Visual Arts Christopher Allen and Public Works
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
THESE HOUSES EMBODY THE HIGHEST AMBITION OF ARCHITECTURE, WHICH IS TO MAKE BUILDINGS IN WHICH PEOPLE CAN BE BETTER AND HAPPIER
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