The Lighthouse: Fiction architecture for sale

One of the things that happens to architects as they grow older is that the buildings they design are sold to new owners. Bruce and Alison Dudon have lived in this house since it was designed for them and built in 1991, and it is now time to move on. I include it here because it is a good example of what I mean by Fiction Architecture. Even the premise of a lighthouse which is on a hill far away from any water is demonstrably fictional and immediately liberates the mind of a visitor from mundane concerns.

The Lighthouse

When I first visited the steeply-sloping site there was a cleared area of flat ground remaining from a previous house which had burned down in the 1983 bushfires. It was cold and there was frost on the ground even though it was lunchtime. The trees were filled with sunshine and I thought the house should ‘reach up’ and, perhaps using mirrors like a periscope, reflect light down into the rooms. I can’t remember exactly when this idea of a tower morphed into a lighthouse, but once the image became stuck in my mind I knew that it would not be easy to dismiss it! I had a sinking feeling that other members of my profession would not be impressed, but after a while I started to enjoy this thought. I was also unsure how Bruce and Alison would respond.

Ideas which arrive like this come from the intuitive regions of the brain, and it is only afterwards that it becomes apparent how they address all kinds of realities. Alison had said that she was torn between living at their new block, or living by the ocean. Mount Macedon rises up out of a plain in a similar way to an island rising from the sea, and the house is seen from a distance like a lighthouse is seen from the water. Visibility is an attribute of a site like this one. As we are nowhere near the sea, the presence of a lighthouse  is about other things than keeping boats safe. Lighthouses are a masculine form, with light shining out from the top, through lenses. Bruce was at that time the proprietor of a shop selling spectacles. Unlike a real lighthouse, this house has a room at the top for the purpose of looking out at the view rather than housing a light to be seen from a distance. Lenses such as spectacles and binoculars may be used to look at the view more effectively.

Light is a metaphor for knowledge, and this fact is particularly potent in a beacon warning ships of danger. In this lighthouse-in-reverse the rays of the sun enter the top of the tower, which serves as a Study, and reflect down the stairway. Each side of the stair is lined with mirrors. Plato links knowledge with light in his Analogy of the Cave, in which he compared normal existence to living in a cave with a fire illuminating shadow puppets which cast shadows on the wall. To become enlightened, a person must leave this unreal world and go up into the sunlight of truth and see the world as it actually is. For Plato, enlightenment was a male concern. In this house the Sitting room, located below the Study, and having a fireplace, may be understood as the cave. The journey up the stairs to the panoramic view above may be experienced as an architectural setting of the philosophical goal of enlightenment.

As I researched lighthouses, I noticed that the tower is usually accompanied by cottages. The design of the house includes three ‘cottages’ adjacent to the tower. In pre-industrial times the cottage was a place of manufacture. Women made objects which they owned and sold on their own terms, so a cottage can be seen as a symbol of female power. Alison is a primary school teacher and therefore constructs and disseminates knowledge. The relationship between male and female power is a major theme in our times, and the design embodies this in a symbolic form. As artist Narelle Jubelin has pointed out, nineteenth century lighthouses are emblems of patriarchy in the landscape. This house reflects something different: the challenge of feminist thought to the previously unquestioned dominance of male power.

Inside the house the space between the cottages and the tower, which serves as a passage, is configured like a walkway between buildings. The passage widens out to a space like a village green; this is the Dining room. This space represents the possibility of a female public realm such as used to exist around the village pump, where opinions were expressed and decisions made. An antique pump located in a niche in the west wall of this space acknowledges this understanding .

 The visual imagery for this house was derived from a photograph of ‘Old Smokey’, a lighthouse built at Trial Bay in the late nineteenth century to a standard design. As it was a very small lighthouse and accompanying one-room building, it was necessary to enlarge the proportions quite a bit. This surprised me, as I expected to be scaling down from lighthouse to house.

The house is designed to provide the owners with many ways to experience the spectacular views. As well as the panoramic view at the top, there are large windows divided into dozens of small panes, and small windows oriented in particular directions. These windows ‘convert’ the cottages into parts of a  notional lunatic asylum, and refer to the role of these institutions in suppressing challenges from women to the existing paradigms of authority by classifying them as insane and under the power of the dark force of the moon.

There is a frameless sheet of glass between the tower and the Main bedroom which appears to be a nothing more than a gap between buildings, so that the view itself is emphasised, rather than the frame through which it is seen. Other kinds of views are available (along with slight vertigo) from the walkway around the top of the tower, and from the wharf-like deck leading to the front door.

The design of the house very carefully follows typical details of rendered stone or brick architecture from the mid-nineteenth century, although the construction method is pine stud framing incorporating insulation and clad with cement sheet and a textured finish. The pylons supporting the south side of the house imitate cast iron pipe construction, but are actually thin steel posts within compressed cement sheet pipe sections, studded with dome head bolts to imitate rivets.

As in all fiction, deception is rife. The chimney of the fireplace is carefully disguised as the vent at the top of the lighthouse. The stair to the basement room is concealed within the coat cupboard at the entry into the sitting room.

Each visitor to The Lighthouse brings with them many lighthouse memories and associations, and the house acts as a catalyst to trigger these. In my experience ideas which are intuitive are likely to have this kind of potency. As Annie Stevens said in her wonderful article in The Age titled Guided by the Light (18/9/2010) ‘The lighthouse, as Virginia Woolf reasoned, is an almost perfect receptacle for projected symbolism. With the isolation, the wild ocean that surrounds it, the old tales of shipwrecks, its guiding role and the faint, salty whiff of madness, it’s ripe for plumbing for hidden meanings.’

Acknowledgement: While designing this house I was assisted in our studio by Dr.Mirjana Lozanovska who contributed many insights into the relationship between the evolution of feminist theory and the metaphor linking light with knowledge.