Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness
Architects and architecture critics aren't usually the sort who produce good reads. People often skip the essays and go straight for the pretty pictures. But Elizabeth Farrelly is an architect and critic of a different caliber. There are no pretty pictures in Blubberland--neither literally nor figuratively--as Farrelly launches from the first page into a quest "to see what the f . . . is going on with this crazy species," as she puts it. In other words, why are human beings consuming themselves to death.
"Want used to mean need . . . as in 'the lad wants feeding,' 'the horse wants putting down,'" Farrelly writes in the opening chapter. But human appetites for food and things and comforts, long denied in the millennia of survival and scarcity, are not sated in an age of abundance, she contends. Instead, this appetite becomes an affliction. "The more we have, it seems, the more we want, as though desire itself is the thing we cannot forgo. As though, even cocooned by layers of brimming superfluity, we must want or perish. Welcome to Blubberland. You're rolling in it."
Who could stop there? Farrelly is a hell of a writer, and her intellect ranges beyond architecture, design, and sustainability to the Big Questions of love and God, fashion and beauty. She opens by tackling the question of why we want things like cars, products, and perfection, and concludes that we actually "miswant"--or want in order to fill some spiritual void that can be satisfied only through art and creativity.
But art and creativity have their own problems in a society where "beauty has become a problem," she goes on to argue. "A critic who calls for a return to beauty in art risks serious rejection as a philistine," she writes. "Not only do we no longer expect art to be beautiful, we regard beauty in art as frankly suspect and more than a little, well, suburban."
Blubberland spirals out into discussions of fat and the family home, the place of women, culture's obsession with speed. A section about the designs of corporate megachurches, and the ways those designs reflect modern Christianity, is particularly compelling. (Farrelly is Australian, and many of her anecdotes are set Down Under, but Americans will hardly notice a cultural gap--because, as she points out, Australians have followed patterns in American consumption and style.) Now and then the connections between the themes in Farrelly's thesis can seem tenuous--Blubberland might even seem like a rant at timesóbut again and again she pulls you in with perceptive analysis and sharp writing. This is essential reading that strives to make connections between human frailties and ecological and social consequences.