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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 17-Dec-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features


Page: 19

Wordcount: 857

A fate worse than death for the rich


One thing I love is how rich people have no taste. When you’re feeling burdened by envy but at the same time sickened by how unerringly the world’s douche bags seem to float to the top, try this for therapy. Swing down to the Gucci-Prada end of town, saunter the racks of thousand-dollar frocks and five-thousand-dollar suits and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there’s not a thing you’d be seen in, dead or alive.

It’s not that the designers are bad, though this may also be true. It’s that this bilious crud – these satin pinstripe jeans, stiletto sneakers, gold-bedecked T-shirts – is what the rich, in their deep-down heart of hearts, desire. It’s what they want.

This is doubly bizarre because, if taste is as randomly subjective as most of us think, the law of averages alone would suggest that some rich people should show some aesthetic discernment, some of the time. But no. Taste and wealth seem to be mutually exclusive, which I can only put down to two things. One, that today’s riche are mostly of the nouveau persuasion, and, two, that devotion to fattening the pockets leaves little time to educate the eye.

In many ways, though, this is a good thing. It keeps the cash moving around the board. It also lets you spot them a mile off, head for a different cafe, whatever.

And as with clothes, so with houses. I used to take my daughter jogging. What can I say, you do these things. Neither of us enjoyed the experience but she hated it more than I. So, to make it less vile, we invented a game. It was a game involving shameless elitism of the kind that is totally unacceptable in every field except the sports field (and of course, the goldfield), so it is with trepidation that I reveal my sin. But for the Greater Good, well, we must all make sacrifices.

We called our game Life and Death. It required snap decisions – we had to judge each house-garden ensemble in the time we took to run past, so the larger the more considered – classifying each as Life, Death or Double-Death.

Life was of course pinned like a rosette to all those heartwarming, gemutlich numbers, verandahed, sun-bleached, plum-tree-fronted, ivy-hugged. Double-Death went to the full-concrete-jackets. You know them – where wall-to-wall cement allows no speck of green to mess with the effect. Grim as. But one category was worse still.

We’d been reading The Ancient Mariner, as brilliantly, gothicallly illustrated by Mervyn Peake, and our worst category by far was Life-in-Death, as in, “the nightmare life-in-death was she, who thicks men’s blood with cold”.

The Life-in-Death badge we reserved for those bloated, eaveless, germless, try-hard, marble-clad manifestations of the Hygiene Hypothesis we now know as McMansions. I always get loads of angry letters when I slag off McMansions, like I’m some kind of rich person myself, raining on the poor person’s right to aspire. Like I’m a developed nation spewing on Africa’s right to emit.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The McMansion’s most irksome trait is its slavish ersatzing of the rich. And even so, it’s not the aspiration itself but the sheer tawdriness of its object that depresses.

Frank Death (I kid you not) is the aptly-named chief executive of Kellyville’s HomeWorld. Mr Death is now predicting a Big Comeback for the Australian Backyard. With “a lot more affordable land now being released”, he feels the curse of urban consolidation is now safely over.

Never mind that the average Australian house is already the world’s biggest. Never mind that our carbon emissions are the world’s highest, largely because we have to drive past all those other roly-poly dwellings to gain access to our own. Give ’em that sprawl-as-usual backyard, now, for Christmas. While you can.

He’s addressing the unwashed but what he’s invoking, consciously or not, what Mr Death summons like a plague of boiling frogs, is the same sprawl, enlarged by a power of 10, among the rich.

Alec Tzannes is a good architect but money undoes rigour, and Tzannes’s 35-room John Symond residence does for its Point Piper headland what a silicone-breasted floozy does for her nonagenarian mining magnate: render him desperate and undignified.

The new house in Vaucluse for James, Erica and Indigo Packer is, at 2800 sq m (a mere 13 times the national average), small by comparison. But not that small.

Tzannes’s makeover of Guilford Bell’s McFarlane House includes a gym, sauna, steam room and massage, eight bedrooms, a new pool – the old one being filled by a 130 sq m underground cinema – seven-car garage and lift. The “master bedroom suite” weighs in at a whopping 190 sq m, bigger than many people’s entire houses (including mine – so yes, it could be sour grapes).

But imagine if rich people built places of genuine beauty, like the Moorish palaces of Cordova or Seville. Better still, imagine if the Packers jnr set out to prove that the world’s most sustainable house could also be its loveliest. Then, by golly, the aspirationals would have something to copy, instead of abjectly Packing Death.


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