Graeme Blun­dell on Grand De­signs Aus­tralia

Grand De­signs Aus­tralia con­tin­ues to amaze as home­own­ers defy the odds in pur­suit of their dreams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

‘Agreat build­ing must be­gin with the un­mea­sur­able, must go through mea­sur­able means when it is be­ing de­signed, and in the end must be un­mea­sur­able,” said the great ar­chi­tect Louis Kahn, that whim­si­cal ge­nius who in­structed his stu­dents to ask the ma­te­ri­als for ad­vice. His words might be the mantra of the many driven home builders who ap­pear on Pe­ter Mad­di­son’s Grand De­signs Aus­tralia, Life­Style’s most suc­cess­ful lo­cal pro­duc­tion, re­turn­ing this week.

It’s the “mea­sur­able means” that catch most of them out. Many of the de­signs spiral fear­fully out of con­trol, es­pe­cially if there’s no ar­chi­tect or project man­ager in­volved or the weather turns in­clement, as it of­ten does, or the banks stop bail­ing out the dream­ers. Many of th­ese self-builders know noth­ing about de­sign­ing sep­tic sys­tems, dig­ging a well, bring­ing in power to a build­ing lot, and have never met roofers, floor­ers, ma­sons, dry­wallers and in­su­la­tors.

Each time you won­der how on earth they can turn such com­plex blue­prints into prac­ti­cal liv­ing spa­ces. There’s usu­ally a bit of fly-on-thewall psy­chodrama, with a tinge of schaden­freude adding spice to the sto­ry­telling. The sto­ries are com­plex, too, play­ing out across months, oc­ca­sion­ally years, of emo­tional in­vest­ment on the part of the builders. While the show is based on Kevin McCloud’s Bri­tish orig­i­nal, which has been around since April 1999 and is still go­ing strong, Mad­di­son, a Mel­bourne ar­chi­tect, has de­vel­oped his own ver­sion of this en­dur­ing prop­erty for­mat.

It’s a kind of high-class re­al­ity show and Mad­di­son tells sto­ries that fit the clas­si­cal nar­ra­tive model, all ex­po­si­tion, de­vel­op­ment and con­clu­sion — the rule of three — which also fits the clas­sic joke struc­ture of set-up, an­tic­i­pa­tion and punch­line. Not that there are many jokes in the se­ri­ous busi­ness of re­al­is­ing dreams but this ami­able host oozes em­pa­thy and good hu­mour, and loves crack­ing some­times con­vo­luted ar­chi­tect gags.

The three-part struc­ture also al­lows for ten­sion to build and then be re­leased thanks to the sur­prise — and of­ten sheer re­lief at the fi­nal ac­com­plish­ment, at which point Mad­di­son de­liv­ers his ver­dict. He rit­u­al­is­ti­cally wanders through the house and into the gar­den, giv­ing his opin­ion in a mor­dent mono­logue. “Houses can work like re­la­tion­ships re­ally,” he says in an up­com­ing episode, “the good ones have a shared vi­sion but there’s also room for com­pro­mise.” As view­ers, we love th­ese tidy­ing-up scenes where or­der is re­stored and the nar­ra­tive’s ques­tions are an­swered. It’s al­ways very sat­is­fy­ing.

He has fol­lowed the de­vel­op­ment of retro homes with Mon­drian flour­ishes; South Pa­cific-in­spired hide­aways; a house built largely off-site in fac­to­ries; a con­crete bunker in Vic­to­ria’s Yarra Val­ley, al­most com­pletely em­bed­ded in the land­scape; and we’ve even had a house built from straw.

One cou­ple em­barked on a bold and eco­nom­i­cal build af­ter their river­side home and its contents were washed away in a flood. They de­cided to trial an in­no­va­tive build­ing process that in­volved weld­ing steel ship­ping con­tain­ers into a flood­proof fam­ily home on a bud­get of $400,000. The neigh­bour­hood was brought to a stand­still as the con­tain­ers, loaded on to six mas­sive trucks, were di­rected by the owner into their fi­nal rest­ing place. It was great TV.

Sea­son six prom­ises an­other eclec­tic mix of ar­chi­tec­tural wiz­ardry — and some ec­cen­tric de­sign — and more peo­ple will­ing to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that truly rep­re­sents them.

Opera singer Cate Fos­kett and her hus­band Nick, a Sil­i­con Val­ley whiz kid, are build­ing a home in the shape of a leaf, curved on both sides with a stone wall run­ning like a spine through the mid­dle, and a two-storey “song tower” with a li­brary on the ground floor and a singing stu­dio on the top. Sus­tain­able ar­chi­tect Adrian Light, who was in­spired by the fa­mous Skip­ping Girl Vine­gar fac­tory, is at­tempt­ing to con­vert a four-storey, red-brick ware­house with 20 con­crete vine­gar vats into a four-bed­room home.

In the first episode a small block in in­ner-city East Mel­bourne — it’s 20sq m, a space Mad­di­son calls “a tiny bit of dirt” — is set to make way for a three-storey green home with geo­ther­mal heat­ing and a rooftop gar­den and Euro­peanstyle spa. It’s an ex­er­cise in “sus­tain­abil­ity as to­tal pri­or­ity, cer­tainly above cost”, the Mes­sianic project of pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher Ralph Al­fonso. Like Kahn, he be­lieves his ma­te­ri­als have a stub­born sense of their own destiny. The house, ac­cord­ing to Mad­di­son, is prob­a­bly “the green­est build­ing in Aus­tralia”. Geopoly­mer con­crete is be­ing used for the slab of this im­prob­a­ble struc­ture, a green al­ter­na­tive that lasts longer than stan­dard con­crete and re­quires no heat­ing in its pro­duc­tion. A man­u­fac­tured “su­per” tim­ber of re­cy­cled hard­wood is used in­stead of steel, the whole ca­boo­dle built in a fac­tory like a one-off kit home. It’s po­ten­tially very el­e­gant in its fu­tur­ism, with those clean sym­met­ri­cal lines.

In­evitably, though, the build is dif­fi­cult as the real world kicks in with the lo­gis­tics of ac­cess to the site. Mad­di­son stands among the gen­tri­fied ter­races watch­ing as a huge crane ma­noeu­vres pre­fab­ri­cated mod­ules above the lot, a small smile play­ing across his lips.

“This en­tire project is about a bet­ter way of do­ing things, about a holis­tic ap­proach no mat­ter how chal­leng­ing, be­cause for Ralph this is not about build­ing a house — it’s about cre­at­ing a new way of liv­ing,” he muses.

He asks a cru­cial ques­tion as he watches, one he of­ten asks of dream­ers such as Al­fonso, and one that’s a fun­da­men­tal rea­son this show is so ab­sorb­ing. “At what point ex­actly does any eco­nomic gain be­come too far fetched, too far off in the fu­ture to be jus­ti­fied?” he asks. “Is there a point where you can try too hard, where the hu­man en­ergy out­weighs the gain?” Oh yeah, you betcha. The new sea­son of Fargo is pos­si­bly the show of the year, again based on Joel and Ethan Coen’s cin­e­mat­i­cally mis­chievous movie of the same name and star­ring Kirsten Dunst and Ted Dan­son. It’s an­other mes­meris­ing 10-part prairie noir tale from creator Noah Haw­ley about a group of good Min­nesota folks driven to the brink by anger and stu­pid­ity. The whole thing is in­fused with that qual­ity of so-called “Min­nesota nice” — the cul­ture of per­pet­ual cheer­i­ness and over-thetop po­lite­ness to strangers — that made the movie so pop­u­lar.

Set post-Viet­nam in 1979, this new chap­ter of what looks like a long-run­ning an­thol­ogy se­ries is a loose pre­quel to last year’s first se­ries, with a stand-alone plot and a cast of mostly new char­ac­ters. Like a Coen broth­ers movie, every­thing is tight, neat, elided. Some­times scenes are in­ter­rupted with black­outs, then picked up as if sec­onds later, re­mind­ing you of El­more Leonard’s re­mark that as a crime nov­el­ist he al­ways cut the bits that peo­ple skip when read­ing.

Haw­ley de­liv­ers a clas­sic crime thriller in a shad­owy set­ting of dark icy roads and frozen skies — the shad­ows them­selves as­sume a nar­ra­tive di­men­sion, what WH Au­den called “the Great Wrong Place” — and cre­ates a dream­scape that echoes not Cor­mac McCarthy, Quentin Tarantino, Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola and the gang­ster movies of Martin Scors­ese but the many films of the Coens, es­pe­cially Blood Sim­ple and Miller’s Cross­ing. Each of Haw­ley’s char­ac­ters oc­cu­pies a bleak icy land­scape — the melan­choly in­te­ri­ors straight out of Ed­ward Hop­per’s paint­ings — the sparse in­for­ma­tion that con­nects their worlds whis­pered and scat­tered in un­likely places, thickly coded and freighted with am­bi­gu­ity.

It’s the fourth episode this week, the plot an in­tri­cate clock­work of lethally in­ter­sect­ing mis­un­der­stand­ings. Peo­ple just get things wrong and then have to clean up af­ter them­selves; or­di­nary men and women driven into un­ex­plored, mur­der­ous places. Haw­ley has an al­most po­etic con­cern for the death of peo­ple, the way there is no re­demp­tion at their end, only the sen­sa­tion of a world torn from its hinges.

A struc­tural­ist sto­ry­teller, he says it’s not about killing off char­ac­ters, only that they serve their func­tion and then move on. His nar­ra­tive, he says, is “more of a per­pet­ual mo­tion ma­chine”, ev­ery step a con­crete move­ment to­wards the end. It also hap­pens to be very funny. You betcha.

Grand De­signs Aus­tralia, Thurs­day, 8.30pm, Life­Style. Fargo, Wed­nes­day, 9.30pm, SBS.


Pe­ter Mad­di­son re­turns with a new sea­son of Grand De­signs Aus­tralia, left; Ted Dan­son in Fargo, be­low

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