Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Shaping the hill

August 2007. There's a hill with trees and cows. It's a paddock. But in my head it's not. In my head it's a place for a house...

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called his iconic Wisconsin house (houses, for those of you who know the story) Taliesin, which is Welsh for "radiant brow". Wright placed his home not on the peak of the hill, but on the brow so that Taliesin would appear to be part landscape. As Wright said, "not on the land, but of the land".

I didn't know any of this when I chose the site for my house, but when I read T.C.Boyle's The Women I identified strongly with Wright's design and desire. I wanted my house to be part of the hill, to sit in it, not on it. I wanted it to face north, settled into a cutting that would bring the weather from the south west over the apex of the hill and the roof of the house in one smooth movement. I wanted the hill itself to provide shelter and privacy, to cradle the house.

I was also conscious that the act of building a house on previously productive land has an inherent cost: it locks up that land for decades, possibly forever. I wanted to keep my impact on the hill to a minimum, to somehow view the hill itself as a living entity with which I was making a pact: allow me the opportunity to shape you, to create a space to build a house and I will repay you as the years pass... Makes me sound like a hippy, I know, but it's true. I didn't want to take anything for granted. I was about to carve a chunk out of a piece of land that had been here in this shape since time immemorial.

It was astounding how quickly the hill was transformed. I can only imagine how much work it would've been to move this volume of earth without machinery - I guess it'd simply make living on a hillside such as this impossible. Either that or it'd necessitate building on stumps to create a level building site... Thankfully, with an excavator, a grader and a bobcat it only took a couple of days to create the house site, the driveway and to prepare the site for the water tank.

The topsoil was stockpiled behind the house site while the clay and and bedrock were used to build up the eastern end of the block where the hill dropped away dramatically. By the time Andy had finished he'd created enough space for the house but also provided enough level ground for a future yard, garden and vehicle access.

It was also important to consider that over the next few months there'd be all manner of heavy vehicles coming to and fro the house site. As with just about every step along the way I trusted the professionals I was employing to know more than I did about what I'd need. Andy did a wonderful job...

Saturday, 26 March 2011

An oven and a prison door

Q: What do these two things have in common?

A: I bought them both for the house before there even was a house.

The oven is a pearler. A beauty. I'd been searching for a dual fuel cooker. The new AGAs and Rayburns were well outside my budget and there didn't seem to be anything second hand. Older stoves tended to be one or the other, either gas or wood, not both. But then! One night on ebay I found a dual fuel stove in working order and no one bidding on it. I'd never used ebay so I asked my brother what to do. The bidding closed mid afternoon - when we should've been at the cafe. He advised me to do nothing for the time being and just watch it. Then, on the day the bidding closed we shut the cafe early and headed up to his place in time to bid in the last thirty seconds. It was exhilarating! From memory we put in $1000 as the high bid and ended up getting it for around $800. 

We had to collect it from Carlton, just near the corner of Lygon and Elgin streets. The woman who had owned it and used it her whole adult life was going into a retirement home. Her nephew was selling the stove so he could replace it before he put tenants in the house. He was upset that I got the stove for $800 - as he should've been, it was certainly worth more than that. It was dirty and was missing some fire bricks, but otherwise was in pretty good nick.

But it wasn't just a stove, it had a story...

After the second World War when there was a wave of sponsored European migration an Italian man had come home to his wife and announced that they were migrating to Australia. Apparently she responded that she wasn't going anywhere without her new Zoppas oven. So the husband pulled the oven out of the wall... They packed up their belongings, their children and their stove and moved to Australia, eventually moving into a terrace house near the corner of Lygon and Elgin streets. The man died in this house fifty years later. The woman, no longer able to manage on her own was leaving this house and moving into a home... And the stove is now my stove.

We picked it up in mum and dad's van. It only just fitted in. It was bloody heavy. I flew to Indonesia and left dad and my brother to unload it! It then lived in the shed for months gathering dust and becoming a haven for myriad spiders. Eventually the house was built and now the stove is the centrepiece. The old Italian lady would be happy methinks.

All the instructions in Italian...

Contrast this with the prison door... I was at Building Bitz in Wonthaggi chatting to Tim and scouring the place for odd bits and pieces when he pointed out the two prison doors that he'd just picked up from the old Won Wron prison. I've had family members spend a little time as a guest at HM Prison Won Wron and a family friend who'd been a guard down there. I never imagined I'd have a door from the jail in my house. But once I was actually looking at it it had a peculiar beauty; it may have had an ugly purpose, but in its strength and solid functionality it was bizarrely handsome. What had me loading it into the car before I could think too much about it wasn't the door itself though, it was the graffiti that the prisoners had etched into the paint, the dents that they'd kicked into the hardened steel, the stories it contained, the way it was somehow more than just a door.

I wanted to use the door on the bathroom, thinking the guards' viewing panel would be both oddly functional and a curious talking point. That idea was kiboshed by just about everyone I mentioned it to - too creepy being the general consensus. But I wasn't to be dissuaded entirely... I kept thinking. Besides, I'd paid a couple of hundred dollars for this hunk of creepy steel... 

As with the stove, the prison door gathered dust in the shed for many months while the house took shape, first in my mind then in reality...


...and then the monolithic cafe-cum-homewares shop next door burnt down. 

In the early days I'd wished for some of the opposition's custom. Then over time as people tried us out or tired of them I built my customer base. And I was quite happy with the way our two businesses balanced one another: I got the lefty/artsy/Green crowd, they got the conservative WASP crowd. It worked nicely. 

I trusted that my customers would come with me on my new tangent, I just couldn't have imagined that I'd halve the number of tables about a fortnight before I'd end up with no competition at my end of the street. The place next door probably had seating for 80... Then it was gone.

To say I was busy would be to grossly understate the situation. I had one staff member who'd been with me for a few years but she was off to Tanzania about six weeks after the fire. The cook was new, the second waitress too. It was a cussing nightmare.

My favourite time at the cafe - when it was closed...

Whereas previously I'd have done 1.5-2 kilos of coffee a day all of a sudden I was doing 6 kilos. I was tied to the coffee machine from opening to well after lunch and simply had to hope that the staff were managing everything else. 

Melanie Joy designed tea towel

I put the cafe up for sale. It sold. It was the most amazing job I've ever had. And by the end it was the most bittersweet. I'd loved it and in a way I still did. But...

I bid you adieu #9.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The cafe: 2010

I'll skip to the end of the cafe story just to tie up that loose end. The longer I worked there the more art and objet d'art I accumulated on the walls and on the shelves. Many were made/found/stolen for me by my lovely customers. Others were made/found/stolen for me by my lovely staff.

As the years passed the space began to more closely resemble the vision I'd had in my head when I'd first bought O'Malley's. Not only did we get better at cooking and making coffee, we also got better at managing the customers. By that I don't simply mean the day-to-day customer relations, I mean using the trust we'd built up with the regulars to lead them.

When we'd first opened we made a fabulous borscht. We put 'borscht' up on the specials board along with some appropriately enthusiastic adjectives. We didn't sell a single serve. So we called it 'Russian borscht' and we sold a couple. Next day it was 'Russian beetroot and tomato borscht'. We sold a few. By the end of the week it was 'tomato and beetroot soup'. We sold out. The moral? We hadn't yet built a relationship with the customers. It was a small town and the people had conservative tastes.

Eventually the customers came to know and trust us. We could put just about anything on the specials board and they'd try it. Even borscht. We were able to use this trust to broaden what we were able to offer. We started to use three coffee grinders: one for the house bean - Calima's espresso blend; one for a locally roasted - by Southern Addictions - decaf; the third we used to showcase specialty coffees from wherever we could source them. We also used this relationship with the customers to take our holidays. We would close for a month at a time and could trust that the customers would be waiting for our return. Eventually I was able to use this strong relationship to radically re-imagine what number9dream could be...

Last day pre-renovations...

At the beginning of 2010 all of my mainstays had departed, including my brother. Succession planning is all very well, but ultimately it depends on being able to access good and reliable people, people who would buy into my vision just as my previous staff had done. This proved exceedingly difficult, so difficult in fact that it served as the catalyst to substantial changes.

I had always had as much (possibly more) interest in the arts and craft as I had in food and coffee. Certainly my aim with the cafe right from the beginning was about creating a 'space' rather than cooking the best dish or competing in barista championships. An essential part of creating that space was art and craft. Over the five years to 2010 there'd been many queries about buying some of the art, but it was (and is) mine and not for sale...

Out with the old (with the best helper in the whole world) and in with the new...

So, cue 2010. I'm struggling to find staff. I'm conscious of a growing interest in the arts and crafts but no one in South Gippsland is really providing an outlet for handmade wares... I close for a month, ostensibly to re-cover the floor and re-fit the kitchen, but while I'm at it I reduce the number of tables from eight to four. I reduce the number of items on the menu from around 50 to about half that. I want to keep things simple, streamlined. If I can reduce my dependence on food and coffee and spread some of my income stream to retail crafty bits then I will also reduce my reliance on staff. It's a risk, but five years in it seems one worth taking. As with just about everything to do with the cafe (and life generally - I concede) I trusted my gut instinct...

That helper again - this time painting chairs

I love Ikea steps/stools way too much!

The month itself was bloody hard work. We had to gut the kitchen so that the cabinetmakers could fit the new one. To lay the new floor all of the furniture had to be moved to one side of the cafe, the floor done, the furniture shifted onto the new floor, then the other half of the room was done... It was labourious, messy and time consuming. It also meant that I couldn't work in the cafe without being in the way, so it put off the more creative aspects of the renovation until the last ten days.

Ink & Spindled stools

In the meantime my helper and I started to visit all sorts of artists and makers to acquire their wares. We bought all sorts of things - pottery and jewellery, cushions and recycled toys, bags and cards. I also found various bits and bobs from which to make the retail space: old windows and doors, a tumbledown antique cabinet, the toilet seat from the San Remo funfair... Once the floor was done the fun work began!

I used the old kitchen drawers as the base for the large protruding bench, the top of which was a beautiful cedar door with glass panels. The shelves were all old sash windows mounted on brackets. The side shelves were the aforementioned toilet seat and amber glass windows attached to a rickety wooden ladder. I had been thinking about making a communal table from huge glass concertina doors that were being taken down from the old mechanic's building across the road - I asked the blokes who were demolishing the place if I could have them and they said yes...before throwing them into a skip a few days later... Cedar frames, a century of history, twenty-foot glass panes. Sad.

Pricing, polishing, etc - minutes before opening...

Forced to abandon that idea I started looking around for other found objects I could repurpose into a large communal table. While I was browsing at the local secondhand store I stumbled across a huge redgum table. It was commissioned in the early '70s and had cost $2000 back then. The price on it now? $260. Truly. I bought it. It was French polished to the point that I could see my reflection, a detail that the secondhand dealer pointed out repeatedly. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I planned to sand it back and paint it black!

Freshly spruced, painted, furniture tarted up, retail space constructed and stocked, menu halved... The cafe re-opened to a very positive response. (You can read what the ladies from Mookah thought about it if you want a more objective perspective.) It was an exciting and rewarding time. And then...

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Morwell (part II)

Since Bilbao got its Gehry-designed franchise of the Guggenheim empire, art has been lauded as the cure-all for cities with the post-industrial blues. Oh, high unemployment, low community morale, no investment, no hope...? Let's build a gallery! Fundamentally the aims of an art-led recovery are to attract two particular groups of people to the town: tourists and creatives.

It is incredibly myopic to imagine this as the antidote to the ills of every post-industrial town. Yes, it has worked. It worked in Bilbao because the building itself makes people want to go there. No one travels to Berlin just for its (admittedly tiny) outpost of the Guggenheim. I doubt anyone travels to Venice just to pop in at Penny's (although they should). Yet people travel to Bilbao just to see the Spanish campus. Ergo it's the building, the spectacle, not the collection. Which means that opening any old gallery ain't going to cut it in terms of creating a tourist destination and building a service industry based around that influx.

The creatives then? This worked in Dunedin. Build a beautiful gallery right in the heart of town and watch the demographics shift? Simple? Not quite. Dunedin also has a university, so it has an established population of younger people. With the loss of industry around Dunedin there was a surfeit of cheap housing and commercial spaces. So a support network of smaller galleries, cafes, coffee roasters, music venues, musicians, artists, designers, studios and boutiques sprang up around the gallery. Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson called these people cultural creatives. Planners, advertisers and developers are among those who have come to recognise the importance of cultural creatives in transforming tastes and spaces. All of the elements aligned in Dunedin.

Morwell built a gallery. I love it. I never know what I'm going to see but it is invariably good. Sometimes the works are challenging and not easily accessible, other times I'll be surprised to see an old master up close and personal. The shows may not always be to my tastes, but I like to visit regularly to support the fact that the gallery exists at all. But the building itself isn't ever going to be a tourist destination in its own right.

Morwell does have two quite beautiful new buildings, the council building and the courthouse. When the town was struggling to re-establish itself after the privatisation of the SEC it was decided to move the council to Morwell in the hope that an influx of public servants would re-invigorate the CBD. A building was constructed alongside the railway, diagonally opposite the gallery. It truly is eye-catching, its coloured panels shifting along the spectrum as your perspective changes. Again, not astounding enough to be a tourist destination, and proof that it's not enough to get people to work in a place, they also have to live and shop there.

The second new building is the courthouse and police precinct. It is as spectacular as a modern public building can be in a regional town. Not only is the building adventurous and bold, it houses one of the most remarkable pieces of furniture I have about. That's right, read  about. That's because every time I have been to see it I haven't been allowed. So, after half a dozen visits to the courthouse I am still yet to see Damien Wright's table. But you too can read about it at The Monthly.

The courthouse is beside the gallery and within a stone's throw of the council building. This triumvirate should have been the catalyst to a sense of renewed pride in Morwell. Except... That the people who live in Morwell have no connection to the gallery, little affinity for the council and try to avoid court as assiduously as the rest of us. So the street front opposite the council building is still pocked with empty spaces, aging flyers and an 'under new management' announcement that has outlasted the business it trumpeted.

How could things have been different? How could anticipated urban renewal and civic pride have successfully followed on from this investment? There are so many difficulties to understand and I don't claim to know. But there is one simple issue that holds Morwell back - its isolation from the Monash University campus at Churchill. It is too far to walk or ride and the bus service is adequate at best.

If I was in a position to change anything I would invest in housing in Morwell. I'd buy as many houses as I could. Just quietly, not pushing up prices too much... There were empty houses in every street that I drove along this morning. It was possible to buy houses in Morwell for less than $20,000 a decade ago. Although they're no longer that cheap, they're still cheap. I'd offer free rent to people prepared to move to Morwell. I'd take submissions and make places available to students, artists, baristas, designers, architects, etc. I'd offer grants to people wanting to open studios, cafes, galleries. I'd organise free, regular shuttle buses to and from the university. With ADSL it's possible to work from anywhere. Trains run from Morwell to the city and vice versa every hour. The freeway runs from Morwell to Melbourne. It'd take less than a decade to transform the town. The cultural creatives would be the catalyst. They'd bring ideas, energy, spirit. They'd bring that intangible thing that has transformed inner city workers' suburbs into desirable, vibrant places world over. And the investment in property would more than pay for itself. It'd pay for itself in a financial sense, but in time it would also buy hope, and that is priceless.

And that doesn't even begin to touch on the possibilities available to new energy industries. If the Latrobe Valley could attract the next generation of post-carbon energy investment it could remain at the centre of this state's power generation beyond our reliance on brown coal. So much potential. If only I was in a position to change anything...

Saturday, 12 March 2011


I've spent this morning in Morwell, so I'll stray from the story of the house for today. Not that the house story hasn't already had its asides...

When I was growing up Morwell was thriving. It was a busy place - all the shops occupied, the streets always crowded, the cinema busy. It was a blue-collar town, a bit rough around the edges, but it always felt like an easy place. I mean easy in the sense that it was unpretentious, its citizens at ease with themselves and their place. I'm not saying that it didn't have problems: there were large tracts of commission housing and the Morwell kids we played football against were tough, but it was always a place I enjoyed visiting.

Morwell had two busy halves, one on each side of the railway tracks. The local radio station broadcast out of the subway beneath the rails and I loved going there on occasion to collect a single or cassette I'd won. There was a t-shirt shop too, with a KISS shirt i wanted terribly... The local primary school ran a unique and groundbreaking Japanese/English curriculum to cater for the children of Japanese families living in Morwell for the brown coal liquefaction project. It was an exciting time, a time of ease. There was no sense of what was to come. It is still difficult for me to reconcile the Morwell I knew with the Morwell I visited this morning.

I still like going to Morwell, but now it doesn't feel easy. Now it feels on edge. There is an almost palpable sense of unease. So why do I go? I love the gallery. I love the op shops. I love that the Coles has an Asian section. I love Manny's Market. I love the continental deli and the old lady who runs it. I love the fruit and vegies and the less old lady who runs that (which reminds me, I still owe her the $3 I was short on my last visit...). I love the old Italian men who gather and chat beside the window that shows the coffee roaster and sacks of beans. I love that for a few months there was an African grocer. I love the fact that this place exists. Thinking about Manny's Dutch licorice selection makes me salivate... Ah, Pavlov, I am but a dog.

What happened? The place got Jeffed. It's rare down here to hear someone mention Victoria's previous conservative premier without his name being preceded by an expletive. Fucking Kennett. Split up the State Electricity Commission and sold it off. Privatisation. That's what it was called. Midnight sitting of parliament. Deal done. Fait accompli. No one asked the people of the Valley. No one did a study into the social impacts of the sale. Efficiency was the buzz word, the reason given, the excuse. Efficiency. 

It's Labour Day tomorrow. Poignant really. When I was at High School the SEC employed more than 10,000 people in the Valley. It took hundreds of apprentices every year. At the end of years 9, 10 and 11 I had schoolmates who left school to take up apprenticeships with the SEC. It caught all those kids who weren't academically inclined, gave them hope, work, skills, pay. Now those kids stay on at school, their self-esteem as low as their grades, their hopes equally dismal. And the presence of those kids in schoolrooms? It distracts the students who do want to learn, spreads teachers too thin, allocates resources across too many. So everybody loses.

The five companies that replaced the SEC in the Valley employ around 2,500 people now.  That's 7,500 fewer wage-earners in the Valley. Assuming that probably half of them would've lived in Morwell, that's about, say 3,500 people.The total population of the town is 13,500. So, more than a quarter of the whole town's population lost their jobs almost overnight.

Kennett also merged the councils and located the new amalgamated council in Traralgon. Finally, the construction of MidValley shopping centre which once augmented the Morwell CBD and provided a commercial bridge through to Traralgon sucked all remaining money and activity out of the town. Any wonder the place died... If there was ever a need to create a ghetto out of a thriving community, this'd be the blueprint. Take away the jobs, take away the identity, take away the shoppers...

I remember coming home from London and visiting Morwell after all this had happened. It felt as though there'd been an emergency evacuation and we hadn't heard about it. The streets were deserted, every carpark vacant. The decal signs were peeling off empty shops to reveal the names of long-gone tenants. It was depressed and depressing. Unease. That was the first time I'd felt it there.

This morning I went to the multicultural festival. It was nice. Poorly patronised though. Pity. It was sponsored by the Latrobe City Council, the second event I've attended in a week that the council has sponsored, the other being the Boolarra Folk Festival. And that got me thinking...

There has been a lot of money spent on urban renewal and community-building in Morwell. Across the greater Latrobe Valley I guess, but I'm less familiar with Churchill, Moe and Traralgon. I cannot even begin to imagine the social security money that has been poured into Morwell over the last generation.

I'm not sure what the sale of the SEC netted the government but whatever it was it wasn't worth it. The financial cost of a crippled Morwell is probably measurable. Someone with more time and a better knowledge of economics and statistics could probably find the dollar value of Morwell's devastation and measure it against the money reaped from the sale. Am I being fantasist to suggest that the two figures may be closer than we might imagine? Regardless, no amount of money can come close to justifying the loss of hope that has afflicted Morwell, its residents and its generation of children born into poverty and abject unemployment. No amount of money, surely, should buy ease...

Friday, 11 March 2011


If I had a dollar for every time I or one of my staff had to answer the question: so why is the cafe called number9dream?, then it'd probably work out that I didn't get paid for anything else for almost six years! Ok, slight exaggeration, but only slight. 

"The owner and his brother and his brother's daughter and their aunt and two of their uncles are all born on the 9th. And number9dream is the name of a John Lennon song. And a David Mitchell book..."

The 9 was first. Something with a 9. Cloud 9? 9th Nervous Breakdown (yes, I know it's 19th...) would've been prophetic but not particularly inviting. Love Potion Number 9? 9ine? 9nine9? Party Like It's...? Then one day I spied my copy of Number 9 Dream on my bookshelf and the decision virtually made itself. Most people were either indifferent or positive. Except my mum... She said it was a - and I quote - "pussy name". Truly! I never asked just what that meant, instead let it quietly slip through to the keeper...

The name didn't really take off with the customers who called it every variation you could possibly imagine. Eventually it was referred to by everyone - including us - as #9. Simple. Pity its street number was 44. Oh well. Understanding (and incredibly friendly and efficient - rain, hail or shine) postie.

I sent out about a dozen different fonts asking for feedback: understandably no one was quite as interested as I was and my questioning soon wore thin. Eventually I settled on one whose name I can't even recall. With that decided I asked creative friend and one-time colleague Lara Cameron ( to design me some business cards and menu covers. My brief was so expansive and thorough: umm...a eucalypt leaf and the green of Gippsland forests. Remember that I was living in Darwin while I was doing this - I was missing Gippsland and those two elements were evocative of that place for me. This is what she came up with:

Clever, isn't she? Look at that leaf detail. And the best bit? She swapped me for a meal! Sensibly she didn't redeem her bit of that deal until sometime late in 2006, by which time we'd actually worked out what we were doing...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


Let's cut to the chase: only the crazy, the misguided or the terminally optimistic would ever buy a cafe. It's bloody hard work, there's a long period of going broke before actually making any money. What money you do eventually make is, on a per hour basis, probably as poor as anything you've been paid since lugging fridges for Ken Bruce Has Gone Mad. Oh, wait, that was me, not you... And that was - from memory - $2.80 an hour, so that gives you some idea what I'm talking about...

So, yes, I was crazy, misguided and terminally optimistic. I'd spent years frequenting cafes and had often thought wistfully that I'd love to have one of my very own. Next time I covet something I hope it's a book or a work of art. Something I can enjoy without the nervous breakdown...

Don't get me wrong - I loved the cafe. I loved it and was proud of it and was bloody good at running it (eventually). Have a look at these pics and you'll get an idea of what we created from what had been a ye olde worlde, dark, soulless cafe with no customers.



And that transformation was just after a three-week-long family working bee. The real growth and creativity came later, once the place was up and running. For the time being though, the cafe took up all my time and all my money (and LOTS of money that wasn't mine), so any thoughts I had of building on the hill were shelved. As I said in an earlier post, I spent a lot of time sitting on the hill (in retrospect not all that much on inclement days...), but there simply wasn't the time or the finances to do anything but keep the cafe afloat in the hope that one day it'd turn a profit...


Even though I was living 4000km away from my hill I knew that somehow, sometime I'd build a house there. It seemed improbable when I was living in Fannie Bay and working for Top End Arts, but life has a way of working out...

I'd moved out of my Troppo house to a nice but boxy (with peach-coloured walls) apartment. The landlord knocked off some rent in exchange for me re-painting and I did my best to make the place my own.

While I was living here though I kept adding photos of my hill to the collection of shots on my fridge, semi-conscious of my 'one day' thinking...

Remnants of the charming peach 'pon the cupboards & drawers

I kept thinking about my Troppo house and how well it suited its environment, kept thinking about how to adapt those ideas to a temperate climate, kept thinking about how there wasn't an abiding architecture suited to southern Australia. When I pictured Gippsland's hills in my mind's eye the buildings that seemed most endemic to those rolling green vistas were corrugated iron sheds... Thinking, thinking...

There was a friend who lived out of town - out beyond Batchelor - who sold her photographs at the markets in Darwin on the weekends. Which meant that her house was empty on saturday nights. Part house-sit, part holiday house, she often had people stay there while she was away. The first time I saw her house many of the ideas I'd been toying with coalesced - I wanted a cold-weather version of this house!

I wanted a house that used open spaces filled with light to overcome the long Gippsland winters. I wanted a house that had high ceilings and fans for airflow in the hot Gippsland summers. I wanted a house that was based on the archetypal farm sheds which dot the Gippsland hills. I wanted to clad the house with corrugated iron so that it looked like it 'belonged' on the hills, that it sat as easily in its environment as those sheds.

I came away from my weekend in this Batchelor house with a vision of my house, of what it would look like, how it would sit 'in' the hill rather than on it. Problem was I was living in Darwin and had no money to speak of...

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Troppo inspiration

There isn't really an architectural style particular to Gippsland, in fact there's not a particular style that fits anywhere in southern Australia. Historically we have built and lived in houses that were virtually transplanted European or American styles, sometimes with an Australian flourish. I lived in a fabulous Federation era house in McKean Street in North Fitzroy, the cornices all decorated with sprigs of wattle and twigs of eucalypt, the glass panes in the doors etched with similar floral motifs. But while the decorative elements may have reflected the environment in which the house was built (and no doubt echoed the nationalist sentiments of the time), the house itself was cold in the winter, baking hot in the summer and probably more suited to London than Melbourne.

I was born into a suburban brick-veneer house, grew up in an old weatherboard house and have lived in 15 different houses and apartments between leaving home and building a house of my own. Of all those houses only one was designed and built with its environment in mind. This house was in Darwin and it was designed by Troppo Architects -

Hazeldine house from the street

This was the first of two Hazeldine houses that Troppo built. Essentially it was three separate structures that were linked by walkways and sets of stairs. The back of the 'house' is visible in this photograph, the front opened up onto the golf course: in fact stepping off the front verandah you almost stepped onto the green of the ninth hole. The setting was superb, the golfers worth putting up with. The frill-necked lizards that the golf club used as its emblem were a common and often hilarious sight. We even had a resident goanna.

Goanna, pool & golf course
The main building housed the kitchen, a living space and a mezzanine that I used as my bedroom. The roof was about 20 feet tall, the centre point suspended by an enormous tree trunk that was the abiding feature of the room. All the walls were louvre windows, the kitchen recessed in a pit that extended beneath the mezzanine. To the west of the main building was a pool, and alongside the pool a walkway that led to the bathroom. The shower had no screen but was instead seated down large boulder steps in a recessed space of its own. Again, it was surrounded by louvres - this was not a house for the modest!

Main room on left, pool & bathroom

Along a further walkway were two sets of stairs: down to the toilet and laundry; up to three bedrooms which all opened up to the balcony visible on the left of the top photograph. None of the rooms were air conditioned - almost unheard of in new houses in the top end. Instead they used tall ceilings, through-ventilation via lots of windows and ceiling fans.

Hazeldine house from the golf course

I simply loved living in this house. If I had had unlimited funds I'd have stayed living there, but its design prohibited sharing with housemates and it was too expensive to rent alone. So, I left the Troppo house behind when my then-girlfriend and I broke up, but I never forgot the lessons I'd learned from living in that space, those spaces.

Tropical feast - watermelon, pawpaw, Bloody Marys & a cuppa

Main room - complete with tree trunk