Vis­ual Arts Christo­pher Allen and Pub­lic Works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

The ti­tle of this ex­hi­bi­tion may make the reader wince at first sight. What is a “su­per­house”, af­ter all? Is it just an­other ex­am­ple of mar­ket­ing bom­bast, like call­ing a band a su­per­group, or the re­lent­less abuse of pre­fixes such as su­per, hy­per, mega or uber to the point they ac­tu­ally di­min­ish the force of the word they are meant to em­pha­sise?

A glance at the ex­hi­bi­tion and the sump­tu­ous ac­com­pa­ny­ing book, how­ever, re­veals a col­lec­tion of fas­ci­nat­ing houses whose ar­chi­tec­tural am­bi­tion, un­usual for pri­vate res­i­dences, is per­haps what first sug­gested the ti­tle. They are for the most part dra­matic in scale yet sen­si­tive to their ar­chi­tec­tural, ur­ban or nat­u­ral set­tings; bold in de­sign yet ca­pa­ble of self-ef­face­ment.

It may help to con­sider what, by im­pli­ca­tion, a su­per­house is not. It is not a McMan­sion, crowd­ing its sub­ur­ban block, ad­ver­tis­ing its wealth with a multi-car garage, and com­posed in­side of a col­lec­tion of small, mean spa­ces crowded with con­sumer prod­ucts and fit­ted out with home en­ter­tain­ment sys­tems. Most pro­foundly, it is not a home de­signed as a place to cut one­self off from aware­ness of the real world and plug into the un­con­scious­ness of me­dia, games and me­chan­i­cal dis­trac­tion.

Th­ese houses are all res­o­lutely turned to­wards na­ture and the sur­round­ing land­scape or, in a few cases, cityscape. Most of them are built in re­mark­able set­tings, of­ten over­look­ing wilderness, in the mid­dle of a for­est or perched over a wood­land stream. The de­sign it­self is in­tended to en­gage with th­ese nat­u­ral sur­round­ings as flu­idly as pos­si­ble — in it­self not a new am­bi­tion but one that goes back to early mod­ernists such as Mies van der Rohe.

One of the most strik­ing houses, and the one il­lus­trated on the cover of the book, is de­signed with a swim­ming pool in the cen­tre and the liv­ing rooms on sur­round­ing bal­conies, glazed but oth­er­wise com­pletely open to the ex­tra­or­di­nary view of forests and moun­tains all around.

The tim­ber pat­tern of the off-form con­crete struc­ture is echoed by the fine pale wood­work of the in­te­rior con­struc­tion, and the whole de­sign is com­fort­able but min­i­mal, aus­terely re­fus­ing any dis­trac­tion from the ex­pe­ri­ence of the nat­u­ral beauty all around. One can be­gin to see that this sort of build­ing, for all its im­me­di­ate ap­peal, of­fers cer­tain chal­lenges to those who would in­habit it.

The ce­ment house over­look­ing Lake Garda, im­pres­sive and even breath­tak­ing, is sim­i­larly aus­tere. Some­what more in­ti­mate in con­cep­tion, though still dra­matic, is the Pierre House, set above a bay and seem­ingly ex­ca­vated into a hill whose curve has been re­con­structed over its roof. Stone walls have been cut di­rectly into the liv­ing rock and con­trast with bare con­crete in the other struc­tural el­e­ments.

An­other strik­ing build­ing is the huge res­i­dence built over two blocks in Bal­moral. The ar­chi­tects first per­suaded the own­ers to knock down the ex­ist­ing house and start again, then to buy the neigh­bour­ing prop­erty and de­mol­ish that as well. With this big­ger space avail­able, they be­gan plan­ning a house that was first thought of as a sculp­tural form com­posed of a num­ber of su­per­im­posed and con­nect­ing box-shapes, and even­tu­ally was adapted to the needs of a res­i­dence. The house over­looks a mag­nif­i­cent view but, in­ter­est­ingly, avoids re­veal­ing that view from the en­trance, in­stead al­low­ing it to be dis­cov­ered pro­gres­sively as one walks through the in­te­rior.

Not all the houses are as dra­matic in site or scale, but the ex­am­ple of a city ter­race in Syd­ney shows that small can be bold too. Here the nor­mal struc­ture of a ter­race in­te­rior has been re­versed, so that the bed­rooms are on the ground floor and the up­per storey is oc­cu­pied by the liv­ing spa­ces. Then the roof has been opened up with a so­phis­ti­cated sys­tem of sky­lights, bring­ing light into the usu­ally dark ter­race in­te­rior and even al­low­ing for an el­e­vated in­ter­nal court­yard with a tree.

At the same time, the ar­chi­tects have made a point of re­spect­ing the orig­i­nal Vic­to­rian fa­cade and even the roofline, so this re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion is achieved with­out in­tru­sion on the streetscape. Thus in­no­va­tion and bold­ness are bal­anced with a con­cern for the con­ser­va­tion of the ar­chi­tec­tural char­ac­ter of old build­ings and of ex­ist­ing ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments.

Re-use and adap­ta­tion of ex­ist­ing struc­tures ex­tends far be­yond the re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of an ur­ban dwelling. One of the most un­ex­pected in­volved turn­ing a dis­used ce­ment fac­tory in Barcelona into a res­i­dence. In al­most ev­ery re­spect — form, scale, sheer vol­ume of rub­bish and dirt to be re­moved — this seemed like an un­likely propo­si­tion. But the ar­chi­tects saw the po­ten­tial of con­vert­ing cav­ernous voids into cathe­dral-like liv­ing spa­ces.

At the other ex­treme, Ast­ley Cas­tle in War­wick­shire rep­re­sented the co­nun­drum of a struc­ture of con­sid­er­able an­tiq­uity and ar­chi­tec­tural value, but in a state of di­lap­i­da­tion that was well be­yond restoration in the nor­mal sense: clearly the prob­lem in this case was far more com­plex than sim­ply re­con­struct­ing the roof, putting in new win­dows and in­stalling mod­ern ameni­ties.

In the end, ar­chi­tects were in­vited to sub­mit pro­pos­als in a com­pe­ti­tion, and the suc­cess­ful one has achieved a sin­gu­lar bal­ance be­tween con­ser­va­tion and re­con­struc­tion. If only small sec­tions of the walls had been lost, it would have made sense to match them in the re­build­ing, but the losses were so ex­ten­sive that the ar­chi­tects de­cided to pre­serve and frame the ru­ins rather than swal­low them up in a re­pro­duc­tion.

The re­sult is very ef­fec­tive, largely be­cause of the dis­creet de­sign of the new parts. There is no at­tempt to com­pete with the me­dieval forms, and the choice of bricks, slim like an­cient Ro­man ones and light in colour, im­parts a qui­etly dis­tin­guished char­ac­ter dif­fer­ent from nor- mal house bricks. The fin­ished house al­lows its res­i­dents to live in a com­fort­able en­vi­ron­ment sur­rounded at once by the beauty of na­ture and the evoca­tive ap­peal of what are still, though sta­bilised and con­served, me­dieval ru­ins.

Sev­eral of the ar­chi­tects, in the in­ter­views shown in the ex­hi­bi­tion, re­turn to the idea of re­spect, both for the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and for the ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage and set­ting of build­ings they may be ren­o­vat­ing. For all the bold­ness of the de­signs, none of them ap­proves of the ego­is­tic con­tempt for tra­di­tion and en­vi­ron­ment that has some­times char­ac­terised the mod­ernist ar­chi­tect — one need only think of Harry Sei­dler’s Hori­zon Tower in Dar­linghurst for a counter-ex­am­ple.

This at­ti­tude of re­spect is what helps to ex­plain the im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics of th­ese houses that I men­tioned ear­lier, es­pe­cially the way they are turned out­ward to­wards their en­vi­ron­ment and seem de­signed to frame the ex­pe­ri­ence of na­ture. It is also why they are de­signed with an al­most aus­tere sim­plic­ity and lack of clut­ter and dis­trac­tion.

The project of the so-called su­per­house is thus im­plic­itly counter-cul­tural. In a world pre­oc­cu­pied with ma­te­ri­al­ism and the to­kens of suc­cess, with fash­ion and opin­ion­ated chat­ter, with the ad­dic­tion to mass me­dia noise and su­per­fi­cial arousal of ev­ery kind, it pro­poses si­lence, peace and seren­ity.

Al­most ev­ery­one, even the most dis­tracted, un­der­stands the ap­peal of th­ese things to some de­gree. It is easy to see this when you watch peo­ple leaf through the book, ex­press­ing sur­prise and ad­mi­ra­tion for one house af­ter an­other. But would they be able to live there, en­gag­ing with the en­vi­ron­ment they ad­mire, with­out suc­cumb­ing to the smart­phone, the chat­ter, the texts, the games, the in­fo­tain­ment? This is why, as I men­tioned ear­lier, th­ese houses are a chal­lenge to those who live in them.

And in­deed one may ask whether it is nec­es­sary to be quite so aus­tere. Is clut­ter al­ways a bad thing? There is some­thing ap­peal­ing


about a room crowded with books and pic­tures, re­plete with com­fort­able fur­ni­ture and rugs. And while we all en­joy houses with spec­tac­u­lar views, one can­not spend all day sit­ting in front of the land­scape.

An­other rather ob­vi­ous ob­jec­tion that can be raised to the su­per­house project is its enor­mous cost. It is only the very rich who can af­ford to ac­quire the sites, en­gage the ar­chi­tects, re­tain the ser­vices of en­gi­neers and other con­sul­tants, and meet the end­less costs in­volved in the con­struc­tion of an ideal house on such a scale. Can it re­ally be so ex­pen­sive to find peace and com­mu­nion with na­ture?

It would be in­ter­est­ing to fol­low this ex­hi­bi­tion with an­other on houses that achieve sim­plic­ity of de­sign, sym­pa­thetic re­la­tions to their set­ting and open­ness to na­ture on a min­i­mal bud­get. It must be pos­si­ble to de­sign some­thing beau­ti­ful and har­mo­nious with­out mas­sive amounts of re­in­forced con­crete and com­plex feats of en­gi­neer­ing. It would be fas­ci­nat­ing to see what can be done with re­cy­cled tim­ber, mud bricks or even ren­dered Besser bricks, cor­ru­gated iron and other ver­nac­u­lar ma­te­ri­als.

Slid­ing or re­mov­able walls, or heavy walls of ma­te­ri­als such as rammed earth to pro­vide in­su­la­tion — de­pend­ing of the ori­en­ta­tion of the house — and much higher ceil­ings than in stan­dard sub­ur­ban houses to al­low heat to rise and es­cape through clerestory win­dows, would all be rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive ways to cope with the Aus­tralian en­vi­ron­ment with­out re­sort­ing to air­con­di­tion­ing, which is surely in­com­pat­i­ble with true ar­chi­tec­tural am­bi­tion.

In the end, though, the su­per­house project raises a deeper ques­tion. Th­ese houses as­pire, as we can see, to har­mony with their en­vi­ron­ment and to the cre­ation of spa­ces in which peo­ple can live in a cor­re­spond­ingly more har­mo­nious way, undis­turbed by clut­ter and noise, at­ten­tive to the world around them.

They em­body, in­deed, the high­est am­bi­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture, which is to make build­ings in which peo­ple can be bet­ter and hap­pier. And that is cer­tainly ad­mirable as far as it goes, and even if th­ese houses are ac­ces­si­ble only to the very rich, we can nonethe­less take them as ex­per­i­ments in what can be achieved by good de­sign, and per­haps as sug­ges­tions of what could be also be em­u­lated on a more mod­est bud­get. The trou­ble is that al­though a serene en­vi­ron­ment has the po­ten­tial to make us hap­pier, we also know peo­ple can lead highly stressed lives in the midst of idyl­lic sur­round­ings, while oth­ers may achieve peace and hap­pi­ness in the midst of clut­ter and even ug­li­ness.

Other things be­ing equal, a beau­ti­ful and har­mo­nious en­vi­ron­ment is no doubt prefer­able, but we can­not rely on the build­ing to do all the work for us. In the end, the achieve­ment of bal­ance and seren­ity can come only from our own ef­forts to be­come more con­scious and thought­ful, to let go of the il­lu­sory wants and fears that make hap­pi­ness im­pos­si­ble. It is not enough to spend a for­tune build­ing a su­per­house as a haven of seren­ity, for we will not find that state of equi­lib­rium un­less we are will­ing to change our own lives.

Op­po­site page, the din­ing room, main pic­ture, and an in­te­rior view of Ast­ley Cas­tle in England, bot­tom; this page, clock­wise from far left, Con­crete House, Sant’Ab­bon­dio, Switzer­land; the Pierre House in San Juan Is­lands, Wash­ing­ton, US; and two views of Solo House in Cre­tas, Spain

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