The lovely Andrea Stevens invited us to contribute to the New Zealand based Design Guide earlier in 2013:
A couple of years ago we, together, designed and built a small house in the inner city of Sydney for ourselves. We undertook this task with the help of many friends and family and though the process was far from insular we were in effect not only owner and architect but builder as well.
When asked to write about the house we thought that you would be hearing here a lot about what an architect can offer from the point of view of the architect. Given this and our multiple roles in the project we though to write more as an owner than architect and concentrate a little on the particular manner of living which evolved from our time in the house.
The house was the result of the transformation of a small semi-detached cottage located on a long narrow block. The house is located right up on the street with an overgrown garden at the rear, a Jacaranda at its heart surrounded by a Bangalow Palm, a Norfolk Pine, an Ironbark and a Paperbark creating an eclectic silhouette to the sky. Located below the adjacent ridge along which snakes the cacophonous King Street with its myriad pubs & restaurants, the immediate local street network has been crafted to exclude through vehicular traffic and so enables a flourishing pedestrian community. To the street, the decaying Victorian era front façade was retained, protecting the period scale. Within, the house was radically manipulated to increase natural light and air transference whilst minimising asinine space and energy consumption. To the wonderful garden the rear façade opens in its entirety, enabling the life of the landscape to flood the spaces within.
Both the existing characteristics of the house that are retained, and those transformed, combined in a specific way to facilitate our life at that time. Whilst the house itself is a beautiful object, it was this enabled life that was the most cherished aspect of our home. And it is this aspect that embodies the real offering of an architect to those who commission their expertise.
The following is an attempt to define some key tenets that our humble house facilitated in order to demonstrate this particular manner of living.
An urban life
In 1863, just as urban life began its discernible existence, the Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire said: it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.
150 years later and we know what he means. It is in the city we enjoy the close circles of family, friends, colleagues & acquaintances who animate our existence. In the city we find work, and the clients who sustain our practice find us. The location of the small house offered us immediate access to engage with these myriad opportunities and events.
A more diverse social life
Though our social networks are expansive it is the indifference to difference that arises in the city that is so important in our lives. The sociologist Richard Sennet coined this phrase and noted that “the ideal public realm has appeared one in which people react to, learn from, people who are unlike himself or herself.”
This was revelatory for us. Implicit in dense modes of living are neighbours: more often than not people who hold different values to our own. With a width of 4.5 metres the house allowed us to coexist with the couples living on each of the shared boundaries. Though often difficult to manage, our large dinner gatherings, their chickens and bbq’s, and all of our music was constantly negotiated and facilitated. By necessity this environment cultivated a tolerance that would not exist in an isolated dwelling.
Maintaining a private life
Within this neighbourly context, and the greater city beyond, it was vital to have the house enable moments of solitude. We love the Mexican architect, Luis Barragan’s sentiment that “Serenity is the great and true antidote against anguish and fear, and today, more than ever, it is the architect’s duty to make of it a permanent guest in the home, no matter how sumptuous or how humble.” The house responded to this, enabling outlook to the contained garden and whilst borrowing the long veiled view to the treetops in the distance the same copse of trees provided a green cloak of visual privacy.
Our work life
Today we hear much debate about finding the right life/work balance. The carefully maintained demarcation makes less and less sense to us as mobile phones and emails simultaneously enhance and intrude within either realm. In this house, we consciously interwove the strands of work and life together. A large portion of the internal space is given to a studio that enabled us to work together, with colleagues & clients. The work and conversations spilt into the living & dining areas, and in turn our studio became a place of solitude & reflection when not in use for practice. This intertwining of work and leisure reminds us of the ancient Marcus Tullius Cicero’s wonderful adage; If you have a garden and a library you have all you need.
Upholding a traditional life
We think back to our childhoods in an attempt to remember how our grandparents appeared to live so simply and well. In this the house enabled us to consume less and reuse what could be. Conscious of the neighbourhood character the street façade shows its age. The large rear window to the garden shares the operation of its traditionally scaled counterpart on the street but utilises contemporary technologies to allow light and air to flood the interior. In this way the changing external climatic conditions can be manipulated but still enter the house. The breeze across a garden cools, the sun warms the space in the same simple ways we remember our grandparents describing how their grandparents once lived.
Aspiring to an essential life
We love the words written at the top of the menu at a North Bondi restaurant; Restraint is my favourite ingredient. This represents the attempt to curtail the accumulation of possessions and, when that inevitably fails, to engage in the active divestment of those items not considered essential to our chosen manner of living. Recycling regimes spent, simply by incorporating extensive areas of storage in the house the spaces could remain relatively unadorned, enabling our focus to alight on fewer objects that in turn accrued greater resonance.
Recognising the importance of an experimental life
The tyranny of comfort is a term coined by the great architect and teacher Richard Le Plastrier. To us an experimental life eschews this apathy and actively seeks better modes of habitation. In this the deliberately cultivated generic character of the spaces in the house enabled different uses to happily exist moment to moment. At times the studio was the master bedroom, the master bedroom a meeting space, the living room a place for ping pong tournaments whilst the studio a living space amongst the tree canopy. This experimental method extended beyond the immediate pragmatics of inhabiting the house and into most other aspects of our lives.
Relinquishing our role as owners and speaking now as architects it is as a result of this experimentation, and working with others in defining their own manners of living, that we have developed an understanding of the most wonderful patterns of habitation. It is this understanding that we develop and offer in our work, most often in the guise of a beautiful structure such as this house.
panovscott - A manner of living.