This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #125: Architecture and the Arts
Above: The Francis Street Apartments confidently address the public realm
The Francis Street Apartments are a spirited reminder of the many essential things that ‘planning’ has stolen from Sydney’s residential architecture. They occupy an aberrant situation in the established urban pattern, set forward of the general building alignment due to a precedent set by the former building. In such situations, the niceties of planning suggest that the appropriate architectural response is reticence. We are asked to devastate formal expression in pursuit of the fantasy that, through the blunt stepping of a building’s mass, it can somehow acquire invisibility.
The concrete and timber facade of the apartments
The apartments audaciously celebrate an atypical urban situation. Cognisant of its privileged position in the street, the building works ceaselessly in plan and section to articulate all five of its highly visible facades, including its unusually prominent side elevations and its roof plane. The response is deferent and neighbourly but not submissive, reasserting the right of residential architecture to confidently address the public realm. Its tightly worked composition, with an unsentimentally raw material palette, does not break the facade down into elemental set pieces but works intensively to cultivate a strong, singular, planar presence. At the top of the building, an overhanging room and a deep concrete soffit (unfortunately trimmed in extent during construction) push out towards the street, strongly imprinting the presence of the building on the pedestrian level below.
The building's deep concrete soffit pushes out towards the street
The soffit tapers to a crisp edge, which seems to excise the building from the sky above. The project comprises six residential apartments. The lower two levels contain mirrored pairs and the upper two feature the more complex, interlocked arrangement of the remaining two apartments. The lower apartments have a highly elastic spatial structure. The rear bedroom spaces open onto vertical light wells, set against a deep rear cutting and punctured by horizontal concrete beams that extend from the building’s structure. As one moves progressively through the plan towards the street, the spatial structure is pulled into a strong, horizontal datum that underscores the district views and horizon line to the northeast.
The apartments generously open out onto the street, without compromising critical notions of domestic space
Although articulated as a strong plane, the north-eastern facade is conceived as a rich, three-dimensional threshold. Within this thickness, the articulation of the building occurs on a room-by-room basis rather than apartment by apartment. This adeptly undermines the established expression of scale in multi-residential architecture, so often captive to the tyranny of the module. These deep thresholds, and the muting effect of the concrete soffits on the brilliant light, render the district views crisply and sharply, drawing them deeply into the internal space. The thickened edge also allows large areas of glazing to open rooms generously to the street, without compromising the sense of protection fundamental to domestic space.
Unified interior and exterior spaces
Angelo Candalepas notes the influence of Schindler’s Lovell Beach House on his thinking about this project, and the threshold zone exemplifies that. Part frame, part wall, part room, part balcony, part interior, part exterior, it groups together a collection of particularly framed outlooks. Locked together into a singular element by its uncompromising palette and the dominant horizontals of its spandrels and sharp soffits, it is reminiscent of Paul Klee’s beautiful advice about composition in painting: “Reduce the whole to a very few steps. Let the general impression rest on this principle of economy.” Candalepas calls it “the essential”, and the material palette has an integral textural continuity: off- form concrete, timber, sand-coloured render, travertine and grey marble. With form so strongly and purposefully expressed, there is no need to overplay the material palette as there is nothing to hide.
The crisp and muted material palette continues in the interior
You will notice, too, that this is an apartment building with a roof! Not an inset structure that peers fearfully over a parapet, not an enclosure for building services, or a faux roof that struggles to conceal a corpulent penthouse apartment within a tiny attic space – but a roof that flows from the lyrical working of a cross-section to heighten the qualities of interior space. On the upper level this draws shafts of light into the extraordinary living space, and also well into the circulation space at the rear of the plan. Deep linear beams run perpendicular to the shorter span, unifying the separate rooms of the apartment through reference and engagement with this immense and strongly satisfying structural order.
In 1953 Louis Kahn said: “I believe in frank architecture. A building is a struggle, not a miracle, and the architect should acknowledge this.” He was referring to the honest expression of structure, material and weight in architecture, but it is interesting to reflect on how in contemporary times so much of our collective residential architecture has adopted the language of a very different type of ‘struggle’. The default position of planning is to ask for the presence of buildings to be diminished, and the results of this reductive, one-size-fits-all logic are strongly expressed in the urban realm. The beige banalities of real estate advice are also writ large.
Candalepas Associates acknowledge the struggle but do not let it tame architectural possibilities. Their refusal to allow the easy answers of planning to contaminate the formal expression of their architecture is an important, and thrilling, act of resistance.