A Limited House

Galah Vol1.

Words by Aaron Peters

Image by V&P

Queensland houses are many things, part myth and part misconception. They are splendid constructions that range from elegant timber homesteads to austere worker’s cottages, little more than flimsy wooden tents. Despite their ubiquity in the sub-tropics, ‘Queenslanders’ are often poorly adapted to their climate, vulnerable to termites and rot, and occasionally blown down the street in a cyclone. And yet, the timber houses of north-eastern Australia persist. For many of those who have lived in a Queenslander, these buildings not only transcend their apparent limitations, but often engender a profound and lasting affection.

Like many mythic creatures, the origins of the Queenslander are not entirely clear. These houses were typically constructed almost entirely from timber, capped with corrugated iron rooves, entered via a front verandah, and raised above the ground on timber stumps of varying height. Undoubtedly, the availability of building material was a significant factor (the region was endowed with forests crammed with suitable timbers sadly ripe for plundering). But many also point to the Undue Subdivision of Land Prevention Act 1885 that precipitated generous boundary setbacks and large subdivisions, giving rise to the equally iconic, rambling Queensland garden. The origins of the timber stumps however, are less clear; some say they’re designed to better guard against termite infestation and manage the undulating terrain. Others claim they stem from a nineteenth century pseudo-scientific fear of low-lying miasma clouds. 
 
As for their virtues, few rival the Brisbane-born writer David Malouf when it comes to evoking the haptic qualities and cultural resonances that cling to the Queensland house. His first novel Johnno (1975) and memoir 12 Edmondstone St (1985), named after a street in South Brisbane where his childhood home was once located, are particularly seminal examples:

They have about them the improvised air of tree houses. Airy, open, often with no doors between the rooms, they are on such easy terms with breezes, with the thick foliage they break into at window level, with the lives of possums and flying foxes, that living in them, barefoot for the most part, is like living in a reorganised forest. The creak of the timber as the day’s heat seeps away, the gradual adjustment in all its parts, like a giant instrument being tuned, of the house frame on its stumps, is a condition of life that goes deep into consciousness [...] Air circulates from room to room through a maze of interconnecting spaces; every breath can be heard, every creak of a bed post or spring; you sleep, in the humid summer nights, outside the sheets and with as little clothing as decency allows; and yet privacy is perfectly preserved. A training in perception has as much to do with what is ignored and passed over as with what is observed. You see what you are meant to see. You hear when you are called ¹

What I find most remarkable about Malouf’s retelling of his childhood experience is an emphasis on the apparent imperfection of the building. He loves its creaks, its darkened recesses. I feel that this is how the Queenslander becomes indelible in the mind of its occupants: the minor inconveniences, the disturbances, the oddities, the supposed limitations.   
 
The strategic flaw, the mild inconvenience, the prolonging or withholding of fulfilment are some of the most powerful tools that an architect can deploy. A flaw disconcerts, arouses a reaction or arrests attention. It’s a way of engaging an audience that doesn’t require grand, overt gestures; a strategic flaw can be small, subtle, and economical. The strategic flaw leaves a nagging itch that requires a second, third, or a fourth visit. This type of engagement between a building and an occupant grows gradually over time, laying down a foundation upon which a lasting affection can prosper. 
 
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be the owner of a newly built Australian project home, the kind of house that is intended to conform with the majority of people’s expectations for what a home should be – definitely not a building that ‘adjusts its parts’ or that is on ‘easy terms with the lives of possums’. Fortunately for me, our family is lucky enough to live in a Queenslander of our own.
 
Our journey started, not in a timber house, but an apartment on the top of a hill. It was our first home and perfectly attuned to our lifestyle with a vibrant, active community of fellow residents. I’ve never been an exceptionally gifted mathematician, but when my wife and I found ourselves sleeping on the living room floor within a month of bringing our newborn son home from the hospital, I was pretty confident that the available accommodation in our one-bedroom apartment just wasn’t going to stack up. Thus, we found ourselves leaving our lovingly renovated lodgings and stepping through the front door of the stereotypical ‘worst house in the street’ – a timber worker’s cottage in Brisbane’s West End.
 
The house was heavily ‘customised’ with DIY modifications and an assortment of teetering backyard structures. The building had been painted in a riotous cacophony of primary colours that, we assume, had served an odd sort of purpose of deterring would-be buyers and lowering the sale price to the level that we were able to make an acceptable offer.
 
The privilege of home ownership is clear to me, but isn’t always a straightforward affair. After removing the desiccated floor linings, we discovered that the pine floor boards had been eaten out by termites and borers, and that the undersized and over spaced floor joists needed wholesale replacement. As a result, I had the dubious privilege of opening the front door to our new house only to be confronted with an expanse of bare earth, interior partitions hanging in the void like a literal and metaphorical evocation of a house of cards. It was going to be pricey. The architect in me was not deterred.
 
A few weeks later, as I stood on the footpath staring up at our crooked, garish and newly-floored house, I tried to visualise the next step of the restorative process: a big can of white paint. At that moment a young woman walked past and enquired whether I was the owner of the house. When I replied that I was, she smiled and said, ‘Every time I see those bright colours it makes me so happy’. Good for her, I thought, but still hopped in the car to go buy those tins of whisper-white. Again, the architect in me was not deterred.
 
Our trim, white cottage now sits somewhere around the midpoint of its journey from ‘not especially nice’ to ‘ahh, that’s really nice’. We don’t have an elaborate kitchen, just an old sink screwed to the wall, but we do have a vegetable patch and a little outdoor terrace that can fit a garden table. The process has taken about four years to reach its present state, the product of limited attention from its architect/amateur tradesperson and our equally limited funds.
 
Our experience, stripping back a hundred-year-old home to its original core, clearing out the backyard, and shoring up the structure has, for me, made this house our own. Imperfection feels like an opportunity to realise something remarkable.  After all, it’s hard to take for granted what you’ve toiled hard to bring into being. We know our house because we’ve crawled under the floor, clambered about in the ceiling cavity and stood on the peak of the roof with one arm wrapped around the roof ventilator watching the chooks scratch around in the garden. 
 
Limitations have long been seen as the nemesis of the designer: obstacles cast in the way of the creative process, robbing the creation of its full potential. This is a conception that I’ve never really understood. Designing a building, for me, feels more like a process of imposing constraints to slowly eat away at the enormity of the challenge, like a sculptor working at a slab of stone, until the outline of the figure begins to emerge. I’m equally enamoured by the limited artwork: the song that defies the conventions of its genre, the painting with the disconcerting perspective, the novel with the abrasive tense. Reflecting on the Queenslander house reveals a timely and prescient lesson, that sometimes, the most limited, imperfect works of art are in fact the most compelling. And as an architect, the Queenslander also reminds me that the creative process is often easier, more cohesive and frequently, more successful with a firm tether of limitation to guide the process.
 
It’s an immense privilege to be able to own a home, and a greater privilege still to be in a position to ‘choose’ restraint and live within self-imposed limits. However, the truth is that our very survival as a species may well depend on our ability to place limits on our material culture. On average, Australians are building some of the largest, most well appointed houses on the planet, and this trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. But there is an alternative. When we stop to consider the outsized pleasures of moderate inconvenience, deferred gratification and uncomplicated living, we can begin to see the greater pleasures to be found in living within our limitations. In my view, perfection is not only unattainable; the very concept of it leaves a lot to be desired.
¹ Malouf, D. (1999) Edmondstone Street, Random House, London, pp 11-12, 24