This year E-GA is making a concerted effort to get out and engage with the wider design community. Whether through lectures, events or competitions, we feel that interaction with other designers is vital to prevent stagnation in our own practice. We also thought it might be nice to share some of those experiences with others through the E-GA blog.
So here is the first instalment in what will hopefully be an enlightening and enjoyable experience…..
On Wednesday afternoon I attended a what was more a public conversation than a lecture with Rachel Neeson of Murcutt-Neeson architects and two of her clients, Jo & Luke. The discussion was about the realization of their award winning residential housing project ‘Castlecrag’ and took us right through the design process from the initial butter paper sketches to the completed project. The conversation took place at Robin Boyd’s own property in Walsh Street, South Yarra; a magnificent piece of inventive, livable architecture. The house is now owned by the Robin Boyd Foundation who have preserved this iconic building in a street who’s property has lined the pockets of many a developer.
I’m not sure which I found most appealing; the location of the conversation, or the conversation itself! A close call I think. If you do find an opportunity to visit the property at 290-292 Walsh Street South Yarra, make sure you go there. It is a piece of challenging architecture from the 1958 and there is plenty to be learned about design and living by visiting this property. The way the house drifts effortlessly down the steep site; The delicate way that the building fabric encloses the central outdoor courtyard yet opens up to the elements overhead; the separated child and adult zones; The way that the garden is inside and outside. It’s a masterpiece and yet so humble and organic. There are plenty of building designers who could benefit from a tour through there before they massacre our suburbs.
But I’m probably off topic. More about Boyd after I’ve finished reading his book “The Australian Ugliness” which I picked up at the presentation.
What I found refreshing and compelling about the presentation was that it involved both the Architect and the clients. So we gathered a sense of not just the house that was built but also the relationships that had been formed throughout the design process.
Castlecrag is in inner northern suburb of Sydney that was developed by Burley-Griffen under the principles of nature. It is a pristine pocket of land – so close to industry and commerce and yet seemingly isolated and natural. The site for this build was the original family home built by client Luke’s Grandfather. The original house had been built frugally in the post wars years with many community working bee’s and recycled or reused materials. The family history of the site meant that there was a good deal of sentimental attachment to it, so the clients, Luke & Jo wanted to include elements of the original building into their new dwelling. The result was a painstaking piece-by-piece demolition, which allowed one original wall to remain and plenty of materials to be reused. I thought Luke made an insightful observation that “by pulling apart the building so carefully, the builders gained an understanding of its history and character much more than if they’d have just bulldozed and started from scratch”. Jo & Luke also made a list pages long of materials that they wanted to reuse in the new build, many of which were included. It is a testament to Rachel Neeson’s skills as a designer and negotiator that the project did not become an exercise in sentiment.
The new house build took about two and half years to complete with an extra three years in the design and planning phase. As Luke said, it is a home that he wants to spend the rest of his life in, so if it took an extra year or two to get right, that was a small amount of time when compared to a lifetime. That doesn’t mean that the builder could drag his heels but it meant that if a window needed to be moved up ten centimetres after it had been formed up, then the window was moved.
Every detail of the design was well considered, the immediate views, the distant views, even the way that building interacted with the local community by allowing a view through the front of the property over to the waterfront. A sparse material palette of Sandstone, off-form concrete, steel, brick and white painted timber could have given a Spartan, minimalist atmosphere but the materials were put together in such a way that they instantly belonged. Sandstone wall rise out of a natural sandstone outcrop and that story carries into the house with sawn sandstone floors whose warm tones and random pattern lend softness to a traditionally hard medium. The off-form concrete walls are almost a sculptural art piece. Their naked form exposes the level of craftsmanship that went into the thinking and building of this home.
Without getting into blow-by-blow descriptions, ‘CastleCrag’ embodies much that is great in Architectural design. It was a project that came from a love of place, a sense belonging and of history. The clients had a vision of their dream and Rachel Neeson interpreted it beautifully, taking the physicality and emotions of the site and crafting them into a cohesive product.
The presentation was intimate and relaxed and hosted in a perfect venue. I came away from it feeling that Rachel Neeson and her clients Luke & Jo had shared a remarkable story of architecture. It was about so much more than edifice and egos as these presentations often are. Well done HOUSES for a great event.