Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990
Space * Meaning * Politics
Edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University

The cultural politics of the Queensland house

Jennifer Craik

Everyday life appears to be innocent; yet it is formed in specific ways which are orchestrated within a politics that operates both overtly and covertly. The home or domestic space forms the key arena in which these politics are played out. Not only do changing architectural forms reflect and enforce changing priorities of domestic life, the home also constructs the parameters of the social practices of domesticity. The Queensland house provides an excellent example of the politics of domesticity due to its distinctiveness yet flexibility as a domestic space. Consider these memories of Brisbane-born author, David Malouf:

My memories were all of our old house in South Brisbane, with its wide latticed verandahs, its damp mysterious storerooms where sacks of potatoes and salt had been kept in the ever-dark, its washtubs and copper boiler under the porch, its vast garden that ran right through to the street behind, a wilderness that my grandfather ... had transformed into a suburban farmlet, with rows of spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, egg-plants, a shed where onions and garlic hung from rafters, and a wire coop full of fowls. [1]

The Queensland house is perhaps the quintessential sign of Queensland. The wooden house on stilts surrounded by verandahs and lattice and capped by a red tin roof is synonymous with sub-tropical Australia - the outdoors and a leisurely way of life (see Figures 1a, 1b). It signals both a unique lifestyle and the uniqueness of its occupants. The construction of regional identity has involved specifying the relationship between the house and its occupants; developing a unique specification (a moniker) of that identity; constructing histories and heritage; and informing urban politics.

Indeed, it has been argued that the house is a particular obsession with Australians who boast the highest rate of home ownership in the world and literally live for their house - saving for a home; building, renovating or restoring one; or just dreaming about owning one2. Philosophers and writers have pondered the meaning of the house as 'an image of closure and integration ... associated with impossible ideals such as permanence, fixed identity, unity'. Ferrier argues that these connotations construct the familiarity and privacy within the space of the home as a metaphor,'the boundaries of the self'3. In Australia, this identification extends from merely individual concerns to the construction of national identity - of settlement and of success.

Yet there are specific ways in which that physical form has become implicated into cultural politics, both in terms of the formation of the modern family and in terms of the construction of regional identity. Although it is often argued that the house is a product of form and function which is determined by shelter and climate4 these features are often overriden by other social and political determinants, especially those concerned with the occupants and their patterns of usage.

John Macarthur has argued that the house is normalised by the family as the family is normalised by the house5. He argues that family life influences the characteristics of the house through financial practices (such as the availability and terms of mortgages) and as reflected in home improvements. Though economic factors are the main determinant of the choice of house, other factors play a part. These include 'tastes' in the style of house, its location (in relation to facilities, services and infrastructure) and the kind of neighbourhood or suburb in which the homebuyer wishes to live. The impossibility of meeting all these demands ultimately forces the homebuyer to make compromises and to sacrifice some criteria over others. Once a house has been purchased, the new owners are obliged to limit their fantasies for renovation; a degree of standardisation must be maintained in order to retain the re-sale value of the house. In particular, the house must remain able to be used as a family home since family forms are the main occupants of houses.

Consequently, home improvements must curb individual excesses and tastes, adapting individual desires to maintain the 'value' of the house for future re-sale. Some renovations will increase the value of a house, such as an en suite bathroom, a jacuzzi, new lights, or flatettes. Other renovations such as colonial restorations which entail opening up verandahs, re-painting in traditional colours, replacing leadlight windows, and so on, substantially increase the value of the house. Other improvements are not compensated in increased value, for example, a bidet, a swimming pool, a wallpaper feature, Greek modernisations (such as columns, stucco, enclosure), or a vegetable garden.

The family is also normalised by the house. Financial commitments stem from a set of trainings about saving, repayment, speculation and maintenance. At the same time they create a new discipline for the next 20-40 years in order to meet the terms of a mortgage. The house thus imposes financial arrangements upon the family. Within the structure of the house, the house is made workable for that family's life, with the differentiated roles and proclivities of family members adapting parts of the house for their specialised use.

In short, the house influences the terms of occupancy while the occupants specify the workabiltity of the house. Macarthur's argument is important in shifting the idea of the house away from a given physical structure towards a dynamic set of processes and adaptations that are formed by everyday life and the quirks of occupants. Following this perspective, it can be argued that the house itself is a social practice in its construction and reconstruction of homelife: as a housing type, as an investment, and as a social form to be lived in. The Queensland house is an ideal demonstration of this.

The Politics of the House

Houses, perhaps more so than other buildings, are read in terms of categories of intrinsic essence, as the vernacular, intrinsic to, and expressive of, a locality and its occupants. This identification goes so far that the Queensland house is commonly known as 'The Queenslander'. The house is an idiomatic code of identity, status and place. Yet there are other factors that shape the choice of the vernacular including available building materials, government policies on land release, size of blocks, and pricing; regulations on financing; and adaptations of building traditions to local conditions (such as climate, typography, demographics).

From Victorian times, there has been a trend towards smaller family units in smaller, self-contained homes. The history of Queensland domestic architecture maintained this tendency though the ready availability of land favoured detached houses on separate blocks. In order to attract settlers to the former penal colony, a policy of a detached house for every homeowner was adopted. Thus there are very few terrace houses in Queensland, and even in working class suburbs, houses remained detached albeit literally at arm's length from each other6. Policies on the release of land determined block size and housing density. In Brisbane, the detached housing policy produced a patchwork of closely built houses throughout the hilly inner city - substantial houses crowned the top of ridges while Queenslanders and small workers' cottages traversed the terraced valleys. Aesthetically, Brisbane took on a chaotic and uncoordinated appearance:

It was so shabby and makeshift, with its wooden houses perched high on tar-black stilts, its corrugated-iron fences unpainted and rusting, its outdoor lavatories, chicken houses, blocks of uncleared land where the weeds in summer might be six feet tall, a tangle of lantana and morning glory and scraggy sun-flowers.7

In contrast, houses in North Queensland were spaciously laid out due to the availability of large flat blocks of land. Here, block size and housing type roughly corresponded to the differential advantages of suburbs.

The cheap availability of wood favoured timber as the common building material, in contrast to other states which predominantly chose stone or brick. While the simple, flexible bungalow model was adopted, the often steep terrain and hot climate led to the custom of building on stilts (or stumps). Yet while adaptations in housing can often be related to local conditions, the reasons for some choices over others frequently involve local mythology and post hoc rationalisations rather than 'rational' structural or climatic reasons. Although the Queenslander is regarded commonly as the perfect housing choice for the climate, some architects have argued that it is quite inappropriate - offering no insulation, dependent on breezes for comfort, internally small and cramped, and inefficient.

Yet these structural considerations need to be placed within an analysis of the social construction of the house, especially in the context of two dominant arguments that run through recent accounts of the home. First, that the home is closely related to the construction of the contemporary position of women by confining women physically within the home, cutting them off from the outside world. An effect of this confinement is to construct a realm of domestic power which is distinct from, and subordinated to, other domains of power. Second, that this trend stems from the demonstration of the home as one of many modern social institutions in which a public/ private distinction has played a key organising role. In the case of the home, it has been argued domestic space has become synonymous with the concept of the private separated from outside public spheres such as the workplace, institutions and shops. Under this dichotomy, the home is argued to have produced a politics of private life which resists interrogation by the outside world. It has also been argued that the home now has a minimal impact on the public realm as a consequence of increasing privatisation.

This article suggests that while women's power in the home has declined in the shift from the role of manager to caretaker to servicer, this has occurred in a context in which women have been developing more active roles in non-domestic life. Educational and employment opportunities, increased mobility and freedom, and legislative and political changes - and even the growth of shopping as a dominant preoccupation - have ensured that women have a highly active presence and involvement in non-domestic arenas. Of course, these shifts must be distinguished from ideological campaigns and the rhetorical strategies of public and media discourses which have sought to re-unite women with domesticity (for example, as detailed in Denise Riley's War in the Nursery)8. At the same time, the changing role of men with respect to women and to the home should not be under-estimated. The authoritarian control of Victorian patriarchs over the visible aspects of home life has been substantially replaced by a range of empathetic modes of masculine style and attitudes to domestic labour.

The Development of the Queenslander

The Queensland house dates from the 1850s when the early settlers constructed primitive one or two room houses out of shingled timber. Soft woods such as cedar, oak, hoop pine, ash and beech were used in the construction. The houses had a steep pyramidal roof, a chimney and six-pane windows (see Figure 2). Later settlers adopted a four square plan which became the classic Queenslander design. It was advantageous because it could accommodate different internal organisations of rooms. Walls were constructed by a succession of techniques - shingle, rough hewn, weatherboard and chamferboard. The use of tongue and groove panelling was especially important because of the simplicity of the method of exposed stud framing, in which the timber panels were attached directly onto the frame leaving the cross bars exposed externally.

The early design was elaborated in later houses which had a central corridor separating two rooms - one a bedroom and one a dining room. Most houses had an attached verandah at the front and sometimes at the back which was often covered with corrugated iron. In the early houses, cooking was done in a lean-to out the back; this evolved into a separate room. In more substantial houses, the kitchen might be separated and connected by a passageway (see Figure 3).

There has been much speculation about the origins and rationale of this housing form. It is not unique: similar designs occur elsewhere, for example in India, Louisiana, the West Indies, and in English cottages such as in Kent. In particular, the idea of the verandah has a history of fashion rather than of function. The use of the verandah in Australian housing is attributable to their fashionable use in England, a fashion that had been copied from the colonies of India and the West Indies9. Whereas the verandah in England had a largely symbolic function, demarcating the public from the private, and announcing the house as a home, the Australian verandah proved to be flexible and multi-purpose. As Paynter shows, the verandah was a common feature of Australian housing in all states since the fashion was well-suited to climatic conditions, nowhere more so than in the outback and in the sub-tropics and tropics where it provided protection from the intense sun and caught the breezes.

Gradually, the verandah was adapted or elaborated to become a living space in its own right to serve a number of purposes - for relaxation, storage space, drying clothes, as an area for play, and as sleep-outs. In the hot regions, housing types transcended the 'slavish devotion to the British styles'10 to develop a distinctive style which both suited the local conditions and would 'become Australia's first contribution to world architectural development'11

As to why the Queensland design did develop, two explanations have been put forward. One suggests that the single skin housing design followed the institutional design of schools which used stud framing (see Figure 4). Sumner argues that the architect from the Queensland Board of Education, Richard Suter, was familiar with this method from the West Indies and that he:

seems to have played a seminal role in the use of both the cross-braced timber wall and elevation on high stumps. Schools may well have served as models for better quality houses in country areas.12

A more popular explanation for the Queensland house has been argued more generally for the Australian bungalow, namely that it was a sign of egalitarianism - the key characteristic of Australian cultural life13. Macarthur's observations on the rise of the cottage (the picturesque version of the bungalow) suggest a more convoluted explanation14. Certainly, the promotion of cottages was part of attempted reforms (hygienic and agricultural) of the British working classes yet the popularity of pattern books for cottages seems to have related as much to the development of the landscape movement in which physical re-design of buildings and their surroundings became the visible correlate of new social differentiations and employment arrangements. The cottage appeared to be a sign of social equality or levelling yet the particularities of cottage design (and elaboration) and the terms of ownership or tenancy constructed its own complex of differences and determinations. Despite the apparent simplicity and sameness of the cottage, pattern books are remarkable for their variety and inconsistencies:

One regularity of the pattern books is that, whatever their proposition, they demonstrate a range of building sizes from the smallest which are suitable for labourers, to designs which are suitable for a villa, a shooting box or small country house. The reason for this range of sizes might be simply to demonstrate the architect's ability with differing scales of building and degrees of ornament, but its semantic consequence is very interesting. They extrapolate the problematically contra-defined cottage into crisis by imagining that gentlemen would not only build cottages for their workers and have categories of taste for the enjoyment of its contemplation, but that gentlemen might well live in cottages themselves as a consequence of that taste ... through the tradition of civic humanism, as nobility. But the designs insist that political and aesthetic gazes are linked not only in the subject but the object of their view. 15

For Macarthur, the significance of the cottage is its very mediocrity, or its ability to be located anywhere 'between the mansion and the hovel'16 , to visibly transcode the politics of housing and associated aesthetics. A settlement of cottages gives the appearance of democratisation and egalitarianism, while maintaining a myriad of distinctions. In this light, it could be argued that the success of the bungalow in Australia conjoined the fashion for cottages with the cultural politics of an embryonic colony that was composed of highly differentiated social groups: elite colonial administrators (including military, prison and police), convicts and ex-convicts, and free settlers. Although united in the struggle to create a 'civilisation' in a hostile environment, social differences were rigorously maintained. The bungalow worked as the sign of democracy while creating its own politics underneath that sign. Evidence of this 'transcoding' could be indexed by Langer's observation that although the house design was deemed to be egalitarian, the design of the garden around Queenslanders:

imitat(ed) certain features of the English upper class - the huge gate, the central flower bed and palm trees, reminiscent of the grounds of a mansion together with the elaborate steps, stone vases on either side, and, finally, the kitchen with its association of domestics, was relegated to the back. 17

Regionally, the form of the bungalow varied enormously.18 Even within Queensland, differences outweighed similarities. Indeed, one of the enduring features of the Queenslander is the sheer anarchism of individual houses where details, sizes and internal organisation run riot, the real sign of individual owners, builders and decorators. From the 1880s, the design became more elaborate with more internal rooms, more elaborate verandahs and more sophisticated finishing and decoration (see Figure 4). The dominance of timber as the main building material (between 80 and 90 % of houses between 1861 and 196119 ) persisted until the 1960s though after the 1930s house design gradually lost the distinctive features which were associated with the Queenslander.

Internally, designs were usually based on the idea either of rooms off a central passage way, or a large central room from which other rooms, passage ways and verandahs splayed out. Verandahs became a standard feature ranging from a simple front verandah to either multiple verandahs or one extending right around the house (see Figure 5). But even the verandah may not be as climatically suitable as is often thought; Bell noted that in North Queensland 'only 7% of houses still had an open verandah'20, many having been enclosed by fibro panels or glass louvres, while in Southern Queensland only 20% of existing stock have 'the encircling verandahs, regarded as a 'trademark' of the Queensland house'. Even the use of lattice was not as common as is thought, being more common in North Queensland.21

One of the greatest problems was the limited internal space which led to the custom of closing in verandahs to provide extra bedrooms, winter insulation and all-weather storage. The prevalence of closed-in Queenslanders is undoubtedly a more accurate reflection of the housing type as used. Notwithstanding, contemporary owners have been obsessed with opening up verandahs to their 'original' condition.

Perhaps the most enduring feature of Australian housing has been the penchant for corrugated iron roofing. Not only was it cheap to manufacture in the developing colony but it was a flexible material which could be curved into bullnose surfaces to facilitate run-off from rooves and awnings. It was especially useful for bigger houses since the pyramidal roof constituted a huge surface area to cover. Later Queenslanders added various kinds of ornamentation: ridges and turrets were decorated with iron and wooden features; roof vents were added; metal or wooden window shades became standard; balustrades of cast iron lace or wooden slats were matched by other surface trims; the houses were raised off the ground; and the kitchen chimney was replaced by a metal extension from the stove recess.

The convention of building the house on stilts (or stumps) is also regarded as a key feature, though this too is only unique in the width of the wooden supports and in their variable heights. Yet the custom was not universal, being used in some places (eg. Brisbane) but not in others (eg. Gympie):22

Elevation became more popular with time in Queensland, but was never universally adopted. Analysis of 330 north Queensland houses built before 1920 showed 28 per cent to be high set, and Bell's recent survey of almost 4,000 early houses in various north Queensland towns revealed only 37 per cent high set. Since many of these had been relocated or restumped since erection, this was probably a slightly higher proportion than original. 23

Many reasons have been offered for the stumps. The raised house allowed for easy inspection for borers, they provided cool breezy spaces below the house, allowed the house proper to catch breezes because of its elevation, and provided a space for washing, storage, playing and a myriad of other activities. The possibilities of the underneath area marked it out as a special space, as echoed in the writings of Malouf:

While the family house is described as an ordered, familiar space dominated by convention and clear boundaries, the area under it is an unstructured void, associated on the one hand with sexuality, freedom and mystery and yet also with darkness, fear and death. It is the area of illicit activity, representing all that is repressed within conventional social life: 'under-the-house was another and always present dimension ... For me ... that underworld was full of threat'. 24

In sum, the bungalow on stilts met many demands and offered flexibility. It was cheap and easy to build; it could be relocated, and it was flexible, both in terms of the unpredictable topography and in terms of the possibility of re-arranging internal space. The four square design and stud framing method permitted internal walls to be easily removed or moved (Figure 6). It was common for houses, even whole towns, to be re-located, as Malouf recalled:

I was reminded sometimes of the ghost-towns in the north that had once had a population of twenty thousand souls and were now completely deserted - the houses one morning simply lifted down from their stumps, loaded onto the back of a lorry, and carted away to create another town a hundred miles away. 25

Flexibility was the mark of the Queensland house. Some designs were marketed like kit homes - pre-fabricated and light-weight for easy shipment and construction. These emphasised the value of verandahs, breezes, coolness, even that 'the kitchen is far enough away from the Living Room to exclude all noise and smell of cooking'.26 Nonetheless, the house only works in the climate if a constant cross-flow of air throughout could be maintained. This pre-supposed that someone was home all day to keep doors and windows open. Such times are now recalled with nostalgia!

The design was modified in successive decades although the main features remained. Hard wood replaced soft wood, dowel replaced cast iron, the space below became treated as a separate floor with the stumps covered by battens and the ground levelled and sometimes surfaced. As family size grew, houses were increased in size either by additions or by filling in part or all verandahs often with louvres. More substantial changes occurred in the 1920s when 'verandahs had fallen from fashion for new houses and roofs had become more complex'.27 These had two or more gables, used weatherboard and coloured Arctic glass:

These solidly-built, well-designed houses still had spacious rooms, high ceilings, good ventilation, together with the contemporary modern advantages of an internal kitchen and bathroom. They perhaps come closest to representing a unique Queensland style. 28

Successive generations brought yet more modifications to the existing stock since new houses tended to adopt much simpler designs. For example, during the Depression in the 1930s, many verandahs were enlarged or new ones built as part of an employment project. Consistently, however, one of the main features of life in a Queenslander was the amount of living done outside, on the verandahs, underneath, or under the big poinciana and jacaranda trees. Unlike, say, Mexican or Indian houses, which created insulated cool interiors, the single skin made houses with a westerly aspect very hot forcing occupants to live outside.

The next structural change came in the thirties with the incorporation of the kitchen into the house proper and the emergence of the bathroom, first as an attached room and then as a part of the house proper. Both changes related to developments in plumbing, and the coming of gas and electricity. It was also a period during which notions of hygiene were changing. The result of these changes was the creation of multi-purpose space and a close correlation of gender roles and relations with the organisation of that space.

The Specialisation of Rooms

A feature of the development of the Queenslander has been the increasing specialisation of rooms. In early house usage, the choice about the use of rooms varied enormously despite, perhaps because of, the simplicity of the floor plan. Apart from the location of the kitchen at the back, the designation of rooms as bedrooms or living/dining rooms changed with successive owners. Once designated for a particular use, however, rules were strictly enforced. Verandahs were often the province of the men of the house though guests might be entertained there. The dining room was kept spic-and-span, and was closed off except for special occasions, such as visits from the clergy, relatives and officials:

The depths of these old houses were dark and musty with damp. Even on the sunniest afternoons you needed a light in our dining room, its walls were so thickly varnished, its windows so shadowed by the glossy dark Moreton Bay figs. 29

Such rooms were only used after dark. Daytime visitors were entertained on the front verandah among the white cane chairs and potted ferns.30

The verandah (Figure 7) was the site of informal and casual socialising 'a free-and-easy world of open living, almost the outdoors':31

... this is where we were called in to eat pikelets or pumpkin scones for morning tea from a three-tiered cake stand, and in the afternoon, date slices, anzacs and cream puffs... Here, ... ladies took their afternoon nap, and here we were settled when we were sick, close enough to the street to take an interest in the passing world ... but out of the sun. Here too on warm evenings, with a coil burning to keep off the mosquitoes, we sat after tea, while my father watered the lawn and chatted to neighbours. 32

The verandah was also used for sleeping on hot nights; as family sizes grew, many verandahs were enclosed to make semi-permanent sleeping quarters for the children. Typically, during the day, the entire house was closed, with the men out at work and the women in the back in the kitchen. Consequently, everyday life focussed on the kitchen as the primary social space and as a multi-purpose room:

The kitchens were tiled, with walk-in pantries and an old wood range (for baking) beside a newer gas stove, perhaps an Early Kooka like ours, with its legs in tins of water to keep off ants. 33

Activities concerned with the preparation of food predominated - without refrigeration or plumbing, cooking in such hot climates was a daily time-consuming chore which required as many hands as possible. But the kitchen also became the site of many other activities and the focus of the local social network. Kitchen life was very informal and the site of many pleasures - collective work, hand crafts, singing, laughter, the education of children. Malouf remembers that:

...the dark of the kitchen itself, which opened through a wooden arch into the dining-room, delighted me, it was so cosy and safe - especially on summer afternoons when it stormed and the tin roof thundered under the hail. 34

The kitchen was also the only warm place in winter since the main house had no heating except in substantial houses. Although not exclusively female, the kitchen was certainly dominated by women. While the men of the house ruled the house as a whole, women ruled the kitchen which was the site of those everyday domestic politics that informed the character of the home.

Perhaps it is not surprising that it is the kitchen which has undergone most change and become the dominant room within the home. It has become mother's panopticon: the room from which to see and to be seen. It has had an active history from non-existence until Victorian times to become a specialised room. Often a cooking ring or chimney in the scullery were the rudimentary makings of cooking activities. Even when it became a special room, it was separated from the house proper due to the risk of fire, due to its smells and to hide the signs of cooking and food preparation. Historically, women who aspired to be thought of as 'ladies' took special pains to avoid more than supervisory contact with the kitchen, an attitude which was reflected in advice for housewives

It can never be said that the atmosphere of a kitchen is an element in which a refined and intellectual woman ought to live; though the department itself is one which no sensible woman would think it a degradation to overlook. 35

Yet there are two points to note. On the one hand, this ideal of avoidance of the kitchen was often more an ideal than the practice, and as the nineteenth century progressed, women's relationship to the kitchen changed as their role shifted from mistress to manager to housewife. The kitchen was often an active social centre whose very 'invisibility' allowed it to become a special space for women and children.

This gradually changed with the entry of women into the workforce; the loss of household staff; the emergence of the concept of home management and of the category of the housewife; new practices of child rearing; the coming of gas, electricity and plumbing; and the invention of labour-saving devices. The kitchen was to become a specialised, customised laboratory for the display of efficiency.

Efficiency was, of course, the outcome of the application of Taylorist principles to domestic practices. In the kitchen, its visible sign was the work triangle. This was designed to link the places for cooking, washing up and storage-cum-preparation. The triangle minimised the number of steps it took to prepare food, etc, by minimising the amount of walking. Cooking was re-defined away from nurturing to incorporate notions about the efficient use of time and space; most certainly, it was no longer a leisurely way to occupy a day or the excuse for social gatherings and idle chatter. One of the advocates of the work triangle was Lillian Gilbreth who did a motion study which showed that a re-designed kitchen could reduce the number of steps to make a coffee cake from 50 to 24 by the 'improved layout'.36

Experiments such as these have had a lasting impact on kitchen design. The four main plans which form the basis of contemporary kitchen design all embody the concept of the work triangle: the galley, L-shape, island, and U-shape. All embody a triangular pattern between refrigerator, stove and sink within a design which stresses functionality: 'a compact work area and ... a clean, uncluttered look'37 (see Figure 8). Such designs have been further standardised in the production of pre-fabricated units after 194538 and now in more imaginative kitchen kits which offer variations of work space and fittings.

Of course, this all assumes that cooking is performed in a Taylorist manner, that is to say, uninterrupted, fixedly, and purposefully; and to be performed by one person. The kitchen has been re-conceptualised as a laboratory in terms of language, functions, and the measurement of efficiency.

Not only has the design of the kitchen changed, but it has physically migrated from its separated location at the back of the house to a more central position. Yet despite this centrality, its occupant has become increasingly isolated. Rarely does the kitchen face or look onto the street, cutting its occupant off from the daily pageant of community life, a fact that was criticised back in 1941:

...workers and children have a surfeit of communal life during the day. Not so the woman. While, therefore, the living room should face west or south on to garden or balcony, with the utmost obtainable privacy from being overlooked or overheard by others, the kitchen, the workshop, should look on to the street, so that the woman can join, however indirectly, in the life of the neighbourhood. In the afternoon, if the home has been well arranged and equipped, she will have time and energy to meet her friends and join in some communal activities. 39

In this respect, the domestic home is back the front with the structural isolation of the kitchen worker. Meanwhile, there has been a conflict between the idea of the kitchen and its actual usage. Greenbaum has documented the changing design of the kitchen this century towards a smaller room that emphasise the cooking function above all others.40 From the 1930s, the size of the kitchen has shrunk along with the size of the central kitchen table. By the 1960s, the table had disappeared altogether. Greenbaum argues that women resisted this trend to exclude eating from the kitchen. By the 1970s, the trend towards the smaller kitchen was reversed and eating in the kitchen was re-instated with a small table, a bench, a hatch or at least an island. Most importantly, patterns in the usage and decor of kitchens have reacted against its designation as a laboratory by combining work equipment and functions with comfort and pleasure. This is particularly reflected in the trend towards views from the kitchen and the close attention to decor and finishing details of kitchen fittings and furnishings.

The Queenslander has incorporated the change in kitchen function and design perhaps more easily than other housing types because of its flexibility (see Figure 9). Kitchens have been re-modelled by successive generations to incorporate new designs and functions, to create views both inside and out, and to link the kitchen to other spaces and activities. The kitchen has become the control centre or the command post of the modern home, over-seeing various activities such as washing, watching television, playing, eating and entertaining which might be occurring simultaneously in a number of places.

Of increasing importance has been the idea of creating special outside vistas and spaces which are visible from, and linked to, the kitchen. Thus the backgarden (and the swimming pool) are landscaped into a secret garden, a private world for mother. This has been a dramatic change, away from the sparse, formal ordered garden inspired by models of English formal gardens, towards a controlled disorder - a garden full of native plants and exotic species studded with mother's choice of colourful annuals.

The kitchen has become perhaps the most important room in the house - its design, proxemics and decor making important statements about the house and its usage. Real estate workers report that women examine the kitchen more thoroughly than any other room when buying a house.41 The concern extends from the basic facilities to the decor - style is as important as appliances in making a statement about homelife and lifestyle.

Everyday usage of the house is articulated by the choice of furniture and furnishings as well as by the choreography of their arrangement42 : function is not only combined but is submerged beneath style. The most radical transformation is achieved by trompe l'oeil decor; this involves painting a fantasy projection of another place and time onto the very surfaces of the kitchen to literally transcend the everyday! (see, for example, the designs of T. Cowan,43 ). More common are decorations based around copper, various cottage looks, rustic, minimalist, modernist, nostalgic and high tech.44 These themes denote choices or preferences about lifestyle concerned with imagined pasts, traditions, ideals and futures. They combine coda of personality with goals or ambitions, as well as aesthetic conventions in the projection of a public image of homelife. It could be argued that interior design has replaced household management as the focus of domestic ideology.

Rooms have become more numerous and more specialised. Their decoration and organisation has been allotted to the woman of the house. Her tastes are especially evident in the layout and decor of the kitchen; father's vision is usually confined to his (sic) den or study. The living room makes a more formal statement about the home, which may be repeated in the dining room. Of increasing importance is the family room, an area between other spaces which is adapted to multiple forms of everyday living.

The bedroom has also become the object of concerted stylistic endeavours. Until recently, only the parents and the staff warranted a separate bedroom, and these were formal, cold places:

You could look into them from long sash windows on the verandah, and believe ... that people had died there.... The high beds had brass ends with superbly polished finials and little rows of porcelain balusters. Lace curtains, a lace coverlet and bolster, a washstand with doilies and a floral jug-and-basin. 45

By the 1950s, new philosophies of socialisation, child rearing and personality had become entrenched. As part of the development of individuality, each child ideally should have its own bedroom, decorated to denote its interests. The parental bedroom continues to be accorded a privileged status in the house with the most extravagant decor and the greatest possible privacy. It is decorated according to the woman's taste, in sharp contrast to a bachelor's bedroom decor. The decor is most evident in the choice of soft furnishings - curtains, bedding and lighting. While the living and dining rooms are attempting to make statements about the public persona, bedroom and bathroom decor make statements about private life (personality, sexuality, physicality).

Changes to the bathroom have been particularly marked in the Queensland house. In early houses there was no bathroom, just a tub for washing and a 'thunderbox' out the back. Quite often it was left to the women to empty its contents on the grounds that they were the main users. Men did it in the bush! But gradually, the thunderbox moved closer to the house as new disposal techniques reduced the smell and health risks. With the installation of plumbing, a rudimentary shower was frequently annexed to the house (underneath or out the back), and other facilities followed. From the 1950s, the bathroom had been accepted as a special room within the house necessitating additions or the re-modelling of other rooms. This change has followed the advantages of plumbing as well as new notions about hygiene and a re-valuation of the body as something not to disguise and ignore but to be enjoyed if not flaunted. Whereas plants had been strictly prohibited from sites of bodily functions, they have now become almost mandatory, being read as a sign of the natural, the primitive and the exotic. Plants are now part of the bathroom fittings. The current vision of the ideal bathroom entails a room opening onto a courtyard of exotic plants and perhaps a waterfall. The bathroom has become the site for the indulgence of private pleasures and for exorcising those obsessions with the body.

These trends index the changing role of the housewife from professional manager to caretaker, responsible for regulating the diversity and fluidity of homelife. Housewives have lost the domestics, the daughters and other relatives in helping with the tasks of housework, although they are still responsible for carrying out such duties or seeing that they are done. By constructing the kitchen as the panopticon of the modern home, as the central vantage point from which she can see and control all activities, a housewife can combine domestic chores, child rearing and socialising without leaving her command post. To this end, the kitchen is located centrally with views both inside and out. The kitchen and its key occupant orchestrate home activities and service various domestic needs.

The Queenslander Today

What can we read in these shifts? First, the changing role of women has been central in these transformations. Women have become more active in non-domestic arenas at the same time as the domestic sphere has become more specialised. To some extent, this has problematised the position of women in the home due to the multiple demands made upon them in diverse roles. At the same time, the increasing involvement of women in public life has, perhaps ironically, eroded forms of domestic power as domestic labour has been re-defined as a set of chores and not as a crucial bio-political agency.

Second, the basic Queenslander has been re-modelled often quite dramatically to accommodate those patterns. Yet there is a nostalgia for an imagined past appearance and usage of the traditional cottage despite the changing and actual history of uses. Renovation constructs a past in the present often as it destroys the original physical form. In contrast to a disrespect for the house on stilts which developed in the 1960s, the traditional housing type is now highly valued, as reflected in real estate prices. Many of the 'improvements' of earlier owners - enclosed verandahs, bricked-in downstairs, the replacement of wooden windows with aluminuum, the replacement of wooden with metal stumps, home handyman internal alterations of rooms, early kitchens and bathrooms, and so on - have been undone.

Some new owners have opted for restoration, (re)building the house as near as possible to the original specifications. But new living conditions mean that the traditional house is often inappropriate - lacking adequate space, security, privacy and internal storage areas. Renovations now aim to combine new notions of domestic architecture with (re)vised notions about tropical architecture. These include increasing the amount of natural light in every room by adding new windows, replacing coloured glass with clear glass, adding skylights, removing walls, and by choosing light colours in paint, wallpaper and furnishings. Updated facilities, especially (re)modelling the kitchen and bathroom head the list of priorities after structural renovation (re-stumping, re-roofing, re-wiring, re-painting). These rooms declare the thematics and specificities of domestic organisation through their location, fittings and decor.

In tandem, the restoration of existing verandahs is achieved while planning for new outdoor spaces which more often takes the form of a 'deck', a larger, latticed platform better suited to group entertaining (see Figure 10). Thus although the verandah is highly valued, the more useful indoor-outdoor space for contemporary living tends to be the un-traditional deck which disrupts the style and balance of the traditional look of the Queenslander. Surprisingly, though, the deck is not regarded as out of character, partly because of the extensive use of lattice to partially enclose and screen the deck from the gaze of prying neighbours.

Similarly, additions to Queenslanders are now carefully thought out in contrast to earlier anarchistic constructions, although the symmetry of the basic design defies the compatibility of additions. Consequently, the rhetoric of additions has become that of being bold and adventurous, combining the old with the outrageously contemporary.

Third, the Queenslander feeds into a collective fantasy about the past and heritage: that rhetoric forms the basis of current cultural policies, including economic re-structuring, urban re-development and historical conservation and restoration. Yet the history denoted by restoration and conservation is at odds with the vision of unlimited development that underlies contemporary Queensland politics. Indeed, that vision of the future, reproduced on so many cultural fronts, threatens existing forms, so strong is the emphasis on modernism. The designation of the Queenslander as unique to Queensland may not be entirely accurate nor, to date, has it guaranteed the survival of this housing type. But it could be used as catchcry to actualise the belief in the uniqueness of Queensland, for the Queensland house is one striking visible sign of difference.

The development of a cultural politics of the Queenslander necessitates the exploration of its cultural politics - its fantasies as much as its practicalities. If the panopticon is to facilitate the dynamics of domestic life, its rhetoric must address the conditions of its actual occupants. Ideals and rhetorics are so insistent that they compete to negate actual demographics and usage. A progressive cultural politics of domestic space must balance blueprints for lifestyles with the realities of everyday life.


Discussions with Anne Freadman, John Macarthur, Meri Counihan, Gloria Gutzke and John Wanna on the Queensland house have been invaluable in developing this article. Numerous articles and features in the Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail on aspects of restoration and renovation have also provided information and details which escape recording in more formal ways.


1 D. Malouf, Johnno, Melbourne, Penguin,1987,p.4.

2 E. Ferrier, 'From pleasure homes to bark huts: Architectural metaphors in recent Australian fiction', Australian Literary Studies, v.13, no.1, 1987, pp.40-53. R. Boyd, Australia's Home, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1968.

3 Ibid, p.45.

4 A. Rapoport, House Form and Culture, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1969.

5 J. MacArthur, 'The family and the suburb', unpublished lecture delivered in Department of Architecture, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1984.

6 R. Sumner, 'The Queensland style', in R. Irving, op.cit., pp.290-313, 1985.

7 D Malouf, op. cit.,p.83.

8 D. Riley, War in the Nursery, London, Virago, 1983.

9 J. Macarthur, op. cit.; R. Sumner, Settlers and Habitat, Monograph series no.6, Townsville: Department of Geography, James Cook University, 1975; R. Sumner, op. cit., 1985; B. Saini and R. Joyce, The Australian House. Homes of the Tropical North, Sydney, Landsdowne Press, 1982; K. Lynch, 'Some aspects of domestic architecture in Queensland', Historical Society of Queensland Journal, v.5, no.3, 1955, pp.1076-1086.; J. Paynter, 'The Australian verandah', Architecture in Australia, v.54, no.52,1965,pp.93-99.

10 K. Lynch, op. cit., p.1079.

11 W. Bunning, Homes in the Sun. The Past, Present and Future of Australian Housing, Sydney, W.J. Nesbit, 1945,quoted by ibid.

12 R. Sumner, op. cit., p.301.

13 R. Boyd, op. cit.

14 J. MacArthur, 'The picturesque cottage: genre and technique', unpublished paper, Brisbane, 1988.

15 Ibid., pp.4-5.

16 Ibid,, pp.9.

17 K. Lynch, op. cit., pp.1078.

18 R. Irving, The History and Design of the Australian House. Sydney, Oxford University Press, 1985.

19 B.S. Marsden, 'A century of building materials in Queensland and Brisbane, 1861-1961', Australian Geographer, v.10, no.2, 1966, pp.115-131.

20 R. Sumner, op. cit., 1985, p.310.

21 Ibid., p.311.

22 Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Buildings of Queensland, Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1959, p.12.

23 R. Sumner, op. cit., 1985, p.309.

24 E. Ferrier, op. cit.., p.49.

25 D. Malouf, op. cit., p.83.

26 B. Saini and R. Joyce,op. cit., p.11.

27 R. Sumner, op. cit., 1985, p.313.

28 Ibid, p.313.

29 D. Malouf, op. cit., p.34.

30 Ibid., p.33.

31 Ibid, p. 34.

32 Ibid, p. 33.

33 Ibid, p.33.

34 Ibid, p.35

35 Mrs Ellis, Wives of England, cited by A. Oakley Housewife, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1980, p.52.

36 L. Gilbreth, 'Efficiency methods applied to kitchen design', Architectural Record, March 1930, pp.291-294.

37 R. Karrasch, 'Keys to the kitchen', Courier-Mail, September 7, 1988, A. DeCourcy, Kitchens, London, Studio Vista, 1969; Better Homes and Gardens, Kitchens, Bathrooms and Laundries, North Sydney, Advertiser Magazines Pty. Ltd., 1987.

38 C. Allport,'Women and suburban housing. Post-war planning in Sydney, 1943-1961', in P. Williams (ed.), Social Process and the City, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1983, pp. 64-87.

39 E. Denby, 'Plan the home', Picture Post, v.4, January 1941, pp.21-23.

40 J. Greenbaum, 'Kitchen culture / kitchen dialectic', Heresies II, v.3, no.3, 1981, pp.59-61.

41 Cf. Ibid.

42 J. Hess, 'Domestic interiors in Northern New Mexico', Heresies II, v.3, no.3, 1981,pp.30-33.

43 T. Cowan, Beyond the Kitchen. A Dreamer's Guide, Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1985, p.11. and pp.100-1.

44 Ibid; Better Homes and Gardens, op. cit., de Courcy, op. cit.

45 D. Malouf, op. cit., p.32.

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