Law Street House

November 16, 2011

Toiling away on weekends over a period of four years, Amy Muir and Bruno Mendes have built an enigmatic house that reveals their love for South Melbourne and the poetic localism of Alvaro Siza.

Something touches our core when we encounter a self-made house, as evidenced by My House, My Paradise, one of Editorial Gustavo Gili’s most alluring publications. It captures a range of self-designed and self-made houses, from oversized sand castles made of pot shards, bottles or hand- sized pebbles; to follies constructed on secluded estates by landowners in pursuit of meaning through material manifestations; to Salvador Dali’s ensemble of surreal rooms and objects on the coast overlooking the beach, where he and Lorca spent youthful summers dreaming up each other’s lifetime projects.

The house that Amy Muir and Bruno Mendes built at the weekends for almost four years is no exception, etching the sensibility of time into every junction. Muir and Mendes love the inner- city neighbourhood of South Melbourne and longed to find a way of living there. A derelict worker’s cottage and their self-build design gave them the opportunity, and after buying the site, they funded construction out of their salaries, week by week.

The timbers of the floor in the entry hall have been angle butted to the riser timbers of the step into the living zone, grain matching grain – a weekend totally evoked by looking at that step at any time. Their hands, wielding Stanley knives, cut to shape the acoustic board lining the upper-level balcony, where it runs along the skylight gash on the side part wall. As Ken Yeang opines, great architects have a ‘hand and an eye’, and, quite literally here, the hands of the architects have made the house. Knowing that they were going to build it this way, their collective mind’s eye designed a house ‘like a Meccano set’, in which all of the components could be handled by the two of them.

Knowing that they could master welding and angle-grinding, but not carpentry, determined a steel frame, steel partition studs, a steel staircase. As far as possible, this was constructed by bolting components together. They, ‘Daddy Mendes’ apprentices’, had the help of Bruno’s father, a steel fabricator, and the underside of the immaculately welded and grinded stair is an acoustic board-lined Aladdin’s cave of utilities: fridge, washing machine, pantry, fruit and vegetable drawer. The joinery, what Muir and Mendes fondly regarded as ‘shop drawings’, was immaculately worked out and then taken to a fabricator, where, to their amazement, they were sent away to dimension every panel, leaving a 0.8mm tolerance for the Formica. What they then received was a bundled-up jigsaw puzzle of pieces. More weekends etched in the memory. Much had to be done twice: ‘Once badly, then learning from that, properly.’

This hands-on experience impacted directly on their design work during the week, transforming their attitudes to detailing. The house is immaculate, and the only thing they did not make – a superbly lacquered white island unit; the kitchen – sits there at ease in this company. There are no rough edges to draw attention to, but this is not a house where you dwell on the detail. That it is remarked upon is a consequence of the way it was made, a lineage of the house as an experimental site that, for Muir and Mendes, refers back to the Eames House; and to those pioneers of affordable housing who rethought the means of production, back to Walter Segal in England, to Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen.

The house is self-effacing, deferring to its neighbours: a clapboard workman’s cottage and a red brick modernist house covered in ivy. Its facade is the dull black of the radar-defying model jet fighters that sit on an upstairs desk, and there are three openings in this anonymous black skin: the front door; a panel hinged at the bottom that opens out at the top to let light into the downstairs bedroom; and a panel in the concrete base of the building that lifts to reveal services and meters.

From the street, that is it. Nothing of the double storey beyond is visible, and the house remains as enigmatic as Stephen Holl’s Storefront in New York, but that is not the source of inspiration – Alvaro Siza is, his way of enhancing locality, even if its ‘thingness’ does bring Holl’s early work and sketches to mind.

The mental space that informed the design rep- resents profound respect for the area, signified by the rear of the house, where the metal cladding sets off the clapboard of the neighbour as if they have been made for each other. And then they engage with the canon of architecture through their love of the work of Siza, which – perhaps as a reward for completing the house – they will soon experience in Portugal.

Finally, the fact that this ‘paradise’ is self-built secures Muir and Mendes a place in the lineage of those who have worked to make the product of architecture accessible to more than the wealthy.

Leon van Schaik is Professor of Architecture (Innovation Chair) at RMIT, from where he has promoted local and international architectural culture through practice-based research.

  • vicky December 10th, 2011 10:33 pm

    How did the staircase pass regulations for occupancy, when it stipulates no more than 3 stair treads allowed without a balustrade?

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