Growing up in Willetton in the 70s and 80s holds special memories for me: traipsing back from Southlands Shopping Centre with a layered perm, the kind that made your hair frizz out like the steppes of some peasant’s mountain, and discovering the white spaceship house that had magically landed on a lake on Apsley Road.
The spaceship was there courtesy of a local property development company. Futuro—they called it—the house of the future, was designed and built from a prefabricated kit in Finland as a way to promote a cheaper, sustainable way of living. But Its main purpose in our suburb was to draw in the weekend crowds so that the real estate firm could spruik the blocks in the new neighbouring subdivision of Burrendah Heights.
The spaceship was exciting because it did what no other thing could do at that time: legitimised all the American crap we were watching on our black and white television sets. It was Lost in Space meets I dream of Jeannie, for when you approached the giant, round spacecraft and looked into one of its many porthole eyes, you could see that the interior perimeter was just a built-in, fibre glass settee lined with garish orange cushions. There was also a table and a couple of chairs for signing the all-important contracts, and a small, fake kitchen for ‘show’. We could imagine ourselves as Jeannie trapped in her bottle, in this luxuriously cushioned prison. For months we dreamt and spoke of nothing else, about living in that spaceship (how cool would that be!), never for one moment realising that the absence of any plumbing—a proper kitchen sink, a flushable toilet—would be problematic. It was like playing with our Barbie and Ken dolls, oblivious to their lack of sexual organs, of any useful plumbing.
The spaceship had a similar effect on my mother though her fantasies were not of the circular kind. A visit to it one weekend and she was hooked on the idea of building a new house. So for many weekends we were taken to display homes, lonely sentinels in the recently cleared bushland. These houses had that wondrous, fresh paint smell, doorways that opened without force, gleaming ceramic toilets, built-in bedroom cupboards. We were all mesmerised except for Mum who always found a fault: the cream shag carpet ridiculously impractical; clinker brick feature walls, a trap for dust. These weekend visits seemed to go nowhere, except to leave a rattling feeling of dissatisfaction inside us. A restless, traveller’s spirit that I still possess, for at last count I have lived in almost thirty houses.
Our house at this time was a modest 60s-style bungalow with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a study, the size of a pocket handkerchief. I shared a small room with my sister, an impossible task as I had developed the annoying habit of clearing my voice every night as if about to make an important speech. Mum gave us a book about how warring twins settled their disputes by dividing their room in half with scotch tape. We put a skipping room down the centre but argued about whether it was better to be the twin with a window or the one with the door. Of course, nothing could mask the constant er em, er em er em that drifted out from under my covers all night long. For a time, I slept in my dad’s study (was I forced or did I offer?) on a divan as narrow as a plank. I remember this space as being pleasant; enjoyed spending time in the sacrosanct room where my dad disappeared to on weekends and after dinner, and where all our failed school art projects disappeared to as well.
The only communal indoor space was the small lounge room but my sister and I traversed that floor as if it were the grandest ballroom: back and forth, up and down, to and fro, dancing and jiggling to the soundtracks of the era. The records bumped as we jumped, sometimes forcing the needle to bypass multiple groves and land onto a different song. The vinyl discs were kept in a horizontal wire holder, but the better record storage of that time was advertised on tv, with a name like Record-O-Matic which flipped out the records as efficiently as croupiers dealing cards at the casino.
My parents’ records were unfashionable even for the era they bought them in; mostly muted covers of women with bouncy hairdos and baby blue headbands, or dark-eyed crooners in tuxedos. Ours had screaming, full of colour covers. Some of the records were overplayed and got deep wounds from the needle; others taken to friends’ houses became softened on summer days on the back seat of the station wagon and developed a permanent, misshapen wobble. My brother mostly sat still to watch tv, but my sister and I never stopped moving. Climbing then falling over the back of the lounge settee or rolling across the faux leather pouffe. Mum cooked, cleaned or sewed, while dad studied or burnt things in his incinerator, a 40-gallon drum fashioned for the purpose. This was a favourite pastime of the neighbourhood dads, burning stuff in flaking metal drums. Did we really use so much paper and cardboard back then? I don’t know, but every Saturday when you cycled down the street you could taste the ash in the air and feel the grit in your eyes.
When Mum and Dad finally announced that we were moving into an ex-display home it was a mixture of sadness (ours) and excitement (Mum’s), though generally Mum’s moods were the greater force. This house was a speckled, drab brown, as disappointing as the plumage of female birds. It had an orange-tiled roof, colonial windows on the upper and lower storeys and fake brown shutters affixed to the brick work. Mum’s excitement soon wore off. It was evident that many of the design features were impractical or faulty: the large Roman bath leaked when filled with water; the inbuilt cupboards were so shallow that the clothes on hangers were pushed back on an angle when the door slid closed; the fireplace was unfortunately ornamental, so that when you lit a fire the smoke all came billowing back in your face. And every summer an army of bees battered their buzzing bodies against upper storey bricks to try to get to their queen who had been trapped during the build.
What should have been the saving grace—me getting the biggest room—became a source of guilt. My sister was relegated to the ‘nursery room’ and I felt her pains when once the bed and desk were brought in, there was barely enough room to unfold a monopoly board. The record player was brought upstairs to the landing, which became our new dance area; the downstairs loungeroom, a more formal affair. Record covers grew shriller, more dangerous: Screamer, Ripper, Dynamite, Explosive Hits. My sister and I spent countless hours examining the cover of Screamer noting the number of fillings in the girls’ teeth and being grateful for the Great Fluoridation Act of 1966.
The suburb expanded and a new primary school was built, and living in the first street in the new subdivision meant we begrudgingly changed schools. Riding around the neighbourhood, we passed street signs named after the native trees: Stringybark, Scribbly Gum, Spotted Gum, Ghost Gum. The council took this homage to country literally and matched verge-side plantings to their street signs. We were given a paperbark, a scrappy looking specimen more at ease in a swamp. These new times called for a new awareness. A backlash against water-guzzling plants like willows and umbrella trees gave way to more sensible natives, and residents began to plant gardens with the same species that had been previously bulldozed away.
The Futuro House was moved to a triangular piece of parkland on the corner of Karel Avenue and Leach Highway. Looking a bit worse for wear, the poly plastic outer coating had lost its marvellous white sheen and was now a dirty, pocked cream. All the furnishings had been stripped away except for the built-in settee mouldings. It looked as forlorn as my naked barbie dolls with the missing limbs and choppy hair. Futuro served no purpose except becoming an important landmark for visitors as they negotiated our southern river suburb. Turn right at the spaceship, newbies were told, and a new generation of youngsters got to be thrilled by the spaceship once again.
Dad got a promotion at the university and, before we knew it, Mum was researching house and land packages in the next subdivision further south. We bought a block of land in Bateman, and watched as the bush was cleared to a dry, lifeless grey. The concrete slab was so small it was difficult to imagine it containing our entire family. When walls gradually went up, the space closed in further and mum realised with dismay that the “galley” kitchen was indeed a ship’s galley. The progress was followed each week, when we inspected it with our parents, a form of engineered bonding. I don’t remember much of this time: just my brother looking into the unplumbed toilet at the giant turd stranded on the bowl and saying, At least the workers are doing a good job.
This new house was also two-storey, but with bigger and grander living spaces. There was a formal lounge and dining room, a family room, and a games room with a built-in bar. This room had wooden floors so that we wouldn’t jar our shins when we danced to CDs. There was also a ballet barre on the wall in front of a full-length mirror, so we could practise our perfect pliés. In order to furnish the house, Dad consulted the in-house designer from a Jarrah-specialist store—Hans, a sartorially elegant Dutch immigrant. Unfortunately, Dad kept calling him Hank, and so Hans/Hank wreaked his revenge by advising on furry dining chairs and Hagrid-sized hairy settees in the family room, which soon became a diorama for falling bits of toast and dander like those fuzzy felt boards at Sunday school. (And years later I was to discover that my hand-me-down jarrah coffee table was in fact chipboard disguised with a thin wood veneer.)
It was in this house that we stopped being a family; within a year of moving in, my brother left home for good, and then two years later I departed overseas for a student exchange. When I returned to Australia my sister had acquired a whole new set of friends and my parent’s social life was crazier, busier. Many a weekend it was just me in the games room, staring at myself in the full-length mirror. During my university years I ricocheted back and forth from this house, pulling away for freedom, then coming back to be fed. My sister moved out permanently and for a good period I was an only child. And then my father got a new job at a different university and the house was packed up and sold off, and he and Mum moved north to Darwin.
That first Christmas, all the kids were sent airfares to visit our parents in their new city, a way to bring together this scattered family for I was living in Alice Springs, my sister in London and brother in Perth. Mum was radiant as she showed us through their new home, a house more like a colonial manor in the American Deep South, surrounded by coconut palms with a huge lagoon swimming pool and cabana. The living room floors were white marble, and the latticed shutters, real. The furniture was all brand new: expensive leather sofas, a black Bernstein piano and colourful modern art gracing the walls. When I saw the fluffy towels and hotel-sized soaps placed on the end of our beds, I wanted to cry. We were now officially deemed guests.
Three years later Mum died in that grand house, and somehow it helped to know that her final breath was exhaled in her dream home. A couple of days before she died, I sat in her bedroom and watched a spider’s sac burst open and thousands of little spiders exploded in a cloud, scattering so fast I wondered if I had simply imagined it. I knew it was symbolic—about what, I’m not exactly sure. Something about timing, being in the right place to witness the passage and purpose of life.
The Futuro House was eventually removed from the Leach Highway site. Too many teenagers were smashing the windows, breaking in and urinating on the moulded settee. When researching the Futuro House I discovered that only 100 of them were ever constructed (the oil crisis of the 1970s made them too expensive to manufacture) though now they are considered an architectural treasure, a valuable collectors’ item. Models 001 and 002 can be found in design museums in Finland and Rotterdam; others are scattered around the world and used as ski homes or as annexe accommodation. But many have been lost over time, meeting terrible, unholy fates. In America one was demolished for a highway extension, another shot up in a drive-by shooting. The Darwin Futuro blew away during Cyclone Tracy in 1975.
And what of the Willetton Futuro? According to a Facebook site it now lies in pieces in the bushland backyard of a man in High Wycombe, a suburb north-east of Willetton. His father had acquired it years ago with the intention of restoring it to its former glory but died before he had a chance to accomplish this goal. The photos show the house in ruins; the pieces of round panels broken apart yet still recognisable as a space ship, an alien wreckage fallen from the sky. And those familiar porthole windows are like eyes watching themselves being eaten alive by the encroaching bush. This Facebook page is called Save the Willetton Spaceship. Many people have signed up in the hope that the Futuro House will be resurrected and brought back one day to the same site on Leach Highway. All the followers lay claim to its importance to their childhoods and how much they loved that house. I find it surprising that others’ childhoods are linked to mine, but instead of being reassured I feel unsettled, as if the legitimacy and uniqueness of my own memory has been hijacked. I feel no need to bring the Futuro back; it belongs in the past. It would be far better to start a Facebook page to bring my mother back instead.
Bindy Pritchard is a Perth-based writer, whose short fiction appears in various anthologies and literary journals such as Westerly, Kill Your Darlings and Review of Australian Fiction. Bindy has a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing from Curtin University. Fabulous Lives is her debut short story collection.