Watsons Bay House

September 24, 2010

Sydney based practice-cum-blog Super Colossal has built a big name for itself through its labours in the digital world. John de Manincor visits their first work in bricks and mortar.

Marcus Trimble is well-known as the unseen face behind the architectural blogs Gravestmor and Super Colossal. This large renovation project designed by Trimble is the practice’s largest built work to date. The site is just 50 metres from the harbour’s edge in Sydney’s prestigious Watsons Bay. While the common perception of Sydney’s harbour suburbs is one of mega mansions and glitterati, this particular pocket is characterised by art deco apartments and unassuming Californian bungalows vying for glimpses of the harbour’s shimmering surface.

The original brick bungalow is the centre house in a group of three similar houses in a conservation area, each listed as a contributory item by the local council. So with views and heritage values foremost in the minds of neighbours and the approval authority, one would assume there would be little room to move in terms of meaningful contemporary architecture.

While it is reasonable to say that many of this state’s planning controls are retrograde, we all too often hear architects complain that Council would not let them do this, that or the other. This mistaken attitude assumes there is no room for design excellence or innovation within the rules; similarly, it takes a view that by contravening planning legislation one is by default producing good work.

Trimble had originally produced a larger proposal for the site, which he presented in preliminary form to Council for comment – the comments were not particularly favourable given it broke a number of Council’s conservative controls. Rather than seeing this process as a hindrance to creativity though, Trimble simply said to himself, “These are the constraints, how can I work within them?” He humbly admits the project is far better for having been through the process; it made him work harder, intellectually and formally.

The brief called for the reconfiguration and expansion of a well-proportioned 1920s bungalow into a family home for parents and four grown-up children. The family was downsizing somewhat to take advantage of an opportunity to live by the harbour. From the street the new work is all but imperceptible; remarkably, what appears as a modest single-storey cottage from the street contains five bedrooms (two existing and three new), two living areas and, of course, kitchen, dining and even a swimming pool. The client notes that the slightly smaller house operates much better for her busy family. As she says, “We see more of each other, we talk more… we love it.”

It seems a little unusual to enter a house directly into a kitchen, but the client spends most of her day there, not only cooking for the family, but also teaching specialist ethnic cooking to community groups. From here, she greets visitors without them having to traipse through the family home. Despite this slight variation from the traditional program, however, like any great family home the kitchen is the heart of the project. A huge stone bench that cantilevers from impossibly thin stainless steel legs dominates the space. The bench is used for pastry cooking and forms a focal point for informal discussions over snacks. The kitchen’s thick back wall, finished with blackbutt, houses appliances, a pantry and a staircase. The hall behind is finished in the same material. Together, they achieve Trimble’s objective of creating a carved space that connects the upper and lower levels of the house.

The dining room to the rear is an interesting space – with the small amount of yard available the room is conceived more as a patio. Set down one step from the main level of the house, it has a floor finished in honed stone. Four columns run along the corridor edge, the openings between are matched on the opposite side with four sliding timber doors – beyond these are four brick piers. The west-facing timber doors and the southern glazed doors can fully retract. With both sets of doors open, the room feels like a covered courtyard; when the timber doors slide shut, it takes on a warm interiority.

Externally, the upper volume reads as part extrusion, part exercise in copper origami. In places, red cooper cladding morphs from the pitch of the existing terracotta roof, rising to create space for the rear bedroom. In other areas it is eroded, pinched and folded to create a balcony and a picture window with harbour views. This form is handled with great skill, rigorously tested through both digital and physical modelling. Despite comprehensive drawings and explanations, Trimble was concerned that the clients were not sure what they were getting. For the trained eye the design drawings are bold, brave and decidedly clear. The executed work is testament to Bjarke Ingels’ catchy phrase, “Yes is More”, demonstrating that working within constraints can lead to excellent design results.

At the 2009 AIA Conference in Melbourne, Trimble came under fire from Aaron Betsky and others for his blog site. The jury questioned his promotion of other architects and the blog as a vehicle for expression in architecture. Perhaps his inclusion in this critique process was somewhat premature, with the well-published Cardboard Cubby House his only built project at the time. Since then, in addition to this project, Trimble has completed an apartment fitout in Elizabeth Bay and won a major urban design competition for the Gold Coast Cultural and Civic Precinct in Queensland. Hugely diverse in scale, these projects show an amazing consistency in the clarity of form and idea.

It seems that while the Super Colossal blog is a vehicle for the expression of a vast array of opinions and work, Trimble has found a way to condense myriad bits of information into clear ideas via crisp drawings that, in this instance, translate into great architecture. My only concern is that as Super Colossal evolves into a more productive architectural practice, the world may lose one of its best architectural blog sites.


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