Architecture

Brent Knoll

September 30, 2010

A traditional agricultural typology serves as fertile inspiration for emerging practice March Studio’s first house.

The Australian Farm homestead is an intriguing architectural typology, born from the pioneers’ drive to conquer the land, but embedded in the most English of traditions of creating space and defining territory. A collection of buildings holds a prominent position on the site, sheds and outhouses strung off roads of gravel in an un-designed manner. The house is the focus of this assemblage, with its thick walls (of local stone when available), small windows and deep verandas representing retreat from the harsh, unforgiving country. The dwelling is then surrounded by layers of manufactured landscape that provides further protection, in the form of windbreaks and the shading of exotic trees, but also a picturesque reproduction of flower gardens and vegetable plots that have more to do with the motherland than the reality of life on the land.

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March Studio’s new ‘house’ understands this condition and regards it well. Set just outside a small town in Victoria’s Goldfields, north of Melbourne, the property holds an original 1850s dwelling, a solid stone building, that is embraced by a giant hedge concealing it from approach and deflecting the strong south-west winds. Incidentally, but more importantly, the hedge provides a sense of spatial definition capturing the building and its decorative gardens. The client’s original brief was to demolish a 1920s lean-to on the house and add a new kitchen and five bedrooms, but this project is neither addition nor new house – perhaps it’s simply another building to add to the present sheds. March has embarked on a re-organisation of the elements of the homestead, adding to and adapting them for new use. “We wanted to celebrate the farm,” declares March principal Rodney Eggleston, “and everything that goes with farm life, connecting with the land and all that goes with it. Understanding that you are in a different environment from the city or the suburbs and taking delight from it, even if you might get a little wet occasionally.”

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The new architecture behaves more like an additional element of the landscape than built form, as it follows the direction of the hedge, giving shelter along the south boundary of the homestead, shifting in plan and section to define new external spaces between the old house and the existing manufactured landscape around it. “We flirt with the old building,” says Eggleston, “not wanting to engulf her but providing a couple of ‘kissing points’ where we almost touch.” Each move in this dance is carefully constructed around program, views to landscape and the provision of northern light to the depth of the plan. Like a Rubik’s Snake puzzle from the early 80s, the moves are deliberate and constrained by the structural and material logic of a linear plan.

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Close to the hedge a bathroom and services room is pushed into the ground (a necessary ‘kissing point’). This space backs onto a kids’ bedroom, recessed like a cave. Past the confines of the hedge the volume emerges, throwing itself eastward, opening its length to take in northern light through kitchen, dining and living spaces to culminate in a master bedroom that gestures over the land to the valley beyond. There is nothing tentative about the manner in which this building takes control of the ground – it is at once embedded and hovering, held in tension.

 

The materiality is striking, dominated by the roof and its lining. “The copper roof is a veil that unravels,” says Eggleston. “The section mimics the plan; it dips to reveal the old house then straightens to frame it, then rises to frame the landscape, tilting back to let in light.” The lining changes as the roof evolves in section; timber lining boards in the earth bound part serve as a reference to traditional outhouse construction, then pressed aluminium in the primary volume make a patterned reference to the pressed tin suffix of the awnings that line the main street of the adjacent town. In each case, the material remains in its ‘natural’ manufactured state, as it should do on a farm where parsimony is often paramount and superfluous finishes should be viewed as unnecessary. The metal roof provides the opportunity for reflective up lighting, leaving the surface largely untouched. The agricultural nature of the detailing continues into the kitchen, where a massive chopping block replaces a kitchen bench and pots are hung from a utilitarian rack that covers the ceiling above. There is a refreshing attitude that is present in this building; functionality is amplified and the fact that the space will be energetically used has been embraced in robust solutions to domestic details.

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Eggleston describes the aspiration of the project as a “weekender conceived as retirement package,” and paints a scene more reminiscent of Bertolucci’s film Stealing Beauty than a hobby farm. In this vision, the homestead is occupied by a selection of individuals who engage with country pursuits on the land for the morning (“swimming, walking, building stuff”) followed by a great lunch then “repose to the hidden spaces”, only to gradually emerge late afternoon in time for dinner. “It’s not a big house”, says Eggleston, “but the relation of the different spaces – both interior, transitional spaces under eaves and the surrounding gardens – makes it seem almost endless. It’s a place that evolves as you find a new spot, or understand how to follow the sun as it tracks around; an architecture that evolves through discovery.”

As the first house for a young practice this project shows great ambition and adventure. Most importantly, it is an architecture that is grounded in research into the evolution of a uniquely Australian typology. The battle to tame the country has now become the challenge to retain it. The increase in popularity of rural towns within a couple of hours of our big cities through the influx of so-called ‘Tree Changers’ has placed great pressure on communities and the landscape, reflecting the growing problem in small coastal towns. This is sure to continue and architects will begin to have significantly greater influence on the new buildings that emerge in this context. March Studio has demonstrated that considered interrogation of the strategies that have operated on farms for many years may demonstrate a new relationship with the land, and perhaps a new way to live.

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marchstudio.com.au

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