Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
10 years of domain
Bold buildings have been reined in by limited budgets and weak convictions, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
The endless fascination of the house as artefact reflects humanity’s long obsession with its favourite subject; itself. A centrefold of house images grabs our attention much as a spread of faces does. We watch home-renovation shows with the same prurient, would-I-or-wouldn’t-I fascination generated by revelations of cosmetic surgery. Why? Partly because we’re all experts in “home”, and partly because we intuitively read houses as manifestations of the psyche.
When house design loses its edge, therefore, it is reasonable to suspect some deeper cause.
Australia has long prided itself on the strength and ingenuity of its domestic design. We may not have what it takes (goes the silent subtext) to produce great cultural icons or world-changing office buildings, but houses we can do. NSW in particular has a history of vividly memorable houses from Harry Seidler, Sydney Ancher, Hugh Buhrich, Bill Lucas, Ken Woolley, Richard Leplastrier, John Andrews and Glenn Murcutt.
Compare these rich pickings with the past decade or so, and you’d be forgiven for wondering whether we’re still up to it. Not that there’s been any shortage of designer houses, well-heeled clients or talent. What’s missing, on the whole, is a muscular sense of purpose; a sense of the house as being wholeheartedly about something.
This is what lifts a house from the mundane necessity of shelter to the level of architecture; giving it coherence, intensity, unity; making it memorable. Such houses – what you might call manifesto houses – have a certain metaphysical heroism. As such, they may occasionally sacrifice comfort for significance. But they stand nonetheless as signposts in our cultural landscape.
These days Sydney houses tend to err the other way, consistently sacrificing principle to pragmatism. Sometimes, as with the ubiquitous white-revival houses of the early noughties, they strive for the look of significance, but that’s usually all it is; an ersatz heroism that prioritises size, view and wow-factor over coherence, simplicity or discipline. This is where we’re losing the plot. Like any art, architecture is a discipline; a confluence, in fact, of external disciplines (such as budget, client and planning constraints) and the internal, reflexive sort – call it philosophy, principle or ideology – that shapes a house from within.
Traditionally, this is the stuff that “trickles down”, gradually to shape everyday, off-the-peg houses. These days, it seems to happen the other way round; the airhead pomposity of McMansions trickling up to corrupt architectural practice at its source.
Mid-century modernism tended to be shaped by two such disciplines – budget and belief. In Sydney, the belief bit was usually derivative. The Corbusian or white school appeared in the form of Sydney Ancher, for example, while a Frank Lloyd Wright mindset underpinned Peter Muller, Douglas Snelling and Peter Johnson and the Sydney School generated such luminaries as Leplastrier.
Budget and belief; limited budget, unlimited belief. Few architects have the strength of mind to survive a big budget; fewer still can work in a belief vacuum. Loosen these constraints sufficiently and you have today’s crop of vast, view-hungry designer houses, stiffened by only the flimsiest of post-modern philosophies.
Such houses may sustain their clients’ comfort-zone habits, which ought to be a good thing. Compare, for instance, Mies van der Rohe’s feud with his client Dr Farnsworth over the ultimate white-and-glass manifesto house that bears her name. Architecturally, though, the sideways moves are happening in Europe and, increasingly, Asia (the Tokyo houses of Shigeru Ban, for example). In Sydney, by contrast, the tendency of our peak houses is to pomposity and flatulence.
So the most interesting houses of the decade are those that break this rule, often through the application of a particular, idiosyncratic discipline that unifies the house with a kind of moral purpose. These include:
Renzo Piano, Macquarie Apartments Low, linear and street-hugging, Macquarie Apartments are no less svelte than Aurora Place, no less desirable. Sheathed in a fully-operable low-iron glass wall on its own glass structure and grounded in ceramic ‘terracotta,’ Macquarie Apartments finally made city-living an A-list option.
Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin, own house, Mosman Pritzker laureate Glenn Murcutt, who still regards Mies van der Rohe as his conscience, is known for his constant re-working of a single puritan theme, sustaining a standard tram-car plan through global fame and a growing queue of wealthy clients. Murcutt (whose father was a legendary disciplinarian) brings an immense self-discipline to his work, the houses diagrammatic almost to the point of anorexia. His own house, though, is a squat brick-and-tile semi in whose dark corridors and junk-filled rooms Murcutt lived and worked for decades before getting round to the architecture. Even here, though, Murcutt and Lewin sustain the leanness principle. “This back wall, for instance,” says Murcutt, indicating the gorgeous glazed screen onto the garden, “has no fat in it at all. The steel is 16 mm [on the flat]; 2mm thinner, it would deflect and crack the glass below. That’s fairly minimum. I like that.”
Engelen Moore, Price O’Reilly house, Redfern Technically outside the current decade but qualifying through the sheer scale of its influence, this house represents the apotheosis of the Corbusian white box in Sydney. It may suit polar bears better than humans, but its clear diagram and ruthless elegance of detailing sure did the trick as global attention-getters. A testament to the victory of photography over fact, this house became the model for legions of wannabes now thronging the property pages.
Michael Mobbs’s house, Chippendale Sydney’s shortish string of seriously eco-conscious houses includes Michael Mobbs’s self-sustaining house, Rod Simpson and Andrea Wilson’s recycled timber cubby house, and Tone Wheeler’s Environa houses, all of which exemplify different takes on the eco issue. Their offbeat seriousness is their appeal, although to my mind the house that takes eco-issues to the level of poetry has yet to be built.
Clinton Murray, Overcliffe, Potts Point Clinton Murray’s house for Sydney developer Leon Fink adds a magical hinterland to a tiny heritage cottage, that brings a finesse not evident in Murray’s earlier works. The addition, rather than emulating the colonial language of the original, holds a generous, garden-fringed room with great, square recycled hardwood posts, with slender timber-and-glass detailing between. Enchanting.
Nick Murcutt Box House, South Coast The turn of the century saw a minor flurry of box-houses spring up, growing, perhaps, from the pre-fab revival that spread through the profession at the same time and exploiting the cuteness-value of the sprightly, habitable cube. The prequel lineage goes something like this; Rudolf Schindler’s Janson House (1949); early Frank Israel or Gehry (1980s); Leplastrier studio (Bellingen, 1984) and Peter Stutchbury’s Ken Israel house (1992).
The new-wave box-houses include Sean Godsell’s Carter Tucker house (2000), Nick Murcutt’s house on the South Coast (2001) and Drew Heath’s Zig Zag cabin at Wollombi (2003). For habitation purposes, a mix would be ideal, combining the openable shuttered skin of the Godsell, the tip-toed quality of the Murcutt and the play-house interior of the Heath.
Durbach Block, Holman House, Dover Heights The Holman house is Durbach Block’s finest moment yet, making their earlier successes such as the Droga Apartment Surry Hills and the Spry House look like rough drafts. Here, DB evince the maturity and strength of mind to resist the voluptuous budget and stay on task to produce a house that is disciplined yet richly spatial, dramatic yet habitable, stylish yet endlessly experiential. A delight.
Dale Jones-Evans, Art Wall apartments and Folded House, Bronte Dale Jones-Evans’s quirky Art Wall office building in Kings Cross, draws a rusted-steel snowflake-pattern chemise across a glass curtain-wall, tops the lot with backlit advertising and tails it with a sinuous rusted-steel retail base. Like something from a Jean-Luc Godard movie, perhaps with a touch of Jacques Tati. The Bronte house, similarly eccentric, has a strong folded moment, designed around sun angles, but the interior dissolves into blowsiness.
Dawson Brown, James Robertson House, Great Mackerel Beach This house comes on the end of a string of elegant steel-and-glass, boat-access-only houses on the sandstone escarpment across the bay from Palmy. Alexander Tzannes’ 1983 Kinsella house at Mackerel started it all, using the sensuality of the sandstone cliff as a natural backdrop to the interior. Rob Brown’s house is at another level of sophistication altogether, but contrives, through the boat-only discipline, to keep the refined simplicity of Tzannes’s weekender.
Stutchbury and Pape, Springwater House This house marks a new level of maturity and confidence for Stutchbury as he moves away from the softer, timber houses that made his name and into a loose-limbed concrete grid that allows him to play compositional games with water (the elevated lap pool), site (the twisted greys of angophora against the gridded greys of concrete) and space.
Stutchbury with Bourne and Blue, Newcastle house A delicate, two-storeyed timber box set between massive retaining walls on what was once the bishop’s rose lawn in Newcastle, this house has such presence it is at first hard to believe it’s just a house, rather than some cool cultural institution.
Philip Thalis apartment building, Devonshire Street, Surry Hills Sydney’s Edwardian substations are some of its finest moments; this one, from a winner of Sydney’s East Darling Harbour competition, provides strong bones for one of Surry Hills’ funkiest apartment buildings. Terrace-house width and five storeys high, the building has the romantic eccentricity of an Italian tower house, its slender section allowing natural ventilation throughout. A perfect inner-city nest.
Keith Cottier, Margaret Fink house, Darlinghurst Nominated by gold-medal winner Keith Cottier as his best client for her “good eye, open mind and strong will,” Margaret Fink provided the external discipline that became the shaping force that created this enchanting pied a terre from three tiny workers’ cottages, where the space between becomes a minuscule walled garden.
THIRTEEN PHOTOS: Memorable … clockwise from top left, Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin’s own house; Substation by Philip Thalis; Keith Cottier’s Margaret Fink house; Clinton Murray’s Overcliffe, commissioned by Leon Fink. Photos: Anthony Browell, Marco Del Grande, Patrick Bingham-Hall, Simon Stokes Pushing the boundaries … clockwise from top left, Dawson Brown, James Robertson House; Durbach Block, Holman House; Nick Murcutt’s Box House; Stutchbury and Pape, Springwater House; Engelen Moore, Price O’Reilly house. Photos: Anthony Browell, Brett Boardman, Marco Del Grande, Ross Honeysett Quirky … clockwise from top left, Renzo Piano, Macquarie Apartments; Stutchbury with Bourne and Blue, Newcastle house; Michael Mobbs’s house; Dale Jones-Evans, Folded House. Photos: Martin Van der Wal, Simon
Alekna, Trevor Mein, Reiner Blunck