Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
High society where regal eagles nest
ARCHITECTURE Two designs play with the house as toy
E M Farrelly
FROM cubby to Camelot, there is something romantic about houses. French writer Gaston Bachelard poeticises this fantasy as some sort of primal/existential bird-envy.
Two recent tall thin houses, designed by Tim Allison and Peter Stronach in Point Piper, and by Richard Fiala with Femke Rensen in York Street, 2000, exploit exactly this sense of eyrie. Both sit huggermugger, in fact, with ordinary street neighbours; but each feels like an eagle’s nest, from which to spy unperturbed on the busy world below.
Each house has a plan many times longer than its width and an elevation of similarly attenuated proportions. But where the Point Piper house commands one of Sydney’s quintessential, icon-studded harbour views, Fiala’s York Street apartment looks straight at the copper domes and cupolas of the QVB.
This surreal and neverintended intimacy enhances a sense of (oh, so elegantly) breaking the rules, including the law-of-nature that binds the haves to Bellevue Hill.
The apartment perches atop a five-storey, turn-of-thecentury sandstone warehouse; a honey of a building, but so slender your normal developer would throw it back unblinking. Any investment in a building 90 years old and less than four metres wide is over-investment, unless it’s personal.
That the right persons, with the right pocket book, happened on this particular building in time is serendipitous – for the city, as well as the building. This way we get a tiny urban palace, instead of another handwringing demolition or, worse, desecration, such as that next door.
Attesting to this rather longer-than-normal timeframe are the ground-level shops, empty by choice, as the family waits for the right tenant. Next up are three levels of office space, with the apartment – really a two-storey terrace house – on top again, in what used to be the roof space. From here, the breakfast terrace, snuggled in behind the prettily curved stone pediment, basks in proximity to the great royal roof.
The best architecture, as with any performing art, looks easy. Young designers in particular (in a profession where under 50 is “young”) are apt to ignore this old lore in a frenzy of attention-seeking pyrotechnics, but Fiala has sidestepped such temptations.
He was blessed, of course, with clients who would support small indulgences; slender steel windows rather than klutzy aluminium, sheet-copper cladding for the service niches, solid timber for the stairs, and stone (albeit the reconstituted stuff – which after all much of Georgian London was made of), rather than brick or concrete or something worse, for the columns and balconies.
But there is, for all that, no sense of ostentation. Indeed, Fiala’s primary skill has been one of discipline, fighting tooth and claw for absolute simplicity of appearance. In this way, he has maximised the sense of space and light and made a virtue of constraints – including stringent fire-limits on window size – to impart a real sense of privilege, of having nested way up there.
The Point Piper house, which Stronach describes as the “most satisfying of my career”, is no less disciplined. Here, though, the view, far from lying in wait at one end, has become the dominant ordering device for the entire plan.
The site was no gift – seven metres wide and 150 metres long, sloping to the south-west. What it did have, though, was what that side of Sydney knows as a view to die for. Sea, sea, bays, inlets, Opera House, bridge, islands and more sea. In that order.
The clients had lived on the site for 20 years in a “sub-ordinary” terrace, before being driven to seek professional help for the Sydney terrace-dwellers’ affliction, acute light-craving. They wanted the view. They craved the light; the fact that one came from the north and the other from the south-west established the defining tension for the project.
Structural gymnastics resulted, but Stronach, like Fiala, keeps all complications politely hidden in the interests of spatial serenity. Most terraces organise in lateral cells; this house, by contrast, is splintered length-wise by the view, which glitters into all but two of its nine handsome rooms.
A long, double-height sea-green wall leads from street door to horizon. This wall, although coloured for ebb and flow, is the still element, fixing the house along its southern boundary. Using a fashionable mannerism to extraordinary effect, Stronach has tilted the rest of the plan away from this wall, inviting shards of view deep into unexpected recesses.
Everything emphasises length. The stair, too, runs length-wise, feeding the main bedroom wing, where ensuite and dressing room have been ingeniously organised astride a central, fattened wall in which plumbing and storage are embedded; the whole being separable from the world by means of a huge solid door which glides velvetly, not sideways, but back and forth.
The roof too splits length-wise, so that the living spaces – strongly reminiscent of Murcutt’s second Magney house, and, in parts, of Frank Lloyd Wright – fill with northern light. Excessive light is filtered through custom-made ricepaper-laminated glass. And if the shading is still inadequate, there are eight air-conditioning zones, each individually programmable by a call from your mobile phone.
This house-as-toy phenomenon resurfaces in the bedroom balcony which, immersed in view, has a balustrade of clear glass, topped by solid, wind-and-light-operated louvres. Even with the louvres open, this gives a version of that soseductive idea, the great Australian “outdoor room” that is uncomfortably more solid above the waist than below.
But balconies aside, this inventive house contrives to shine a million-dollar view on some of the humblest life functions with a combination of comfort and elan that is extraordinary.
Three illus: The York Street house (top and far right) and the view from the Point Piper house (right) … comfort, elan.
Photographs (top and far right) by TREND PUBLISHING LTD, (right) by SAHLAN HAYES.