Kooyong House

Jan 25, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Shannon McGrath
  • Designer
  • Architect Matt Gibson Architecture Design

Melbourne is in the grip of redevelopment fever, most visibly in the large commercial projects that add perpetual visual churn to the inner-city skyline, but also readily apparent at the suburban residential level. There, so it seems, a soft ‘war’ is enacted between those who seek to preserve heritage housing at all costs and those obsessed with the tabula rasa approach. In apocalyptic debates enacted within mainstream media, apparently there is no middle ground. On the one hand, developers are cast as rapacious, thuggish hijackers of heritage streetscapes, exhorting clients to demolish and start over, rather than absorb the cost and effort of restoration. On the other, heritage committees are supposedly spineless and ineffectual, so fanatical about preserving tradition they only allow extensions and renovations that ‘add to the original’, resulting in wishy-washy, bland additions. Architects, meanwhile, are portrayed as utterly nihilistic, viewing heritage considerations as tiresome barriers to good design, determined to make their visual mark at all costs and to hell with history.

The new addition clad in Blackbutt timber


Certainly, no one could level such charges at Matt Gibson, even as he submitted to the task of designing for a client who wanted to demolish a classic Victorian house in Armadale. There was no heritage overlay so he could have chosen to accede, especially given the dwelling was crumbling, with severely cracked brickwork that required extensive rehabilitation to bring it to liveable standards. But Gibson felt it would be a shame to lose the building entirely, given its grand atmosphere and the surrounding vintage streetscape. He could have taken the other route currently in vogue, retaining the facade while gutting the interior to house a completely new design, but instead persuaded the client to maintain the front part of the house and to knock down the rear – actually a previous addition – replacing it with a new extension that, in effect, functions as a second house.

The glass prism, a bridge between old and new


Gibson employed architect Roger Beeston, heritage adviser to the City of Melbourne, to provide advice on the restoration of the Victorian front, and then set about the task of rendering the brickwork, re-flooring and re-roofing. Upon entering the house, this immaculately detailed work is immediately obvious, with a lovingly preserved grand bedroom to the left and a characteristic sitting room to the right. In the hallway, when the door to the back of the property is open, flooding light engulfs the space. In its past life, this doorway would have led to the previous rear addition, but today it opens out to a glass ‘prism’ framed either side by small courtyards. Once inside the prism, and turning to face the entrance, the Victorian exterior recedes through this glass ‘bridge’, a light-filled corridor extending through temporal layers. The architect calls it the ‘Maxwell Smart effect’, a good way to describe it – think of the end titles of that beloved series, when Max walks through a seemingly endless sequence of corridors and hallways as doors open and close until, finally, he drops away out of sight. This imaginal connective tissue is developed further by inversion of the formal logic of the original house, including mirrors inset into interstitial space within the courtyards and a fireplace from the original, previously inset into the wall bridging the front of the house with the former rear extension, but today an intriguing design feature, sealed up and half exposed to the open air. The most delightful effect, however, is the form of the glass hallway, which slides away to connect the two parallel spaces. With the sides laid bare, these merge to form one central, open-air courtyard, a floating buffer zone between front and rear.

Flexible design allows the living space to be open and expansive


Beyond, the new building adds two stacked, L-shaped levels. On the upper level there is a roof deck, children’s retreat and three bedrooms, and on the lower a snug, living room, kitchen and laundry. Blackbutt timber was used for the ‘fins’ that clad the upper level, making intelligent use of curved form to provide privacy for the rear living modules. As the radius extends back towards the bedrooms, the spacing of the fins becomes tighter, eventually forming a slatted, apparently solid mass mimicking the external living area below, which is dominated by a pool resting upon blackbutt wharf decking.

the 'Maxwell Smart effect': moving through layers of time


This external area contains another surprise – no garden. Instead, the client decided to maximise the ‘sociability’ of the outdoor area at the expense of space-intensive greenery, adding the pool. The architect further answered that call with another flexible design element akin to the connective entrance void: the large glass doors of the living area slide away to open up the interior to the external living area, providing one large, permeable entertainment space.

The restored Victorian house


The Kooyong House speaks fluently to its history and the surrounding environment, while enabling an easy and unforced dialogue with the present. Dependant on the mood of the occupants, that dialogue can be switched ‘off’ without erasing forever that past tense, simply by retreating to the rear of the house – that is, further down through the prismatic void. It is a project of some skill, proficient in the not-so-easily-mastered art of sensitive regulation of old and new.


Simon Sellars is the editor of Architectural Review Australia.

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