Boundary House

Jun 3, 2010
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Shannon McGrath
  • Designer
  • Architect BKK

Architect’s Statement
The placement of the existing residence on the site presented a number of difficult challenges. The central placement of the house created awkward residual spaces, while the orientation of the site was problematic as main living spaces faced south, devoid of direct sunlight.

The clients, with a growing young family, wanted two new bedrooms, a bathroom, laundry and a lounge. The brief was to increase the size of the residence and retain a sense of landscape. They also have a fairly extensive art collection and wanted wall space to display the work.

Our strategy for the project was to draw the extension around the perimeter of the site to create a new courtyard and expose the living area to northern orientation. The stretched circulation created by this approach was designed as gallery space, expanding and restricting at points depending on the placement of the artwork and creating a variety of spaces that punctuate the journey.

Similarly, the outdoor spaces push and pull against the extension in a dialogue that creates diverse landscaped experiences. The suburban front and back yards are reinterpreted in a manner that is more fluid and less defined than traditional subdivisions.

Material definition and the articulation of multiple insertions create a series of ‘pod’-like accretions rather than a singular reading of the residence. The combination of these pods and the boundary occupation of the addition offer a complex relation with the landscape and climate, as opposed to a house placed within a lawn.

Domestic architecture in Australia has becomes as much about the backyard extension, the renovation or addition as it is about the completely new freestanding house. In the current climate these clever, resourceful and tricky architectural manoeuvres have a relevancy, a necessity that almost supersedes previous domestic idioms. This new type is particularly relevant in regards to the standard Australian postwar or interwar house, which typically does not respond to issues of solar passive orientation or engage in contextual dialogue. Rather, it is often an internalised home baldly and badly sited that reflects an image of a transported middle-American suburbia. Rising house and land prices, however, have resulted in a swathe of clients who buy into these homes and then, as their family grows or changes, embark on the inevitable alteration project.

It is within such a context that BKK Architects, a local Melbourne firm known for its inventive and witty architectural tectonics and spatial solutions, was asked to design an extension to a single storey 1950s villa, the chief virtue of which was a centrally placed chimney clad with slate crazy paving. The house, with its big, bland street-facing elevation, was placed centrally on the block, leaving oddly sized landscape spaces, and the main living areas facing south. In addition to adding two new bedrooms, a bathroom, laundry and new lounge, the brief was therefore to create light filled living spaces, to reconcile the backyard and to provide display space for the clients’ art collection.

BKK’s solution was to attach a new, fluid form to the dining room and the rear of the house. This snakes along the south-west corner of the site to create a centrally placed courtyard, north facing living space, and a bedroom and bathroom that capture the morning sun. In plan, the form appears to be so figured and undulating that it seems almost whimsical – José Antonio Coderch’s Casa Ugalde or an Alvar Aalto vase writ large. Yet, like much of BKK’s work, underlying this figuration and expression is a clear spatial logic. The result is an episodic spatial narrative that brings movement, light and animation into an otherwise numb domestic interior. This new passage, an extended corridor that swells and contracts along its path, creates space for the small gallery and library room, and then culminates in the new sun filled lounge. Tucked into the folds of this plan, a new bedroom and bathroom look onto the courtyard.

While those curving walls and smooth rounded corners (so easy to draw in plan) make for very careful and difficult plasterwork, the effect is rewarding – space is expansive, unbounded by the typical sharply defined angles and corners. Circular skylights continue the fluid language, while drawing light into the rear of the plan and into the gallery corridor. Contrasting the white walls and abstracted form, the joinery is made from blonde coloured timbers and the floorboards are a similarly beachy-hued Silvertop ash.

The landscape and backyard spaces, also important for the client, continue the interior and also offer richly variable, figured spaces. From the courtyard, with its slate crazy paving, a more typical suburban vista of green lawns, a Hills Hoist and camellia bushes appear. But then looking back into the courtyard, the view is very different. Set against a context of big brutish homes and palm trees, the new work reads more as a surreal, yet elegant insertion. From this angle, direct reference to the domestic is denied, and instead the new building with its flat roof, undulating walls and clean, cut out openings reads as architecture abstracted. These forms appear more like sculptural expressions, perhaps a new type of backyard shed rather than a house proper. The living space is finished with a warm shiplapped Silvertop ash and the curving walls of the bedroom and bathroom are clad with fine slate tile. Against these, the existing building, with its difficult cream coloured rendering, juts out unapologetically to enclose one side of the courtyard.

While not disarming or at all unsuccessful, new and old do collide: one abutting the other, with only the courtyard and scale to mediate that relationship. Interestingly, BKK has an acute understanding and concern for place, for genius loci; however, the solutions here are not about a polite or careful weaving together of new and old, where the new buildings pay heed to the existing. The approach is less literal, less accommodating; form is more plastic and malleable, and able to respond to the very phenomenological conditions of site (the light, space and topography) in a direct manner. The result is an experience that is very tactile and spatial, and more often than not episodic – a journey that moves from one state to another, from one condition of site to the next.

Anna Johnson is a lecturer with the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University and a freelance writer. She has authored three books: New Directions in the Australian House, Popov a monograph, and WOHA a monograph. She is currently completing postgraduate studies with the Urban Architecture Laboratory RMIT.

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