House at Mosman

Apr 15, 2010
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Rocket Mattler
  • Designer
  • Architect Rice Daubney

Architect’s Statement
This project has been conceived as a model that subverts the existing suburban condition. It develops a strong connection to its site and context – creating a viable typology that succeeds on a lot that is half the size of its neighbours.

The concept is simple: to add a series of strategically located built elements that allow the entire site to be used as the home, thus overcoming the autonomous relationship between house and garden that typifies the existing suburban block.

These built elements have been arranged, principally, along the southern side of the site to create a series of north facing internal and external spaces. There is no ‘front yard’ or ‘back yard’, only a series of spaces that, through their seamless connectivity, support each other in creating a unique environment for living.

Three-dimensionally, this concept materialises as two independent zinc shells that rise two storeys from the ground on the southern side, then run horizontally before turning down over the upper storey on the north, appearing to hover over the site. These shells serve to define and secure the private areas of the home (sleeping and bathing spaces). Sculpted concrete blades elevate these private spaces off the ground and allow the ‘public’ spaces to flow to all corners of the site.

Materials (VM zinc, stone and off-form concrete) are expressed honestly, chosen for their longevity. They have been composed as strong legible forms that relate back to the design concept.

The conceptual arrangement of elements allows for good solar orientation; there is, however, that common conflicting issue of dealing with beautiful eastern views while excluding the aggressive low sun. This is overcome with a series of vertical pivoting screens that operate in series to open or close down the façade, depending on conditions.

Choosing an architectural firm is never a decision lightly made, nor should it be. Choosing an architectural firm with a dense portfolio of commercial, defence and master plan experience to design and execute a residential property, for many would denote an act of sheer lunacy. There is, however, method in the madness here, with both client and architect meticulously focused on solutions.

As is de rigueur in harbour properties, the block is far longer than it is wide with a postcard view at one end, in this case to the east. Ostensibly an open plan layout within a pavilion of glass and polished concrete, the design allows for any position within the home to take advantage of the view. This has been facilitated further by a brilliant piece of staircase design, which while sculptural, is an unobtrusive and transparent presence. Anchored to the adjacent curved wall with discreetly concealed bolts, the staircase is comprised of stainless steel stairs, floating in a sweeping curve that allows for the uninterrupted presence of both light and view.

The wall itself is another fine construction. Poured on site, with a soft polished finish, it is paired at ground level with a curved wall of glass (a 15-millimetre sheet was heated and bent), and below by a parallel curved wall that accommodates a staircase to the media room. Every door in the home is pivoted, including the door to the media room, which, though of mirrored glass, has been cut perfectly to fit the resultant curve of the frame.

Back on the ground floor, the levels for the water in the pool, courtyard, window recesses and marble flooring have been perfectly calibrated to form a single, contiguous plane.

Visually, there is a seamless integration between indoors and out, particularly through the expanse of windows, which are more correctly walls of glass. Opening entirely, with storage in purpose-built alcoves, these slide within modified recesses that act as drains to concealed channels ferrying water to tanks below the house. The pool and sculpture pond, running parallel to the house, are separated only by an overflow channel comprised of a single, 12-metre long, purpose-built steel frame. The overflow channel allows the pool an infinity edge and perpetual surface height in exact accord with the internal flooring. This has been carried through to the courtyard of grass, which is grown in a slight recess to allow the trimmed stalks the same continuity of profile.

Beyond the courtyard a separate building bookends the block with a transparent front and back, to allow a full view of the sandstone exposed during excavation. What was also exposed was a large horizontal fissure running the length of the wall. This has been addressed with a beautiful solution of hand cut stone, dry walled into place to fill the crevice. The result is stunning, simple and well deserving of the attention it receives as an illuminated feature wall.

Throughout the house, built-in furniture creates discrete areas without interrupting either the spatial flow or view. These low horizontal solids of burnished walnut fl oat from the walls with only a single steel sheet supporting from the ground. The island in the kitchen has the addition of a stainless steel box to accommodate plumbing, but is otherwise of the same simple proportions and height.

Discussions with the principal architect, John Daubney, and the owner reveal their shared excitement at finding solutions. The client’s requirements were such that they had to be addressed from outside of the square with solutions that were both aesthetically refined and functional and the house is a remarkable piece of engineering. Enormous blades of steel, resembling the supports of a ship, have been utilised to allow the central void to exist, visually unencumbered. On a micro level, the client required that no screws or bolts be visible. The exterior solution was VM zinc cladding that magnetically locks into place. Timber ceiling panels (in a mathematically generated repeating striation) used in the overhang between interior and exterior are also magnetically positioned. The off form cement walls are given the same degree of attention, with every pour hole concealed by a flush steel plug before being polished to a silky sheen. The built-in table, comprising a six-metre sheet of 20-millimetre Starfire glass on stainless steel legs is similarly seamless, with its supports sunk through the marble into the concrete below.

Another remarkable solution is the flooring of Spanish marble. The owner was concerned that with sourced marble for such an expanse coming in batches, there would be inconsistencies. The solution was to have two enormous stones quarried and cut specifically for the project. The result is a seamless flooring of a subtle light caramel that is distinctive without being elaborate.

The main bedroom on the upper floor affords its occupants a spectacular harbour view. While beautiful, such access came at the cost of eastern solar penetration. The resolution of this problem has been a series of vertical shutters (powder coated aluminium) that rotate to the desired angle. In the same tone as the zinc cladding, the shutters complete the illusion of the house as floating box. The space itself has been cleverly divided to exploit the view to full advantage from both the sleeping as well as the integrated bathing areas. Louvred windows have been used in this area with the lower louvres frosted to standing chest height. On emersion, the louvres can be opened with no compromise to privacy. Similarly consideration has been given to placement of the shower, which is also afforded privacy via the frosted louvres but has the client’s height in mind for a clear view of the harbour.

Attention to such minutiae requires the experience of experts and an entirely flexible timetable. In keeping with this principle, the project was put on hold for six months while waiting for the appropriate builder (Bellevarde Constructions Pty Ltd) to become available. The wait was worth it. The precision detailing and sublime craftsmanship has allowed this incredibly complex house the appearance of simplicity; it is light, air-filled and unencumbered by clumsy compromises. An extraordinary house that is nonetheless clearly a home. It is grand, and it is spectacular, but it is also an entirely liveable space.

Gillian Serisier is the Sydney Editor of (inside) Interior Design Review and a regular contributor to numerous magazines, books and academic journals both in Australia and internationally.

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