- Article by Online Editor
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Location: Brisbane, Australia
Architect: Owen and Vokes and Peters
Review: Nicholas Skepper
Photography: Jon Linkins
In the opening essay of Adam Caruso’s The Feeling of Things (2008) the London-based, Canadian-born principal of Caruso St John Architects outlines the importance of traditions and history to the practice of any discipline. Taking aim at superstars who insist that their work be unprecedented and unrelated to past architectures, Caruso finds it scarcely imaginable that the world around him or the traditions of architecture are not enough to sustain their ongoing practice. With a body of work now more than a decade in the making, Brisbane practice Owen and Vokes and Peters (OVP) have undoubtedly drawn on an international discourse and tradition of building, such that one might find traces of Christopher Alexander or Adolf Loos in the altered and added Georgian plans of the Queensland vernacular that has formed the site for much of the practice’s work up until now.
Importantly however the architecture of OVP can also be shown to have developed out of a sensitivity to and innovation within a highly specific context, with a sustained and fruitful practice enabling a subtly theoretical position to develop that is both wholly their own and unique to Brisbane. This can be seen in the West End Tower – a renovation and addition to a Federation-era timber Queenslander in Brisbane’s West End.
The low-density timber encampments of the Brisbane suburbs have traditionally afforded homeowners with three types of projects for extending their dwellings – enclosing the verandah (to become the sleepout); building under (which often includes raising the existing house); and extending into the rear garden. The former of the three adaptations usually took place early in the life of these houses, as wealth and families grew. As a result, contemporary architects and their clients are most often presented with an already enclosed verandah, with the option to build under or extend – or both – to satisfy a contemporary appetite for space. The approach to these projects has been coloured by a somewhat protectionist (even if slightly misguided) attitude toward the existing houses in the most recent two decades.
This attitude might be attributed to the renaissance of popular appeal that the Queensland house experienced in the 1990s, coinciding with the emergence of the state as a leader in the economic recovery of the country following the recession of the late 1980s, backed by Brisbane’s hosting of World Expo 88 (Fisher, The Queensland House, 1994). A newfound civic pride in the built history of the city emerged, moving away from the preceding Bjelke-Petersen era and its strikingly unsympathetic treatment of heritage. As a result, the default position for contemporary architects has been to act under the guise of sensitive restorer, returning the sleepout to its original verandah form.
Less accord seems to have been given to the disastrous effect on scale and streetscape that results from lifting and building under or the obliteration of the garden setting through rear extensions – both permissible under the city council’s Character Code. OVP have developed a different position toward the treatment of the Queensland verandah that can be shown to operate within a broader urban position that the practice takes to the suburbs and the city at large.
In their contribution to the catalogue for the Gallery of Modern Art’s Place Makers exhibition, Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper described the evolution of the traditional verandah, via the deck, into the ‘outdoor room’ in contemporary Queensland architecture (Place Makers, 2008). The following year, in a presentation at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Stuart Vokes restated Beck and Cooper’s description, appending, ‘…and back into the sleepout’, to describe the individual evolution of OVP’s work in the Brisbane suburbs. The occasion was Atelier Bow-Wow’s visit to the city for their research project into Brisbane housing types. The sleepout, although a non-original adaptation of the verandah, is an equally familiar spatial type in Brisbane due to the long-standing tradition of this alteration. OVP inherited a flawed floor plan at the outset of the West End Tower project, where the once generous verandah, which envelopes three sides of the building, had been enclosed and occupied with ad hoc additions of bathrooms and bedrooms.
A study of the existing plan and client brief revealed that the verandah accounted for 50 percent of the total existing floor area and that, should it be reinstated as external non-programmed space, the resultant backyard extension would leave little, if any, garden untouched. The decision then to liberate the sleepout of its ill-conceived additions, yet retain it as programmed, weather-protected space (it is now where the family lives, cooks, dines and bathes), yields the twofold dividend of retaining the garden setting that is ubiquitous in suburban Brisbane, while placing the rituals of daily domestic life at the threshold between house and garden. In the sleepout, the frangipani leaves graze the windows and one might cook, dine or lounge and still survey the street and garden.
The reoccupation of the verandah as sleepout is a profoundly urban gesture, as it simultaneously retains and idealises our experience of the garden setting for both homeowner and neighbour. The sleepout in this sense can be seen as the conceptual design driver for the West End Tower and other works of the practice. It is a theoretical position that OVP have eked out through a decade’s practice and it dovetails neatly with their broader position that has developed in part through dialogue with local architectural academic Greg Bamford – their joint notion of garden oriented development (GOD). These are ideas native to the discipline of architecture, but here innovated by the practice within the context of Brisbane.