In the early 1990s, Corbett and Yueji Lyon started collecting works by a select group of Australian contemporary artists. Faced with a burgeoning accumulation, they conceived the Housemuseum to both showcase and live with their art. Corbett, one of Melbourne’s preeminent architects, designed the building, perhaps the world’s first purpose-built mixed residential-gallery space of its type.
The not-quite-private home’s exterior is quite forbidding—hard and angular, its dark gray zinc-metal surface is punctuated with long horizontal slit windows. The building asserts a guarded relationship with the street, sitting like a parapet of faux industrialism among the generous Victorian and Edwardian stylings of the surrounding leafy, well-heeled neighborhood.
The interior, however, has none of the facade’s austerity. It’s warm and inviting, with polished-concrete floors and blond-wood surfaces and cabinetry, all bathed in natural light. The design maximizes long, flat walls and open floors to allow for the shifting large-scale artworks. It takes a moment to notice that the house has almost no decorative features at all: no curlicues, no ornamentation. The light fixtures are subtle, the window frames and door handles minimalist. The family’s art collection stands out in stark relief against the blankness.
The gallery effect is methodical, with the interior oriented just-so in order to build alternative perspectives on the largest works. An open-sided second-story corridor serves as a gallery oriented around a double-height white cube; a window in the upstairs library frames the view to Howard Arkley’s monumental 17-panel Fabricated Rooms, making it look as though it is rendered flat against a video screen. Visitors can see the family’s artworks up close and again from a distance through the apertures and convolutions of the layout.
The success of the Housemuseum lies in the fact that rather than being a wholly public space colonized by a family of four, their lives unmasked and writ large, it is, in reality, a private space that’s periodically opened to the public by appointment. Corbett explains that the building is actually easy to live in since everything is designed with a variety of purposes in mind, including panels that support hanging artwork but that also open for storage. “When we first moved in, we felt a bit like we were on display, but three years on, we’re quite used to it,” he says. “We enjoy watching people move through the building—they become part of the exhibition.” Despite his assurances that there does exist some mess (behind the cupboards at least), a recent visit revealed no stray newspapers or coffee cups, no pairs of cast-off socks in a corner. In fact, much of the property, inside and out, is preserved as pristine, its over- riding aesthetic the opposite of languid and lived-in.
The bedrooms, bathrooms, laundry, and Yueji’s office are off-limits to the public, a fact that invites a few voyeuristic craned glances through the doorways and internal windows along the corridors. However, the family’s music room, video room, and library are open to visitors, as are the (spotless) open-plan kitchen and the main living area (cohab- ited by Patricia Piccinini’s pink and blue Truck Babies). A shopping list on a wall-mounted whiteboard, hung in the kitchen along with preschool-era paintings by the now-teenage daughters, provides a hint of quotidian insight into the Lyons’ family life. That private “Aha!” moment is, one senses, part of the program.
It’s tempting to think of this as a kind of subtle performance art, like people who live in storefront window displays. But despite the open doors, Yueji and Corbett don’t seem especially comfortable being the subjects of this life-as-art experiment, this theater in the round. They’re forever deflecting the gaze onto the art collection. The works are what matters, and the narrative that the Lyons offer decodes the rhythms, symbols, and subtexts of the artists they’ve coveted, collected, and commissioned over the last 20-plus years.
Rowan has worked on various guides to Australia, the USA and the Caribbean, but mostly specializes as a travel writer in the island states of the South Pacific. He is a long-time contributer to Lonely Planet magazine.