Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
A massive leap of faith makes a wee bit of sense
Immensity can be depressing. I don’t know, maybe it’s an ego thing and therefore some kind of sin. Like when you accidentally glance at the night sky and there are all those stars, strewn about with no geometry to speak of. And you can’t help – if only to get a grip, tidy them up a bit – trying to understand them.
So you start discerning the patterns, knowing the names, glad-handing around – only then you’re really in the mire, because then the immensity kicks in. All that cold, dark, implacable time (or is it mass?) out there.
In the end it’s hard to say whether this is ego or its opposite. Either way it blows a cold wind around your heart.
Which is why it was so touching when the National Trust listed the night sky as a heritage item. I mean, this is a body with zero power. None. A body that can’t even protect its own doorstep from the devouring hordes, and it’s going to save the sky? Why stop there? Why not just heritage-list the universe and be done with it?
My father used to get depressed by crowds, especially of the thronging, sweating, chip-eating variety.
Similarly affected by the en masse thing was a gentleman architect I once knew – a really nice old guy and master of The Beautiful Room – who returned from New York once like the Ancient Mariner, muttering for weeks to himself and to anyone who would listen: “All those rooms in that city, millions of them, all those lives. All those windows, all those eyes. . .”
Oh, I understand. I sympathise. And yet, at a dull planetary level, I’ve never felt the type to be intimidated by size. St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, I knew at once is about the right size for a house. Too much gold, in its vulgar new restoration, and I wasn’t thinking about the vacuuming.
But with all those vaultings and groinings, all those heavy-headed columns and round-headed domes, it’s a very grounded sort of space, very capped and roofed, very worldly. Not unduly aspiring, like the gothic where, hide as you will, you simply cannot lose the sense of God.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find that small is the new big. This should make some men happy, if not a lot of women. In houses, as in cars, the size imperative is reversing. Already, once-respectable American fat-burbs are three-quarters deserted and prey to violent crime of both organised and disorganised varieties. This may not happen here. But the smart people – prosumers, as the aptly-named Faith Popcorn tags cultural trendsetters – are scaling down and staying in town.
This good news became blindingly clear to me one day last spring. Sydney Open. I sloshed out of the Tank Stream, shucked the gummies and rushed off to see a house I’d revered on paper for almost a decade. It is Margaret Fink’s house in Darlinghurst, her third from architect and gold-medalist Keith Cottier.
Conjoining a pair of minuscule, 1830s two-up-two-downers where artists Douglas Dundas and Dorothy Thornhill – who had taught Fink as an East Sydney Tech art student – lived and worked, the house is not tiny by history’s standards. But it is compact, a quality underlined by what most would see as the site’s other deficiencies; no view, almost no street address and a six-storey brick wall hard on the northern boundary.
So hamstrung is the site, in fact, that Cottier’s initial advice on Fink’s purchase was monosyllabic. “Sell!” But Fink’s considerable reputation hasn’t been made without stubbornness. She loved the secretive, landlocked location and with Cottier’s help – or vice versa – has made one of the most enchanting houses in the country.
She says she is “sick of singing his praises” – but only because she does it so often. And although she remarks, “I did it like a film; I had a budget and a schedule and I kept to both”, she also notes that “there’s a reason why they pay them – architects”.
Plus she “thoroughly enjoyed the whole process.” This makes it unusual in the extreme.
Then again, she’s an unusual client. Articulate, forthright and intensely visual, Fink knew what she wanted and, by now, trusted Cottier to deliver. He approached the entire site as a Matisse cut-out in the round, cracking open a fern garden here, a gravelled courtyard there to let the light in.
Fink filled the interior with books and pictures – even a grand piano for a bit – and insisted, against advice, on covering the entire northern monolith with Boston ivy, to create a vertical field that ripples greenly all summer, smoulders through autumn and is veined, tendrilous all winter.
It’s a tailored, single-person glove. And when Germaine comes to stay, as happens now and then, she gets the main bedroom because, says Fink, “she seems too big in the spare”.
But in this age of climate chaos and burgeoning singledom, such a house is a fine model for an energy-and-land-efficient city building block and an ideal cocoon for protection, come Earth Hour, from the night sky’s inky immensity.