The White House, Prahran

March 3, 2011

Nervegna Reed’s residence in inner-city Melbourne draws inspiration from modernist architecture, art and cinema in a celebration of contemporary culture.

In this house for gallery owner Anna Pappas (for whom they have also refreshed a nearby gallery), Nervegna Reed continues its quest for an architecture that is imbued with Deleuzean multiplicities, containing every referent that they and their client bring to the project and delivering it in a way that impinges on us in a ‘felt’ rather than a ‘told’ manner. The ambition – fuelled by their involvement in the world of film – is as out of the ordinary in its comprehensive persistence as it is important in its implications for how we may deliver an architecture that is fully engaged with our current intellectual state of affairs.

The parti is simple enough: a terrace slice stretching from a road to a service lane; a section rising from a basement gallery, through a living floor to a withdrawing floor, with a balcony facing the road; a terrace overlooking a backyard. The basement is lit by a glazed-top sculpture niche or seating nook; the living floor presents a flowing sequence of spaces subdivisible by timber sliding doors, veiled from the see-through stairs by a full-height screen made of reo bars, defined by a large conversation pit and served from a cockpit kitchen which has a literal ‘V’ on its side opening, offering a ‘sliding scale’ of visibility. The upper floor has a space at each end linked by a corridor of services, and can be variously opened and closed into a single or dual occupancy mode – as indeed can the ground floor. In mind was the pinball ricochet. In practice the eye is presented with multiple options, while the body moves easily through the throats between spaces. All of this is realised with a confined palette of materials: polished concrete floors contain the heating, stairs are polished concrete treads pivoted on a single inclined steel beam. The handrails are 40 millimetre diameter reo bars that are amazingly soft to the touch, and chime satisfyingly with the artful screen. Timber frames windows and doors, white render deals with walls and facçades. This is the aesthetic of black and white film.

The architectural intentions are various and multiple. The arced light court is intended to evoke – as a fragment of a possible whole – a Roy Grounds courtyard. The veiled screen recalls the op art of Bridget Reilly or the early work of Frank Stella. The form of the building coils between Loosian anti-ornament façades and Le Corbusier’s exaggerated spatial grab in the Maison Citrohan, while the horizontal window bands in the front elevation channel Walter Gropius. The indented front façade is a homage to Gio Ponti’s Pirelli plan. How could all of this be carried in one far from over-blown artefact? The architect conceived of the house as a dispersion of objects on a virtual tabula rasa (another consciously challenging frame) that is then crimped by the constraints of plot size.

‘Film teaches us about the way that we see objects and spaces,’ says Toby Reed, fresh from five years of immersion in that world. ‘Humans are pattern makers. Nothing stops them interpreting everything, variously…’ He describes how the front façade is seen as a giant ’2′ or a giant ‘?’ Both interpretations are acceptable: no one can control interpretation. There is, believes Reed, arguing against Peter Eisenman (and Aldo Rossi), no ‘deep grammar’ in form. While working on the design, Reed played John Coltrane, thinking of his drive to purity. As Coltrane said: [01] ‘All a musician can do is get closer to the sources of nature and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.’ But in spite of this, as he worked he was conscious all the time of making references, only recalling later what they were. Those characteristic clusters of holes in the façades, cunning de-scaling devices, also provide discreet outward views from the terrace without contravening overlooking regulations. They came floating into consciousness from Paul Schrader’s movie Patty Hearst (1988), as well as the bullet holes in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. For Reed, abstraction and representation exist on a continuum, not so much in opposition as two aspects of every situation. The references slide along other continuums, from international art, the canons of 1920s modern architecture, the post-war revival in Italy and a deep involvement in the local architectural culture, with much owed to the teaching of Peter Corrigan, Howard Raggatt and Ian McDougall. Reed’s practice has emerged in an appreciation of, and in contestation with, the admired achievements of peers: Rob McBride, Paul Morgan, Paul Minifie and Jan van Schaik, Callum Fraser – with Lyons Architects and Sean Godsell Architects as boundary riders.

Nervegna Reed eschew narrative construction, striving for an inclusion of our cultural lives without labelling or sequencing. This reminds me of artist Richard Hamilton’s prescription for making a good collage: each image must be reduced to the point at which it is on the point of being unrecognisable. Then new combination is possible. The aims of this most emotionally and intellectually engaging house put me in mind of the practice of ‘post-production’ in film-making. In this house, the filmic achievements are so well judged that the combinations, the references, the objects and spaces are experienced in delight.

There does then seem to be a deliberately pragmatic cast to the architectural post-production. The Loosian purity of the front façade is capped off with a very practical flashing capping. The reverie of a Groundsian abstraction is halted by the sight of a Hopper head and downpipe of distinctly humble cast. The VCAT dictated off-axis setback of a skylight above the arced geometrical form forces a contemplation of its unfulfilled purity. What this indicates to me is the inclusivity of this approach to architecture: the intensity comes from parallel lines of post-production, a strong contrast to the obsession with architectural geometry alone that gives rise to concerns such as The Poetics of a Wall Projection – an entire book [02] devoted to the analysis of a fugitive wall in the house Wittgenstein designed for his sister.

This is an intensely humanist project, revelling in the complexity of our cultural make-up and embracing the contradictions of contingency that characterise our everyday lives.

[1] Quoted by Jenniy Diski LRB Vol. 32, No. 16, 19 August 2010, p17
[2] Turnovsky, Jan, AA Words Three 3: The Poetics of a Wall Projection, Architectural Association 2009

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

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