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size is everything

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 20-Dec-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 885

Smaller but perfectly formed could be the super model for our future

ELIZABETH FARRELLY Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, design and aesthetic issues for the Herald.

Imagine a future when a small, lean disciplined kind of dwelling has become as potent a status symbol as a Smart car, say, is now – or will be when petrol’s 10 bucks a litre. It’s inconceivable, right? In houses, size is everything. Yet it could happen.

Fifty years ago, houses were less than half their present size, and families were bigger. If you’re a baby boomer, the house you grew up in was probably smaller than what you own now, certainly than what you aspire to. Quite likely you shared a bedroom with a sibling, and a bathroom with the entire menagerie. These days a one-dunny house is virtually unheard of, even in the old inner suburbs. Out there in new-house land, it’s a bathroom each and one for the road.

Pettit and Sevitt’s renowned, early ’60s, Ken Woolley-designed “Lowline” covered 75 square metres. Today’s project homes start at more than twice that and are commonly six or eight times bigger. In the ’60s, the maximum building society loan was £3000; even that meant a two-year wait and a grovel with the manager. Nowadays you can’t escape the bank without signing-up to some kind of loan, and if you hate the attitude, or the tie, you can take your massive debt-pile somewhere else. True, even in the ’60s, a small house wasn’t exactly a status symbol. But it was adequate. You made do. Making do was something people did.

Not any more. Which is the real reason why heritage listing modern houses like the Pettit and Sevitt exhibition houses at St Ives is controversial. It’s an issue usually characterised as effete, arrogant lister versus harried, victimised listee. The Productivity Commission’s report on heritage listing used such anecdotes to argue that listing should be, essentially, voluntary. It’s a good idea, since it would mean an end to heritage. No heritage, no problem.

But in the end, the issue is this: aspiration versus respiration. Whatever happens, however the planet may groan, our precious, aspirational lifestyle is sacred. With energy, water or even food, we ask not how little can we use, but how can we sustain our profligacy? We’ll recycle, but not bicycle; desalinate rather than shower less. Render the air unbreathable just to keep it cool.

It’s not wickedness. Just that expectations are like genies, in refusing to re-enter the bottle. So it’s worth noting just how mightily our expectations have swelled in a few short decades.

The recently awarded 1961 Point Piper house by Austrian-Australian cult-architect Hugh Buhrich is an example. In 2001, when bought by its present owners, the house was dilapidated. Still, it was classic Buhrich, its tram-car plan opening lengthways to a quasi-bush setting before soaring like a diving board from its pencil site into the blue airspace of Rose Bay.

The house was unlisted and had a development approval to brick in most of the cantilever, thus maximising volume. Luckily for the house, however, and for anyone attached to its tall, gaunt seaside presence, the new owners went for a new architect, Louise Nettleton, and a new design.

Nettleton loved the house. Her renovation, therefore, retained its essential design discipline – the linear plan and breathtaking cantilever – while swelling it slightly to contemporary expectations. Her efforts won her an official commendation from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects but, at the same time, a degree of controversy among committed Buhrich heads.

The controversy hinged around three main decisions; to cut a three-storey courtyard into the fabric, bringing light and air to newly excavated living space; to abandon the narrow and precipitous deck entry – another classic Buhrich device – pinned along the northern front; and to push the main bedroom out between the two great pencil columns that support the diving board. But the result is a success; teetering on the edge of over-gentrification, it nevertheless sustains just enough of that wild and ruthless Buhrich spirit to justify its cult status.

Another Buhrich house (1948), for sale in Castlecrag, may be less fortunate. Similarly unlisted, it was Buhrich’s first house for himself. Designed and hand-built by him, it shows a similar mix of the organic and the rational and a similar uncompromising austerity. Very Austrian, but also deeply Australian, it has been protected, to date, by family ownership. Its future is anyone’s guess.

Others, like the trailblazing Rose Seidler house, are protected by the Historic Houses Trust, but there’s something sad in the way so fearlessly futuristic a house is now not only “heritage” (Seidlerian for “slum”) but also a venue for nostalgic ’50s frolics.

Why, then, did Pettit and Sevitt’s clean, unpretentious look take off so, while today’s mass-market housing can’t rise above over-fleshed kitsch? The answer is part-money, part-fashion. Pettit and Sevitt, recalls Brian Pettit, appealed to young professionals; an educated class on a budget. Architecturally, these are the taste leaders but they are no longer doing outer suburbia. These days they occupy apartments first, then terraces. Only here though. Sydney is the only Australian city where first-home buyers are increasingly doing it in the inner city. So maybe, just maybe, that small-house fashion is coming after all?


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