Reportage

Scratch the Surface - The architecture of exposure

Not so long ago, I was informed that the house I was staying in was a brothel. Pulling up in a taxi outside the busy Vulture Street driveway, the driver had cocked his head towards the house and remarked: ‘I know this place. Used to be a brothel.' In fact, he continued, swinging around to hand me my change, it was the brothel that had sparked the Fitzgerald Inquiry. He told me with no uncertain authority that sex and fake IDs were sold from within our very rooms, that police officers frequented the premises for pay-offs and pro bono appointments, and that when the structures of corruption had come crashing down in the late 1980s this was the establishment to blame.

‘D'ya know about Fitzgerald?' he asked me and I nodded, less as confirmation than as an invitation for him to tell me more of what could only be unofficial (and unverifiable) information about the watershed judicial inquiry into Queensland Police misconduct.

Nevertheless, the driver's suggestion was not so outlandish that when I relayed to my housemates what I had been told we became smitten with the possible truth of the claims. Too easily, we imagined our sprawling bungalow on Vulture Street East playing host to all manner of vice. The dirty glamour of the cabbie's story, coupled with the strange romance that our house may have been a feature of Queensland's sexiest history, was too attractive to resist. The image of prostitutes performing tricks in our bedrooms was particularly appealing for all its incongruence with the house's present occupants: five grown men dividing between them what was probably the cheapest rent in Brisbane in what would eventually become their last share house. Then there was me. I had moved in the midst of writing a dissertation with nothing but a laundry basket's worth of clothes and a bag of library books. Everything else I owned was in storage. I shared the back bedroom, and felt I had as much claim to the household as a guest or a stay-over girlfriend.

For these reasons perhaps, my own interest in the house's history soon exceeded the fleeting amusement of my housemates. I found myself immersed in local research, questioning its place in history and, on reflection, my own place in the house's elusive past. Was the house on Vulture Street East once a licentious bordello? What was its role in the events that led to the inquiry into systemic political corruption in Queensland? This was what it was to live in a house with secrets, with a hidden past entangled with the state's history.

 

I BECAME FIXATED ON THE GOAL OF VALIDATING the cabbie's story. Walking up and down the hall, I would try to imagine each of the rooms as a brothel boudoir, enhancing the existing décor with shag-pile carpet, red velour, dim lights, curls of cigarette smoke, and lipstick-smudged glasses. The house is divided into nine rooms: the front living room, the back kitchen, two bathrooms side by side, and five large bedrooms with high ceilings. Incidentally, the current legal limit of servicing rooms in a licensed Queensland brothel is five – although, if the house was ever used for the purposes of prostitution, it was in the days long before an official brothel licence was ever required.

Trawling through old media references to the brothels of pre-Fitzgerald Brisbane, I am amused by the descriptions of multiple self-contained rooms and ‘plenty of showers and spas', such as those reported in theSydney Morning Herald upon notice of the sale of a Kangaroo Point brothel called Pinky's. My housemates and I have all wondered about the twin bathrooms tacked on to the end of our house, installed with cheap toilets and showers. They were not designed for a family; they are functional in the way that public toilets are utilitarian, intended for a sole purpose. Yet the bathrooms also boast some odd features – ancient audio-visual plugs, now clogged with dust and cockroaches' wings. These plugs are dotted in odd places throughout the house. I try to match these and other details of the its interior with the reported characteristics of 1980s brothels.

Phil Dickie, the Courier-Mail journalist who doggedly pursued the proprietors of Brisbane's illegal sex-for-sale industry on ‘the road to Fitzgerald' summarises '80s-style prostitution thus: ‘In the new parlours the massage benches had gone and double beds had come in along with locking doors, deep pile carpet, spa baths, fully stocked bars, mirrors in the ceilings and videos in the rooms, as well as piped music and blue movies. The charade of the $10 compulsory massage fee had also disappeared – now the customer chose his delicacy from what was quaintly termed a menu before choosing the girl to provide it. One such menu, for Bubbles Bath-House, turned up as a talking point in state parliament.'

Mirrors dangling from the ceilings and blue movies in the bedrooms? In spite of the random hooks, cords and plugs scattered throughout the house, it is difficult to picture it playing hostess to anything so sordid; the imagined details seem unlikely within these ordinary Queenslander walls, all pinstriped planks and chipped grey paintwork. In any case, the house sits on the crooked corner of two very busy streets. Although a few trees shade the house, the lot is neither secluded nor secure. The crumbs of concrete scattered around the front yard suggest that numerous vehicles have driven in and out of the rusted gate. Surrounded by constant traffic, I cannot imagine how any licentious activities could have remained discreet.

Yet these features I have described are not atypical of many inner-city Brisbane homes. Queenslanders, it seems, are comfortable with the lack of intimacy that accompanies the style of half-indoor, half-outdoor living particular to the state. In an essay assessing sexual identity in colonial Brisbane titled ‘A Practised Place: Sex and Citizenship, Brisbane 1850-1890', published in Culture and Policy in 1992, critic Kay Ferres describes the designs of early Queensland cottages as ‘the architecture of exposure', the unlined weatherboard walls as porous barriers between private and public life. Conventional domestic arrangements were turned inside out during those early settler days, Ferres writes, and as a consequence so were the boundaries of gender relations. Social life was now ‘an out of doors affair ... courtships were conducted on the verandas and in shadowy arbours as new arrivals embedded themselves in community networks'. Reading this it is hard not to recall my experiences of living within the permeable walls of our Vulture Street residence. The house breathes in rhythm with the outside world; she sweats through the extremes of heat and her floorboards creak during the rain like an elderly dame suffering from rheumatism. The flow of traffic vibrates through every room, day and night, betraying an auricular illusion of feeling at all times both inside and out: a consistent, humming blur of two spaces.

Dickie hints at such a blur when he describes the Bubbles Bath-House menu circulating as Queensland parliamentary gossip, but I wonder whether prostitution is not always, in some way, political. Although prostitution is the world's oldest and most persistent profession, the ways in which it is enacted, perceived and governed are relative to social, cultural and political factors. The structure of the sex industry – in particular, its visibility – shifts according to a moral mood that is usually entwined with the caprices of governance. Changes to the edifices of the sex industry in Queensland have since been under the control of state governments. The most recent significant change in legislation regarding sex work has been theProstitution Act 1999, introduced to regulate the hidden operations of a largely invisible portion of the community. By contrast, before Fitzgerald, the criminalisation and concealment of prostitution enabled organised crime to flourish and the associated abuse of police power.

 

HIDDEN/EXPOSED. SECRET/ACCOUNTABLE. INVISIBLE/TRANSPARENT. PRIVATE/PUBLIC.These are the distinctions which define discussions of pre- and post-Fitzgerald Inquiry politics and prostitution in Queensland, yet they fail to take into account something which seems essential. At the very least, the act of prostitution obfuscates what exactly is public and private: sexual intimacy is performed by strangers; a private transaction is regulated by government legislation and commercial law. In terms of its public visibility, prostitution remains a hidden aspect of Queensland, but its essential structure is more akin to that of a rambling Queensland home: double doors flung open to a wrap-around veranda; a sub-tropical breeze idling through each of the rooms – the architecture of exposure.

In spite of my investigations, I began to reason that the house on Vulture Street East was not going to give up its secrets easily. A paper trail through official documents and old Courier-Mail articles would not confirm the claims of taxi drivers – those storehouses of unverifiable, unaccountable information. Sitting on the edge of the block, the house has no neighbours to probe for eyewitness accounts of activities in the 1980s. The only neighbouring dwelling was unoccupied: a duplex Queenslander that bore a sororal resemblance to our house with its horizontal weatherboards, portrait-sized frosted windows and other flourishes in keeping with the architectural fashion of another century. Both houses rest on tired stumps in spacious lots, although there is barely a metre and a half between their adjacent walls, suggesting that they may have shared any number of secrets. But the last known occupant, a senior man who kept mainly to himself, had not been seen in over nine months and with him had gone three decades of knowledge that only a neighbour could know.

A survey of the house's design suggested that, if not a brothel, the establishment was certainly once used as something other than a home: the large, closed-off bedrooms, the roomy car park of the front yard, the tacked-on kitchen and bathrooms might be features of a boarding-house, for example, but the truth has become less important to me. Proving that the house was the brothel that sparked the Fitzgerald Inquiry was in the end not the point; the story drew me in – the house sparked my own investigation into Queensland's murky history of vice and corruption and the shifting boundaries of domesticity and public life.

 

AFTERWORD: A FEW WEEKS BEFORE I MOVED OUT, a lot of men in green shirts began to show up each day next door, removing anything with roots and dismantling the vandalised outhouse. One morning, we woke to the sound of a chainsaw tearing through the trees shading our house, separating the front yard from the street. When we asked the men what was happening, they replied that they were under orders from the owner who was keen to knock the old place down. They informed us that our landlord and the owner of the condemned house were the same person.

‘So what's going to happen to our house?' I asked.

‘Dunno, love. Might have to ask your agent.'

We did. She informed us that the owner was planning to redevelop once he had the permits. ‘But your place is heritage listed. The worst they can do,' she said, ‘is lift up the entire house and swivel it around so that it faces the other street.'

Boarded up, fenced up and left to crumble, the house next door seemed to represent something of the future for our house. After I had eventually left, there were only three remaining housemates and the boys all had similar plans for travel, marriage, and moving on. Vulture Street East has since become a kind of halfway house – but then what? If the real estate agent is wrong and the house is not heritage listed, it eventually may have a similar fate to its sister. Or else it will be spun around on its stumps and given a new address, a new identity, making the paper trail more difficult and its secrets harder to crack. With no neighbourly or resident reminiscences to support it, the idea that the house was once a brothel will remain a secret – that is, until one night a taxi driver with a long-term appreciation for sordid detail chances to drop somebody off on the corner. Until then, the story will have to suffice as the house takes its place in my history of Queensland.  ♦

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