When I started studying anatomy I was daunted by the new vocabulary. The body had become a collection of many small things, each with a specific name. The corners and bumps of bigger, more shapely bones, seemingly insignificant blimps, were all named. With time, these landmarks would become more obvious as I learned their purpose – the rough patches of bone allow muscles to latch on, or the shallow indents allow blood vessels and nerves to safely transverse the body. Until then, I waded through lists of names for the minute and mundane.
A university tutor mentioned that most anatomical terms come from Ancient Latin and Greek. It was comforting to think about the course syllabus as a language, the language of the body. Using exhausting repetition, I slowly learned the new combinations of letters and sounds by rote, until, eventually, they folded into my memory and replaced the words that I used to know for the body – collarbone to clavicle, shoulder blade to scapula, shinbone to tibia, and so on. It took me longer still, years in fact, to realise that these words in their original form were names for simple, everyday objects. For instance, clavicle comes from the classical Latin word clavicula, which means ‘small key, bolt’. This long thin bone performs an elegant twist whenever the arm lifts, like a key turning in a lock. The scapula is a flattish bone with sharp edges and a pointed tip. Its name is derived from skap ‘to cut, scrape’. Not only does the shoulder blade resemble a shovel, but it’s thought that the scapulas of animals were once used as such, blades for cutting and scraping the earth. Then there’s the shinbone. A long and exceedingly straight bone, tibia means a pipe or flute. And, for a time, these kinds of wind instruments were also made from bone.
Early anatomists were so keen about naming our bodies after commonplace objects that it was only when they got to a portion of the hip bone that their system came undone. Since the curved and somewhat knobbly bone does not resemble any known object, it was named the innominate, which is Latin for ‘not named’.
Knowing the origins of these words, it feels like the boundaries between our bodies and the world is blurred. The method of naming things is not directed in only one way: as while our bodies are named after commonplace items, our built world has also taken on anatomical terms. A building can have good bones, there can be the heart of a house and roads are the arteries of a city. In considering the poetics of space, or more specifically the form and function of buildings, Gaston Bachelard uses a touchstone phrase – I am the space where I am. So perhaps there aren’t even blurred boundaries, but no real division at all.
The language of buildings and bodies is so overlaid that it is almost circular. We understand the world through our bodies, and we understand our bodies in comparison to the world.
The language of buildings and bodies is so overlaid that it is almost circular. How we understand the world is through our bodies and how we understand our bodies is by comparing it to the world. For instance: when the bones of the body meet one another, side by side or end to end, they ‘articulate’. This comes from the Latin word articulatus (‘separated into joints’). The commonplace meaning of articulate, beyond the body, is clear, distinct speech. As if each word in a sentence has been separated into joints. When the bones of a building meet one another, sturdy and upright and angled for loadbearing, they are called joints. And it is in these narrow spaces where walls meet, say in the corner booth of a cafe or backed up against the wall of a bar, that sound, at least for me, becomes articulate. It is here, the walls do the work of funnelling voices towards me, allowing speech to become distinct and clear. I am the space where I am: on the edges, cornered.
This relationship between ourselves and the world that we create, has become, in modern times, less circular and more consequential – ‘First we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ When Winston Churchill said this in 1944, he was being more literal than poetic. He was arguing that the British parliamentary Commons Chamber be restored to an ‘adversarial rectangular pattern’ after it had been destroyed during the Blitz. At the time, Churchill was eschewing calls for a sweeping circular or horseshoe arrangement favoured by other legislative assemblies. During the debate, Churchill went so far as to suggest that the original shape of the Chamber was ‘responsible’ for the British two-party system, and so maintaining the narrow, tightly cornered space would be essential for retaining parliamentary democracy. His argument was meet with overwhelming support in a free vote. Giles Gilbert Scott, who amongst things designed the red telephone box, was the architect tasked with the job. Now, some seventy years after the Commons Chamber has been reopened, the decision to maintain the historical architecture is still considered to have been the right one, with the parliamentary website stating that ‘the confrontational design helps to keep debates lively and robust but also intimate’.
I think about how buildings shape me, the places that cause my body to bend and shrink. To surreptitiously separate from crowds and head for the margins of a room. Seeking corners to tuck myself into. Even when I try to resist tucking myself into a corner, my body still buckles as if being folded into one. Candid photographs, after parties or events, reveal my body contorted in angles of effort, lips folded into a grim line, arms nested in one another as if holding myself firm. In these photographs I see a shell of a thing; alert and watching the external.
I try to imagine what it would be like if all buildings were designed to keep conversations lively and robust. Buildings where I wouldn’t need to press myself into walls to avoid sinking in the swell of sound. Large public spaces that would feel intimate by design. Imagine the ease and democracy of it all.
For as long as I can remember I’ve woken up early. I suspect that this habit developed as a result of growing up in a large family and a small home. There were six of us and three bedrooms, and so sharing space was a given. I hadn’t realised how much of a consideration it was until I moved out of home and into a share house in my early twenties. The room I rented was classified as a study by the real estate agent, and so I moved in without placing my name on the lease. Despite being able to touch either wall with arms outstretched and having to shuffle sideways as my single bed dominated the floor space, the room felt immense and entirely mine.
I try to imagine what it would be like if all buildings were designed to keep conversations lively and robust. Buildings where I wouldn’t need to press myself into walls to avoid sinking in the swell of sound.
It was then, finally able to lay claim over a space all my own, that I realised that my morning routine had been one of retreat.
I have a vivid and fond memory: I am eight years old. It is early, crisp and quiet. I pad up the hallway, through the kitchen and towards the deep cushioned armchair. The hours pass, my head bowed in my book. By mid-morning, bedsheets will be flung off and bedroom doors swung open. The house will become cluttered with conversation, as my siblings and parents make a start on the day. But for now, as my eyes dash from line to line, the house feels enormous, the silence soft and spacious.
This habit has endured, despite my now having lived for years with fewer people and in a series of larger rooms. I still seek out the quiet, crisp corners of the day. I move about the still house, or through the local grasslands, in the deep energy of silence. My mind feels vigorous from rest, and wanders, unrushed and unlaboured by having to decode sound. It is in these moments that I feel like I can think, rather than react or recoil. But of course, this habit continues to be steadfast because it has a clear payoff – by nightfall my body feels flattened, my thoughts are tangled, after hours of the keen, relentless focus required to make sense of sound.
It took me until my late twenties to recognise how, or even when, I am fatiguing. It isn’t heavy limbs and wide mouth yawning. It is a hard-edged sensation of effort. My body takes on the long list of symptoms of sensory overload: I become keen-eyed and riled up; relentlessly chatty even though my sentences become chipped or incomplete; restless and short-tempered, though completely indecisive; my heart thrums, too quickly, and I begin to feel streams of sweat running down my arms and legs. While I’m getting better at recognising this frenetic version of myself, I still need practice at herding myself home to rest.
When I enter a room, I do a quick, almost unconscious audit of the space. The walls and ceilings, the position of chairs and tables, the lighting and ambient soundscape. I look for exits, or places that I can walk quickly towards if I need to find relief, those moments of quiet and noiseless thinking. I spent most of my Year 12 formal in the bathroom. At the time I didn’t understand why my skin suddenly felt too small for my body, or my head so full and heavy, it just felt like I could exhale when there was a door and several walls separating me from the thump of 2005’s top forty hits.
Now, when I can, I avoid places that trigger sensory overload. I make a list – cafes, bars, shopping centres, cinemas, stadium concerts, sporting events, protests, and city streets. The dull ordinariness of this list makes realise that there are few buildings where I feel at ease, and just how narrow my world has become.
There is something about Churchill’s argument about buildings and bodies that tugs at me. Not because I disagree with it, just the opposite, it makes absolute sense and this I realise, some months later, is the snag – his argument is flawed, even faintly ridiculous but it makes sense to my body, a deaf body. Churchill appears to be passionately arguing for clear communication rather than the safeguarding of democracy. Historically, democracy flourished in a round, with large assemblies able to converge and to see one another. The actual design of the Commons Chamber is incredibly small, and it is exclusionary even for elected members of parliament, as it contains only 427 seats for 646 MPs. Was Churchill concerned with his own body and how it would be shaped by the new Common Chambers?
I avoid places that trigger sensory overload. I realise there are few buildings where I feel at ease, and just how narrow my world has become.
Churchill participated in the Commons Chamber debate in October 1944 and by December of that year his physician, Dr Charles Wilson, noted that the Prime Minister was having difficulty hearing on the telephone. Perhaps it is a coincidence. Perhaps Churchill’s arguments for retaining a ‘confrontational design’ were motivated by wanting to retain the historical ties to British democracy, but all his reasons for the design benefit someone who is hard-of-hearing. I think of my own way of assessing spaces. The dread I feel when entering a wide-set room with high sweeping ceilings, where sound swooshes upwards and out of reach. The Common Chambers are narrow, so that you can see the faces of your opposition only ‘two sword lengths away’, which is conveniently well suited for reading lips. Then there’s the instant jealousy I feel when I read about the confrontational design, wishing that open-plan offices weren’t so popular, that there would be more buildings designed for the exchange of ideas, instead of most buildings that make me feel misshaped.
Whether or not Churchill was motivated by his hearing loss isn’t really the point, it is who and how buildings are designed that is relevant, and the fact that these decisions happen behind closed doors. These are conversations of power and with consequences, decisions that literally shape what happens to our society and our bodies.
The overlooking of disabled bodies is so consistent, so rampant worldwide, that the UN has created a checklist for politicians entitled: ‘Why I should be interested in the rights of persons with disabilities’. It consists of six dot points, each a rallying cry of sense, which is not yet common enough to go unstated. The list begins with: ‘The human rights of persons with disabilities should be promoted for the same reason that human rights are promoted for all other people: because of the inherent and equal dignity and worth of each human being.’ The dot points are easy to scan as the language is plain and pointed. I bitterly laugh about the checklist with another disabled friend. We trade stories about how we cope. The ways in which we find ourselves backed into corners or avoiding, avoiding, avoiding the places that cause us to ache. Yet we know that this checklist is needed. As others, with able bodies, experience the world in a seamless way, entering and exiting buildings without friction or calculation. As parks and schools and workplaces and houses and even our Parliament House have been designed for their bodies. And so, I am the space where I am: orbiting the able world.
This essay is the winning entry in the 2019 Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing, presented by Monash University and the Emerging Writers’ Festival.