Easy houses in the lifestyle city

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:34 -- damien

- Beach houses are in the realm of the politics of manners and while this might seem marginal to the set issues and debates of the urban policy makers it is the zero point at which an architecture, a city, will be livable or not. –

 

I recently took a visiting English architect to the beach to see some of the best recent Queensland architecture. Surf, prawns, avocado and beer perhaps added to my friend 's enthusiasm but I was pleased at his genuine admiration for the quality of the work. These are buildings, which can be enjoyed. My friend expressed some envy as detached houses in idyllic settings are the sorts of commissions of which European architects might dream. Is there not also something to regret here? He asked: these young architects producing innovative designs with a surprising degree of resolution are not getting urban commissions. The city of Brisbane which is developing with a gross deficit of architectural ideas has expelled the best of its talent to the city's edge, to draw endless details for second homes which may be pleasurable but which can hardly be important. My friend is largely correct. Architecture does quite well as niche player in the lifestyle market, while we are clearly not setting the agenda on the form of the city. But this just complaint should not be seen as a call for a seriousness which is lacking in beach houses. Undoubtedly for some commentators the opportunities of the design for the leisured client brings architecture much too close to sensual pleasure to permit of any 'discourse ', any overcoming of conceptual difficulties. But this Kantian interdict against the pleasures which might spoil our judgement could itself blind us to the problem of pleasure and ease. If we imagine the 'city to come' which will be driven not by imperatives of production but by the politics of lifestyle, it could be that the beach house is a prime form for architectural thought.

Perhaps this idea of an important beach house is unlikely. I push the point-we all know that the urban strategy lies between the bleak choices of forcing social housing into a figure/ ground pattern or putting on our 'post-space' Virilio glasses. But the beach house is at least topical. Unlike most contemporary architecture beach houses are genuinely popular and thus they open questions of the place of architecture in the realm of taste, as recently when Belle beat Transition to publication with Brian Donovan's McTaggart House. But, paradoxically, the beach house is central in another way, as the houses which I took my visitor to see might be at the edge of the present city of Brisbane but by 2011 they will be in the centre of the new conurbation, and its housing form and lifestyle will be the 'urban' issue. Could it be that by some crossing of the stars of commodity fetishism and territorial imperative that in the lifestyle city every house might be a beach house, that architecture might come easily?

 

Genius Loci

We could begin to characterise the lifestyle city with some basic facts of demography. The population of South East Queensland is projected to grow 61 o/o in the period 1986 to 2011 to reach 2.5 million. But the population increase in the region is largest outside Brisbane. Here in the hinterland and along the coastal strip reaching 250 kilometres from Noosa to the Tweed there will more than double the present population in a low density conurbation of detached single family homes.! Culturally the existing city is attempting to swallow its future condition. At the beach front City of the Gold Coast they build the latest American commercial styles as 40 stories of apartments and service them by monorail, while in the capital Brisbane 16 hectares in the centre of the city has been cleared for a theme park which has an artificial beach and is serviced by motorized gondolas. It is most probable that in between the beach and its simulacra the houses of the future lifestyle city will be like the brick veneer suburban dwellings of any Australian city, only with more sun in their yards. But the city is built on economic growth founded on population growth founded on lifestyle choice founded on ideals about place.

If the lifestyle choice on which the future city is founded was developed logically, might it be that its housing stock could learn something from Brit Andresen and Timothy Hill 's House at North Stradbroke Island. Andresen explains the 'ease of the beach house' problem for the designer as being a direct trade with convenience to the client. What they loose is area, room numbers and designation, and the performance of the enclosure. But they loose these gladly because they are only there for a short time at the best part of the year and they gain so much more. What the client gains is a precise staging of the genius loci.

The site falls towards the beach and the view at ground level is of patches of shimmering light through low trees. A tower rises up to take the view allowing the bushy enclosure at ground level to be a pleasing deferment. The subtleties of the site are then made apparent by the plan geometry and datum of the floor levels interacting with ground and the casual paths across the site. Each boundary mark is both a threshold to cross and a path to follow. A programme of textures and degrees of articulation supports the programme of territories and views. The tower, which contains a bed box and viewing platform, is perhaps rather too successfully whimsical but it responds to the holiday spirit and, from the beach, affords a view of the house which barely interrupts the tree line.

While Andresen takes these interests in place and experience to all of her projects the Stradbroke Island beach house has been widely published and is particularly popular. This is because the public expect the beach house, forest house, hill house to be about the site. No such expectations arise about commercial tower blocks, which are accepted as a sort of eo-lateral damage cause by investment practices, just as suburban mansions are entirely over determined by an ideology of noble patrimony. However, the public are tolerant, even supportive, of the ideology of architecture on the occasion of the beach house. The Stradbroke house does not have an expansive site but it is superbly positioned and doubtless outside the price range of the average home buyer. My point is not that all houses could be like this, but that here one of the basic tenets of the profession, fitted-ness to place, is valued and that it is these same skills which could make poorer sites more livable than they would otherwise be. In the lifestyle city we might yet foster an architectural thought which can compete with the downsized tudor-bethan. The architectural exploration of the beach house is peculiarly open to public interest because the genre of the beach house is governed by the ideology of the genius loci. Beach houses should connect the inhabitant to the site; one should experience the terrain and the extremes of temperature; the windows should shake in storms; and there should be sand in the sheets. Beach houses need not be large and spaces should be defined by relation to the outside rather than by room name and enclosure. Given such mythical proprieties the specificity of architectural thought can be given a value. But the beach house is also defined in its opposition to the primary dwelling in which the pleasures of architecture might never be welcomed.

The public policy discourse on housing is about reducing the land cost of the primary home, in the first place to reduce public expenditure on infrastructure and in the second to try to hold the rising threshold of affordability. As first time home buyers move into their downsized simulacra of the suburbs they demand the same number of rooms but ever more finials and convict brickwork as symbolic recompense for their less than full share of the Australian dream. For this place, at this time, when the quality beach house settings of South East Queensland have been advertised so successfully that we are about to build over them with western Sydney at five -eights scale, it is timely to ask whether the issue is size, or genre. If this is to be the city built on lifestyle perhaps the choice of a 'beach house' over a 'proper house' might hold pleasures as well as economies.

 

Cool Equipment

Gabriel Poole built a 'tent house' for himself out of steel and canvas on a beautiful isolated site in the hills behind the Sunshine Coast. It followed thoughts on minimising materials and site damage which have been his concern for many years. He has recently produced the house as a kit called Air Ark. It is an ingenious reinvention of the image and construction of the house with a double layer fabric roof, a steel portal frame and walls which fold away.

While the house is very interesting its publicity success is stunning. When one of the kits was assembled in the Botanical Gardens in Brisbane 50 ,000 people visited the building in five weeks and the Courier Mail ran a competition in which one collected tokens in the hope of winning this latest architectural innovation2 On prime-time current affairs shows reporters and members of the public seemed to seriously consider whether they would give up their brick veneers to live under canvas and poly-carbonate. Air Ark successfully projected an environmental image of the house as equipment for a touch-the-ground-lightly lifestyle. There was excitement that it might turn out to be as popular as recycled paper. Air Ark had such enormous public interest (the building is a pre-production prototype and there have been no rush of sales) because it gives a symbolic form to the genre of beach-forest-hill house. It is a techno-environmentalist symbol for appreciation of the genius loci. We can think of this house as the obverse and complement of an architecture like Andresen's which analyses and actualises the capabilities of the site. Poole's house is a piece of generic equipment specified to the whole region.

For those wishing to commune with the spirit of their places, and particularly those who wish to minimise their sense of enclosure, the Air Ark offers a premium performance. The walls go up with a woosh of the gas struts and there it is, uninterrupted, whatever view your site provides. When some complained that without an elevated position in hectares of rainforest this was less than useful, and not very private, Poole replied that the suburbs should be replanted as dense forest. It is easy to dismiss this anti-urban vision as a rationalisation of an unlikely universal acceptance of tent housing. But in fact there is an enormous demand for new images of low density housing which meet a lifestyle which is increasingly about being, and being seen to be, outdoors. Air Ark shows how potentially fragile the current public conservatism in housing might be. It allows us to imagine a housing market like that for cars and electronics. There was palpable relief that Air Ark could be assessed as to its performance, that it had features and accessories, that it was the latest development, that you could try it, buy it and take it home. This potential switch from symbol to equipment might put the house in a series with open top cars, designer barbeques and UV proof outdoor furniture . The shift would need to be triggered by a different financial strategy. Currently home ownership is under the aegis of capital appreciation whereas lifestyle accoutrements follow the logic of depreciation and replacement. Already relocatable homes have thrown this switch but we are yet to see if Air Ark at its current costing (pre-sale estimate at $70,000) can be marketed in this way. It would be hard to say which financial strategy was least disruptive to architectural culture. But Poole's house comes from the strong and recent tradition of high-tech loose-fit, with memories of Archigram and Cedric Price. With surprising ease we can put it alongside both a speculative and hi-tech architectural ideas project by locals Smith and McBryde (two recent graduates of Renzo Piano's studio) and a popular DIY item, the locally manufactured vergola opening roof system. The beach house might not be simply amenable to architectural consideration but might yet be a prompt to it.

 

The Aesthetics of the Informal

Poole"s work is intended to be generic to the region and climate rather than to the culture of beach houses which are traditionally the antithesis of elegance. Yet the fibro beach shack of the 1950s has a recognised aesthetic of its own, a ruthless drive for cheap enclosure which brooks no formal discipline and little cross ventilation, but which is later decked out with whimsical signs of hominess. Picturesque concepts of additive construction and the ageing of materials are popularly agreed to be the property of beach houses when in the city even 'her- itage' buildings are expected to be all of a piece and scrubbed up to look as if they were built yesterday. Here again we are tantalizingly close to a consonance between public taste and the aesthetic prejudices of architects. It is a commonplace to decry the destruction of the fibro beach shacks of the fifties as the land on which they stand increases in value. But what would it be to keep such buildings or build so negligently on purpose? John Hockings' Kooringal House can show that there is an architecture of aesthetic poise within the ruthless logic of building cheaply. Gerard Murtagh's conversion of a beach shack to permanent residence shows that one might upgrade these buildings without forgetting them or demeaning them. We might yet have an aesthetic of the informal, of the contingent, without nostalgia. John Hockings' incredibly cheap Kooringal House, ($210/ m2 in 1988) built on a barely serviced island in Moreton Bay, is a study in the gawky charm of the packing crate weekender. It avoids being merely referential by sharing the preoccupations of the untutored buildings: maximum area, minimum cost and lots of room for vehicles. One approaches the house through the car space in the shadow of the underneath of the house with a dominating view of the floor of a boxy room with a deck sitting on skinny steel legs high above.

The box contains a room and a painting studio divided by a kitchen. The timber stud walls are sheered only on the outside with plywood which acts as bracing. The walls are set out around a set of varied second hand doors and windows which had earlier been collected by the owners in the time-honoured tradition of beach shack construction. All of the other hardware components are off the rack items familiar to owner builders. The room has an ambiguous shape which maximises views and the visual connection with a protruding deck. A small bedroom placed above for privacy is reached by a spiral stair. The bathroom is two levels below, underneath the house because of water pressure problems and plumbing cost and in a clear preference for the view from the bedroom at the cost of convenience of the lavatory. Awkwardnesses such as the bathroom placement and the efficient wall construction with its unevenly dimensioned second hand joinery are celebrated as a tactical bluntness which can in fact be explained by the programme and the strict logic of cost. Hockings does not see the beach house programme as a reduction to architectural essentials. Rather its insularity is a subtle retreat, a pretended ignorance from which to observe the madness of popular building: the inhabitable sheds built over countless weekends with the help of Uncles who could weld; the caravans gradually developing foundations and solidity; the squatters who have built in brick veneer and concrete garden ornament on crown land. In such a landscape, which is fast disappearing, Hockings claims that one can do architecture without drawing attention to one's self. His approach is to build a hide, a building which avoids being seen as 'architectural', but which plays the high game of mimesis. At the same time ·the Kooringal House demonstrably beats its amateur competitors in the game of ingenious building economies. Such an approach combines stripped to the bone efficiency and arch condescension in a way which is as clearly the mark of contemporary cross genre aesthetics as it is of the traditional architectural genre of the primitive hut. When Gerard Murtagh and Helen Kershaw rebuilt Helen's much loved beach shack as their new primary residence one of the prime issues became how to save a sense of the existing building from Murtagh's perfectionist detailing. In the design the existing shack is accorded considerably more importance than an objective observer might have given it. The resulting house is remade with elegance and formal coherence. Rather than using a strategy of chopping into the existing building with a clash of building languages or references to Gordon Matta-Clarke, the new work is layered over and embroidered onto the inheritance. Beginning with the weathered fibro facade with has been layered with a severely proportioned battened screen, one is struck by the variety of materials and degrees of articulation which speak of a subtle attention. Murtagh believes that houses are too simple to have plans which order one's experience, instead Qne is lead around the house by a set of fine pieces of newly made joinery, a stair, a ceiling, some cabinets. Throughout the house there is punctuation of finely considered and made pieces set into indifferent stuff. There is something of a vocabulary of material contrasts, of stone and steel, the piled up and the jointed in Murtagh's thinking. What is distinctly odd is that what is 'stuff' here does not approach stone in cultural resonance. The original lining must be at the lowest step on the hierarchy of noble materials. It is a leather-grained masonite which Murtagh has recur and set in specially milled coverstrip mouldings. We could say that this is not so much a representation of the condition of the beach house as the construction of a narrative upon it. In each view and object there is a little unpicking which if one begins, leads off into a story of the two states of the building, the time of their making and the uses to which they were put. Most of all it tells of the change from holiday shack to primary residencenot for the proprieties of historical preservation, not with collections of '50s memorabilia, but for the story of what was there and what happened. As stylistic strategy the beach-house-as-home might bear a comparison with the mass fashion market. If our housing stock is mostly Country Road it might be open to the same sorts of resectoring which surf gear is now effecting. The sub-cultural iconography of the beach can clearly distinguish itself from high fashion and the try hard casuals and become a central pivot between the standard forms of the broad culture. Product lines such as Mambo can provide parallels with their construction of a high aesthetic around informal practices, their encouragement of a non-elitist self referentiality, and their remapping of the locus of 'beach' within the spectrum of taste. Mambo uses its trade name and famous farting dog logo to move between self advertisement, the tradition of the brand tee-shirt as souvenir, the motifs of 'serious' fabric design and the social loci which are the basis of clothing genres. Dance party, street wear, week-end cool: beach wear is all so vibrant of the moment and urban, according to Edmund Capon, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in his response to a question as to whether Mambo was art.3 Signature, subject, self-appropriation: deciphering street fashions is similar to the discourse of current art practices. Which is not surprising as Mambo employs 'fine' artists to design fabric , surfboards , floor coverings , records. We are still waiting for the Mambo house.

 

The Primitive Family

One of the demons stalking the lifestyle city is the so called 'collapse of the family'. Houses continue to be built with three bedrooms while the demographic trend is towards a majority of households consisting of just one adult. Should we build a lot of one and two bedroom flats in the lifestyle city? This problem of bedroom numbers has remarkable resonances within the history of the family. The rise of the modern family in the mid to late Nineteenth Century was thought at the time to be predicated on the reform of domestic architecture and the provision of three bedrooms in working class homes. Parents could be separated from children and boys from girls. And there was not to be a fourth bedroom or any extra space to house apprentices, relatives and friends who might throw some asymmetry into the balanced authority of the three bedroom home.

It might be that we enjoy the beach at least partly as a holiday from this history of social discipline. The beach house is about the admixture of relatives and friends , those invited and those coming past, children of one's own and those who have followed them up from the beach, young lovers and embarrassed adolescents. In the beach house all these people are in a state of partial undress and sleep all over the place in different arrays after lunch and at night. Whether all at once, or in a series of inhabitations across the summer, the beach house is the site at which we enact inversions of the ideology of the family. In short, at the beach there is a corporeality which, rather than dividing, encompasses sexuality and affection, and the family and the social world. In early Nineteenth Century England the complement to the three bedroom reforming worker's cottage was the Villa, a word which meant precisely a house in the country which was not a country house, and would not be used for an aristocratic scale of entertaining. Because it did not require massive service wings and hierarchically organised out-buildings, the Villa could be a single figurative object set against a landscape. This new genre of the middle class Villa is related both to the suburbanisation of the countryside and to changes in the role of women in charge of houses, from being hostesses and nodes in the system of patrilineage, to having domestic work and accomplishments within the ideology of companionable marriage . The 'freedoms ' of Nineteenth Century bourgeois women in their Villas away from the artificial and distorting society of the town bear many parallels to today's bourgeois families who commission beach houses as a way of remapping domestic labour, gender and generational relationships within the family. It may be that the impact on the concept of domesticity will be as great as in our passing century of suburbanization. I do not want to suggest that there is some ideal human interrelationship to be refound in the beach house. If there is a primitive family it will be made not found and, clearly, in the beach house social relationships are made much more inventively, albeit temporarily. In the proper house, the home, host and hostess should put one at one's ease, but in the beach house ease is the prerequisite upon which the social economy is constructed. Perhaps my Fourierist view of the beach holiday is exaggerated, but it is the case that beach houses are not supposed to enforce patterns of family life. There is simply not the same reciprocality of privacy with spatial demarcation which sees children sent to their bedrooms in the suburbs. Against the appalling vision of a city of tiny flats in which are enacted increasingly defensive private lives, we could put the vision of a city of much less socially specified housing which would enable a greater variety of habitation. Elizabeth Watson-Brown's Ngungun House is no primitive hut. It is an urbane and pleasing object which has the must-have-one effect of well sorted out product design. Such simple pleasing is an achievement when the house is so highly considered in programme, so inventive in detail and spatially complex that it clearly risked being the sort of architectural opera set which we in Queensland tend to think of as Melburnian. The house is a steel framed fibre-cement box, skewed to the north and wrapped up with screens, shades and services. Entry is through the service spaces of carport, surf shower and a rainwater tank. The house is pushed up close to the dune to give a close shaded space of room like section. There are clever features like the roll -away wall of layers of timber louvres and glass, and the bathroom mirror which angles for a view of the sea. And there are clever formal articulations such as the way that WatsonBrown angles the roof plan over the floor plan to increase the eaves as the wall rises. But the strength of the house is its primary space diagram which allows each piece of invention to find its place within an intelligible agenda for the use of the site. Stepping onto the raised timber floor on entering, one sees all at once the ample room opening out to the shade of the treed site, and up the single flight of stairs rising to the regulation height limit to glimpse the sea over the dune.

The section the house is governed by the stair which rises one level to a divisible sleeping platform which looks down over the verandah, and then rises a half level to a more private room. Each of the spaces in the staggered section is to some degree visually interconnected with louvres and battened openings so that each is clearly mapped between the ground floor room and specific terrain of the site and the last step of the adult's bedroom balcony which just achieves the only possible transcendent view to the sea, horizon, and moon. This is a rewriting of the three layered privacy of the prime residence as three strategic spatial interconnections. But more than this, Watson-Brown plays up a bed-box within house-box sense of enclosure which gives these small glimpses between spaces a distinctly anti-oedipal character. There are many one-roomed 'studio' houses and apartments where a demonstrative lack of the full house programme is a way of looking anti-bourgeois. But the gungun House is productive rather than reductive. It plays across the ambiguity of the family holiday/ holiday from the family/ holiday from the ideology of the family, and gives a symbolic order to a range of possible social arrangements. So that here on the issue of the family too we might wonder how central the beach house could be to our emerging problems.

 

Technical ease and the subject of pleasure

Beach houses are sited at the city/ country dichotomy with all that unstable opposition means in our culture. It seems that we expect of the beach house that it be about formal adventure, or modest cost and probably both. And we expect these to be houses to live in without pretension. I have put these issues to the discussion of beach houses because it seemed to me that without some discursive space the work is in danger of being dismissed as being pre-reflexive . I can make a further claim that the beach house stands within a history of developments of architectural technique dependent on such building types. Such a history would have at least two moments. Early Nineteenth Century architects began to explore (parallel to the social innovations which I have mentioned) extreme stylistic programmes and planning geometries such as the triangular, or the then unfamiliar irregular and picturesque. Perhaps more memorable is the list of modern masterpieces: Villa Savoy, Falling Water, Villa Mairea,4 which all rely on the villa programme to explore the modernist planning and formal vocabulary. At each of these moments a certain easing of the architectural programme of the house was required so that experiment with technique could take place. This license was in the first case the idea of the genius loci, whether mythical and generic (as with Ledoux and le Corbusier) or highly specific (as with villas by Repton and Nash or Aalto);. By overdetermining the relation of the building with the site its formal peculiarities in relation to architectural discourse could be forgotten and one could approach form innocently as an issue of relation rather than of difference. Then a second easing of the planning problem, of room number, denomination and interrelation is required if one is to attempt a piece of architectural bravura such as planning a triangular house or one cut in half by a ramp.

In terms of architectural technique beach houses are not so much 'easy to do' as they are an exploration of what it might be possible to do if the problem were eased. But then again ease is the problem. The beach houses which I have described may be pleasurable, but they are not directed at pleasure in the sense of some kinaesthetic sensuality. Beach houses are about the socializing of pleasure. They are about attitude, about spezzatura, an ease which comes without an effort in its acquisition, they are about the intersection of the formal and the social. Beach houses are in the realm of the politics of manners and while this might seem marginal to the set issues and debates of the urban policy makers it is the zero point at which an architecture, a city, will be livable or not. It could be that pleasure , ease, spezzatura, attitude, will be the ground on which the necessity for architecture will need to be affirmed.

notes: 

1. Population figures are drawn from j. Cooper and j.L. Skinner Populalioll Projecliolls for Quee11slalld 1986-2011. University of

Queensland 1988

2. Sunday 23 Feb---Sunday 29 Mar 1992. Attendance estimated by the Courier Mail

3. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Review , 24/ 2/92

4. Villas by: Le Corbusier. 1929-31, F.L.Wright. 1935-9, A. Aalto 1937-8

5. C-N Ledoux 1736-1806, le Corbusier 1886-1965. Humphry Repton

1752-1818, John Nash 1752- 1835, Alvar Aalto 1898--1976

 

thanks

Brit Andresen, John Hockings. Gerard Murtagh, Nicholas Ray, Peter Skinner, Stephanie Smith and Ken McBryde, Elizabeth Watson-Brown.