Architecture

Hamilton Courtyard House

March 24, 2011

AIA Gold Medal winner Graeme Gunn and practice partner Sophie Dyring explore one of Gunn’s celebrated courtyard house models in regional Victoria.

Hamilton Courtyard House is immediately welcoming and familiar. Gunn Dyring Architecture and Urban Design have deftly superimposed a relaxed rural personality over an engaging, rationally planned home. There are so many layers of history and interpersonal relationships here that have relevance to the story of this piece of architecture.

Hamilton, 300 kilometres west of Melbourne, is a major regional centre in Victoria and is founded on a strong pastoral heritage. This project is located within the Church Hill Precinct, Hamilton’s dress circle, where the spires of churches built in the late 1800s once dominated the skyline. At the end of the street on which it sits are the Hamilton Botanic Gardens, designed by William Guilfoyle, a renowned 19th century landscape gardener and botanist also responsible for the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

Hamilton Courtyard House is a successful example of a city practice working in a regional location. The Melbourne-based Gunn Dyring is a recently formed partnership between architects Graeme Gunn and Sophie Dyring. Gunn’s achievements and awards in architectural design are legendary. His male ancestors arrived in Australia in 1846 and set up as builders in Dunkeld, not far from Hamilton. Gunn himself was born in Hamilton and worked for his builder father there until 1956, when he left the town to study architecture in Melbourne as a mature age student. More than 50 years later, the practice of Gunn Dyring has returned to Hamilton, to design a new house for a dear friend of the Gunn family.

The brief was for a home for a sole occupant with enough space for visiting family. The owner is a friend of the highly regarded Hamilton Art Gallery and jokingly refers to the house as an annex of the gallery. The collection of contemporary furniture and artwork contained within is impressive and lovingly placed, and the integrated continuity between the disciplines of architecture, landscape and interiors shows evidence of a successful and harmonious collaboration between architect and patron. The highly fraught brief of the architect working for a good friend has been tested in the most robust way, with all parties the better for it.

The Hamilton Courtyard House is a continuation of Gunn’s lifetime study and exploration of the residential courtyard. The site planning has evolved around three evenly spaced gardens; the front garden, central courtyard and rear garden. The two wings of the building are linked by an axial glazed hallway which terminates a long view towards a pair of red shed doors.

This project has many endearing qualities that respond to its location and differentiate it from its city relations. Firstly, there is the lack of emphasis on the garage and the number of vehicles required to be stored indoors. Then there is the comfortable single storey approach, which allows the home to drape across the whole site. Views of surrounding buildings are accepted for what they are, without the laboured placement of high fences and sightscreens so often seen in the big cities, where everyone wishes to protect their own design purity.

The rear garden displays a refreshingly honest and practical approach to everyday life. It reminds me of country homestead planning, where life’s necessities are expected to be a part of the everyday visual environment. Galvanised freestanding water tanks, vegetable gardens and a metal shed are all in full view, confidently positioned within the landscape rather than shoe-horned into tight side setbacks. The lush green of this young landscape provides a stark contrast with the grey building palette, although within several growing seasons the front elevation will be mostly hidden behind a lilly pilly hedge, with only the tops of strategically placed exotic specimen trees visible.

Within this prized heritage streetscape of free-standing bungalows, the modernity of the home has raised local eyebrows, despite the neutrality of materials and rectilinear forms. It’s all a matter of perception though. Architects gaze on rendered concrete walls and think neutrality, while conservative neighbours might perceive them as something harsher. Melbourne architects will fondly remember earlier examples of Gunn’s grey in pivotal projects such as Molesworth Street Kew Townhouses, 1968 (1970 Bronze Medal Award, AIA Victoria Chapter), and the brutalist concrete Plumbers and Gasfitters Union Building, Melbourne, 1970.

Rendered masonry walls and Zincalume metal cladding are crisply edged with expressed charcoal-coloured steel structural sections. Pop up ceiling sections punctuate the elevations and allow daylight to reach deep within each room. A continuous basalt tiled floor forms a solid base to the white flowing gallery spaces, and the basalt has been extended into the courtyard garden via monolithic seating blocks. The highlight of the house is this central courtyard, with its view of the many components of the building. As Gunn states, ‘the courtyard defines the external space,’ which the building then envelopes.

As I leave the house a car cruises by, its driver peering through the fence with a confused gaze. Despite the perplexed reception the building has received from some of the locals, however, it is both reverential and progressive, reflective of a depth of understanding for the area that goes back a long way. In Courtyard House, Gunn Dyring has made a significant contribution to the residential architectural character of Hamilton.

Reno Rizzo is an architect and director of Inarc Architects, based in Melbourne. He was chair of the Residential New category in the 2010 Architecture Awards Victorian Chapter.

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