Architecture

DPR House

February 10, 2011

In their latest project, Marsh Cashman Koolloos fuse the formal possibilities of digital design with a rich, layered approach to residential design.

Completed in 1998, UN Studio’s Mobius House was a milestone in the advent of software-enabled architecture. Modelled on the spatial concept of the Möbius strip, a surface which folds back on itself to create a single, traversable plane, the house was an early attempt to translate complex computer-generated geometry into physical form. But with its oblique angles, slanted glazing and cantilevered concrete, the house wasn’t merely the consequence of software aided thinking; it simultaneously expressed the burgeoning aesthetic of digital architecture. Echoed in projects by Future Systems, NOX, dECOi, Zaha Hadid and Foreign Office Architects, the desire to evoke the potential of digital architecture often exceeded the usefulness of the technology. Surveying a room full of images of such projects at Metamorph, the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale, Israeli designer Ron Arad (himself a proponent of the digital aesthetic) remarked that technology should be like the telephone – invisible when at its most useful.

We are currently witnessing the first generation of Australian houses that have been conceived entirely in the virtual realm. Some of these houses, most obviously those by McBride Charles Ryan (MCR), make prominent use of certain software tools. Successors to the Mobius House, these houses celebrate the possibilities of digital architecture in every ruled surface, Boolean void and triangulated plane. Concurrently, however, a new trend is emerging. In its many forms, be it basic, generative or parametric, 3D design software has become ubiquitous. For some architects, such software has become as essential as the telephone, and is equally taken for granted.

Recently completed by architects Marsh Cashman Koolloos (MCK), the DPR House is indicative of this trend. The house was conceived using 3D software, but is not demonstrably ‘digital’ or ‘futuristic’. In the Mobius House and MCR’s Klein Bottle House, a mathematically derived circulation loop ties the rooms together into an infinite promenade. Connecting house, garden and basement, the DPR House features a half loop, more question mark than confident spatial theorem. The chamfered forms of the house, which are the first indication of its computer progeny, owe more to council codes than a stylistic agenda. Yes, the DPR House is big, strange and a little awkward looking but as an open-ended exploration of the medium – rather than the message – of digital architecture, it is a house brimming with interest and potential.

Facing on to leafy Darling Point Road, the public face of the DPR House looks like something out of the Louis Kahn playbook. The street level façade is a massive masonry plinth relieved only by some hit-and-miss brickwork. Above are two roofs: one squat, cubic and slate-clad; the other craggy, shingled and with a solitary window like a wary witch’s eye. It is, quite frankly, a cracking elevation. Architect Mark Cashman tells me that the scale of the façade is similar to what was there before, ‘a single storey, liver brick, bad Californian bungalow,’ which the clients couldn’t see any reason to retain. In deference to the neighbourhood, the new dwelling approximates the proportions of the old, with its upper storey disguised as a roof. Yet, while its appearance is understated, the house relates to the pavement like a fortress keep. During construction, one witty neighbour would halt his regular morning stroll to address the architects: ‘How’s the bunker going?’ he’d ask, and later, ‘How’s the substation going?’

She Japanese, he Chinese-Malay, the clients were after a home for themselves, their two daughters, and frequent overseas guests. They initially approached MCK having seen their White House, a residential project facing Sydney’s Centennial Park. Taking their cues from that house, the architects proposed ‘a two-storey, flat roof number.’ But the clients were unimpressed. They wanted higher ceilings. So the architects literally pushed the envelope, lofting the roofline to the maximum allowable under Woollahra Council’s codes. A web of intersecting setbacks, shadow planes and view corridors from neighbours’ properties were then subtracted from this volume, until a sculptural shell remained. Now that we’re tapering the building to the sky, the architects seemed to reason, why not taper to the ground as well? Accordingly, a series of ‘legs’ support the shell’s upper storey, providing ample opportunity for sunlight to penetrate to the ground floor.

In others’ hands, the shell of the DPR House – sculptural, suspended and supported on tapering legs – could have resembled a singular object (see MCR’s ominous, black-clad Cave House). Instead, we have a clear indication of MCK’s liberated and nonchalant attitude to digital tools. A patchwork of materials has been applied to the exterior. The same roof shape that, tiled in shingles and slate, appears quirky and archaic at the front of the house is a sleek, copper-wrapped hood at the rear. Dualities and period references are absent from serious digital architecture – here they are embraced. Of course, there is an underlying logic to the choice of materials. The palette, which includes dark brick and sandstone, replicates that of nearby St Marks Church. Materials have been chosen to comply with Woollahra Council’s infamously strict heritage controls, though it’s hard to imagine that the council reckoned on this liberal interpretation of its rules. ‘We’re still getting grief from the council,’ says Cashman with a hint of pride.

Within the house, a different set of rules entirely is at play. In contrast to the exterior shell, the mostly white interior reads as pith, with spaces carved out or eroded by activity. There has been a conscious effort to blend one space into another. This is achieved by folding materials from floor to wall, wall to ceiling. The timber walkway which approaches the house appears to travel through an entry landing and into the garden, where it turns upwards to create a niche for a daybed and barbecue, and then downwards to become a pool deck. Another band of timber peels away to delineate the living space, then terminates as a bulkhead above the kitchen bench. The brick wall which runs alongside the timber walkway folds down into the floor of the lowest level, reserved for guests and ballet practice. Almost every room has an internal opening into another, making visible this spatial and material continuity.

There is constant tension between the varied program of the house and these attempts at coherency. What other house could boast both a psychedelic, orange and gold wallpapered guest bathroom, and a serene tatami-floored meditation space? The singular gesture, which can be seen to characterise most digitally-conceived dwellings, is replaced here by a multitude of competing gestures, a confluence of forces. Do we focus on the pool that slopes from the subterranean car park, the lawn that coils around the pool, the triple height staircase or the ‘Darth Vader’ balcony that juts out defiantly towards the looming multi-storey apartment building behind? Ultimately, the deployment of so many materials, finishes and – above all – details, conveys the belief that family life cannot be packaged into a single statement, but is inconsistent, expansive and rich. There is hope here for a boisterous digital architecture that eschews the reductive formal gesture.

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