Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Reinventing the Terrace
E. M. Farrelly
HERE’S something to sing about. Signs, at last, that Sydney is rethinking the terrace house.
Terrifically turn-of-the century pc (beat-the-sprawl) as well as persistently desirable, this once-cheap form of mass housing now appeals magnetically, even especially, to the half-million-plus set. It’s ironic, but explicable. Pieds a’ terre are very convenient.
Lawns one can live without, privacy is often improved. Surviving with only one BMW and no parking to speak of has proved a learnable skill. But there is that one little thing. In this brilliant, dampish clime of ours, the terrace has always suffered from gloom and a marked tendency to water retention, thus limiting its appeal to the hedonists in the team.
Now, however, a new set of five terrace houses, designed by the architect Richard Huxley on the front edge of Paddington, suggests that the terrace form may be starting to lighten up a little.
Not before time.
When Herr Doktor Professor Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and grand vizier of modern design, visited Sydney in 1954, he upset the natives somewhat by heaping praise on the traditional Sydney terrace.
Sydney was caught mid-leap into modernism. Just as we were preparing joyously to erase great swathes of Paddington, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Woolloomooloo and Glebe, and other slum areas including The Rocks, here was the founder of the Bauhaus, for pity’s sake, calling our terraces “graceful” and exhorting us not only to conserve but to build more like them.
In 1957, Professor Leslie Wilkinson, much revered, made a similar public declaration, extolling the terrace house as “the answer to Sydney’s uneconomic sprawl”.
Even so, it was another 15 years before Sydney terraces could sleep safely abed, and 30 years before any serious attempt was made even to emulate – much less rethink – same.
The 1970s produced occasional infill jobs, less than reliably simpatico in context but good material even now for spot-the-architect enthusiasts. Alec Tzannes’s series of Paddington refurbs through the 1980s played inventively with the idea of light-flooded austerity, and Glenn Murcutt’s reworking of the Magney house in the early ’90s showed just how far towards radical chic the heritage idea can be stretched.
But these were specials, one-offs. Terrace housing at the developer end of the market was strictly imagination-free. Grim without, grimmer within.
To you and me, this may be just another depressing blow for mass mediocrity. But to an enterprising mind it constitutes a hole in the market: a hole aching to be filled. Young developer Ash Samadi set about producing up-market, off-the-peg terrace housing for empty-nesters (who still have a big enough egg) and not-so-young-yuppies who are unequal to the DIY ordeal.
On a site that would have tempted most developers to at least a dozen units, Samadi chose to build five simple terraces: simple forms, grand scale.
Samadi’s architect, Richard Huxley, is also young (“young” in architecture euphemises the under 40) although from the houses alone one would guess otherwise. The south-facing clerestory roofs imply a modernist training situated well back in the ’70s, while the detailed planning and spatial manipulation bring a combination of panache and plain old thoughtfulness that is rare at any age.
Queried on this, Huxley proffers his desire to make a subtle response – a “flickering of the candle,” no more – to the ’70s feel of the area, which offers some handsome nuts-and-berries numbers (clinker brick, stained timber, monopitch roofs) as well
as Ros Oxley’s splendid saw-toothed gallery roof next door.
Huxley was also conscious, however, of the importance of introducing a sense of airiness, as well as light, if the terrace form was ever to make it in the cappuccino stakes. His answer was simple and profoundly effective.
By elevating the ground floor a half-level above the street, Huxley was able to establish a split-level living space which runs the full length of each house and which, for two-thirds of that length, boasts a full 4-metre ceiling height – compared with the standard 2.4m developer’s ceiling.
With timber floors throughout, flank walls as perfect planes front to back, big sliding bi-folds opening to substantial courtyard at rear and balcony over the street, the space does a convincing impression of serious urban hauteur.
A top-lit steel and timber open-tread stair perpetuates this sense of luxurious continuity in the vertical dimension, to a bedroom level fully equipped with ensuites and balconies and drenched in creamy southfacing clerestory light.
It’s not as if at 5.5 metres they’re exactly excessively wide. But in practical planning terms the houses are full of other, smaller answers to the standard deprivations of terrace living. A big double garage is a predictable luxury, but a big laundry (so there’s “a place to do the ironing or to put the ice for a party” says Huxley) is special in a house-type accustomed to the fully-plumbed-and-automated cupboard, as is the use of leftover nooks as storage for the Weber and the potting mix. There’s even a civilised home for the garbage.
One device is used especially adroitly to sustain what critic Charles Jencks might have called “multi-valent meaning”. This is the hollow, splayed fin which separates each house, and which not only ensures balcony-to-balcony privacy, but offers discreet outdoor storage on three levels, front and back and, quite as importantly, defines the street line in a way which defends the living spaces from public exposure.
For all the exultant interior, the street presence of the houses is urbane in the extreme. Deep colours can be killers, as the city’s Observatory Tower has shown, but here the deep stilton-mould blue of the facade, enriched by the oregon joinery, flying roof forms and the sheer transparency of the whole is – no, really – inspired.
True, the end terrace, rather larger than the rest, is probably overlit and under-disciplined, in compositional terms. But this is detail, strictly first-novel stuff.
Of vastly greater significance is the fact that here, at last, is a terrace house which does as much for the spirit as for the environment, the city and the street.
Correction and apology: January 7’s column mis-attributed the Fisher Library at Sydney University, which was in fact designed jointly by the Government Architect E. H. Farmer (Ken Woolley) and T. E. (Tom) O’Mahoney.
Two illus: Richard Huxley’s light and airy terraces … simple forms on a grand scale, doing as much for the spirit as for the street.
Photographs by GEORGE FETTING