THE WINNER OF THIS YEAR’S ROBIN BOYD AWARD IS A LIGHT-FILLED AND PRIVATE SANCTUARY THAT MAKES THE MOST OF MAGNIFICENT OCEAN VIEWS WITHOUT LETTING THEM DROWN OUT THE DESIGN.
Winner: Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture (Houses, New)
In Australian architectural terms – as well as real estate ones – south-facing houses are normally considered a misfortune. They’re dark and cold, and if they’re on the coast they’re often exposed to harsh elements such as strong winds and lashing rain. So, when a site is hemmed in with an unexceptional (and large) house to the west, an even less remarkable three-storey block of flats to the east, a suburban street of double garages and cheek-byjowl mansions to the north but the most spectacular and impressive views of Sydney’s eastern suburbs beaches to the south – it presents something of a challenge to the architect to create a building that captures the view but is delightful to live in.
The winner of this year’s most prestigious award for Australian house design, the Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture, manages to perform such a conjuring trick. Designed by Durbach Block Jaggers Architects, Tamarama House achieves something extremely rare in coastal house design: a south-facing building that is light-filled and welcoming. “Because it is south-facing we were always asking ourselves, how do we make this building happy and buoyant?” says Neil Durbach, a principal of Durbach Block Jaggers along with Camilla Block and David Jaggers.
The house is in a street where building envelopes are maximised – the biggest house permissible for a particular site is the norm in this sought-after coastal enclave between Bondi and Bronte beaches. Durbach Block Jaggers – a firm of 12 architects who have been working together for more than 20 years – took the radical approach of setting the house several metres back from the street to create a sunken courtyard garden, which would not only create a buffer from the activity of the street but also allow precious northern sun to enter the building. To further maximise the available northerly aspect at the rear, car garaging has been placed underground (via a car lift) rather than a traditional garage built at street level – a considerable engineering feat and building expense, but one that has achieved design nirvana: a double-height north-facing living room with a private and protected garden at one end and views of the ever-changing sea at the other.
According to Durbach, there is a tendency when clients have a site with an amazing outlook to build a house with a lot of glass to take in the view. “The client
The overall effect is a southfacing house filled with direct sunlight and screened from its neighbours on either side.
here really understood the idea of a framed view,” he says. “Throughout the house there are openings where you can see the view momentarily and then it disappears, rather than being a sort of cinematic view on all the time.” In the main bathroom, there are small openings with a vista that can only be seen when you are standing in the shower recess. A guest bathroom on one level has two angled openings from the perspective of the bath. “One looks up and one looks down so you can lie in the bath and see the sky or see the sea,” says Durbach.
On the western wall in the main living level of the house there is a thin strip of glazing at the top to capture western sun in the afternoon; on the eastern side small openings let in the morning sun and what Camilla Block calls “sneaky ventilation”. Elsewhere skylights and turreted windows bring in light from above – the overall effect is a south-facing house that is filled with direct sunlight throughout the day and is screened from its neighbours on either side.
Tiny glimpses of the sea can also be seen from the street (looking through the house) which gives the impression that the house is situated on the edge of the water, when in fact it is separated from the cliff face by the city’s famous coastal walk that runs from Bondi to Coogee. “None of the other houses on this street allow passers-by to do that [see the ocean], I think it’s really cool,” says Durbach. By not succumbing to the idea that a spectacular view demands to be captured with a huge picture window, Durbach Block Jaggers have created a house that has a massive quality to it. “It’s a very solid house but you never feel like, oh, can I get some more view,” says Durbach.
The house is spread over three floors with a mezzanine above the lower level. Bedrooms are on the uppermost level and are arranged, according to Durbach, like a game of Tetris. “Each level has its own kind of floorplan idea. The bedroom level is incredibly compressed, it’s very tight spaces kind of locked together,” he says. “The next floor down [with the courtyard garden and main living room] is this simple big thing with alcoves off it. And then the bottom floor which is this much loopier curvilinear space. The house changes gear quite quickly across the site.”
Construction of the house, which is largely made from textured and sculptural concrete, took two years to complete. There are fine details everywhere in this house – for example, a concrete spiral staircase that runs through the house perfectly winds around an elegantly formed steel central column with down-tothe-millimetre precision. “The house has been beautifully built – it was a builder we hadn’t worked with before, but I think very few builders would have got this together,” says Durbach.
The Australian Institute of Architects started its national awards program in 1981 and named its most coveted residential award after architect, writer and educator Robin Boyd, whose famous book The Australian Ugliness was a controversial critique on Australian suburbia. This is the third time Durbach Block Jaggers has won the Robin Boyd award, a record for an Australian architectural practice.
This page: the kitchen with mirrored fridge and concealed pantry and elevator behind; a tribute to Le Corbusier; a skylight illuminates a stairwell
Opposite page: Tamarama House from the street, with its car lift; the views from the main living space, to the street across a sunken courtyard garden, and out to sea on the other side