3 August 2017

The Art of Selling Houses

An on-going artwork by John Radford has evolved into a wonderful and somewhat unintentional parody on the Auckland real estate market.


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Most of you will know John Radford’s work – well at least his most famous one. He’s the artist responsible for the three sunken buildings whose parapets pop out of the ground at the top of Western Park. Collectively, they are called TIP, and refers to a loss of our past via the wholesale demolition of parts of Auckland City, dumped in countless, nameless landfills.

One of Radford’s more recent works is Graft©, and it too laments the loss of the city’s architectural and cultural history. Graft began life as a reaction to the decimation of much of Auckland’s inner city suburbs, when Spaghetti Junction and its associated motorways ploughed their way through the city’s landscape, destroying thousands of homes.

“It all started back in 2009 when I had an epiphany after walking across the bus-stop bridge on K Rd and looking down at the massive concrete walls that go down to the motorway,”

“I then went into the city archives – where you can time travel around Auckland looking at photos that go way back – and holy crap, I found this aerial photo that showed that not only was there no bridge there, there was no gap there either – it was a solid ridge. Not only that, there were 14,000 inner-city houses that are now all gone.”

K-Road, back in those days, was the place to go to at the weekend, with streams of trams coming up Queen Street, and crowds travelling in from far and wide to enjoy the bustle of Auckland’s busiest shopping street, with its many department stores and coffee shops.

“I wanted to try to express that loss in some way,” continues Radford. “So I came up the concept of suspending 256 individual, miniature houses that would come together to form part of an virtual neighbourhood. I conceptualised two chunks of imagined suburban oblivion, stitched roughly together from memories I had from walking around the streets of towns and cities around New Zealand.”

Radford’s original plan was to make the artwork in its entirety, tour it around the country, then bring it back and get a real estate auctioneer to sell off the houses.

“I was telling this to a friend of mine, Jackie O’Brien, and she said, ‘lovely idea, John, but that’s a lot of work to do without any guarantee of sales. Have you thought about selling them off the plan?’ With that, she wrote out a cheque out and said, ‘here’s your first sale’.”

That was in 2009. Fast forward to 2017, and Radford has now sold 211 of the 256 houses, meaning there are just 45 left. Over the past eight years, house values in the Graft neighbourhood have skyrocketed, with prices now starting in the mid $2,000’s, and homes coming back onto the market and re-selling for many times more than their owners originally paid for them.

There are four styles of house available, with each having its own address on an interactive site plan. This plan indicates which sections are still for sale and who owns every house that’s been sold. The price of each house depends on its style, the street it’s located in, and how high up the slope it’s situated. Every new owner is issued with a purchase agreement, guaranteeing ownership of their house and section. It’s just like buying a real house in a real community.

Taking the concept of community further, Graft has so far had four street parties. The first was in 2010 in the construction site of the Q Theatre; the second and third in 2011 and 2013, in the Ironbank Building on K-Rd, and the last at the Gundy Street Old Folks Association Hall in 2014.

At these parties, all the houses that have been completed are suspended in a wonderful formation that exactly mimics how they would appear in the streets of Radford’s imagination. Owners are invited to come along and meet their neighbours, bring a plate and a bottle, and get to know each other, thus creating a new community of owners in this virtual suburb of Graft.

Once the final 45 houses have been sold, Radford plans to take Graft on a nationwide tour of public art galleries, before disassembling the suburb and returning each house to its owner – but not before throwing a final street party.

Radford’s artwork is wonderfully surreal and has literally taken on a life of it’s own, bringing to mind the words of Oscar Wilde when he wrote ‘life imitates art far more than art imitates life’. And that’s certainly the case with Graft.

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