Essay

Home in the imagination

WE LIVE OUT our lives, most of us, in other people's houses. We had no say in their shapes, took no part in their construction. Perhaps the house in which you live was standing before you were. Most likely it will outlive you. People have lived there before you, others will live there after you. A woman, not yet born, is about to enter the room in which you're sitting. Crossing the room, she places a vase of violets on a small mahogany table located exactly where your television stands now. Her furniture and her tastes make it her room. But the exterior of the house will say no more about the new owner than it says now about you. Apart from maybe choosing the new colour to paint the guttering, it was none of her doing.

The long car trips to visit my grandmother were accompanied by singalongs. Among the family's small repertoire was a ditty we would chirp over and over, as repetitive as the white road posts flashing by the car windows.

We'll build a bungalow big enough for two, 
Big enough for two, my honey, big enough for two, walla walla.  
And when we're married, how happy we will be. 
Underneath the bamboo, underneath the bamboo tree, boom boom.

The order of things set out in this simple song about the nesting impulse might surprise many today. You build the house first and marry second. The house is completed in time for the wedding and once the happy couple are ensconced it becomes a home. Living as I was at that time in a drought-stricken country town, the prospect of finding an allotment with the required tropical bamboo seemed slim. But did it ever occur to me that the first-person plural pronoun in "We'll build a bungalow" was meant literally? You and I together will build a house and we'll build it with our own hands in the evenings after work, on the weekends, with the assistance of our relatives or neighbours or any help we can muster. This will be our Shangri-la and we will be its owner-builders.

Throughout the decade in which I was born, the 1950s, an average of one third of all houses that went up in Australia were built by their owners. It was an age when home-making magazines explained not just how to decorate a home but how to construct one and how to get your hands on scarce building materials. What puzzles me now is how so many people found the confidence to attempt to build houses. The attitude was: "Let's give it a go. If the Connollys or O'Reagans can do it with no experience then so can we. What's the worst that can happen?" A fair-enough approach to baking a cake but there's somewhat more at stake over whether a house rises or falls.

It is not as if building skills were handed down from father to son or that the owner-builders were all tradesmen. Many of these people worked in offices during the week. While some might have picked up skills from odd labouring jobs or from military service, most just threw themselves into it. Faced with a housing shortage that allowed home owners to name their price, the alternative was to keep saving for God knows how long while living under the same roof as the in-laws or in a caravan or a tent. Doing it yourself saved a significant amount of money that otherwise would have been spent on labour. These people demystified the idea that building a house was something difficult. If you didn't know how to lay bricks you could still hammer on a weatherboard, so you built in timber. And looking at the tangible results of one's labour felt good. These were small, unpretentious houses. An additional room might come later, as the family grew, or it might never be more than a dream, something to talk about endlessly on Saturday afternoons over a cold beer and the form guide.

 

OURS IS AN age of specialisation. We're more removed from life's everyday processes of supply and demand than were past generations. In the year to June 2003, the Housing Institute of Australia notes, 2710 owner-builder approvals were issued nationally, representing 2.4 per cent of total approvals – a far cry from the 30-odd per cent of owner-built homes in the 1950s.

But we remain passionately interested, perhaps even obsessed, with the appearance of our homes. Renovating has become almost a national sport. If we're not doing it ourselves we're watching strangers do it in the latest television lifestyle program. And newsagents' shelves are buckling under the weight of home-design magazines promoting examples of innovative domestic architecture that for most people are in the realm of impossible dreams. The cost of using an architect to design a one-off tailor-made house means that less than 5 per cent of new Australian homes have ever seen the hand of a registered architect. Most of us buy houses the same way we buy our clothes, off the rack, mass-produced from housing display villages with quaint names like Home World.

If a house is a measure of earthly success then it follows, in the minds of many, that the more house you have, the more successful you must be, or appear to be in the eyes of others. There's an expectation that wealth and grandiose architecture go hand in hand; that no one makes millions as a movie star or as a futures trader only to live in a five-room house. In the Liberace school of design the modernist dictum of "less is more" is replaced with "more is more".

A quick glance at the range of houses being churned out by some Australian builders, with little or no input from architects, reveals the continuing appeal of the past in the housing marketplace, along with a fondness for neoclassical ornamentation (in an effort to impress from the street) and lots and lots of rooms.

"The Sovereign 40 Georgian", declares an advertisement in a newspaper housing supplement, "really presents an open face to the world. A pediment supported by sturdy looking columns frames the porch and the front door ... the grandeur of this home is such that, on entering, you will be in awe of it. And when you're dressed for dinner, descend the staircase like Scarlett O'Hara, for this is a Georgian-inspired home." By evoking Gone with the Wind the developer is offering a double dose of things Georgian, a dash of King George I and a pinch of Atlanta, Georgia. If you have a taste for Italy then the Villa Toscana 4000 might be for you, with the promise that its Tuscan feel "will transport you in spirit to the sun-kissed Mediterranean with the soft yellow tones of its rendered façade and classically styled columned portico sheltering the large front door". Or you could live in a temple if you choose the Riverview 2800. "Perhaps the Parthenon in Athens provided the inspiration for the opulent Riverview 2800," speculates the man from the advertising department. "Triangular roofs and wide portico with columns combine to create a clean-lined classic, Grecian look." Well, if you've ever tried parking a car near the Parthenon in Athens you'll appreciate that this temple to domesticity comes with a double lockup garage.

These popular houses, built by the score, are what Newcastle architect Lindsay Johnston refers to as ABBA architecture; all bloody balustrades and arches. They borrow features from classical architecture and celebrate a sense of arrival by flanking their front doors with ornamental columns.

You don't have to drive far in any suburb to find a house that still celebrates the column, especially the simple Tuscan column. In a radio broadcast, a colleague of mine once suggested tongue-in-cheek that the most elaborate style of classical column, the Corinthian column, with its acanthus-leaf-decorated capital, was favoured in Australia by the nouveau riche, degenerates and drug dealers. The Corinthian can certainly pop up as a prop-up on the houses of European immigrants, who, of course, are likely to be none of the above. Lions or eagles might flank the gated driveways of the same houses, as migrants secure themselves in their new country. But the appeal of lions and heraldic pomp and ornamentation that speaks of other places isn't limited to the new houses of European immigrants.

The end of the pathway that led to my parents' final home, built in the Federation style at the end of the 19th century as Australia became a nation, was flanked by two reclining, life-size concrete lions. Their faces rested on their paws in a pose that seemed to sum up the complacency of a nation snug in the bosom of mother England. The lions might have appeared to be keeping silent sentry at the front door but every time I passed them they had something profound to say to me about empire, queen and country, and about the house as castle.

Architectural ornament on a house is like jewellery on a woman. The right piece might lend an air of sophistication. Wear too much and it seems flashy, a little common. A moneyed matron once reminded me of the axiom that when a woman thinks she is finished dressing and is ready to present herself to the world, she would be strongly advised to look one more time in the mirror before leaving the house and force herself to take off a piece of jewellery. It's a plea for restraint that anyone designing a house should take on board. Knowing when enough is enough is a matter of good taste. But as Australian architect Robin Boyd used to say, good taste is a relative value influenced by the fashions of the time.

HAVING SPENT MY early years with my publican parents in a pub – a place which, because it wasn't a house like my friends lived in, never seemed quite home – my teenage years were spent with my parents and their lions in their Federation house. I had successfully pleaded with my parents to buy the old house in what was euphemistically described as a "historic" inner-city suburb, then gathering favour with yuppies, in preference to the modern box on sticks they liked in a new suburb.

The years I spent in that house helped shape my first sense of what I believed was good residential taste. It was a relatively modest example of the Federation style but coming home to that graceful brick home each day after school, walking the length of the intricately tiled path, saluting the lions on their pedestals, stepping up on to the veranda with its ornate timber fretwork and opening the heavy panelled timber and glass door I felt quietly assured that my family had finally arrived. According to Maisy and Ian 
Stapleton, a domestic duo who have written about Australian house styles, "the Federation villa stood for middle-class values and family comfort". It certainly made me feel smug. A few blocks away my friend's timber and tin house, surely no more than 20 years old, faced the street blankly, not a lion to save itself. So it happened that a haughty teenager, harbouring lofty social aspirations, adopted a rigid (and naive) set of architectural values that took years to shake off. My list went like this:

  • Old is good. It doesn't have to be genuinely old providing it looks old. (Make note to show Mum half-timbered, mock-Tudor house near school.)
  • Ornamentation makes you look rich providing you don't overdo it. (I love my lions, but one day I'll live in a house that has gargoyles.)
  • Brick houses cost the most and so must beat timber houses. Timber houses beat fibrocement houses. (Dad says only shearers sleep in houses made ofgalvanised iron.)
  • Tiled roofs beat tin roofs. Pitched roofs with gables beat flat roofs. (If for no other reason this is because they hold out the promise of one day being able to do a roof conversion in the style of some place called Cape Cod.)
  • Big houses are the best houses. (This, of course, is a given.)

These judgements remain a popular shopping list for homemakers today. They still have a stranglehold on suburbia. They lead nowhere new; if new is where you want to go.

Visiting an exhibition village of display houses, a fashion-conscious couple, both of whom might be reluctant to step out wearing anything obviously "last season", will still be drawn towards the house that has exterior features with "old-world charm". For instance, in Australia the Federation-style house has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years. If you can't buy the real thing, you fabricate history, build "in the style of". You can visit a "restoration centre" and stock up on Federation accessories. Just add a few leadlight windows and, along the top of the veranda, some timber fretwork (perhaps in the pattern of the rising sun). Oh, and two lions, and hey presto, you have a brand-new Federation house. The impact of this nostalgia on new housing has left architects frustrated. I've heard one refer to the spread of the neo-Federation style as a virus.

What drives this yearning to recapture the past, an unwillingness to let it go and move on? Why do so many of us prefer to dream of yesterday rather than tomorrow?

At the housing display village, a young woman and her fiancé, all financed-up, have taken a shine to a house that paradoxically markets itself as "Federation to look at but futuristic to live in". Different values are being applied to the inside and the outside of the house. While it's a selling point that all the mod cons are embraced in the house's interior space (certainly so in the kitchen and bathroom), many homemakers are reluctant to embrace the new when it comes to the exterior.

Old English, colonial revival, neoclassical, all repackage the past for present consumption. Ask what the appeal is and you'll often hear people speak of these styles having "character". But I've never fully understood what that means. Is architectural character, like wisdom and wrinkles, something achieved with age or with the look of age? In recreating a "traditional" house, even when the tradition is not one's own, is the homemaker throwing up a defensive wall against the encroaching complexity of a world that is changing too fast for comfort?

Melbourne scholar Kim Dovey has written about how our lives are framed within the rooms, buildings, streets and cities we inhabit, and he's studied the design of popular display homes in Australia and the west coast of America. He believes the way they're marketed, often with Eurocentric or heritage names, suggests "the ideal home is found in other places and other times". There is a kind of mix-and-match approach to marrying the interior and exterior. Many floor plans of these houses allow you to select an era for the house exterior. Given that "nostalgia" was originally a medical term for melancholic homesickness, Dovey observes: "If the popular housing market is a guide, nostalgia is a pervasive spirit of our age which reflects a kind of ‘dis-ease' with modern life."

 

LET NOSTALGIA RUN its course and you end up with streets of yesteryear, and even whole towns of the stuff. The new Queensland beachside development Town of Seaside, 90 minutes north of Brisbane, is an Australian example of the American town-planning movement known as New Urbanism, a revival of traditional neighbourhood design. There's a Seaside in Florida as well and the striking similarity is no accident because Seaside Down Under is based on its American counterpart. Both wind back the clock. Their wooden houses recall the style of vernacular clapboard beach bungalows of the 1940s and 1950s. They come in assorted summer colours (pastel blues and pinks and lemons) with porches fronting the street and white picket fences. Although the houses differ in design there is a sameness about them because the architects adhere to strict guidelines that make for a homogeneous, pedestrian-orientated, planned community. It's the type of place where you're encouraged to walk to the grocery store, stopping to chat with neighbours on the way, and to take strolls after your evening meal without the slightest fear of being mugged. If you've seen Peter Weir's film The Truman Show then you've more or less been there, since the protagonist Truman Burbank's home town of Seahaven is modelled on Seaside, Florida.

What's being sold is a picture-perfect dream of a utopian township, wholly inhabited by civic-minded, law-abiding citizens. No matter that the architecture might be foreign to many Australians. If it's not part of your personal bank of remembered experiences, perhaps it has entered your imagination through movies or television. It's a family kind of place and even Grandma is welcome. What generations of Australians have referred to as a granny flat is located above the garage in some of the Seaside houses. In a collision of architecture and popular culture, the agent showing me around referred to the little studio as a Fonzie flat. Given the impact of American television on Australian life, I didn't need to be told that it was a reference to the American sitcom Happy Days, set in an idealised 1950s, where the cool drop-out Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli sets up his pad in an apartment above a garage belonging to the Cunningham family.

Town of Seaside in Queensland is a little piece of idyllic seaside America transported. For that matter, Seaside could be shipped to any seaside location in the world. It could become the global fast-food version of a neighbourhood, as instantly recognisable and comforting as stumbling on the golden arches of McDonald's in a strange country. Critics of these developments will say they're contrived, too cute and charming, that they divorce homemakers from reality and do not encourage residents to engage with the wider community. Exactly the appeal, perhaps.

When it comes to building their own homes, many people mistrust anything too unusual. They distinguish sharply between the buildings they work in and those they live in, the public and the private. Perhaps the city has left us shell-shocked. While many might be nonchalant about, or at least resigned to, working in glass towers or concrete cubes, they don't want to go home to concrete bunkers or goldfish bowls. Risk-taking architectural statements are about the city; in the suburbs they want surety.  

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