Architecture

Toomba house

March 27, 2009

James Russell Architects’ residential project blurs the boundary between home and landscape, providing both public and private outdoor spaces.

Toomba House renovation and extension designed by James Russell for two academics and their three children represents a reconsideration of the value of the urban Australian landscape, an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of the interior cultural ambitions of habitation (lifestyle and possessions, and pre-existing patterns of development) with a reappraisal of the occupation of the land. This approach seems to have gained currency lately, propelling recent thinking and debate a little away from the narcissism of form and image that has so mired much of Australian architectural commentary and thought over the last decade or so.

When I visited the Toomba residence, I swung my car onto the kerb-less verge of the park opposite unaware at first of a subtle slight of hand at work. The park, a recreational fringe of Enoggera Creek, had ‘borrowed’ the space of the road and the yard of the house. From this vantage point one is immediately aware of the new work, a more or less separate, steel framed pavilion, poking its head out from behind the existing timber house.

This ‘trick’ has been the result of the clients’ good neighbourly ambition to re-establish Enoggera Creek’s principal landscape. I am reminded here of the eminent Queensland architect Don Watson’s public lecture in May this year, where he laid out an articulate vision of an alternative urban future for Brisbane. Central to his thesis was a demand to structure the city by a more direct understanding of the landscape in its form and experience. By way of illustration he reminded us of the indigenous practice, prior to colonial settlement, of selectively grooming significant landscapes with defined boundaries, particularly around creek systems. The identification of ‘Three Mile Scrub’ at Enoggera Creek served as a key example of this practice. It would appear serendipitous then that, just upstream from the ‘Three Mile Scrub’ at the Toomba residence, we find a practical reinstitution of this approach, where work has seen revised planting to the yard along with the removal of existing fences, further blurring the boundary between creek/park-scape and private land. The new project then takes its cues from this virtual extension of the landscape, which directs the arrival and threshold sequence leading to the pavilion beyond. It declares itself part of the public ‘external’ realm. In its placement it also hints at the other key element in the re-configuring of house and land: a smaller, enclosed courtyard.

The site planning is a strong clear diagram allowing for an entry poised between old (private) and new (public) and defined by two distinct landscape conditions: the exterior world of Enoggera Creek and the interior world of the courtyard. This courtyard could be imagined as a kind of ‘clearing’ set aside. It is composed of three primal elements, a bounded wall, raised ground and hearth, and takes on significance as the ordering device for the project in drawing the private and public life of the family together. Its bounded edge is made of and extends fragments of a partly demolished rumpus/garage addition. Literally ‘an inhabited ruin’, it sets out the alignment for the new structure. A built-up turf ‘ground’ establishes a datum with the house and pavilion from existing levels at the rear corner where an open fireplace is located on axis with the new pavilion, extending the ‘ruined’ edge of the edited rumpus and garage. Though the masking of old and new by the dominant palette of white render and painted battens has taken the edge off a potential frisson that may have been more potently exploited from the patina of the ‘ruin’.

The formal properties of the new work are limited to a restrained arrangement of chamferboard and glass walls or part walls that are either half-height, or sliding, or both. Space dissolves sequentially and casually into the concluding living space. This is roughly a three and a half metre cube with a dominant glass-louvered envelope framing the park. The size of the allotment, large by Brisbane standards, has allowed freedom in positioning the pavilion to locate itself with decorum. One can’t help but note that if the yard were more conventional in size this tactic may have come unstuck.

The other advantage this freedom has allowed is a re-appraisal of the existing house. Parkland and interior court offer an opportunity to activate the north and south edges leaving the more passive east and west ideally suited for bedrooms. Between these is a newly made space remarkably similar in scale and dimension to the new pavilion, opening to both park and court. This has been achieved with the deft removal of a few internal partitions and the veranda casements, reinvigorating what was previously an introverted suite of ‘closed’ cells. These two figures, one space, one object caught between two landscapes, complete a simple yet elegant invitation to occupation.

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