Selfish For All The Right Reasons

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Is being selfish always a bad thing? We say: sometimes yes, sometimes no. In general, selfishness has a bad rap, and deservedly so.  When one is selfishly inconsiderate, other are hurt, excluded or diminished. That is never good. There is, however, another side to selfishness – one that is harder to embrace, but that one brings about the possibility of personal renewal and achieving great change with single-mindedness.

The selfishness of boundaries (saying that you can’t do something or don’t want to do something without proffering an excuse) and the selfishness of a life focused on personal priorities are two kinds of selfishness I sense are necessary to a life well-lived. If you’re anything like me, you will find it difficult to be difficult. But difficult we must become – and firm in resolve when the moment comes, as it always does. I was reminded of this positive aspect of selfishness on a recent architecture tour of Heide, a pool of solace in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs and one of my favorite arts spaces to visit. The site itself features three pieces of architecture – Heide I, II and III – respectively a federation home, a modern expression of a home built to display art and welcome conversation, and a purpose-built gallery.

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John and Sunday Reed were important patrons of Australian art, celebrating a unique kind of Australian-ness whilst living a notoriously bohemian life. A significant part of the Heide collection was assembled over five decades by this eccentric and forward-thinking couple, whose two homes are onsite amongst the sculpture park and kitchen garden for visitors to tour and enjoy. The Reeds initially lived in a traditional weatherboard home before building Heide II (inset above), a radically modern, decidedly selfish piece of magnificent architecture hewn from luminous Mt Gambier stone.

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Built by architect David McGlashan over the years 1964-1967, Sunday Reed’s brief was to create a residence for her family that was ageless, romantic and that should melt into its surrounds – she felt that it had to be a living gallery. Rising from a gently sloping hill and framed by gumtrees and natives, the graphic blocks of stone that make up this masterpiece have aged and appear a natural part of their surrounds. The home itself has no doors, and a floating double-story floorplan framed by pinus radiata ceilings, white terrazzo tiles and Belgian glass windows. It is without the decorative features which were common to Australian homes of the 1960’s – such as architraves and skirting boards – instead, the home’s design draws attention to the Mt Gambier stone and lush surrounds.

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 A conversation pit and fireplace from Heide II where artists and thinkers whiled away hours, talking deep into the night before falling asleep in front of the brazier. The Reeds were not ungenerous hosts – Heide II has separate guest quarters which adjoin the main body of the home. At right, a Mirka Mora artwork.

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 From the top floor looking down: these lush courtyards were also cat-runs when the Reeds were in-situ: Sunday was a great lover of felines. Above, a quiet moment outside Sunday and John’s kitchen. Just to my right is an indentation in the stone, made by countless morning lean-and-chats over coffee and tea.

Architect McGlashan’s work was influenced by the Gropius and Breuer-led Bauhaus School which influenced late 1950’s design. Heide II is an example of a platform house inspired by the De Stijl movement – a paring and abstraction of design to its most basic.

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When the Heide II was first built, there was no glass balustrade or barrier to this exotic floating stair-case. As you can see, any fall from such a height onto terrazzo would be potentially life-threatening. I can imagine the Reeds weaving warily down the stairs, trying to acquaint themselves with their bold new space. As I said, this is a deliciously selfish piece of architecture which had nothing to do with safety or user-friendliness: the Reeds built a space to better-enjoy their art, to be in dialogue with the political and artistic ideas of the time as expressed through architecture, and to live differently. It was not a project for comfort or relaxation. Heide II was a dedication to ideas, to modernity, to a new kind of Australia.

With the passing of Gough Whitlam last week, rumination on the kind of Australia we might be seems of critical importance. We need to see past the selfishness of today’s political policies in Australia – which dismiss the needs of the elderly and the young, the chronically poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and the different  – and instead embrace the selfish-for-good Keating / Whitlam-style social politics which focus on investing in the infrastructure and projects which allow us to realise ourselves as a community. The Reed’s first home – Heide I – suited them well. They could have decided to live as they were, without changing things up or investing in a new architect and a new vision. Instead, the Reeds doggedly pursued building a new residence which reflected the cultural changes of the time and and their own potential. It’s high time that Australia did the same.

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