Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A dream house you’d actually live in
Like his life, Hugh Buhrich’s inspired homes have been carved from a range of influences, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Architect Hugh Buhrich, who died this month, was one of World War II’s genuine gifts to Sydney. A gift of the decidedly under-sung variety, though: his own house, adjoining a Burley Griffin remnant in Castlecrag, has long been a cult object with architects but it, and he, remains largely unknown. Why?
Buhrich’s life, as he told it, was more found than made, a crooked chain of accident and happenstance connecting (what would become) Anzac Day, Hamburg 1911, to this sunny tip of Sugarloaf Point, 93 years on.
The Buhrich house, described by the award-winning architect Peter Myers as “the finest modern house in Australia”, has something of the same incidental quality; an extraordinary, almost casual beauty that weighs the synthetic against the organic, balancing abstract cool with high-cal expressionism, the deliberative with the chanced-upon.
As a teenager in inter-war Germany Buhrich loved modern design but, being “hung up” (his phrase) on Freud, would have pursued medicine, not architecture except that medicine required Latin.
He would have enrolled in the Bauhaus School except that its non-university status would have rendered his scholarship invalid. And since the same scholarship required him to leave home, he enrolled instead at a “not very good” architecture school in Munich.
Ejected from there by the Nazis for his student activism, he moved to Berlin where he worked with Hans Poelzig (“like a really first-class Leslie Wilkinson” designer of Sydney University’s Great Hall) and met Eva, a fellow student he would later marry.
Ejected from Berlin as well, he headed for Zurich, studying under the domineering Otto Salvisberg but with barely the means to eat, before finally completing his degree at a “really shocking university” in the German Free State of Danzig, now Gdansk where, ironically, he was one of several students subsidised by the Nazis in order to preserve German cultural dominance there.
Eventually, Hugh and Eva found a cheap flat in London’s Hampstead from where, with help from the Quakers, the Jewish institute and the Royal Institute of British Architects, they began examining emigration options. Australia became the lucky recipient of Buhrich’s overlooked genius.
Even in Australia, their qualifications were unrecognised and, as refugees, they were at first unable to buy land.
After a brief interval sharing an architectural position in Canberra they returned to Sydney, where Eva got work as a draftsman for General Motors, designing the Holden factory at Lidcombe, before beginning a writing career.
For the next decades she edited CSR’s trade journals, freelanced under a number of assumed (male) names and even produced an architecture column for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Hugh found a job with “a man who specialised in picture shows”, joined the army during the war, and resumed practice in 1945. Remaining nevertheless unregistered as an architect in NSW until the early 1960s, he kept mainly to furniture and interiors.
“Every time I designed a building,” he recalled, “I would get a ‘please explain’ letter from the registrar . . .”
Still, some 20-odd of Buhrich’s buildings were built during those years, most of them houses, many since demolished. Two in particular, though, sing like lyrebirds in the bush. Thirty years and 500 metres apart, they were designed as the architects’ own. Perched above Middle Harbour, they were hand-built by Hugh from a range of materials including large quantities of hand-hewn on-site sandstone on relentless energy and negligible budget.
Hand-built? Hand-crafted. Of course Castlecrag, in the wake of the Griffins, was a bit like that then. But this is craft with intellect. Buhrich House I, 15 years in the building, is an exercise in the unexpected. Showing International Modern to the street, all rectilinear and polar-white, it could at first glance be a rogue fragment of Maxwell Fry or Sidney Ancher, escaped into bohemia. Inside, though, the eccentric rigour of the mind at work becomes strongly, charmingly apparent.
It’s a both-and house. Both abstract and expressionist, both cool and warm, both receptive and projectile. The astringent, fat-free use of space is enriched by an eclectic take on colour and texture; the approach to (a stupendous) view is now full-frontal, now oblique; the treads of the hand-hewn timber stair cantilever from a central, hand-blocked timber
ringlet in a way that combines structural audacity with precision crafting. Intellectually assured, vividly inventive and ruthlessly empathetic, this is rational modernism with warm blood. And compared with either International Modern or today’s commodified clone it’s a delight.
Buhrich House II the Buhrich house was built between 1968 and 1972. Perhaps the most accomplished of Buhrich’s works, it is “certainly”, Buhrich agreed, “the most intensely personal”. Described by French critic Francoise Fromonot as “a truly radical building”, this is the cult classic, celebrated abroad more than at home. Why? It is visually unforgettable, with its signature wave-form roof of opposing sine-curves, its hefty concrete panel, with semi-precious aggregate, its rail-free stair, spiralling buck-naked down cliff’s edge, and the bathroom.
That bathroom. Moulded in seamless, high-gloss lipstick-red fibreglass and opening directly onto bush. Pretty groovy. This remarkable room Buhrich accounts for, almost absently, as the inevitable outcome of three externalities he’d already built a fibreglass yacht, had never liked fussy bathrooms and did like occasional strong colours. Much of Buhrich’s narrative is couched similarly, as a simple, practical response to place, utility and technics. On that sinusoidal roof-ceiling, for example, Buhrich’s talks exclusively of daylighting, view and regulation. But the rules were general, the site classically Sydney; yet not another house in town had anything like this extraordinary undulating plywood ceiling with its oppositional copper roof. Critics have taken it as a naive wave-metaphor, an early Post-Modern gesture, but Buhrich had in fact experimented with a similar, wavy-ply canopy on the roof-deck of House I, suggesting the impulse was more personal obsession than site response.
And then there’s the subtle angularity of the plan, casually commingling regular and irregular geometries; the gruff yet sprightly elevations, stamped with irregular concrete slabs that float like bergs on the cliff edge; the rough sandstone chimney-wall, with its small slot-window; the terrifyingly bare edges.
The essence, in fact, is in the section; both are immigrants’ houses, in the bush but not of it, loving but aloof, always keeping something in reserve. This is their charm.
In BH II, the only point at which house and planet actually intersect is the wine cellar, a secret underfloor cavern. Otherwise, the entire concrete structure sits poised, on the brink of weightlessness, a lightness of being that resonates endlessly with the watery view.
Columbia’s Kenneth Frampton, in town last week, has made a career of Critical Regionalism, advocating site-specificity as architecture’s essential frame.
How, though, in this immigrant nation, can regionalism be made meaningful? Here are two distinctly German houses tensed between two streams of German high-modernism Miesian quasi-rationalism and the techno-organicism of Scharoun and Behnisch.
“Yes, I suppose you could say that,” reflected Buhrich, as though the thought has never struck him before. Reticent he may have been, but it is this palpable tension between opposing world-views that gives the houses their intense appeal. The results are inventive, intriguing and intensely liveable, works that many a more famous architect might wish to have designed.
THREE ILLUS: Reticent genius .
Hugh Buhrich and the dining and kitchen area of the Castlecrag house he built 30 years ago.
Photos: Jennifer Soo