- Article by Christopher Vernon
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Australians, according to a 2009 CommSec study, build the largest houses in the world. Indeed, with the average dwelling measuring in at 214.6sqm, we have even overtaken the McMansion’s birthplace, the United States (there, the average house size is 212sqm). This is hardly news to Perth. Here, McMansions began proliferating in the late 1980s and are now ubiquitous in the booming capital’s suburban sprawl. Sadly, Perth’s specimens are, more often than not, the products of ‘master builders’, not architects, with an aesthetic vacillating between Tuscany and Ikea. There are, however, at least two exceptions, one no less architecturally notorious than the other.
In 1990, Rose Porteous and her then husband, the late iron ore magnate Lang Hancock, famously erected their lavish home, Prix D’Amour, on an expansive 16-block parcel overlooking the Swan River. The two-storey, 215sqm mansion was designed by Palassis Architects. At their clients’ instruction, the architects drew upon a cinematic source, the fictional Georgia plantation Tara featured in Gone with the Wind. This film, as Perth-based artists Darryn Ansted and Jon Tarry recently put it, deployed Tara ‘as a set to locate the viewer in the same domestic sphere as the characters.’ A half-century later in Perth, when it became the model for a real dwelling, Ansted and Tarry assessed, ‘the spaces of reality and illusion collapsed’.
As a simulation – or copy of a copy – it strived to replace reality with the illusion of the silver screen and succeeded in creating a local fiction. Prix D’Amour referenced, for instance, Tara’s luminous white finish, grandiose entry, balconies, a ballroom accessed by a spiral staircase, and terraced garden surrounds. A radical architectural departure from its ‘understated’, if not bland, 1970s neighbours, Prix D’Amour attracted criticism. That Rose was a Filipina and younger by decades than her husband also fuelled controversy as to ‘taste’ and ‘excess’. The mansion soon gained new dimensions as, in Ansted and Tarry’s words, ‘a screen for the projection of the broader society’s architectural ethos and even morality.’ In the eyes of some and in contrast to those of its detractors, Prix D’Amour was iconic, eventually figuring into Perth’s tourist circuit. As Ansted and Tarry recall, one ‘very sorry’ onlooker to the mansion’s 2006 demolition lamented the loss, saying the house ‘was a great icon’. In testament to Prix D’Amour’s iconic status, Jon Tarry documented the demolition in his film A Rose No More.
A year after Prix D’Amour’s demolition, Perth fertiliser baron Pankaj Oswal and his wife Radhika revealed their intention to construct a palatial new home or, as they put it, a ‘little India’ overlooking the Swan. The couple’s estate agent (and, coincidentally, now Rose’s husband) publicly billed the Oswals’ future mansion as ‘Australia’s most expensive home’ and hinted it would make ‘an architectural statement for Perth’. He would not prove mistaken, but this was a considerable understatement. The Oswals purchased a 6600sqm riverfront block, not far from Prix D’Amour’s former site. Having paid nearly $23 million for the land alone, the couple, like the Hancocks, commissioned an architect. Later in 2007, The West Australian revealed the Oswals’ design, sensationalising it in word and image under the headline ‘The $70m Taj Mahal-on-Swan: It has its own temple, observatory, separate gym and parking for 17 cars. But what do the neighbours think?’ As we will see, not much. The newspaper characterised the multi-domed mansion as a ‘two-storey, Indian-infused luxury residence,’ designed to ‘the traditional Indian principles of Vaastu Shastra’. Along with the features touted in the headline, the Oswals’ compound was to include a six-bedroom main house, a swimming pool and extensive formal gardens. Ostensibly only owing to the development’s scale, the plans quickly attracted criticism. His mansion, Oswal countered, would only occupy ’30 percent of the site,’ and it had been ‘carefully scaled to fit into the existing environment’.
‘A key design objective for the development,’ he explained in his planning submission, ‘is for the proposed residence to appropriately reflect the family’s cultural and spiritual heritage.’ Although he conceded that the proposed house was ‘palatial and exhibiting a certain grandeur,’ it was not, in Oswal’s view, ‘ostentatious’. Scale issues aside, these qualifications suggest Pankaj Oswal anticipated resistance to his explicitly Indian architecture. Although the Prix D’Amour had similarly looked to an overseas design source, American references were at least comfortably Western. As readers and Oswal himself appreciate, the making of architecture is seldom, if ever, a merely benign aesthetic proposition.
After reducing the height and number of turrets and domes, the Oswals’ plans were approved. Before construction began, however, the design was apparently altered again. This time, the domes themselves were redesigned. In the initial scheme, the domes were more Islamic in profile; now they were revised into conformity with the more bulbous forms typical of their Hindu counterparts. This significant alteration suggests that local appreciation of traditional Indian architecture was limited and that the final design was possibly the product of multiple hands. With the plans complete, construction began; even this activity, however, would prove controversial. A militant vegetarian, Radhika Oswal forbade construction workers from consuming meat on-site. Disgruntled workers, as one (sub)urban myth circulating in Perth has it, retaliated by lacing the concrete work with mince.
The controversy surrounding their rising house aside, the Oswals remained on Perth’s ‘A-list’. Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, the couple was famous for throwing lavish parties, with no expense spared. Last December, however, Pankaj’s business was placed in receivership. Almost overnight, nobody seemed to want to know the couple and they soon departed Australia. By January, the Oswals had decided to sell their unfinished mansion, should they ‘get the right price.’ As the house was still under construction, one estate agent assured potential buyers that there was ‘scope to reshape it into something more European’. Telling is the choice of ‘European’, not ‘Australian’. As no purchasers were forthcoming, local newspapers began trumpeting a ‘Derelict “Taj” Fear’ and that the ‘Taj on Swan may be left as is’ – no doubt to the terror of the Oswals’ would-be neighbours. Last month, however, The Australian reported that a buyer had been found, contingent upon the removal of ‘the Taj Mahal-like domes’. It remains unclear as to whether or not the transaction actually transpired.
In some ways, the Oswal episode is an instance of history repeating itself. In the 1970s, Mukarram Jah, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, similarly relocated from India to Perth. Rather than electing to erect a lavish Indian-inspired house in a prominent riverfront location (something he could easily have done), the Nizam chose to buy, paradoxically, a heritage Federation mansion near the city centre. Given the Oswals’ experience, this was an exceedingly wise decision.
‘Can it all be put down to a cultural clash?’, The Australian mused. ‘Radhika Oswal appears to think so, blaming incessant criticism of the couple on racism.’ Indeed, if a wealthy non-Indian erected an aesthetically conventional McMansion of a similar scale, one wonders if there would have been protest. Paradoxically, last March, the local press reported, almost gleefully, that a local ‘favourite son’ sportsman was building a ‘$3 Million “Bachelor Pad”‘ in the shape of a sea shell and that among the ‘Benefits of Boom’ was the fact that an ‘A-list couple’ had flown over a ‘London lighting expert used by pop queen Madonna’ and a home builder had imported $70,000 of Grecian stone to line his McMansion’s corridors. Needless to say, none of these people are Indian.
In late 2009, the Oswals’ estate agent set an Australian record, selling a nearby mansion for nearly $58 million. The estate features a trio of buildings, a boathouse and private jetty, a gymnasium, and cinema, pool and tennis court and occupies a 7567sqm riverfront block – almost 1000sqm larger than the Oswals’ property. As readers have likely guessed by now, the house can be described in keywords: columns, balconies, terracotta roof tiles and lots of render. I do not recall any public outcry or charges of excess when the house was constructed or sold.
Perhaps the lives of Pankaj and Radhika Oswal would have been easier had they chosen to camouflage themselves and their wealth in a ‘supersized’ Tuscan box. Despite our embrace of a multicultural society, our built environment remains ethereally homogenous. Nonetheless, for now at least, the ‘Taj Mahal-on-Swan’ remains an unfinished concrete shell, evocative of Auguste Perret’s dictum, ‘Architecture is what makes beautiful ruins.’ Racism remains the elephant in the room.
Christopher Vernon is associate professor, Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at The University of Western Australia.