Graeme Blundell on Grand Designs Australia
Grand Designs Australia continues to amaze as homeowners defy the odds in pursuit of their dreams
‘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.
AS VIEWERS, WE LOVE THESE TIDYING-UP SCENES WHERE ORDER IS RESTORED
Peter Maddison returns with a new season of Grand Designs Australia, left; Ted Danson in Fargo, below