Garden House

March 17, 2011

Inspired by the modernism of Le Corbusier, Durbach Block plants a little patch of Arcadia on a hillside in suburban Sydney.

Spring has arrived just in time for my visit to the Garden House. Cirrocumulus clouds hurry across a psychedelic blue sky. Plants seem to climb out of the soil before my eyes. Bees hover. Dogs frolic in the grass. The lavender is pungent.

Like a Palladian villa, the Garden House sits at the top of a rise, its elevation stretched across the width of a double block. It has a stately disposition in keeping with its affluent suburban surrounds. Between street and house there is first a sandstone retaining wall, then a sloping expanse of garden. Concrete walls wind down from the house, encasing an undulating flight of stairs before folding into a gatehouse. The house behind is modernist in appearance, and the gate unexpectedly whimsical, overgrown with a vine-like pattern of steel curlicues. Architect Neil Durbach, of Sydney practice Durbach Block, greets me at the gate. Dressed in a sky blue shirt surmounted by his trademark halo of fluffy white hair, he looks ready to float into the ether.

‘It’s a very formidable looking house from the street,’ says Durbach as we ascend the stairs. ‘It’s almost like a fortress, it doesn’t give much away.’ Interestingly, at that precise moment I am thinking the exact opposite. With the exception of their Droga Apartment (1997) – a glinting rooftop jewel visible from passing city trains – Durbach Block houses tend to be almost invisible to the public eye, their living spaces secretly unfolding. The Garden House is comparatively exposed. While vacant for my inspection, it’s easy to imagine the home overrun in summer with pool-bombing teenagers, the parents seeking refuge on their upstairs balcony, all of this visible from the pavement. A few saplings have yet to grow thick enough to offer refuge.

The plan of the Garden House is an L-shape, with communal spaces on the ground floor and bedrooms above. ‘It is the most simple plan we’ve ever done,’ says Durbach, ‘but the section is quite complex.’ Wrapped in a brick skin, the upper storey straddles a concrete and glass plinth. Steel struts support the overhanging volume and enclose a ground-floor veranda. The anti-gravitational effect of placing an opaque mass above a translucent base recalls Sky Haus, Durbach Block’s design for pre-fabricated dwelling company Happy Haus. A sculptural brick object surrounded by landscape, the Garden House also has much in common with Infinity House, the architects’ winning entry in the recent 2010 About Face competition. Draped in a brickwork ribbon, Infinity House proposes an exuberant form for project housing in a suburban context.

While the Garden House is the latest in a long line of bespoke Durbach Block residences, it is clear from these aesthetic overlaps that investigations into low-cost and mass-produced housing are spilling over into the architects’ other work. Indeed, Durbach cites Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul at Neuilly-sur-Seine as a key reference. Designed for a father and son and constructed between 1954-1956, the Maisons Jaoul were built to modular dimensions and on a limited budget amid frugal postwar conditions. The houses have a raw, brutalist quality in keeping with Le Corbusier’s Indian projects, but are much cruder than the white render and smooth lines of his earlier French houses.

Le Corbusier has always exerted influence over the work of Durbach Block. Those earlier French houses – Villa Stein, Villa Savoye – have surfaced time after time in projects from their Darling Point House (1992) to the extraordinary cliff-top Holman House (2004). Here, the attempt to emulate the crudity of the Maisons Jaoul represents a stylistic departure, an interest in surface modulation perhaps encouraged by the tiled façade of Durbach Block’s Roslyn Street building (2009). ‘It was the first time we’ve used brick,’ explains Durbach. ‘We asked the brickies to make it rough.’ Initially, the normally meticulous brickies failed to satisfy the architects’ instructions. To achieve the desired effect, Durbach resorted to recycled bricks and a full-scale pattern that painstakingly mimics irregularity. Resting brick on concrete, he artfully inverts the logic of the Maisons Jaoul. Reminiscent of the arched portals in Palladio’s Villa Poiana, a pair of compact arches punctuates the house’s long west-facing façade.

On entering the house, the first thing that catches my eye is the glint of a custom-designed brass door handle. Abundant light enters the living space through a fissure between the overhanging upper storey and the lower storey wall. The overhang is periodically cut away to admit views of the sky. Occupying the hinge in the L-shaped plan, the kitchen is the site of maximum vertical intensity. Here, a void to the level above creates a complex intersection between plaster walls and glass. Behind the kitchen, an internal yet inaccessible courtyard drops down dramatically between levels. The courtyard contains a miniature jungle that casts green light into the house’s predominantly white interior. At the far end of the ground floor, a lap pool juts out along the house’s northern boundary.

The house’s upper level teems with memorable elements and spaces. The top-lit stairwell is enclosed in a sloped plaster hood, which is in turn punctured by a rectangular green aperture. ‘It’s a little bit of Firminy,’ says Durbach, and indeed it is: a miniaturised segment of Le Corbusier’s posthumously built chapel. En route to the master bedroom, a corridor spans between the lush internal courtyard and the glass-walled void down to the kitchen. Windows from the master bedroom overlook a row of oversized Provincial-style dwellings. If you squint, it could be the French Riviera. However, the balcony handrail keys us back into place, squiggling suggestively at the vantage point from which Sydney Harbour can be glimpsed.

Containing panes of variously textured translucent glass in one direction, and coloured glass in the other, a crinkled clerestory window animates the long passageway that leads to the secondary bedrooms. With its zigzag form and rainbow glass, the clerestory reminds me of Roy Ground’s (pre-renovation) National Gallery of Victoria. At the end of the passage, a stair descends through an exaggerated arch, lined in plaster to magnify afternoon light. With a staircase at either end, separated by the garden, the house constitutes an elongated loop. I find myself retracing my steps over and over during my visit, spaces arranging themselves in cinematic sequence as I pass.

Architects are responsible for just three percent of Australian homes. We have largely been excluded from the growth of the suburbs and from the development of affordable housing. Durbach Block’s foray into cheap and mass-produced residential design is significant. The Garden House resides in a suburb at the pointy end of the economic spectrum and its budget, program and clientele are very different from those of the typical suburban house. However, its spatial, material and atmospheric qualities give me reason to anticipate Durbach Block’s pre-fabricated dwelling experiment with optimism. The name Garden House is appropriate, and not just for the obvious reasons. So rich is the house with organic curves and sculptural incisions, with detail and incident, that it is practically an architectural ecosystem in its own right.

David Neustein is the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia and teaches in the architecture program at the University of Sydney.

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