Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Behind the brick veneer: the biplane house.

Some years ago, Les Murray published a collection of poems under the name of ‘Biplane Houses’.  The obvious implication being that our houses are light, made of timber uprights and steel struts, wrapped in nearly equally insubstantial materials, but also the sense of suddenly dropping into previously bare paddocks from somewhere beyond, or even the constancy of the form: hand-made but to an established pattern.

But, being poetry, of course, there are more substantial themes than these: perhaps the sense of movement, time and lofty perspective, or the cultural critique of our cities as the self-regarding, ‘shiny’ centres around which the rest spin (‘gentrifical force’).  A remorseless cycle of fashion, forgetting, and politics is spun out from the centre in an effort to maintain its position and shine. Murray is about remembering and celebrating the details on the periphery.

These tethered biplanes are interesting not only because of the people and fashions that flow through, but also how people adjust or respond to them.  The poem from which the collection gets its name is about the need to repair an old timber house, in particular remove the plants that also managed to occupy the premises.  Perhaps, it is also about the lack of interest or awareness of the owner-poet in the crumbling state of his roof (until nearly too late).

Whatever their origins, houses have reality only as lived spaces.  This movement of fragile people residing in precarious houses takes houses beyond the construction materials, the form and physical reality that presents itself.  There is a contrast between the vulnerability of houses and people, and the sense of deep history that comes with continuous attachment to a space, possibly for generations, especially in forgotten rural areas.  It is a surprise that something so light should provide such an anchoring for people.

The stripped out remains of an old timber-framed house just before the final push to remove the skeletal timbers of walls and roof would appear to be very like the first framing stage of a newly erected house, soon to be disguised in brick and tile.   But a more careful look will reveal the accumulation of details that demonstrate occupation but defy easy explanation. 

However, with a detailed knowledge of the people, events, dreams, compromises, or even indecisions that went into the place, these details show space that is alive.  It is possible to remember the house as it was used and who made what when: the intention behind an old concrete shower; the laying of a now-broken concrete pathway, later painted red for a reason that is not possible to recall; the undulation of the ground beside the toilet, always to be levelled but never was; the history of the debates about spaces and the projects to be done; the needs of the times, from the arrival of the first car to be accommodated, to the television tower to be installed; or the delight and disruption of repainting traditional oiled boards in modern paints with colours of any choice.

The bare bones of a house don’t reveal all this, only the ‘aged children’ know the reality and on site are permitted that special vision; all others are blind, only able to see the bare bones much like any other biplane house.

The notion of a biplane house celebrates the lightness, openness, and sameness of these repeated forms, recognising that distinctiveness –‘ the narrative’ – only comes with the wearing and tearing, rearranging, recycling, and adjusting that results from occupation and use.  The form is simple enough, and easily modified enough, to allow this tailoring to the occupant.

The biplane house is not an architectural masterpiece that can only be preserved in its purity nor is it a solid brick shell containing change, defying easy adaptation.  Equally, while the famous brick veneer house is a biplane building (disguised in respectable masonry), this covering usually inhibits modification as much as the real thing.  The interest is not in the original form, but in the narrative.  Sharp shiny contemporary forms or unyielding, deliberately imposing traditional ones are unlikely to accommodate a strong story.

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