- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by John Gollings
- Architect Robert Simeoni Architects
“Buildings are like snail shells – the residue of last year’s growth, the record of last year’s traffic,” writes Michael Frayn in his book, The Human Touch. As Frayn goes on to suggest, that traffic includes our everyday commerce and our pursuit of meaning through the creation of philosophies. The emergence of Robert Simeoni’s practice onto the stage of architecture amidst critical acclaim strengthens the pole in Melbourne’s architectural discourse that avoids thematic or formal expressiveness in favour of capturing space. The attention paid to his work by his colleagues is also symptomatic of a new stage in the evolving compact between local government, the cultural traditions of bayside communities and a particular architectural ambition intent on the conscious construction of our ‘carapace of desire’ – which, without architects, emerges unselfconsciously.
The son of a builder of north Italian origin, Simeoni has studied his architectural forbears in the Veneto assiduously, but just as energetically he has pursued an understanding of the poetics of inner suburban Melbourne, a passion spurred on by an apprenticeship to that master of the poetics of St Kilda, Allan Powell. Perhaps influenced by childhood observation of his father at work, Simeoni has developed a fascination with the armatures of construction – those temporary and usually discarded artefacts that support shuttering or protect vulnerable arrises. In part this admiration stems from the direct crafting of these means to an end, but Simeoni is also haunted by the desire to capture for future occupants of his buildings the sense that they have come into being, that they are more than their completed form suggests, that they are the embodiment of a process of construction that is partly visualised by the architect, partly the result of the builders working out how to realise the architectural ends.
At Seaford these concerns manifest themselves through carefully devised disjunctions in the smooth continuity of construction: beams that the eye at first assumes are continuous elements in a post and beam system stop short of the post they appear destined for. Plywood sheathing that an architect concerned to express structural integrity would stop short of a beam or a post slides blithely past creating a well to a skylight that has what Simeoni terms (unhappily) “medieval blankness” or “defiant scale” – effects that are reversed when an observer looks down from above and registers the treads and risers of the stair within the well. Two equal doors open away from the central throughway, hinged off the same post. One reveals a large shed containing boats; the other reveals the aforementioned stairwell. Here there is the sense of the uncanny that Simeoni admires in de Chirico.
Simeoni’s engagement with the vernacular poetics of the suburbs in which he grew up is conducted by enclosing unlikely adjacencies – a balcony on one house, a wall on another, a tree beyond, a slab of wall, a slice of footpath – in one frame. On a tour of these effects, one is shown the perfect viewpoint for understanding how the otherwise unremarkable cityscape pops into wonder inducing spatiality. Seaford has an utterly classical plan frame – the nine rectangles formed in a square when two axial corridors intersect it – that as Colin Rowe (The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, 1976, MIT Press) demonstrated is the underlying maths of the ideal villa, be it by Palladio or Le Corbusier. But here the faces of the rectangles slide open in a wide array of combinations, sometimes revealing the far western horizon to the eye of someone arriving in the car park, sometimes closing the perimeter in an impenetrable casing. The layering is not wilful; each combination fits one of a series of situations choreographed around the building’s changing patterns of use through the seasons, and in differing weather.
The ground plane is inscribed with the proportions of the ideal villa, and creates a platform raised over the dune with a temporariness that defers to the forces of nature implicit in that situation. The sliding screens and openings make the building a constant framer of the juxtapositions of internal occupation and diurnal shifts, thus making the building an engine for mimicking Simeoni’s gathering up of framed moments in North Melbourne.
Experienced unoccupied, the virtuosity of the ensemble captivates the architectural eye. Peter Corrigan, upholder of an opposing pole of expressive poetic narrative, observes that the building engages robustly with the central myth of the coastal urban population of Australia, but then has a delicacy of decision-making that characterises haut couture fashion design – that awareness that reversing the etiquette of the stitching of a collar makes a statement about the making and the materiality of the collar that forces us to see the familiar anew: process imbuing the ordinary with intent. This observation arose out of an encounter with Simeoni and the fashion house Material By Product (Susan Dimasi and Chantal McDonald) with which Simeoni has been collaborating, drawn to this by shared concerns with the poetics of making.
Seaford is cut and stitched at every junction; every plane is made in an unexpected way. And yet it is not mannered. Blur your eyes and you could imagine the building constructed without these effects – as if the bare outline of the plans had been given to a builder, and the pavilion had been made almost to the same dimensions. What would we have lost? What would the citizens and their representatives on the Council have lost? This is not so unlikely a hypothetical; something akin to this happened with Allan Powell’s design for the Sea Baths at St Kilda when he lost all involvement. The snail shell left there is a carapace of mere greed. Here at Seaford the exquisitely chosen lettering casts its shadow on a beam as the sun sets and we are aware that Simeoni has endowed us with a reverie about life saving that is as charismatic as Max Dupain’s photograph at Bondi Beach. A noble shell, which, as it fills with the contingent paraphernalia of its purpose, frames them up as significant objects within a spatial ideal.