Caulfield House

July 6, 2009

A new project from emerging practice Bower Architecture carefully balances an expansive open plan with the need for privacy imposed by its suburban context.

Two nearly identical forms, wrapped in black zinc, are positioned at right angles to each other, pivoting and pirouetting above a podium of grey blockwork. Zinc-clad planes have been folded into C shapes, with the resulting slot windows detailed to suppress the appearance of structure. A denial of roofs: if you were to flip the Caulfield House over, it would still look right. A denial of gravity: the cantilever demonstrates this removal of structural logic. These strategies are commonplace within the contemporary architecture scene. This is a project by Bower Architecture, a young and emerging architecture practice comprised of three directors who met at university; perhaps the most interesting question to ask would be, “What is unique about this project? In what way could this early work represent a design manifesto?”

Caulfield is the site of much architectural experimentation from the 1950s and 60s. Every odd house seems to represent a different strand of late modernist divergence. From a house with a column in the shape of a quasi-naturalistic rock, to a groin-vaulted colonnade in fibreglass, the eclectic experiments, one after the other, are slowly fading into disrepair. The expressive exterior of the Caulfield House by Bower Architecture, designed to be seen from the three-quarter view on your journey past, recalls and rekindles the strident architectural spirit of the area.

The private garden façade of the Caulfield House bears a faint resemblance to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, with a hovering, overarching roof, and one stainless steel column. Somehow, from front to back, the house has morphed from the language of abstract cantilevered boxes to that of a broad parasol roof with deep eaves, and a hovering floor plane. The house presents a pair of black boxes to the street. To physicists, a ‘black box’ is a system whose internal structure is unknown. Inputs go in, outputs come out, transformed. In the Caulfield House, the two black boxes conceal a white cave…

The interior is predominantly white, with features picked out in timber. In this space, timber exists. It is the focus of the eye, whereas white paint, a neutral backdrop, disappears to nothing. Rendered in white, forms become solely described by light and shade. Consider the meticulously detailed kitchen bench, its lines etched in shadow. Areas of colour are transformed into instant focal points, whether it is a dark purple splashback, a vase of pink flowers, or a blue and yellow painting. The white interiors maximise ambient light. In an all-white bathroom, the shift of tones from white to grey tiles creates a striped decoration, barely stated. The subtle blue cast of the glass shower screen becomes a colour in this composition. Imagine the skin tones of naked flesh reflected in the mirror – another instant focal point. The neutral colour also brings the outside in – for example the single tree that occupies the timber-lined courtyard, located on axis with the openings, a source of rich colour. Reminiscent of a white-walled gallery, is this a neutral space, or an assertively spiritual one?

The chief demand for this house was that it accommodate a diverse multi-generational family, the members of which would occupy it sporadically. The open plan has an amorphous shape that has the capacity to be open and connected, or private and closed off, in relation to the garden and its own interior realms. What shape is this room? It is too complex to comprehend, flowing outward, up, across… Depending on which doors are open, the space can continue upstairs, a complementary vertical openness to the horizontal open planning. In the warmer months, the interior can be merged to a greater or lesser extent with the outdoors, creating a potentially limitless openness that extends to the boundary fences and beyond to the sky above. The deep eaves of the overarching roof plane turn out to be a privacy device to block out the overlooking neighbours. Bower Architecture has produced the antithesis of the clients’ formerly restrictive house; the clients had lived on the site for many years in a house that was dark and rigidly compartmentalised.

Ambiguous spatial relations, the use of mirrors, doubling, vanishing, destroying space, amplifies ambiguity: the positioning of a mirror inside the entry dematerialises the wall, and the angle is such that it reveals a glimpse of a painting around the corner.

This is a project where the cohesive element is not some easily comprehensible overall shape, or formal geometry in the plan, but in the direct experience of the spaces. Each localised space is fine-tuned. A built-in lounge transforms a corridor into a sun-filled reading nook against the courtyard. A water feature at the termination of the central spine has its own small skylight, to produce moving light effects. A wall that travels up two storeys, made of masonry to soak up sun, is featured by its texture – gloss white against matt white.

The section is an exemplar of solar passive design for an east-west oriented block. The upper level is set back and receives winter sun onto the thermal mass wall connected to the living area below. The two-storey internal volume is vented with glass louvres to flush out summer heat. The scheme is environmentally responsive, yet not fanatically so. There is a balance between the needs of solar passive design and the need for connection to landscape, light, air.

‘Balance’ could be the key concept to take from this early Bower work. Like a Buddhist teaching – choose the middle path. It isn’t necessary to reconcile front and back elevations, because this is not a miniature sculpture, designed to be seen from the air, this is a local responder, tuned to the human experience of each individual space. Bower Architecture understands you can only see one part of a building at any one time. Contradictions are avoided by their separation in time and space. There is a degree of pragmatism to this localised scene-setting. It removes the need and expense of an overall theme to which each part must conform. A commitment to open planning perhaps demands a neutral colour to predominate, because after all, it would not be a simple thing to, say, “paint this room red” because where does this room stop and the next one begin?

The manifesto then? Perhaps there is a hint in the name.

A ‘bower’ is the structure the male bowerbird makes to attract a female, which he might decorate with an assortment of objects, of any shape, so long as they are, say, blue. Perhaps the connotation is of a ‘collection of ideas’, not one overriding form. Balanced. Not extreme in one direction or another. The Caulfield House is a project/manifesto that successfully argues for an architecture of human-scaled parts, photogenic façades and adaptable interiors.

Leave a Reply

Keep up-to-date with our bi-weekly newsletter

You’ll get

  • News, insights and features from the interior design and architecture community
  • Coverage on the latest projects, products and people
  • Events and job updates

Join now!

Sign up to the newsletter