Blairgowrie is a town caught between Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay and the ocean. This is the pointy end of the Mornington Peninsula, home to a great number of innovative architectural houses. This new project by McBride Charles Ryan (MCR) is one such house, and develops upon certain operations from their nearby Klein Bottle house, completed in 2007. Unlike the Klein Bottle house, however, this holiday home sits in a conventional beachside suburban streetscape – it deals with street frontage and is perhaps a simpler form, employing extrusion and subtraction rather than a whole-object ‘bottle’ approach. The street itself is filled with typical beach houses, all fronting onto the street rather than ‘siding’ on to it as this one does.
The house’s street façade is effectively just a copper-fronted letterbox, which has been shaped into a ’7′ to communicate the street number of the building. The angular geometry of the ’7′ is then extruded into the site to become the house itself. Normally under the planning scheme the house would not be allowed to get this close, but as the building at this point is technically a letterbox and fence it can encourage into the setback zone as well as be part of the form. This kind of ambiguity is present throughout the project, as it is in much of MCR’s past work, in a blurring of the lines between wall, fence and screen. This approach is found at the rear of the house in the upper level balcony, while the use of timber decking to clad the house on its primary side elevation serves to merge the actual decking with the cladding. This result has been achieved by using the same decking and stain and, importantly, the same spacing for both elements. Where it is walling, a flat back Colorbond layer of cladding immediately behind the timber serves as the actual weather shield.
While the house literally presents itself as only a small figure at the front, at rear this extrusion transforms to become a two-storey black box. The house happens in between these two things, the two languages merging somewhere in the middle, around the subtle front door. It reads as an exploration of the possibilities of timber, engaging with the dialogue of the timber beach house seen in the work of other local architects, such as Sean Godsell. From the street, the house expands both laterally and vertically from the letterbox, and you are able to view the single plane of the roof surface, finished in black steel roofing. This grand surface beds the house down on its site, giving the sense of a remarkable bunker.
The house at the back is a horizontally-expressed box clad in black steel roof sheeting. This flat, anti-formal treatment wraps around the north side, and the house’s main energy is found on the long, roughly southern side elevation facing into the lawn garden. An easement runs under this garden, and this determined the building’s location on the north side of the block. In this way, earlier sun travels through a courtyard on the north side into the living area, while a big deck catches the afternoon sun, indeed amplifies it thanks to the deck’s concaving form. The large side deck is both an entry ‘boardwalk’ and traditional pergola area, but ultimately a reworking of the idea of the verandah. The house engages with the vernacular at this level, but also at the level of materiality, particularly in the use of open-batten screening on the upper level balcony, which bears a similarity to the under-house areas in a typical Queenslander. A couple of tree branch door handles also nod to the regional and pull the house from the abstracted. These handles reference the large trees that sat on the site’s lawn area, which have now become large logs in the garden. All of which is visible from the street – the ‘side’ garden is both front and back garden and generally results in a thinner and better house.
As a five-bedroom holiday house, it is big enough for an extended family and is focused around a spacious open-plan living room with a high raking ceiling. Key to the house’s success is the expression of the external ‘cranking’ wall on the inside, a part of the southern wall in the living space that also continues into a wide corridor-like space servicing the two front bedrooms. This space can be separated from the main living area by way of a large pivot door, and is wide enough to be a rumpus room while allowing the undulating wall room to be viewed. The structure of the wall is expressed on the inner side, as a series of red-stained timber box beams, some with steel inside them. Between the beams a series of similar stained shelves sit in between. The intention here is that the wall fills up with all the stuff a holiday house entails. The scale of this wall is large, and the cranking columns perhaps lend a more institutional reading to the interior, which is tempered by the flotsam and jetsam stored on the shelves.
The upper master bedroom is the only first floor space, and squeezes over the room below (the ground floor slab is set down to reduce the height in the lower room). The enclosed balcony to the upper bedroom uses a glazed door into living space below to give high-level ventilation to the room and an unexpected moment of connection in both spaces.
McBride Charles Ryan over the last few years has produced some of the most engaging experiments in Australian housing, worthy of consideration in a global context. Contemporary architecture could be classified into two very broad categories – material-based ‘box’ work, and form-based explorations, where materiality becomes a secondary consideration. The Blairgowrie House sits within both of these camps, an equal investigation of both form and material. It is this duality, along with the house’s presence in its ordinary streetscape that makes it another exceptional piece of work from these local heroes.