Smokey Town House

Sep 2, 2010
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Shannon McGrath
  • Designer Judd Lysenko Marshall Architects

Judd Lysenko Marshall Architects (JLMA) borrows the objectivity and examination employed by artist Sol LeWitt to explore its recent Smokey Town residence. LeWitt’s minimalist piece – Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes (1974) – is a matrix of precise diagrams that examine a simple cube and provide JLMA with the hook for cultivating sophisticated geometries and formal techniques. Nothing unusual here. The works of sculptors like Donald Judd or Richard Serra are reference points for all generations of architects and designers. The ability for design to import and interrogate an artist’s method is clear. For example, Donald Judd’s mathematical precision and primary compositions make a smooth transition into any architect’s desire for iterative precedent.

Similarly, the monumental scales of Richard Serra’s heavy and carefully balanced steel sheets provide a way for designers to test and cultivate the relationship between architectural form and landscape. Perhaps what is different in Smokey Town is that, having successfully employed the artist’s trope, the agendas of JLMA then manage to resist overworked formulas that seem to be the norm in residential practice.

The three-bedroom house of 260 square metres is named after the rural township where the project is sited, just outside the larger hamlet of Creswick near Ballarat in Victoria. The aspect of the triangulated site borrows much more space from the countryside beyond, and a forest of pines and eucalypts provide an expansive sense of landscape. The suspended appearance of the building feels serendipitous, as a perfectly choreographed ascent from the road into the site brings the rusted, monolithic shell into view.

The local climate is an exaggerated version of Melbourne’s moodiness and these environmental conditions helped direct the formal design approach. The client’s relatively free and open-ended brief was balanced by a requirement for absolute control of light and JLMA’s response was to develop an overstated eave that could provide deep shade to the interior spaces. The resultant cantilevered roof is the building’s dominant gesture and combines with simple geometry and subtractive devices that activate a clever tectonic.

In the same way that one may look at LeWitt’s diagrams, these spaces are moved through with a certain smoothness – the events of each area changed yet enmeshed in the overall architectural language. This smoothness is worked through a distinct lack of procession in this project. Rather than deflecting to the existing rules of domestic arrangement, a series of tensions hinge the inner and outer workings and the tricks achieve a methodical questioning of inhabitation.

This concept operates over many scales and is the most charismatic aspect of the project. The framing of expansive views out of the site via the front façades, which play at positive and negative spaces, is the penultimate example of this. Four arrayed boxes create a singular sense of entry into the house, and the timber deck, which serves as a plinth onto the rugged surrounds, recedes into the topography and gives the building a monolithic feel – as though it has just emerged from the earth itself.

Domestic fall-back positions are left behind and instead a series of axes create new interior alignments. For example, the plan reveals several boxes in juxtaposition and realignment, which separate public areas, guest areas and the master bedroom. Each space entertains its own visual relationship to the site with the deeply framed view. The interior is lightened with a shock of green (a paler, more sophisticated version of our overworked ‘architect’s green’) and, when combined with precise changes to the more monochrome elements of the changeable ceiling, the building schema becomes apparent.

Joinery, too, is detailed to provide a smaller scale investigation of the project’s larger ideas – walls of books and storage and a carefully aligned office are all delineated with the same axial elements. The bathroom, en suite and robe areas, which require circumnavigation, act as a buffer before the quieter bedrooms are discovered.

One of the most interesting aspects of the house is the materiality. It consists – more or less – of those from the Australian vernacular shed: steel and cement sheet are the default, and they are carefully configured with a subtle reinterpretation that negates any colloquial aesthetic. The rusted envelope is like velvet to the touch; the deep black cement sheet soffit is easily misread as steel, as are other interior moments where painted MDF may mimic marble or in situ concrete. And there lies an intriguing irony: Smokey Town is a collection of ideas, an intellectual project – even with LeWitt’s simple lens of examination, there is so much to discover.

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