Three Body(ies): The Home with the Rotten Heart
Rachel Cronin | Interior Designer
When we think of places, we first tend to think of physical places and then perhaps representations of places online. However, there are other representations place. In this article, our second university academic project, former UTS student Rachel Cronin investigates representations of place on film as they hold up a lens to crime.
“Indeed like a body, buildings and cities may fall ill: a building may be hazarded, become sick and die.” Vidler 1992 p.71
The Home with the Rotten Heart is Specifically exploring the typology of parliament, the project is an exploration of the role of domestic and community politics within the context of suburbia. The project was developed with a reading of Foucault’s seminal lecture ‘Heterotopia’ (1967), inspiring an informed approach to dissecting the layers of representation in parliamentary architecture, and their interactions, to develop a specific environment. Providing a setting for a body (community) to represent collective interests, the parliament facilitates political decisions with effects beyond the walls of the parliamentary architecture. Therefore the parliament becomes a device through which individuals engage with a very real and simultaneously fabricated experience.
An investigation of politics within the context of suburbia revealed moments of political unrest within the tightly knit communities visualised as cul-de-sac suburbs. Specifically, the proliferation of organised crime within clandestine urban sprawl was identified as a recurring issue in the media. This dramatisation of these communities has inspired a semi-fictional genre of Australian crime films, which focus on criminal suburban families and the associated domestic violence. In the storylines of these films, suburbia poses as a sterile camouflage of utopic domesticity for debauchery and secrets.
This project offers a hypothetical proposal for a corrupted home to investigate the spatial production of security and secrecy. Identifying the house as the key facilitator of criminal activity led to a new consideration of the typology as a heterotopia; a context with both real and virtual layers occurring simultaneously. Responding to situations, characters and domestic interiors observed in Australian crime films such as Animal Kingdom (2010), Snowtown (2011), Little Fish (2005), The Boys (1998) and Blackrock (1997), the house is an architectural fiction that tells a story about the imagined political disturbances between members of such communities.
The thematic of body emerges from this project in three different manifestations;
- As an investigation of/commentary on a body of work; that being the genre of Australian semi-fictional crime film characterised by its chillingly mundane portrayal of violence.
- As an exploration of our understanding of mass as a body within an architectural context; that is the production of space and its relationship to our behaviour within it.
- As an expression of the values of the civic body; how can one exist without the whole in mind? Or to what point does one devalue the other?
[approx. location of fig1. Caption: Figure 1.0 The ground floor plan showing the labyrinth like interior of the house parliament.}
- A collection of written texts; a body of work; the collective creative product of an individual or a unit’s efforts/lifetime work/series of works (Oxford Reference Dictionary, 2010)
The recurring depiction of crime and suburban violence in Australian film has led to the development of a significant body of work in the last fifty years. These films provide a disturbingly normalised insight into the psychology of violence. This violence is often implied or suppressed, wrapped, and concealed in the context of the domestic and every day. The Australian suburbs are captured to evoke a sense of familiarity, situating the viewer in uncomfortable proximity to the filmic setting; a setting experienced as ‘too close to home’.
Drawing a common thread between films such as Animal Kingdom, Snowtown, The Boys, Little Fish and Blackrock, we can identify a commentary on criminal activity cloaked within this recurring urban context. Beginning with the interior, each film revolves around a central ‘home’ where the relevant family gathers. In establishing an understanding of the characters’ relationships, we are invited into the home to observe the mundanity of their everyday lives. The home is saturated with domestic norms that temporarily shroud the inherent criminality, a quality that extends to the occupants of the dwelling.
The banality and recognisability of the characters in the films play a crucial role in defining the genre. The antagonist in every movie is not instantly identifiable, nor typecast towards a stereotype. The matriarch in Animal Kingdom is simultaneously the most likeable and most foreboding character in the plot. The audience identifies her with their mother, grandmother or sister, and has little reason to question her maternal concern as she hovers over her family. When the violence of her family reaches breaking point, colliding with the law and each other, she outsources support, not only to protect them but ultimately, herself.
Written into the interior are the relationships between the characters. The twisted nature of each family structure surfaces in a constant implied undercurrent of violence, which is enhanced through the setting. Revealed little by little and often implicitly, the remnants of the violent act are referred to through clues taking form as a montage of interior images. The audience is left the uncomfortable task of piecing together the crime, and the roles of the characters within it, while the action itself dissolves into a memory.
Interiors with communal programs such as the dining room, kitchen, and living spaces recur as prophetic settings in films of this genre. Conversations concerning murder, extortion, narcotics and trafficking are conducted in these spaces, criminalising traditional family activities such as the Sunday roast. The tension between the characters and their livelihood is revealed through the rapid escalation of emotion, leading to violence and disarray. Their home is at once homely and unhomely; a true testament to their families’ desperation to ‘stick together’, but corroded by inevitable bullet holes and a sickening sense of irrefutable guilt.
By referencing the theatricality of film within an architectural project, the proposition of the house parliament became a dramatised study of the amalgamation of human behaviour framed by the interior. Using the film genre as a body of work upon which to conduct a case study, the project formed a commentary on the nature of domestic relationships, and the presence of violence in, and to, interior spaces. To transfer the information from moving image to orthographic drawings, the films were studied as a series of stills, compiling a database of colours and textures unique to the original body of work. By superimposing the three-dimensional stills onto a two-dimensional line drawing, the interior of the project came to life (see figures 1, 2 and 3). By blowing up the scenes, the characters and their crimes became a collection of pixels, hiding in their new heterotopic interior much as they did within the films.
“…(1) the notion that building is a body of some kind;
(2) the idea that the building embodies states of the body or, more importantly,
states of mind based on bodily sensation; and
(3) the sense that the environment as a whole is endowed with bodily or at least organic characteristics.” (Vidler 1992 p. 70)
Within an architectural context, body refers to the mass of a dwelling. To make the transition from the body of filmic references, and the reality of inhabitation, a metaphor of a human body was used to understand the theatrical collapse and degradation of both the characters and their home. Once the house was interpreted as a body, a permeable, visceral mass, it became vulnerable and victimised by the actions of its inhabitants. As stated by Vidler;
“…the qualities of the architectural object, no matter what the intentions of its makers, were now those of all inanimate nature, only to be understood by a process of projection.” (Vidler 1992 p. 73)
The Home with the Rotten Heart has a dismembered heart and a plastic face. The centre of the house is a rotten core, protected by a façade of falsity. The reconfiguration of the house by the criminals to suit their needs over time undermines its structural integrity, and the house exists in a frozen state of collapse. In doing so, the repercussive criminal activity becomes symbolised through the (literal) construction of self-destructive behaviour.
The proposition of a house paralysed in a state of disrepair became less improbable when considered in a dramatic sense — the interior of the project has become scripted as part of an imploding plot line.
[approx. location of FIG2. Caption: Figure 2 A cross section through the house showing the internal double ceiling height of the parliamentary space, which was originally the dining room.]
The building is evocative of subtle corporeal violence through the collision of the domestic and the criminal. Residents of the suburbs remain blissfully ignorant of the events within the interior. The floor materials are the only indication of the house’s prior existence, with rough exposed concrete evidencing traces where entire walls and columns have been ripped out (see figure 1.0). Hidden doors, doors that lead to nowhere, bricked-in windows, curtains and blinds are veiled throughout the interior, offering shifting experiences of reality for the participants.
There is a hierarchy of access in the interior, which allows for the compartmentalising of spaces and circulations for different individuals. By keeping the artefacts and program of the domestic interior, in parallel to the parliament, the house feels haunted by the ghost of what it was. The body lies wounded and tired, but the show must go on.
Confronting the violence of crime through an inanimate setting such as the interior afforded a degree of distance for the designer. Consistently on the line between the absurd and the terrifying, the interior became an expression of the aftermath of violent actions. Understanding the interior as a body, however, shifted the relationship between the design itself and its implications once again, as the project became more intimately connected to the designer’s own mortality and awareness of the living body. The final layer of the architectural scheme was formed by the projection of bodies; as we understand the behaviour of the inhabitants, within the vulnerable skin of a home, the house became a frightening reminder of domestic violence and suburban disarray.
[approx. location of FIG3. Caption: Figure 3 This cross section of the building highlights the spaces of obscure reinvention such as the swimming pool becoming a meeting room. We see the collision of contradictory activities within the interior.]
The civic body; the idea that one cannot exist without a whole in mind [(body (building) and soul)] (Oxford Reference Dictionary, 2010)
The civic body which governs a group of individuals begins its ruling with foundations: a physical place of governance, with doctrines of behaviour and conduct, and a designated leader; a system of parts which network together to form a whole. Much like the corporeal nature of a human body, the civic body relies on the interplay of every element to achieve undisputed and synchronised rule. This is accomplished in many ways through the doctrinal vernacular of the interior (décor), which instils appropriate decorum. Vidler clearly describes the consecutive relationship between building, body and society:
“The building derived its authority, proportional and compositional, from this body, and, in a complementary way, the building then acted to confirm and establish the body-social and individual-in the world.” (Vidler 1992 p.71)
The investigation of a civic body in architecture began by undressing and then re-dressing the building itself. Understanding the construction was integral to the resolution of the interior, and contributed to the conceptual framing. Beginning with a timber stud frame, the house is a skeleton to be clad. The double brick makes up the muscle of the house, while the plasterboard acts as the hypodermis or the deepest layer of the skin. Above this sits the epidermis or the layer of paint, quick to age and decay. Applied to these outer layers, decorative elements such as photographs, wallpapering, and the second-hand artistic prints, bridge the gap between a civic and personal corpus, conditioning the greater structure of collective ownership to individual functions and individual inhabitation. Whilst the civic foundations remain the same, the vernacular decisions implement a specific program and behavioural inclination to the space.
The house parliament’s relationship to the streetscape allowed the hierarchy resulting from family politics to be built into the body. The civic body became linked to the architectural body, as both relied on the other to survive and keep the peace. The projected animation of the bodies within the house was a conscious result of the design decisions to allow for this survival. The design’s splitting of the interior to allow for a veiling of accessibility resulted in a strange facilitation of the criminal activity by the house, to allow for a civic effect.
At the intimate scale of a suburb, politics refers to the relationships between individuals, their homes, and the local community/resources for living. Despite its frozen theatrical state, the house parliament poses a provocative question regarding the mortality of the civic and human body, and the relationship between these two faculties as evidenced by the architectural and political structure that houses them.
This project acts as a metaphor for the very real collision of domestic violence and suburban security. Using the films as a lens through which to navigate, the project is an expression of domestic politics, from the scale of the individual through to the civic. The body of the project is dissected as a series of readings in this essay, understanding its progression from visceral to a projection. The activation relies on the inhabitation, as the focus drifts from the architecture itself and towards the memory of the violence that occurred there. Shrouded in domestic signifiers of security, the architecture acts as both a passive vessel for facilitated corruption and a civic body in its own right, simultaneously stabilising and destabilising the community within its reach. Much like the films it was inspired by, The Home with the Rotten Heart is an architectural fiction that tells the story of internalised violence and externalised politics, leaving behind a trail of dismembered bodies, buildings and communities.