Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Materials of rich, textural diversity were chosen to feather this ingenious home.
YOU can see a house as a machine for living or you can see it as a nest, muses photographer Martin van der Wal. “Personally I think people nest, and the house is what they nest in. For a house to offer a sense of haven it needs an organic, textural quality. It needn’t be furry, but it does need depth; shadow as well as light, tonal range. Same as a photograph.”
When van der Wal and his partner, Susie Gilligan, returned in late 1986 from a four-month trek photographing Aboriginal artists for the Australian National Gallery, they found themselves clinging to the bottom rung of the tightest real-estate market Sydney had ever seen.
They had built one house together, a spreading, chainsaw-and-handtools pole-frame job at Brogo, near Bega on the South Coast, designed around Renaissance ideals but in practice almost entirely free of right angles. Sydney’s spiny eastern suburbs, though, demanded a whole other skill set. Making up in persistence and ingenuity what they lacked in capital, and determined “to get an object out of it”, they have produced a tiny gem of a house that is an exemplar for those who have been disheartened by the snakery of Sydney’s property jungle.
Finding a site was the first hurdle. Not that they intended to build; throughout the months of agent-trawling and floor-sleeping, the idea was to renovate, not reconstruct. Fifty-something agents later, from the secret compartment of a dusty, passed-over agent’s too-hard basket, the first possibility emerged. Less house than one-room servant’s cottage, it was all of three metres wide; one of a terrace-triplet on a Bondi Junction night-soil lane otherwise comprised solely of rollerdoors and structural graffiti. Minuscule and near derelict, it had been passed in at auction and forgotten. But it was possible. Just.
Gilligan was unimpressed, but van der Wal eyed the massive forest redgum dominating what passed for a front garden and made an executive decision. There was little or no waterproofing, the smell of two Alsatians (previous inhabitants) proved intractably embedded in the wall-plaster, and on night two, the ancient sewerlines failed, sending raw sewage over the doorsills and into the house. Welcome to eastburbia.
Undeterred, Gilligan and van der Wal lived for almost two years in the room that was once inhabited, according to local lore, by a widow with six children. With makeshift bubble-wrap walls – “I liked them,” reflects van der Wal, “it’s a material I’d like to use again” – they researched design in very small spaces, especially Tokyo apartments. They thought about boat interiors, including van der Wal’s own nine-metre timber sloop, a 1920s Sydney Harbour classic. They played with systems of numbers, proportions and illusions.
Van der Wal, who studied Renaissance architecture at the University of Sydney, had designed the Brogo house entirely around the golden mean, a Renaissance system of ideal proportion. To his delight, “it worked: everyone who came into the house seemed to feel immediately comfortable”. The new house was not golden-mean capable but, at three metres by nine metres, did lend itself to another Renaissance device – the triune – with a main living space comprising three, three-metre cubes.
Other than that, they wanted a house that would tolerate self-building; not chainsaw territory, but which could be built by people who had “only moderate skill levels, and no superb craftsmanship”. As well as maximising space and accommodating several artworks (including a working collection of didgeridoos), they wanted a loft bedroom, a curved roof, a warm but industrial feel (“G-clamps and star pickets are my kind of aesthetic,” grins van der
Wal), an honesty about form and function, and an exposed-steel skeleton wholly independent of the existing walls, which could barely support themselves.
This was the essence of their brief to local architect Allan Dukes, whom they found through a friend and who shared their interest in Japanese design. They were, says Dukes, ideal clients, combining aesthetic awareness, the courage for follow-through and an extraordinary love of detail. So ideal, in fact, that Dukes has never seen the house he drew: “I don’t know of any other client,” says Dukes, “to whom I could have just given the drawings and left them to it, knowing it would turn out as well or better than I’d imagined.”
It was one of those lucky partnerships: van der Wal and Gilligan knew what they wanted, Dukes made it possible for them to get there without anything you could really call a budget. The only real arm wrestle was bathroom-based: “Allan anticipated a proper bathroom,” says van der Wal, “something with a door on it. I didn’t give a toss about a door on the shower.”
Four, two-storeyed portal frames formed the guts of the house, defining the triune living spaces on two levels. To the rear, in line with Alvar Aalto’s old distinction between served and servant spaces, the house’s working parts are compressed into a three-storey section, like an intricate 3-D puzzle. This meant that the stairs, which at normal incline would have extended well into the next house, fit between the walls.
These look less like domestic stairs and more like a ship’s companionway, and became the house’s central organising motif. Demarking two from three-storeys, as well as public from private, the stair is further dramatised by a simultaneous change in roof form (curved at front, skillion at back), that floods the centre with light.
The approval process was slow but surprisingly smooth. Although the proposal breached Waverley’s density limits, van der Wal believes they were seen by council staff as “a bit of a charity act”, struggling to civilise the municipality’s second-smallest site, on one of its least entrancing laneways. With supportive neighbours, an experienced architect and some cogent argument, they got it through. Then they were on their own.
Self-build is nerve-racking at best, and steel demands particular precision. Van der Wal had “triangulated endlessly”, using rock-bolts-and-epoxy mining technology for footings. But that wet dawn when the crane arrived to lower the four portals into place, with no more than 50mm clearance either side, brought high anxiety. Luckily, the fit was near-perfect.
The weather skin came next: a two-layer corrugated-steel roof, arcing around a notional human eye point, and rendered brick infill. Then it was feathering time at the nest, and here authenticity became the key. “I’ve always liked strong industrial spaces,” says van der Wal, “and Methodist chapels, where everything just does its job, no fuss. I like the conjunction of austerity and haven.” Playing on this duality, they decided to “plunge the kitchen into darkness”, making a warm, private space with a sense of enclosure, a “feeling of being at the back of the cave”, contrasting the honeyed openness of the living spaces.
While form and detail are barest minimum, materials are selected for rich textural diversity: dark, matte kitchen; satiny galvo ceilings; cold grey steel; gleaming honeyed ply; bright alloy chequerplate; translucent wired glass; blond timber floor.
But nothing goes quite as planned: throughout the process van der Wal welcomed the role of happenstance. The floor, which he saw as “almost a furniture plane”, is American ash, not Australian, because they came across a batch whose rich figuration, running crosswise, could enhance an illusion of width. Lime-rubbed, lowest-grade construction ply forms the ceiling for the same reason. Chequerplate proved an easy and beautiful material for cladding the structural wardrobe, and so became extended around the toilet. The full-height bi-fold glass front doors hang on modified agricultural hinges because nothing else was up to the job. Colours are hand-mixed ochre, sea-green and primer-red, because the Mondrian primaries they had planned proved too “bright and poppy”.
You make decisions quickly, intuitively, based on “flow”, says van der Wal, dropping into sailing patois. “A bird makes a nest from found objects.
The pattern may be given, but no two nests are ever the same. That’s what makes them so charming.”
SIX ILLUS: 1 The stairs are the home’s main organising element marking the two-storey section of the house from the three-storey area.
2 Inexpensive chequerplate clads the wardrobe and wraps around the bathroom walls.
3 The house is only three metres wide, one of three terraces on a tiny lane in Bondi Junction.
4 A loft bedroom with a curved ceiling was one of a list of items that made up the owner’s original brief.
5 Low-grade construction ply was lime-rubbed and used for the ceiling.
6 The floor is American ash that the owners ran lengthwise to give the illusion of width.