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Book of the Week: Selected by Britland Tracy

Book Review My Dreamhouse is not a House Photographs by Julia Gaisbacher Reviewed by Britland Tracy “If you listen closely to almost any human being who has recently acquired a dreamhouse, certain noises will emerge once the welcoming dog-and-pony show comes to a close and the cheese plates disappear..."

My Dreamhouse is not a House by Julia Gaisbacher.
My Dreamhouse is not a House
Photographs by Julia Gaisbacher
The Velvet Cell, Berlin, 2023. 160 pp., 8¼x11".

If you listen closely to almost any human being who has recently acquired a dreamhouse, certain noises will emerge once the welcoming dog-and-pony show comes to a close and the cheese plates disappear. The living room will be perfect once we repaint that accent wall. The kitchen just needs a new backsplash. The condo board won’t allow radiant heating in the bathroom floors. The builders really cut some corners with the tile caulking.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of delight in the perpetual dissatisfaction, providing both dinner party fodder and an existential tooth to wiggle like a hobby. As Frasier declares in that one episode where he and Niles return from a French restaurant probably complaining about the cognac (to be clear, this is every Frasier episode): “What is the one thing better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.” Either way, a dreamhouse is often a lifehack to ensure that something is forever not quite right.

These are monied complaints, of course. Enough to buy or build the place; not enough to demo the whole thing to the ground and start over. What you don’t often hear amongst these homeowners are statements like: “I shared a bedroom with my mother before moving into this house”, or, “I knew I wanted a bathroom because I’d never had one before”, or, “It’s going to take me eighteen years to replace this cabinet.” Dreamhouse problems, after all, are still designed for people who can afford to dream.

Yet these are the paraphrased sentiments encountered between images in Julia Gaisbacher’s My Dreamhouse is not a House, a photographic compendium of the Gerlitzgründe, the renowned architect Eilfried Huth’s radically experimental social housing project constructed in Graz, Austria, between 1976 and 1984. Government subsidized housing was not the novel idea in this time and place, but rather the participatory nature of the project with its prospective residents. Huth consulted each family on the design of their future home, from drawing up blueprints to breaking ground to installing the flooring. Hands-on involvement in building these structures was optional and offered as a means for inclusive ownership, instead of alienated labor. He defined a dreamhouse as “daydreams, places, spaces, landscapes, where experiences fleetingly encounter desires”, and believed that “human existence in the house is what matters, the house is just a shell” –- an architectural philosophy much more aligned with Gaston Bachelard than HGTV.

To peruse this book is to oscillate between two books, or rather, to take a leisurely stroll through a present-day neighborhood of charming pastel façades before being invited inside for a private tour down memory lane and a meet-and-greet with the neighbors from yesteryear. My Dreamhouse is indeed not a house, but a double-decker sandwich of imagery and text: three parts architecture, two parts archival photographs punctuated by first-person memories transcribed from a resident with a story to tell. Gaisbacher sequences her own deadpan photographs of each home’s exterior into an accordion layout bound at the seam, which smartly incentivizes the page turn, as a hexagonal robin’s egg roof picks up where a canary yellow porch leaves off, and lavender fades to sage, to apricot, to mint, to slate, to crimson, to midnight blue. No wonder this community was maligned as a ‘parrot settlement’ by its joyless onlookers who had yet to revive their achromatic souls.

Gaisbacher interrupts the lustrous color feast with black-and-white archival snapshots of the Gerlitzgründe and its interiors, printed on a rougher matte paper reminiscent of newsprint. She includes interview excerpts of one anonymous resident, whose anecdotes confirm that this communal endeavor was by no means a frictionless utopia. There were still cheaply made windows and neighbors who ran up the shared gas bill and mobility issues ameliorated with stairlifts in life’s later years. There were also pig roast potlucks and flea markets and children and couples dancing to live bands, whose photographic evidence features a lead singer whipping off his shoes and tie mid-performance.

There is a warmth in the cadence of these pages that belies the matter-of-factness in their compositions and chronologies, all of which seem to say: herein lies the minutiae and transcendence of a life shared with others; the human experience around which the shell is built. This book, much like Huth’s dreamhouse, is a meditation on one neighborhood’s legacy of community, on creative collaboration, on giving someone something to own, and watching them polish it.

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Britland Tracy is an artist and educator from the Pacific Northwest whose work engages photography, text, and ephemera to observe the intricacies of human connection and discord. She has published two books, Show Me Yours and Pardon My Creep, and exhibited her work internationally. She holds a BA in French from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Colorado, where she continues to teach remotely for the Department of Critical Media Practices while living in Marfa, Texas.