Pink Flat the Door

This piece is an excerpt from Scarfie Flats of Dunedin by Sarah Gallagher with Ian Chapman.

History, Non Fiction, NZ History, Extract, Suitable for Young Adult Readers
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Sarah K Gallagher

Sep 04   ●  15 min read   ● 

It was a pretty chill place to live for the first two thirds of the year. It was a place of freedom and acceptance, a place of thinking, talking, cups of tea and big sleep-ins; a bit of drinking truth be told, and a bit of smoking too if we’re being honest. Fundamentally, it was about being free to be who you were.

The house at 3 Clyde Street was a typical Dunedin double bay villa, built around 1895 that stood in lurching distance of The Oriental Tavern (The Ori). The rooms in the flat were filled by an eclectic bunch of guys studying a range subjects: law and engineering, philosophy and education – some of them had met at Unicol or had been in Arana together. There was variety in their temperaments and interests too: Marc was a Boot Boy having a break from study, Swani was a “truth seeker”, Wallace was studying educational psychology, Jac was studying philosophy and Damien was doing law, Barry and Kelvin were passionate musicians. In fact, music was a common interest and many members of the flat played instruments, or were involved in bands. Aside from the usual resident tenants, there were undefined numbers of regular visitors who were also considered part of the flat.

In an interview with Matt Nippert in the Listener, Wallace reflects, “In this flat there’d be one rule: there were none! It was a magpie’s nest, a mishmash of free-thinking young people who got together. It wasn’t a drinking flat, it was a talking flat. Smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, talking all the way through to 5.00am.”

The naming began simply as a way to connect as a flat, to record their identities and what was important to them as a group. Between the individual members the nuances of the meaning behind the name varies. Wallace was taken by the writing of A.S. Neill, author of seminal child development text Summerhill. This inspired his own beliefs in allowing people to be free in their expression, which is detailed in his documentary about 3 Clyde Street, The Freedom Flat (2006).

The documentary tries to unpick how the naming came about. Barry dreamed about naming the flat (though he doesn’t remember this specifically). Piecing together disparate memories: Damien painted the first coat of pink, Wallace painted the bricks, and Swani, who did a bit of graffiti on the side, painted the door and the now famous script, “Pink Flat the Door” in imitation of the iconic typography of Gerald Scarfe. All members of the flat and a few of those regular visitors painted their names on the door. The decorating was completed with details of the year and personal emblems, including a few prophylactic symbols in the form of runes and hieroglyphs to ward off evil.

The symbolism of The Wall went beyond a simple enjoyment of Pink Floyd’s music or the aesthetics of the album cover however. Five of the flatmates were schooled together at Waitaki Boys in Oamaru, described as a fairly conservative place in the 1980s. These were not boys who played rugby, they were musicians and poets, who often found themselves scorned for their writing and artistic pursuits. At times they were on the receiving end of derision and sarcasm, and not only from their fellow students. The lyrics of Pink Floyd were a connection, and after their school experience, The Wall resonated strongly and became a metaphor for their release from that shared experience of toxic masculinity, and represented breaking through to a place of freedom and acceptance. It was a protest against the conformism and stereotypical views at the time of what a kiwi man is and how a kiwi man should behave. Views we still need to change.

So this was the birth of Pink Flat the Door, a door famous in Dunedin which has been used in advertising to convey the spirit of the student experience at the University of Otago. While certainly not the first named flat in Dunedin, it’s surely the only Dunedin student flat to have a documentary made exclusively about it. It’s definitely the only flat door to have work done on it by a professional conservator from Poland, and to also feature in an exhibition at Otago Museum.

Everyone was welcome at Pink Flat. Jac reflects, “One thing I’ll never forget was that the flat was made just as much by the visitors as the flatmates. There were some amazing regulars, who were there so often they might as well have lived there. It was the open door policy that truly brought the place to life (and caused some issues later in the year).” Their proximity to the pub meant sometimes extraordinary things would happen – like the time Headless Chickens turned up at the door after playing at the Ori, and a massive street party resulted.

That last third of the year saw weird similarities with The Wall’s main character, Pink’s experience towards the end of the film, when a “heavy element” entered the flat. An associate of Marc’s moved in with his 2 rottweilers, Gretchen and Berlin. Things got serious. There was an incident involving a firearm, and one day Damien came home to find the kitchen table on fire in the backyard. He also recalls they were raided by the police a couple of times, to no effect, “they would sit in the Ori’ having a beer, watching us out the window.”

A couple of decades later, the door was still there. Owner and landlord, Jo Dippie found she had a legendary flat with real street cred on her hands. Asked to share her perspective about named flats, Jo said, “I think the naming of flats is brilliant. It adds character to the ‘varsity area and (hopefully) makes the students proud of their digs. I have met ex-Dunedin students in spots all around the globe and every one of them has loved their time in Dunedin. Otago University nurtures a strong sense of student pride. I don’t know that any other university town in New Zealand that has achieved that, certainly not to the same extent. I lived in New York City for many years and there some buildings are named. If living in a renowned building it is far more cool, and a source of pride, to simply say the building name rather than recite the street address.”

Jo not only protected the door in the tenancy agreement, but also had the door professionally restored when it had become faded and damaged over time – clearly appreciating its historical importance and the affection it was held in amongst the student community. It was a decade earlier in 1997 or 1998 when Edward Sakowski, a local paintings conservator, received a call about a restoration job. He remembers, “The voice on the phone said, “it’s a door”. I said, “well, I never conserved a door before.” He was told the door was an “iconic image of student culture, and the culture of those people living in the flat.”

When the 2m high door arrived it was in a bad state having been subjected to decades of weather and abuses. The paint had cracked and was lifting due to moisture getting under it and while it was still pink, there was a definite gradient of colour fading where sunlight had reached the door. Edward spent hours filling hundreds of tiny cracks and holes, reinforcing the structure, gluing pieces and waiting, gluing and waiting … then touching up the paintwork. “It really was an agonising experience … I was only sad that they didn’t protect the door or protect my work, saying, “you’re going to waste your money and you’re going to waste my time”.

It was a truly sisyphean task which took months of work and at the end of it, Edward added his name and the date to the bottom right corner of the door, becoming part of the history of the flat. “I did thousands of conservation on paintings but this thing I never forget!”

Ten years later the door was to receive a more invasive makeover. The 2008 reunion marked the twenty year anniversary of the naming of the flat and several of the flatmates got together on site for the weekend after contacting Jo who offered the flatmates the house for free in exchange for repainting the door, “…the door was in poor shape with paint peeling off … So I was delighted when approached about the reunion – and I asked if they could repaint the door.”

A number the flatmates stayed at the flat, stripped the door down and repainted it. John Lewis and Rebecca Fox covered the reunion in a couple of articles in the Otago Daily Times. In Lewis’s article Swani was quoted as stating, “While saving the door was the primary objective … it had been quite cool just hanging out at the flat again. The reunion had drawn only about half a dozen former flatmates but all appreciated the opportunity for quiet reflection about their year in the “institution”.”

Jac and Marc both recall the reunion as being like a timewarp. As soon as they moved back into the flat it was like they’d never left, and as it was in 1988, random people just started turning up and hanging out.

Wallace didn’t stay long at the reunion but wrote about the reunion on his blog at the time. “The door, perhaps controversially was totally stripped and reworked and repainted, so now arguably the Pink Flat door has now gone. But in its place stands a new door in ultra bright fluro-pink with further signatures added …” On the inside of the door can be found Jo Dippie’s name, and that of her dog.

Damien considers the flat created an extended family, the six flatmates and regular visitors were counter to other student subcultures of the time, they didn’t fit with followers of the Dunedin Sound crew, those who indulged in “Dozen Days” drinking binges. They were “seekers” interested in the metaphysical, breaking through barriers and stereotypes of young men in their late teens, breaking down conservative views about what young men should do and be. Living in Pink Flat was like a pendulum swinging in the opposite direction to what they had experienced at school, and having people around on the other side of ‘The Wall’ was important part of getting past that experience and developing into the people they wanted to be.

There’s no doubt that Pink Flat provides one of the longest lasting examples of the community that flatting can create, and the identity that can be forged in the public declaration of intent, so visible in this vibrantly pink door. Thinking back on the impact of the flat on their lives, Swani reflects, “20 years later that flat is still a catalyst for connecting us, and while our lives have changed, the motivations that guided us then still seem to have relevance.”

Hope you enjoyed this preview. Borrow a copy from your nearest library, treat yourself and buy a copy from your local bookshop or gift it to somebody special.