The Homestead Myth
Representing a myth a people like to believe about themselves is a sure-fire path to everlasting fame as an architect. Frank Lloyd Wright did it with Fallingwater which is not so much a poem to bountiful American Nature but to the pioneers claiming and taming it. Tadao Ando did it with his Sumiyoshi House that perpetrated the Japanese ascetic aesthetic myth we like to believe in even if the Japanese struggle to. And Glenn Murcutt did it with his Mangey House on Bingie Road at Bingie Point, New South Wales, Australia. The Homestead Myth requires it be surrounded by pasture and so this is what we get to see.
Little matter the house exists on land unsuited to either livestock or crops.
Or even full-time living it seems as the house is listed on stayz.com for short-term vacation letting.
Weekend houses and summer weekend houses neither located nor suited to full-time living are over-represented in the architectural hall of fame. It’s bad enough such buildings are presented as unrealistic models for full-time buildings but what makes Murcutt’s Magney House more offensive is that it perpetrates a myth responsible for destroying large tracts of Australia. This is Alkimos – currently one of Perth’s more northern suburbs.
It’s just north of Jindalee
and just south of somewhere that doesn’t have a name yet as there’s hardly a there, let alone a there there.
The demand for such development isn’t the result of the motherland’s top-down garden city myth where an Englishman’s garden is an estate in miniature. Instead, it’s the result of the homestead myth according to which everyone not only has the right but their duty to live on as much land as they can put a fence around. Those fences, however, are closing in to the point of absurdity. Perth, Australia spreads 60km up and down the coast and 30km inland, has a population of almost 2 million and an average population density of around 800 persons per sq.km. In the photograph below, it extends as far as the eye can see.
Its north-south arterial roads will be forever inadequate.
Yekaterinburg, Russia is roughly 10km by 20km, and its 1.4 million people live at an average density of 2,700 persons per sq.km. In the photograph below, it extends to where the sunlight is breaking through the clouds. Beyond that is forest.
It has an efficient, affordable and adequate public transportation system of trolley buses, trams and buses.
The reason for this huge difference is that Yekaterinburg has no homestead myth. Its people are happy to live in linear, L-shaped or U-shaped apartment blocks of between five- to nine-storeys.
Between buildings is semi-private open space. They worked all this out long ago.
In Australia, nothing is being done to discredit the homestead myth. The notion of high-rise living is viewed with suspicion and is acceptable only if land has expensive views and is good for nothing else.
Proposals to build market apartments near inner-city railway stations are seen by residents and councilors alike as imminent slummification. Rental flats are seen as slums. Behind every entrenched myth is an entrenched prejudice.
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Eyrie is a recent novel by West Australian author Tim Winton.
Its three main characters live in ten-storey flats in Perth’s port town of Fremantle. Called The Mirador in the novel, the building is easily identifiable as Johnson Court in Adelaide Street. That’s it in the foreground below.
Johnson Court is the type of flats you can find in any Australian city. It’s Australian Brutalism. Concrete slabs and unfinished, load-bearing cream brick. External corridor access. Paint on brick inside. Here’s a one-bed plan that’s as rational as a plan can be. There’s no fat anywhere on this building. It’s offence is that it’s not trying to be aspirational and that’s an offence against society, against Australia.
From the first few pages of the novel, the implication is that people who live in flats such as these have either fallen on hard times and can’t or, worse, can’t be bothered to aspire to anything better. In short, they are people with stories.
The characters aren’t even allowed to enjoy what’s good about where they live. They live on the top floor but there’s no mention of the pleasures of the view across rooftops to the harbour, the ocean and the islands beyond, only descriptions of what can be seen. This is the high-rise prejudice. These people aren’t entitled to look down or over people like the people owning high-rise “apartments” over Peppermint Grove, Mount’s Bay Road, the South Perth foreshore or King’s Park. Buildings like Johnson Court don’t exploit or take advantage of their views for the aesthetic and/or financial benefit of their occupants.
- There’s no mention of Perth sunsets which are stunningly fiery and, as they’re over water, doubly amazing.
- Instead and moreover, living high up is seen as dangerous and the reader is constantly reminded the characters always have somewhere further to fall (as the cover of the book implies). Although someone owns these flats, they’re not the occupants for the word “flat” invariably implies rental.
- Even the paint gets a hard time. “To steady himself he gripped the iron [steel?] balustrade. “The metal was lumpy from decades of paint, as scaled and lime-caked as the taff-rail of a tramp steamer.” (p13)
- Flats are unfriendly. Flats are dangerous. “along the open walkway of the tenth floor, on the eastern face of the building, all doors were shut …” (p13) We’re constantly reminded there’s just one door between the safety of home and the nastiness outside that extends right up to the other side of the door. Lacking low brick fence, rosebed, lawn and veranda, these people are defenceless against what the world throws at them. To be in their flats is to be vulnerable. Outside characters cause all the bad stuff but it all happens inside the building. To flee the flat (to the main character’s mother’s detached and cottage in Mosman Park) is to be safe.
- Flats mean living too close to others, passing each other in the forecourt, going in and out. Initially, the main character doesn’t want to get involved with anyone else’s lives but the building throws them together. We’re constantly reminded of the smells (cultural diversity) and sounds (social diversity) other tenants. The implication is that the 9” thick brick walls are inadequate and the construction poor. To go onto one’s balcony is to be in full view of anyone else who is.
- Unlike the real Johnson Court which has its habitable rooms facing south-west because of site exigencies, The Mirador of the novel faces east-west. Cooking smells feature despite Fremantle being possibly the tenth windiest city in the world by yearly average wind speed. Unsecured doors slam. In summer, the entire west coast is cooled by the local sea breeze known as the Fremantle Doctor yet despite being at optimum location and height, the characters receive no benefit as wind is either “harsh and pitiless” (p8) or “roasting” (p13).
• • •
One back cover review claims the book deals with the impossibility of being able to do the right thing in an imperfect world. It’s true. The characters are left with bigger problems than they began the novel with. We’re left with the impression the building is to blame for throwing them together and exacerbating their problems.
• • •
Flats at Johnson Court are currently available as holiday lets on the same site that lists Murcutt’s Mangey House.
Mangey House makes a claim to being architecture but Johnson Court probably brings more money into the local community and, unless it’s 100% let as holiday rentals, fulfils more of an actual housing need. Notwithstanding, Johnson Court still comes away better for its potential to solve an urban problem rather than perpetuate one.
Myths and prejudices are two sides of the same coin. Myths are perpetuated by architects representing them and prejudices are perpetuated by novelists representing them. They may be lauded for doing so but, in the case of the homestead myth and its flipside the high-rise prejudice, huge swathes of Australia are being destroyed.