- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Christopher Frederick Jones
- Architect Sparks Architects
The Australian modernist pavilion
Australia has an ongoing affinity with what we might term the ‘Australian modernist pavilion’, a building type defined by a rational/systematic diagram that offers a balance of poetry and common sense well suited to Australia – and Australians. The glass box of Dr Farnsworth has transmuted itself through Glenn Murcutt as the ideal abstraction of the vernacular veranda, combining the easy informality of the porch with the crisp efficiency of modernity.
Sparks Architects’ Montville House demonstrates some common themes and choices associated with such buildings.
An increasing number of Australians are privileged enough, and indeed inspired enough, to own a portion of unique Australian landscape. In occupying such sites, it would seem natural to both respect and utilise nature – reverence and ownership at once. It ought to feel natural – after all, it’s been happening for a long time. Erudite Europeans flocked to Tuscany centuries ago to marvel at agricultural landscapes intervening with nature, before usurping it and indeed enhancing it. Reverence for the setting is a primary tenet of the modernist pavilion, the premise being that a neutral diagram and democratic patterns of use aim to prioritise nature over built form.
The Montville House is principled by ordered human intervention to the native setting.
If the pavilion is principally concerned with engagement with its setting, it would follow that the management of the landscape is critically important to its success. Small-scale siting decisions can determine architectural identity and purpose as much as the building itself. At Glenn Murcutt’s Kempsey farmhouse, an agrarian pasture rolls unaffected to the rise upon which the house has been thoughtfully placed. Attempts to civilise the site for human occupation are restricted to the interior of the building. One must assume great care was taken to ensure this condition.
Where Kempsey hovers, Montville grounds itself in the manner of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, bringing the immediacy of the lawn into play through broad concrete stairs. Where Kempsey abstains from overt intervention in the landscape, the Montville House seeks to civilise through curated garden beds and the utilitarian presence of the driveway.
These are devices seen in rural farmhouses, where utility and home is important.
Viewing nature/receiving nature
The pavilion at its most vital is represented by two principal elements: a floor plane and a roof plane. Because of the effective absence of walls, it is a typology that relies upon the convivial convergence of both occupation and setting for its success. When a setting is sympathetic, the pavilion is a stunning device. The idea is for the occupant to be immersed in their environment with an overwhelming sense of exposure. So we often find these buildings in locations of uncompromised beauty.
The shortcomings of the pavilion typology are intrinsically linked to its strengths. Perhaps by default, the modernist pavilion is sometimes seen on more suburban sites – where density requires glazing to be managed with layers of additional systems for privacy and shade. This isn’t necessary with the Montville House, due to its seclusion in a forest clearing. Far below the north face of the house are the beautiful Kondalilla Falls. The house is also the destination at the end of a picturesque country lane – a condition with the good fortune of taking ownership of the road’s narrowing, dreamy journey.
Standing under the slung roof of the pavilion, one is mindful of its location and the surrounding nature. The house choreographs the experience to include sky, ground plane and enclosing eucalypt forest, an important objective of this building type.
Further success of a pavilion would seem to lie in the refinement of its execution. Sparks Architects has exerted considerable energy in finessing the plan and section of the house, overcoming potential obstacles that might have easily diminished the work. The extruded sectional diagram of the pavilion, while compelling in its purity, can often result in a collection of rooms that exhibit uniform spatial conditions. The inherent risk is that the repetition of lighting levels, volumes and outlook can result in the ‘view’ experience being prioritised over internal experience and human comfort.
This house appears to contain buildings within the building, thereby providing a range of scales and moments. The essential model is that of an outer masonry/steel/glass frame, with an inserted interior building of ply and painted surface. The outer building is robust – the internal building is tactile.
Further, the inserted circular water tanks, serving as thermal assisting devices, provide for mezzanine nests beneath the sweeping soffit. This planning strategy layers the diagram beyond the usual pavilion idea.
These are elegant developments of this architectural language.
Dan Sparks’ generating values are embodied in this building and the contemporary pavilion manifesto. The building is ordered to achieve efficiency of proprietary materials. Materials are masonry and metal in response to a high bushfire risk.
Glazing heights and roof overhangs are regulated by sun angles; the floor is a slab-on-ground to act as a thermal mass; internal water tanks are shaded in summer for cooling and warmed by northern sun in winter; the butterfly roof profile is for water collection, photovoltaic array and collection of northern winter sun.
The floor plan is rational and process-driven in the Mies/Murcutt tradition. Human processes are utilitarian and ordered – with the beauty of nature as the wallpaper, and the honesty of tectonic providing virtue.
Therein lies the poetry of this building type.
Paul Owen and Aaron Peters work at Brisbane-based Owen and Vokes, a small architecture practice undertaking private house commissions, furniture design, specialised commercial work and institutional commissions.