20 November 2012 – Architectural and design critic and columnist Elizabeth Farrelly embarks on a short series for The Fifth Estate to cast a discerning eye over the range of sustainability offerings in the Australian residential market. Or not. This is the first article in the series.
So. I want to move house. I don’t need to move. My job goes with me. The schools and universities to which our family lives attach are all in close range. The house is already bigger than I can clean (and smaller than I could fill). I can already walk to the city, Chinatown and Centennial Park. It’s not near the beach, but I’m never going to be in the waterfront bracket. Not in Sydney. Yet it’s spring. I’m renovating (my life). I crave change.
The options are many. I could renovate. I could buy an apartment. Or a house. I could move to the burbs, or London, or Melbourne, or Canberra. I could build something new. That sounds cool. Customise a soft-shell house, or ivy-covered flat, or eyrie. I could rent – a house or apartment – and rent my house to someone else. Bloody hell. Over-choice forces me to self scrutinize. What is it I actually want, here? What’s best?
I already live in one of the closest-in, liveliest and fastest-changing hoods in the metropolis. Redfern is morphing daily. Every time I walk the dog there are new cafes and tapas bars, new rain gardens and renovations, new popups, new people, new food.
And yet I’m bored. I want (I think) new streets to walk. New things to look at, to explore, to prod. There’s a part of me wants newness, period.
This is a turn up. I’ve lived in terrace houses for 30 years, three in London, two in Sydney. All old, wreathed in the charm and patina of age, but burdened also by problems and intransigence; leaks, white ants, dark.
Leaks and white ants are dealable with no worries, but dark is an issue. I have after all two degrees in architecture, and spend half my time writing or thinking about it. This is fun, but to do it in a building that – while I admire its typology, sustainability and manners – offers me no sunny place to sit seems wrong. Too cobbler’s shoes for my liking.
So again I ask myself: before I set about switching dwellings, what do I really want?
Not architecture, is my first thought. Of course I have house dreams – tree-house, urban perch, library-centric retreat. But I don’t want to inhabit someone else’s dream. Architects are like hairdressers, I think. You try to tell them what you want, and they try, perhaps, to understand, but in the end they go with what they want, and you pay for it, sometimes more ways than one.
So maybe just a draftsman, working to my ideas?
It’s with this in mind that I make my first foray – almost by accident, as it happens. I’m in my overgrown back garden and I see a man on the rear wall next door. Nice-looking, youngish, black clad, he turns out to be an architect, in fact, working on an attic and kitchen extension for the neighbours.
Naturally we invite him in, get his opinion, which is decent enough. Stair here, windows there. But it’s then that I realise I actually do care about the architecture. Not just the plans and section, the layout and the light, but also the detail. The material. The magic. Not your ordinary, hairdresser architecture. I’m imagining my house as Scarpa might have done it, or Schindler, Eames, Chareau.
I want something handsome, strong-boned, light-filled. Something built around an idea. Something that delights, as well as sheltering. I want the real thing. Good architecture.
But what does that even mean, these days? Good architecture, like good manners, used to be clear, or so it seems in retrospect. Now, architecture muddles about, responding to this, quoting that, without any evident declaration of values, much less purpose.
What I want is a house that is a small, elegant system; an inviolable shell from which to proceed into the world, and into which to withdraw.
A life-support unit that is clean and efficient;that isn’t just sustainable, but that makes sustainability beautiful.
And this, it suddenly strikes me, should be the big, bleeping-red issue for all designers, at this point in history.
The planet is in the trouble it’s in because of human desire; because we’re still at least half primate, with our desire-buttons so easily pushed we cannot contain our rampant urges or bring ourselves to want more wisely. (People like James Packer, who could feed half of Africa on a whim, are so unable to contain themselves they pay to have their desires artificially corseted).
This means that all the rational arguments in the world will not change our behavior. Not fast, anyway.
On the upside, it also makes us, as a species, extremely seducible.
Poetry can shift what polemic cannot.
People write to me sometimes, in my capacity as critic, with the same question. I am a schoolteacher, they say, or a young professional, or an NGO (non government organization) worker. I don’t have a lot of money but I need a house and I don’t want to be forced into a triple-garage McMansion. I want something green, and modest, and lovely. What should I do?
I say this. Consider the i-phone. Not better, especially, than its competitors, but far more charming, it swept the market because it was gorgeous to look at, to listen to and to touch. Its magic is aesthetic, across at least three senses. Samsung would have had to make a smell-phone to compete.
Imagine if Steve Jobs had put his mind to world-greening,
instead of world domination.
What kinds of cities, vehicles and dwellings might have emerged?
That’s what I’d like to see. Not massive rooms or harbour views but a house or apartment or even a shoebox that has been reinvented with the idea of enchanting us into greenness.
I yearn for a place I can feel intrigued by and proud of, as one might a stackable electric car.
Where the solar panels aren’t just arranged on the roof, but are used as part of a bower, a place to sit and read (or blog).
Where the absence of a garden – say – doesn’t force you to spew carbon to dry your clothes, but has produced a shared, breezy drying room that on a hot day is the place to be. Where there’s a roof-place for chooks, a water-garden that’s also a retention system, a tram at the front door instead of a car-space I’ll have to let.
This is my grail. Green seduction. I don’t expect to find it. Of course not. But the next few pieces in this series will keep you posted on my quest.
Figure 1: Pierre Chareau, Maison de Verre paris 1932
Figure 2: Rudolf Schindler, Schindler House, Ca 1923
Figure 3; our house, rus in urbe, darkest Redfern
Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist, author and consultant who trained in architecture and philosophy and holds PhD in urbanism from the University of Sydney, where she is also adjunct associate professor. She has been an academic, a bureaucrat, an editor, a consultant and a politician, all around the theme of urban design.
Elizabeth holds a number of writing awards and her books include Three Houses, a monograph on 2003 Pritzker prizewinner Glenn Murcutt (Phaidon 1993); Blubberland; the dangers of happiness (New South 2007), shortlisted for the Walkleys, and Potential Difference (2011), a collection of essays. Her current book is Talking of Michelangelo; a life in rooms. See her website www.leflaneur.mobi