Architecture

Louisa Road Apartments

December 9, 2009

SJB Architects’ Birchgrove apartment building is a sensitive yet ambitious response to the suburban context.

Architect’s Statement
Louisa Road is both an exercise in restraint and excess. Programmatically, the building houses six luxury apartments from 250 metres square to 500 metres square – it is a house of penthouses. Practically, it is restrained and controlled, respective of its place, pattern and rhythm – a new layer added to an old place. This is a project rooted in the fundamentals of development; take the worst building in the best street and renew. Opportunistically, our client purchased a horrific 1960s apartment building that was literally falling into the harbour. Composed of 32 dwellings, some of which suffered from no natural light or ventilation, the building addressed the street with an open deck carpark housing 22 vehicles with a crossing extending the entire title boundary. With floor-to-floor heights of 2.4 metres and limited external balconies the building was afforded little internal amenity, its one saving grace was its location; Louisa Road, Birchgrove.

Louisa Road is a significant street within the structure of the Sydney urban fabric. A peninsula jutting into the harbour, it contains a single elevated road that addresses harbour front properties to either side. The street is romantic; it has a ferry stop at its northern end, is punctuated by a sporting field, is enlivened by tennis courts and is home to an eclectic mix of architectural styles – the good, the bad and the ugly. It is adorned by a state heritage listed Victorian terrace complete with a widow’s walk, has its fair share of Arts and Crafts buildings and is equally punctuated by the ‘brick veneereal’ disease of the sixties and seventies. There is no predominant architectural street character, it is eclectic and is dominated by detail and decoration; from the wrought iron lacework of the terrace to the timber detailing of the Arts and Crafts. The recurring theme is of blank boundary walls with open ends, glazed to the harbour side, decorated to the street.

The fundamental premise in the redevelopment of this site is one of like for like. Little redevelopment of existing buildings will occur if developers are asked to demolish a big building and replace it with a small one. This project aimed to take an existing big ugly building which broke every rule within the council’s Development Control Plan and replace it with a building which still breaks the rules but which delivers a high-quality public environment at the street and harbour edges, and high-quality living environments within the dwellings themselves.

36 Louisa Road is an investigation into, and a play on, solid, void and decoration. The building aims to re-establish a street pattern and rhythm that was deleted when the site was consolidated in the 50s. It aims to give back a pedestrian scale, reflecting a more intimate street edge. It aims to contribute to the decoration of the street but with a distinctly Australian reference.

Review
While most of the country still seems largely preoccupied by the Great Australian Dream of a house on a quarter acre block, multi-residential developments of all shapes and sizes are beginning to take their place as part of the housing stock of the nation, paving the way for denser, and hopefully more sustainable cities. Contrary to concerns that multi-res equates to higher density, which equates to loss of amenity, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in this regard – many new multi-res projects in fact increase the amenity of both the urban environment and the domestic domain. SJB Architects NSW recently-completed Louisa Road Apartments is one such project.

In Sydney there are many extraordinary pieces of real estate: amazing sites with incredible views and great orientation, close to the city centre and local facilities. Louisa Road, Birchgrove has all of these qualities, whispering the real estate mantra of “location, location, location”. The north end of the street is a peninsula that overlooks Cockatoo Island and the Parramatta River to the west, and directly down the centre of Sydney Harbour to the east. Home to a number of grand residences, both old and new, the project represents the pinnacle of real estate investment.

Halfway along the peninsula, on the western side of the street among the stately homes, a 1960s apartment block containing 31 small flats allowed the less wealthy a privileged position in the street. However, most of the dwellings were poorly oriented with little sun and ventilation, and after more than 40 years the building was in need of substantial repair – it was about to fall into the harbour, in fact. Initial investigations considered the reuse of the original building, but the low floor-to floor heights and the position of the building on its site presented limitations.

The original building was set well back from the street, allowing a large concrete carpark to dominate the streetscape. On the riverside, it protruded into the foreshore building alignment. However, the steep slope of the site disguised an additional four levels below the modest three-storey Louisa Road façade, which created an expansive building envelope that extended over seven levels. This provided a precedent to replicate a level of density that far outstripped the existing planning controls. SJB negotiated through a labyrinth of development restrictions to propose a new building of equivalent size that has improved the site’s contribution to the river edge and allowed a positive engagement with the historic streetscape.

In the new project the original site section is replicated, but the building is moved away from the water’s edge, creating a positive alignment with the street. The overall form is articulated to create a scale that is sympathetic to the adjacent Victorian terraces and houses. A view corridor is provided from the street to the water beyond, and this gap allows access to an underground carpark. This carpark uses the smallest possible amount of the site by employing a stacking system that extends over four levels. The floor-to-floor heights of the apartments have been adjusted from 2.6 to 2.8 metres, increasing the overall building height by 1.2 metres, and this has been cleverly disguised by the articulation of the building mass. From Louisa Road the building appears as a three storey duplex, scaled vertically and horizontally to replicate a rhythm consistent with the neighbouring historical pattern. The two lower levels are veiled in a metal screen that is perforated by the silhouette of an abstracted eucalypt. This pattern complements the decoration of the adjacent Victorian terraces beautifully. The building also replicates the adjacent pattern of open ends to the street and solid masonry boundary walls, which in this case are also imprinted with the eucalypt motif.

Within the building shell a set of luxury apartments offer a parallel conversation. On first glance it is difficult to understand how this project addresses the aspirations of sustainability that Sunland claims in its marketing brochures. The project converts a building envelope that previously contained 31 flats (a mixture of bedsits, one bed and two bed apartments) into a new form, which houses only six ‘luxury’ apartments within a very similar built mass. Ranging from 280 to 420 square metres, these apartments are far from compact. The simple mathematics of this seems contrary to sustainable principles of providing more dwellings per hectare in order to increase the density of urban environments.

However, this project addresses a very specific corner of the housing market, which is doubtlessly foreign to many of us. The characteristics of the site invariably create a particular real estate condition in a market where location and prospect are highly valued. The brief anticipates a clientele ranging from ‘upper class empty nesters’ downsizing from larger homes, to professionals with hybrid families – two of his kids, one of hers and two of theirs. Both groups require a housing arrangement that does not conform to either the three bedroom suburban model, or to a more conventional apartment arrangement.

The plan arrangement divides the spaces around the building’s core, creating separate enclaves at different corners of the dwelling, each with their own bathroom and most with a private outdoor space. These spaces could be used as bedrooms, offices or additional living spaces – ‘media rooms’, and the like. On the harbour-side the extremely generous open plan living rooms are designed to host large cocktail and dinner parties, or extended family gatherings, with semi-commercial kitchens that can accommodate a commercial catering crew.

The generosity and ambiguity of the planning arrangement provides the potential ‘loose fit’ that will allow the building to adapt to a range of different scenarios over time. The project also offers the potential for life to be lived in a sustainable manner, depending on how the residents choose to use the building. The location provides fabulous connection to services and public transport, with a ferry terminal at the end of the street. All rooms have generous light, and provision of cross-ventilation and shading that allows the internal environment to be passively mediated. The adjacent park provides abundant outdoor space to act as a fabulous ‘back yard playground’, and the generous balconies could accommodate a veritable market garden.

While the interior finishes are rather too dark and reflective for my own personal taste, they are designed with a particular aesthetic in mind, and it is difficult to question this approach given Sunland’s success in this field. However, one hopes the interiors can outlast current fashion and that the new owners do not immediately refurbish the apartments. Replacing the interior finishes to suit their tastes would negate the ‘sustainability credits’ that the complex has accrued by consolidating a set of large dwellings compactly onto a single site.

Formerly host to the ‘worst house in the best street’, the site has been transformed by an urban strategy that seeks to engage directly with the context in a sensitive, yet ambitious, manner that is particular and site specific. This is a carefully considered and beautifully executed project, involving a level of complexity that has been addressed at a range of scales. It serves as a model for high-density blocks of large dwellings and delivers amenity to the neighbourhood, while allowing the residents to engage in the ideal of a sustainable future, depending on the nature of the lifestyle they choose to adopt.

Helen Norrie is a design lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of Tasmania.

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