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The Scrivener: Crazy House

Brian Barratt tells of topsy-turvy buildings, including “my own crooked house. When I bought it, thirty-five years ago, each corner had already subsided a little lower than the rest of the house…’’

There’s nothing topsy-turvy about Brian’s words. They fit together in sentences and paragraphs which are as finely honed and balanced as the components of the best Swiss watch. For more of his rewarding prose please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page.

Vist also Brian’s Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas

If you walk into your local bookshop and ask for a book about the hundred water house, you could well receive blank looks. If you switch to German and ask for something about the Hundertwasserhaus, a well-informed bookshop assistant will know what you’re on about. Even some librarians will understand you.

Type Hundertwasserhaus in the search engine of your computer, and you will have access to photographs of some remarkable houses designed by the artist and architect, Hundertwasser. You might not like them very much, but you have to admit that they’re remarkable. Hardly a straight line in sight, and such an array of colours. Mind you, the curved walls and sloping floors in some cases made them less than ideal as homes.

In the 1940’s there was a remarkable house in Skegness. It was the Crazy House at Butlin’s Amusement Park. As a boy, I loved it. Not a straight line in sight. Everything about it, inside and outside, was topsy-turvy. Nowadays, I suppose it would be called a fun house in a fun park, but that is an understatement.

There’s an overstatement of topsy-turvy buildings at Federation Square in the city of Melbourne. They do have straight lines, but at all angles. Visible steel framework plays an important role, as do holes in the walls. Wall surfaces vary from fragments of army camouflage to great areas of black wire gauze.

The patios, platforms and steps are attractive but leave a lot to be desired. A friend who is much younger and more agile than I told me how difficult it is to walk around the artistic space, even when wearing sensible shoes. There are little holes to trap walking sticks or trip the unwary. Pieces of metal protrude from low walls on which you might want to sit, every carefully. Some of the flights of stone stairs are high enough and visually steep enough to persuade you to stay at the bottom. That persuasion is reinforced by the fact that you can’t see where they lead.

One of the reasons for developing Federation Square was to open up space so that the small pseudo-Gothic Anglican cathedral and its adjacent diocesan office building would be visible. In order to achieve that aim, a large two-storey glass box and a leaning tower of aluminium were placed in front of said cathedral. But we mustn’t complain. Art dealers tell us that Art is no longer judged by its artistic value but by its cash value and investment potential.

There are some wonderful exhibits inside the assorted edifices on Federation Square. I gazed for ages at a stunningly beautiful set of porcelain busts, sculpted in porcelain. The glaze of each Chinese face incorporates different traditional Chinese patterns and designs. In an extension of the National Gallery of Victoria, there’s an excellent representative exhibition of Australian painting, from a nationally revered collection. Yes, it’s well worth venturing into those strange buildings.

And so I came home to my own crooked house. When I bought it, thirty-five years ago, each corner had already subsided a little lower than the rest of the house. The roofline displayed a charming dip in the middle. A Council building inspector told me that there wasn’t much point in reinforcing the corners with concrete underpinning — it wouldn’t take long for the subsidence to continue. Even the rooms I added over twenty years ago started drifting away from the main house quite soon after they were built.

This little place does, however, have a sort of artistic value. When I first moved in, an older friend came to inspect it. She gazed in delight and declared, ‘Oh Brian, it’s YOU. It’s quaint!’ It’ll probably remain standing for as long as I’m quaintly living in it. The land on which it stands is now worth a small fortune. The view at the back, with its twelve lakes and hundreds of water-birds, is superb. After I’ve gone, I’ll be rich. There you are, then — my crazy house is an investment in Art.

© Copyright 2006 Brian Barratt


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