Architecture

Outcrop House

November 10, 2009

Peter Stutchbury’s new project focuses on light, space and the Australian landscape, while also serving as a bold experiment in refined residential design.

Architect’s statement
The coastline of the northern beaches is typified by a top escarpment edge, which connects headlands and defines a kind of amphitheatre from the beach upward. This edge is usually exposed sandstone and one suspects that it was once the traditional walking edge for Indigenous people; promoting both prospect to the landscape and structure within it. As a child one recalls using these land edges for both access and outlook; there was an element of danger to this, yet also a sense of freedom that overwhelmed emotions of insecurity.

Outcrop House is sited on such a place. It faces to the south and lies adjacent to a drainage vein that connects the land both physically and emotively with the beach below. Prevailing winds from the south accelerate across the beach and up over the escarpment edge – a rugged site quality that cannot be ignored. This site, although suburban, is irreversibly a connected piece of this landscape.

A northern courtyard was designed for winter comfort – thermal mass built into the hill for security and climate control, as the building is situated on a south-facing site. A single powerful aperture to the view is made available to the household through a series of ‘stage sets’ with altering frames. These sets communicate house activity; they allow for changing surroundings to be captured and framed as one progresses through the house. The primary focal point looks beyond the living space and out over Whale Beach.

This project is not one of statement, but one of restraint – an enclave that offers the users comfort, ease, place and dreaming. The building is considered to promote contemplation. The roof canopy and primary structure are conceived as one room, the whole area of the roof is designed as a plane of light, allowing controlled vertical light to enter the room, producing a constantly changing environment. Outcrop House is filled with unexpected light.

This residence explores a shifted view of a home, where the primary room is the house space as a whole – all other spaces are secondary.

Review
Peter Stutchbury’s own house near Pittwater, in the north of Sydney, was not quite finished when I visited it as a student – he and his family were essentially camping under the large metal roof canopy. I have vivid recollections of his passionate address to our marauding mob of intruders. He described how the house was conceived around the landscape; landscape being something he had developed a strong sense of awareness for during his childhood, which was spent in both rural NSW and Papua New Guinea. He spoke fondly of his experiences in the Long Houses of Papua and how these shaped his thinking on family living. His mentors ‘Glenn’ (Murcutt) and ‘Rick’ (Le Plastrier) helped him translate those childhood connections into architectural form.

Twenty-odd years later I meet Stutchbury on a bleak rainy morning to visit the Outcrop House which overlooks Whale Beach just a few kilometres from his own home. The project recently received an Architecture Award from the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects. From the street the house is unassuming – it presents a double garage door and an intriguing series of rusting garden stakes that meander down a steep incline to the entry.

As soon as we arrive at the front door Stutchbury begins to discuss the project with the same passion I recall from previous decades, describing the house as a “huge experiment”. Nevertheless, there are signature elements and strategies from 30 years of experimentation that find their way into the project, subtly refined. The key strategies for Outcrop House, common to many of Stutchbury’s projects, are best summed up by Philip Drew: “snare the sun, capture the wind, [and] elevate the common place”.

The entry hall is a long space lined with elegantly detailed Blackbutt timber panelling, offering only a teasing glimpse of the beach beyond. “This space deliberately blinkers your view,” says the architect. As one traverses the hallway the beach to the south is slowly revealed.

In the elevated dining space the concept of the house begins to be understood. As Stutchbury describes, “It’s like an industrial building with two long walls, a polycarbonate roof and 72 plywood baffles that diffuse light”. The sun is “snared” through the polycarbonate roof and the large expanses of glazing that open onto a small courtyard to the north. Even on a grey overcast day there is a gentle illumination present, as light passes through the translucent polycarbonate and is filtered by the Renzo Piano-esque baffles. The clients took a huge leap of faith in accepting the new polycarbonate roofing, an experiment that in the words of the architect could have gone horribly wrong, but works. One obvious concern was heat load, which has been dealt with by the incorporation of exhaust fans at high level that are triggered by sensors when the interior space reaches 27 degrees.

Under the unifying glow of the roof an eroded timber box stops short of the glazed southern façade, creating a double height space. Common spaces of everyday living and dining are connected through this void, while the timber clad upper and lower bedrooms and intimate media room can be closed to the void or opened up for complete engagement with the public life of the house, as desired. These rooms are located to approximate the existing topography – the elevated dining room mythically replicating a rock outcrop.

A lap pool is located on the south-east edge of the house. Like Bay House (2002) and Springwater House (2003) the pool is employed to visually connect to the water body beyond. In each instance the pool is not only a visual delight but forms an essential part of a passive cooling system. For this project the pool enters the building in a gesture that will please the child in every visitor – even on this chilly winters morning I want to dive in and swim under the window to the outside.

Within Stutchbury’s work there seems to be a constant struggle. The romantic inventor from the bush longs for the raw shed, and yet the highly educated architect-craftsman seeks a higher level of refinement. Outcrop House epitomises this dilemma, the rawness of the non-descript factory building giving way to carefully detailed timber wall panelling – not an architrave or door-jamb in sight. While conceived as an industrial shed nestled in the landscape, the refined detailing, finishes and fixtures of Outcrop House clearly locate it in time and in a socio-economic context. As Stutchbury himself admits, the conceptual essence of the house could well have been produced through the construction of “a few plywood boxes” under the singular roof plane. However the built legacy is far more complex, both in terms of its physical form and its cultural positioning.

John de Manincor is a practising architect, part-time educator and the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia. John is a principal of DE MANINCOR RUSSELL ARCHITECTURE WORKSHOP, a practice tactically located at the nexus between professional services, research and education.

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