline or profession or sensibility or whatever it is. Whereas even the worst architect must contend with the physical reality of gravity and water running downhill, planning quickly becomes abstract, self-referential and politicized. Targets are set. Maps are colored green, brown and fleshy pink. Great architects tend to make themselves known, but how do you pick the best planner? Is it the one who writes the longest report? The one who writes “where practicable” the most times?

An ideal web. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

The planner is the opposite of the spider. The spider’s dwelling is careless in the best sense, an extension of itself. Its light weavings teach us a very urban lesson in how to combine the contingent and the ideal. The forest trails seized by the spiders, where they have settled in for the autumn, are like a masterclass in lightweight architecture. At their centers, where the fattening spiders wait, the webs follow the ideal radiating circles of a child’s drawing. At their edges, the webs take on a form which adapts to its surroundings; the nearly invisible silk of the center gives way to thick, yellowish “structural” strands. These pragmatically connect to nearby branches or leaves. Where the span is too great for a single strand, multiple silks reinforce one another, like an irregular truss or space frame, but never so overloaded that the supporting branch or twig or leaf gives way. It hard to decide which is more beautiful or impressive, the “pragmatic” silks or the “ideal” ones, though the transition zone between the two is especially interesting, like an improvised Calatrava bridge.

"Structural" silk. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

An architect, seeking to learn the lessons of Sydney’s gargantuan spiderwebs, could either imitate them literally or deduce from them conceptually. Frei Otto, the German engineer and architect best known for the stadium roof at the 1972 Munich Olympics, is well known for his research into sometimes spidery lightweight fabric structures, but the experiment of his which sticks in my mind, and which the spiders most evoke, is a mid-1990s digram of an “optimized path system”. Otto’s analogue computer model begins with a number of points — they could stand for houses or villages or any point of interest in a city — evenly spaced around the circumference of a wire ring. First every point is connected to every other point by a tight wool thread. The resulting pattern is predictable, symmetrical and, if one imagines the threads as roads or pathways in a city, incredibly inefficient.

Frei Otto A. Dry wool threads without over-length.

In the second model an 8% over-length is added to each thread. The ‘web’ looks messy, chaotic and just as inefficient as the tightened version. The beauty comes when this model is dipped in water. The fine threads merge and cluster into major and minor paths. Large voids open up in the network. Rather than being everywhere the water forces the threads to make choices. The result is a combination of idealization and contingency in which form is both imposed on and found by the conditions built into the analogue computer. It is tantalizing to imagine Otto’s clustered wool threads as the plan of a city we will never quite visit (planners take note!).

Frei Otto B. Dry wool threads with 8% over-length.

Frei Otto C. Wet wool threads form a network of minimum pathways.

An Angophora (Sydney Red Gum) suggests its own pathways. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

The contingent and the ideal exist everywhere in cities, combined or separated, done well or badly. One reason why Sydney’s now rubber-stamped Barangaroo project is so bad is that it imposes a mess of glass boxes and arbitrarily curved landscape onto a site whose intrinsic strangeness ought to suggest multitudes to a curious designer. One could imagine a great opera house built there. Its contingent exterior would converse with the site while the interior, like the center of the spider’s web, would be idealized for the practical and artistic needs of opera. Barangaroo is just an inflation of the ham-fisted Australian norm. Most buildings here, and houses especially, make no concession to their very particular surroundings. They just sit gloomily in the raging sun, symbolizing “home” in the most unimaginative way imaginable. In the face of a recent week long heatwave, the worst I have ever experienced, Sydneysiders capitulated; they downed leafblowers and whipper snippers and sat inside these buildings with the AC cranked up, as cabin-bound as Bostonians in a snowstorm. I wonder how the spiders survived.

And perpetually on the other hand there is Venice, master prima ballerina of the dance between contingent and ideal. Months after crossing the causeway, I can’t stop thinking about Venice, and if I go too much further with this paragraph I will risk inclusion in the American Foundation for the Promotion of Bad Writing about Venice’s (AFPBWV) annual anthology. Venice resembles Otto’s wet wool threads, both visually and conceptually. Just as the threads cluster to form paths of various widths, Venice’s complexity is crafted out of a clear (and bespoke) hierarchy (Fondamenta-Calle-Ramo, Piazza-Piazzale-Campo-Campiello-Corto). What would elsewhere be an idealized church plan must adjust to the non-negotiable conditions of the lagoon, resulting in right angles which are not quite ninety degrees (in the sala grande superiore of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the slight misalignment of the pattern in the stone floor and the wall decoration makes a great building nearly perfect). We mortals blather on about Venice because it is clear even to a casual visitor that it isn’t enough, as it might be in other European places, to say the city is groovy and fine-grained. What else the city is is difficult to say, hence the tone of longwinded and brittle sentimentality which is the mission of the AFBWV (“…evening mist curling like a Doge’s hat, I sought the most obscure calle, where locals, like worn out and leonine statues, whispered in the corners of dusty osterie…”).

Someday Sydney, if you get your act together, someone will love you enough to write badly about you too.

A Sydney "nature" strip: neat and tidy like chewed fingernails. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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