Sea changes: ‘My 84-year-old mother knows architect-designed McMansions now’

Stephanie Wood
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Felix Cesare/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Felix Cesare/Getty Images

My mother’s large white underpants flap in the faces of alpha men in their mansions. It’s not intended to provoke, it’s not any sort of “up-yours”. As she has always done, my mother hangs her undies, all her washing, on the deck of her house by the beach to catch the sun and the breeze – and if her washing happens to foreground the ocean views of rich interlopers, well, “I don’t care”, she says, “I was here before them”.

In the late 1970s, my parents spent about $10,000 on a block of land on a steep dune overlooking a Sunshine Coast beach. Both teachers, they’d been tight. Avocados had barely been invented. An architect who sometimes wore sarongs designed a house for them.

My father, a gentle, thoughtful man, insisted the house sit lower than permitted height limits. He didn’t want to impede the views of a house across the street, one of only a couple in a crescent of vacant blocks.

Related: Beach maximalism: a frenzy for cabanas and carts is taking over Australian shores

Our little lightweight holiday home had three bedrooms and a small, open living and kitchen area. Inside, the walls were lined with knotty, unpainted plywood; outside, the house was painted a lichen-ish green – a faintly bilious tone, but sensitive to the coastal vegetation of scraggy she-oaks, pandanus and lilly pillies.

My father refused to have a garden or fence the backyard; from our deck we looked down towards the sea and over a patch of wild and possibly remnant dune vegetation. My parents liked that, all the green against the blue. They liked the birds.

From “no shoes, to white shoes” is how architecture-nerd Tim Ross describes the area’s evolution

In the mid-1980s, people built a little house on the block to the left of my parents and planted natives including tuckeroos, which grew up around our deck in a lovely jungly, neighbourly embrace. My parents had neighbourly drinks with these people on the decks in the trees.

In the years that followed, other houses were built, some larger, but mostly unassuming and unfenced. The people who built a house to the right of my parents’ place sometimes stopped by with bananas from their tree and stayed for drinks. A car salesman from the south built the first big mansion below us. It had seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a pool and a tennis court, but he was chatty, invited us to use the court and let trees go wild around it.

What happened? Something happened. From “no shoes, to white shoes” is how architecture “nerd” Tim Ross describes the area’s evolution in Designing a Legacy, his documentary on iconic Australian homes. In it he explores the 1996 Lake Weyba House near Noosa, by acclaimed architect Gabriel Poole and his wife, Elizabeth, who lived there until the vibe altered. The house, says Ross, “makes use of its space and doesn’t try to rule it”.

My father never stopped marvelling that he was so lucky to have a house by the sea

That, however, is a concept requiring ego be set aside. By the end of the first decade of the new century, when my parents had retired to the beach, new people had decided they wanted a house in their street. They were not people to leave ego behind.

“I have bad news for you,” Dad announced to Mum one day after a visit to the local council. He’d seen the plans for the house that was to replace the banana people’s house. It would be large, the setback minimal, and it would cut out a chunk of my parents’ blue view.

My father never stopped marvelling that he was so lucky to have a house by the sea. I think his real luck was in dying before he saw what happened in the street. Within weeks of Dad’s funeral, they had demolished the house and brought in earth movers. They perched perilously on the dune and attacked the ground for weeks. Pile drivers hammered deep holes for foundations. My mother’s house shook. Fright overlaid her grief and isolation. From her deck she watched the cranes swing slabs on to site. Her new neighbours popped in to inspect their property but they never popped in to introduce themselves. Private equity money, someone said.

It took more than a year of earth moving, banging, hammering and sawing for a thrusting statement house to emerge from the dune: heavy on the land, walled-in, a real “up-yours”. One day from Mum’s deck I watched as the owner weeded her neat little lawn.

Soon enough, someone bought the mansion with the tennis court and gutted it in a renovation that sent noise echoing over the neighbourhood for years. A year or so later it changed hands again and the new owner (overseas based, private equity money too) renovated again, adding a basketball court and gym.

The house with the lovely tuckeroos was next to go – the tuckeroos too – and after more than a year of building, two connected houses, both with lifts, emerged from the denuded block. Now Mum and her washing overlook a plunge pool and the occasional sun-baking, G-stringed backside. There is barely a tree. Perhaps it’s not surprising there are no Christmas beetles anymore.

Of course, it’s happening everywhere. On Facebook, my friend Mayeta laments that the modest house her grandfather built at Blueys Beach on the mid-north coast of New South Wales is soon to be bulldozed so a much fancier house can go up. “It served generations of our family,” she says. A stack of kids, the beach, bonfires, strip poker, her first crushes. “Our whole family feels bad when we think about Bluey and what’s been lost. I find it profoundly sad that now it’s something only certain people can afford.”

A mansion is whipper-snippers, leaf blowers, pool pumps, mowers and lawn vacuums

Another Facebook friend posts before-and-after photographs – of an unfenced vintage bungalow on her Sydney beachside street and a new house – concrete, a formidable garage door all that can be seen of the house. An unfriendly architect-designed McMansion.

My 84-year-old mother knows architect-designed McMansions now. She knows that even when the building ends, the intrusion doesn’t. A mansion is never just a mansion. A mansion is also whipper-snippers, leaf blowers, pool pumps, mowers and lawn vacuums (yes, indeed), cavalcades of tradies in roaring utes, an un-neighbourly assault.

Real estate agents also wage an assault on my mother: they call her frequently, even more so since the start of the pandemic, and talk to her as though she’s their buddy. They throw catchphrases at her – “supply shortage”, “buyers are waiting”, “double-digit growth”.

But Mum is stubborn. She loves the green on her block, the sound of the sea, the birds, even the brown snakes. Mum and her underpants aren’t going anywhere.