Greeves Street House

June 23, 2011

Robert Simeoni’s small extension to an existing terrace celebrates the hybrid vigour of inner Melbourne’s urban fabric and industrial heritage.

This is an extension to a four-room, double-fronted house in Fitzroy, Melbourne’s first suburb; a suburb that was also the last in the city to include within its fabric a gradient of accommodations suited to every social class. The western flank of the original house and its rear yard runs along a small laneway off Greeves Street. Sometime in the 1980s the previous owners built a double-storey cream brick house at the far end of the yard, with a boundary wall chamfered inwards to a car space accessed through a roller door. Demonstrating a consciousness of and respect for the original house, its striking, Ogee-backed parapet wall buttress was mimicked in topping out the laneway and subdivision fire-walls of the new house.

Into the space between these two, and in the congenial context of that respect for the past, Robert Simeoni was commissioned to insert a new kitchen and guest lavatory, and above that a master bedroom with walk-in cupboard and bathroom. As Simeoni describes, he and his clients took the ‘deliberate decision to build away from the lane’. The plan inserts at the base a thin ‘L’ against the rear of the fourth room of the existing house, the arm forming a glazed bridge set back in a bed of gravel from the eastern boundary and from the western face of the kitchen rectangle below, while the rectangle of the master suite butts against the party wall to the south. The upper level gives the feeling of being on the roof. This arrangement (negotiated with the neighbours, none of whom lodged objections at planning stage despite the intimate adjacencies around the site) forms a courtyard that captures the open space of the rest of the yard and lane, and has views to the skyline beyond. Its effect on your peripheral vision when you are in the yard creates an ‘implied space’ for outdoor sitting.

The extension is connected to the house by the removal of the rear wall of the southeast room, and the base of the ‘L’ rising through to the full height of the new wing forms a lantern bringing light into that room. Rising through it is an ‘L’ plan stair made of glass. The architect strove to, in his words, ‘avoid the usual’ in such features, hanging glass baluster panels from steel balustrades, and bolting the clear glass treads to these hanging sheets. This skirt of glass guides you around the base of the stair, and produces a single view into the rear yard through the kitchen. In this rectangle, a large island fitting that is both storage and counter top, is separated from the boundary wall to provide a corridor to the guest lavatory. An immaculate arrangement of counter, horizontal window and bulkhead pierced by one centrally located window above the sink, completes the kitchen.

The upper storey is encased in a zinc frame, with the glazing line set back to accommodate the thick roller mechanism of stainless steel mesh blinds. The zinc presents a thin edge and appears to enfold the blinds in machined ensemble so that the extension ‘becomes quite abstract as to what it is’. This ‘hint of the back’ preserved in the planning is also ‘an industrial remnant glimpse’. These quotations from the architect capture the tentative sensitivity to the much-studied and loved fabric of North Melbourne – as experienced, modified and extended by the architect’s bricklayer father and his fellow migrants from northern Italy. They also represent a depth of understanding developed by an awareness of this specific local poetic, and an intellectual grasp of its significance embellished by years of study back in northern Italy. We confront here the generalising of a province through intense connecting of these two local cultures, one with a history commencing in the mid-19th century, the other with roots in the ancient civilisation of Rome and the modern history of Venice.

The industrial design quality of the extension – a custom-made machine or console of ambiguous scale – suggests the lineage of the handcrafted cars and furniture of northern Italy. It also evokes the rear yard tin shed – one of which, long ago placed there by the owners, was removed to the builder’s yard during construction, and then carefully returned to form the fourth side of the central implied space of the yard.

The architect muses whether so small a project merits review. I counter with the fact that the hugely influential oeuvre of John Soane consisted largely of alterations and additions – the most important of which had a plan area of a little more than 10 square metres. As with the work of Carlos Scarpa, in Simeoni’s designs, every detail holds his full architectural program – its ambition to convey construction in suspension; its uncommon grasp of the specific poetic of each place in which he works. The glass stair, a cherished ambition of the owners, is perhaps a little to the side of the general thrust of the architecture. Here I confess to a generalised loathing for these hubristic constructs, born of the humiliation I felt at being unable to walk across the glass bridge that Gae Aulenti devised as the exit from the exhibition of the impressionist paintings in the garret of the Quay d’Orsai. But a form that is so often a mirror to jejune formalist folly is here brought into play with all of the consideration that characterised those haunting stairways and wells in Simeoni’s Seaford Lifesaving Club building. A house that gloried in revealing the facture of its portico buttress, a fact recognised and replicated in the cream brick neighbour, now contains a museum piece that looks as if it was created in one of those northern Italian sheds from which emerge handmade automobiles.

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.

  • Joseph Austin-Crowe June 24th, 2011 4:43 am

    This is a real achievement. I used to live in Greeves St myself a few years ago. The lack of available light and narrow lot widths are notable hurdles that seem to have been overcome.

    The scale of the problem certainly merits review, I’d say, considering the constraints placed upon the architect. The wide angle lens used is testament to this!

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