Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Living
FOUR SHORE VISIONS
HOUSE design in Australia, in accordance with the disparate and fiercely individualist nature of its society, has long been recognised as the country’s prime architectural strength.
The four houses shown here exemplify that strength. All four occupy and take advantage of dramatic sea-edge sites; deliberately maximising a sense of intimacy with nature while minimising awareness of the human, “artificial”world around. This too reflects current social obsessions – however illusory those obsessions may be in so overwhelmingly, voluntarily urban a population. What, though, constitutes a “good house”? And who should judge?
For, in architecture, unlike the fine arts, aesthetics are not everything. Architecture has a structural, financial and social job to do as well. And while the often patronisingly low-brow populism of recent post-Modern years has been largely destructive for architecture, it is nevertheless, a crucial part of the profession’s job to satisfy – ideally, delight – its clientele. This is something which, while usually obvious to the client, constitutes something of a dilemma for the profession.
In architecture, the client (being both holder of the purse strings and tester of the wares) must, in the end, be right. This unarguable dependency puts the architect in a hopelessly weak position. But architecture is about conflict – the resolution of conflict – and a good architect can turn that weakness into a major virtue, both morally and aesthetically. This is the real test of architectural skill.
Nowhere is the dilemma more acute than in the domestic field, which engages the client’s heart, self-image and even marriage, as well as his (or her)purse.
This year’s Royal Australian Institute of Architects awards will be assessed by a panel of judges, both lay and architectural, whose chairman, Harry Seidler, is at pains to warn against “the fashion of pastiche, superficial imitation of the past, and the infection of the overseas magazines, especially from America”. It is worth noting that the four houses shown here exhibit an idiomatic similarity. This may be a response to their remarkably similar locations, but it stands in contrast to the lurid gimcrackery that still, years after post-Modernism began its tatty decline in Europe, typifies Australian architecture in urbs and suburb alike.
The award winners will be announced at the end of the month (see report below). Here, in the meantime, we invite the reader, as client, to choose from a short list of four of this year’s entries – selecting not just on aesthetic appeal but, measuring the built reality against both what the client wanted and the architect’s intentions, trying instead to judge the best, most pleasurably operative, most livable, most (in the jargon) “life-enhancing”house.
GREENWICH: Crawford/Howard Partners.
The site is magnificent: a long narrow strip of the Greenwich peninsula, terracing down towards expansive river and harbour views in the north-west. Street access is from the south-east, and it was decided to capitalise on both access and views by building on the uppermost plateau, preserving the natural rock faces of the lower part of the site.
This meant that the buildable area was limited, that a mandatory height limit of eight metres, became critical, and that privacy and noise control were of paramount importance. These three constraints in turn resulted in a stepped and layered construction, its roof-forms curved to the contours of the site, with three solid masonry walls and an almost total glazing to the view.
With so much glass facing the sun, the application of solar design principles, both active and passive, also became crucial; electric venetian and sailcloth blinds and shadecloth-covered pergolas protect the western glass from fierce summer sun, while the stack effect, bringing cool air in through the basement and exhausting hot air through rotary roof vents and high level louvres, maintains summer air movement. In winter, all blinds and venetians can be retracted to allow the sun to penetrate deep into the interior of the house, warming the concrete floors.
The architect and owner shared a common aim to “create a clean, uncluttered interior, using site and views as principle elements of decoration”. The use of terracotta floor tiles where possible was also part of the brief.
The result is a house on three levels. The ground floor extends to the cliff edge, with the middle slab cantilevered over it on four slender steel columns. Structurally, the house is something of a hybrid; load bearing masonry for the most part, dissolving into a lightweight steel-and-glass”cage”, which directs the house’s large central space towards sun and view.
Single but complex, this main space embraces dining, living, kitchen and family areas in an easy, airy elegance. It is the house’s magic moment, its primary raison d’etre. This is a crusty house with a soft centre; is its central magic sufficient to justify the rather ungainly dourness of the exterior? Or, on the contrary, do outside and inside heighten each other by contrast?
Does the architect succeed in his stated aim to manipulate light and shade, changing vistas and “elements of surprise” in order “to enrich life within this house”, rescuing “what could easily have become a sterile interior” from the possibility of
boredom? And, bearing in mind that each corner costs the client money, is the comparative complexity of the plan compensated for by consequent enrichment of the interior? To what extent is this, as both architect and client intended, a “house to live in, not just look at”?
BALGOWLAH: By Michael Hesse and Associates.
Perched on its own cliff-top site, with splendid ocean views to the east, this house is surrounded by suburbia on its other three sides – and, accordingly, does its darnedest to ignore the fact. The site was a solid rock shelf, wholly exposed to prevailing summer north-easterlies which seriously threatened the coveted outdoor lifestyle, and with an underground sewer, to which access had to be maintained, running diagonally across the site.
The clients were immensely helpful, supplying their architect with a 40-page brief which stressed the importance of views, privacy, uncluttered minimalism in the interiors and a choice of informal and formal (but small and flexible) living areas.
The resulting house is T-shaped in plan, and zoned into separate areas for formal living, informal living, sleeping and studying. Its long (east-west)arm is two-storeyed (bedrooms above), with structural brick side walls and timber suspended floor. Otherwise the structure is single-storeyed; primarily steel framed with concrete floors. Structural brickwork is painted blue-grey on the outside, while non-structural masonry is clad in ceramic tiling; blue-grey, grey-green and white – “sea and bush colours” – in homage to an only partly mythical landscape surrounding.
The same tiles grace the narrow internal “court” which gives side light(through glass blocks) to the dining room, while allowing potential access to the existing site sewer. This curiously successful indoor/outdoor space is perhaps the most ingenious part of the plan; and here the use of interior tiles – same tiles, and same colours, as in the bathroom – seems appropriate. Externally, however, as along the poolside veranda, it imparts an oddly indeterminate feel.
There is a suggestion, too, of some idiomatic confusion. The house is clearly style-conscious, but is it an exercise in the cool nautical feel (as suggested, for example, by the white pipe balusters), in 1930s urban moderne(the venetians, the external tiles, the glass blocks), in early indigenous nuts-and-berries (the timber decking and pergolas) or in 1970s NSW post-Modern(the curved corrugated steel roofs and window heads)? And is style really the issue, anyway – or are there more important issues at stake here?
The most comfortable room in the house is the family room, sun-bathed and looking north and east over pool and harbour. In here, of course, one is protected from the winds – but how important is it that the pool area and main outdoor living space remains wholly at the mercy of that insistent summer north-easter? How well are those formal living spaces, either side of the main entrance, likely to work? Or are they too stiff, too small to be useful? How far does the style detract from its livability?
BOOMERANG BEACH: By Architects Snell.
A beach house in all senses of the word, the building sits on a sand dune in far northern NSW, facing the Pacific Ocean but also on a main road, next to a car park. Its primary design concerns were to welcome both the sight and sound of the sea, while keeping traffic noise at bay. The architect’s further intention was to make a house that would meld into its environment – hence the neutral, sandy colours and “soft” curved shapes – and to “resist taking suburbia to the beach”. It should, says the architect, be manifestly “good fun”.
Formally, therefore, the house consists of a collection of articulated parts – intended to represent “two classic beach change rooms” (bedrooms 2 and 3), placed symmetrically either side of the plan, with “a canvas tent curved to them”. The “canvas tent” – in fact, like the rest of the house, weatherboard on timber framing – embraces the rest of the house; a double garage on the road side of the house, and the partly two-storeyed living areas to the sea side (east). The whole, perched on its moving dune (stabilised by seaside shrubbery), has a simple metal roof (to take the curvature) and rests on standard mass-concrete footings.
There are design conflicts, some self-imposed, such as that between the stated aim to resist suburbia and the conscious choice of characteristically suburban materials, and some inherent in-site and brief, such as that between the desire to close off the noisy, man-made world, and the need, in any house, to capitalise on northern and western sun, especially in winter.
The question, then, centres on how well the house as built contrives to resolve these conflicts, bringing all into a harmonious livable whole, and to what degree it lives up to the architect’s own stated aims of resisting suburbia and becoming part of the landscape. Does the “tent” read as a tent, for example, from inside or from outside? Or, despite the fashionable curves, as just another suburban house, so defeating its own purpose? How far would the imposed symmetry of the plan actually enhance one’s pleasure in the interior (or exterior) and how far does it merely impose unnecessary rigidity?Does the house really open itself to the sea? To what extent is it in fact”good fun” – and how much does it matter?
PITTWATER: By Lewin Tzannes P/L.
The site is steep, rugged and accessible only by water, with no beach. All materials had to be carried, or hoisted by crane from barges temporarily sunk to sand just off-shore, so it was decided, in this case, to build at the bottom of the site – rendering construction at least possible, if not exactly straightforward.
The brief was very similar to the others – a holiday house for two adults and up to six visiting children (in bunks), maximising views, screening neighbouring houses and providing a basement workshop.
But site conditions were such as to be almost dictatorial. The land was unstable, as well as rocky, so extensive rock-pinning had to be undertaken before work could begin. For ease of erection, the house has a simple bolt-together steel frame, designed to minimise footings and maximise glass areas and pre-treated to reduce the risk of corrosion. As much of the house as possible was prefabricated, in order to keep skilled on-site work to a minimum. External cladding is metal; floors and much of the interior finishing are timber – mainly kauri and silver ash.
The cross-section of the house is stepped to reduce its apparent bulk on the cliff face, and the roofs domed in order to sneak the required mezzanine sleeping platform beneath Warringah Shire Council height limits. In plan, the building is very simple, with a small service area on the back wall of each main level (living and sleeping), a bank of four water tanks (there is no on-site water) at the back and a staircase at the front leading down to the bunk rooms and the sea. Such simplicity is deceptive. It looks easy, but in fact is the result of painstaking and disciplined design. How far does discipline of this kind reduce either comfort levels (bringing excessive austerity) or aesthetic interest, resulting in visual boredom? Or is it the case that simplicity itself – that glassy transparency, so fragile in such a rugged spot – in fact heightens the romantic charm of house and site alike?
Architecturally, a good part of the charm of such a house is the intellectual appeal of an elegant solution to a sticky problem; a single, simple structural system and a restricted palette of colours, shapes and materials. How far is this fairly abstract quality important – or even perceptible – to anyone actually living there?
Seven Illus: Nominations clockwise from top left: Boomerang Beach, by Architects Snell, picture by Paul Foley; Pittwater, by Alexander Tzannes, picture Peter Hyatt; Greenwich, by Crawford/Howard Partners, picture Michael Nicholson; Balgowlah, by
Michael Hesse and Associates, picture Michael Nicholson.
Various shots of the interiors of the houses.
Four Diagrams: Floor plans of the four houses