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Red Comb House 1982, Photo: Bryan Spencer

Shadows and Light

By Bryan Spencer

I’m not sure exactly when I these took photos of Red Comb House … sometime in 1982 or 1983? From a shot taken on the rooftop, the SGIO clock in the distance, past the old police headquarters in Makerston Street, reads 2:25. The sky looks cloudless and clear. Perhaps it was on a couple of those winter afternoons in Brisbane when the subtropical sun still has enough bite to warm you to a sweat?


Sunlight, or rather the lack of it, was one of the things that attracted me to Red Comb House. Often the sunlight in Brisbane is harsh and shadows are shallow. The opposite was the case in Red Comb House. Massive rooms and open spaces were filled with deep dark shadows and sunlight was a temporary visitor, straining to enter the building through broken windows and poorly barricaded doorways.


The mix of shadows and light proved to be an irresistible subject.

Spiral metal slides that once transported sacks of feed from the silos above to waiting trucks below were now the main attractions in what could have been a post-apocalyptic theme park. Offices, not unlike the ones I had worked in, were now empty and still. Machines, seized and silent. Electrical components, corroded and cold.


Red Comb House gave us spaces to explore. I recall feeling a little bit like a child. As if the rules of the grown up world stopped at the doors on Roma Street.


As you know, pictures speak a thousand words. You would also know that a photo will rarely give you the whole story. This is particularly true of these pictures of Red Comb House. Looking at them now you could be forgiven for thinking that the place was devoid of life, when in fact it was teeming with it. Whether it was the pigeons roosting high in the silos, or the near to wild cats and their kittens roaming the rooftop, or the artists and musicians labouring and creating in the lower floors, every inch of the place was of use to someone or something. Red Comb House wasn’t abandoned or derelict, it just wasn’t being used in the manner originally intended.


It was sad when it was demolished. At the time it felt like the state was hell bent on erasing the old Brisbane and turning a quick buck. Building after building had gone before it and Red Comb House was just another victim of what seemed to be unbridled development. And while I think we were poorer without the spaces it provided, I know it could never have stayed that way. In some respects I think it would have been worse if had been turned into apartments or offices. Best that it did not become a facade with its essence ripped out.


Time goes slow when you’re young. At that age, I would have normally considered relatively short periods of time to be eternities. However when it came to Red Comb House I knew its days were numbered and felt a sense of urgency to preserve some of its spaces before the bulldozers arrived. So for a couple of afternoons in 1982 or 1983, I prowled the floors that once bustled with activity and noise, capturing the shadows and light.


Bryan Spencer
8 February 2016


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