Friday, September 18, 2009


I've been meaning to mention this for a while. More decay and dereliction, this time from wealthy East Hampton. Grey Gardens - a large timber clad mansion - was the subject of a 1970's documentary by Albert and David Maysles, directors of the Stones at Altamont film Gimme Shelter. The film followed the house's staggeringly eccentric owners - a mother and daughter, both called Edith Beales - and the self-induced squalor in which they lived.

The two Ediths (known as "Big Edie" and "Little Edie") let the house and gardens fall into a compellingly abject state of disrepair. Filthy, full to bursting with rubbish and home to semi-tame raccoons, it appeared in the film to be in the advanced stages of being re-claimed by nature. The Edie's themselves spent much of their time in a single room, mostly - in Big Eddie's case - in bed wearing an enormous hat.

Like the Mole Man of Hackney, the house became the subject of local authority inspections, and required extensive repairs and stabilisation. Even more bizarrely the work was paid for by Big Edie's niece Jacqueline Onassis. Little Edie's strangely stylish dress sense and odd terminology ("This is the only outfit for today") turned her into a cult figure, especially for fashion designers such as Mark Jacobs. Rufus Wainwright wrote a song about it and the whole story has recently been made into a film series starring Drew Barrymore.

What's most interesting about Grey Gardens from an architectural perspective is how it represents everything we fear most in buildings: structural instability, dirt, rottenness and the dissolution of boundaries. At Grey Gardens, nature has come creeping in over the threshold - literally in the case of raccoons - and started to overlay the carefully delineated domestic realm. The squalor here may be self-induced but that actually adds to its nightmarish quality. Grey Gardens represents a staple of horror films, the house gone to seed, a source of fear rather than comfort.

There is another more pragmatic sense in which Grey Gardens scares us and that is in the way it negates the literal value placed on houses. The insane speculative value that they generate means that their wilful neglect is an affront, an attack on our duty to carefully manage our assets and investments.

Today Grey Gardens has been restored back to its original luxury.

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