Durbach Block wins About Face 2010

Oct 8, 2010
  • Article by Online Editor

Every year, the About Face competition provides a select group of practitioners with a rare opportunity to conduct sustained architectural research. The competition has proven to be a showcase for some of the most innovative and compelling architectural ideas in the country with respect to brick’s potential as a building material.

In the 2010 competition, the six firms invited to participate in the competition were Durbach Block Architects, NMBW Architecture Studio, TERROIR, James Russell, Spaceagency and Tridente Architects. Each firm was asked to propose a new concept for the project home that explored the potential and versatility of building in brick.

The competition was won by Durbach Block Architects, while TERROIR and NMBW Architecture Studio each received a commendation. Spaceagency was the winner of the Peer Award.

*Winner: Durbach Block Architects, Infinity House*
The Infinity House by Durbach Block answered all that the competition asked of it. It demonstrated a conceptual engagement with the brief, while anchoring the final design outcome to a thoroughly convincing family home.

Bringing a characteristic sense of formal play to the brief, Durbach Block proposed a house formed in the shape of an infinity sign (in plan), occupying the central area of the chosen site. This form was then conceived as a continuous curving wall that ensured privacy to the front and back, while opening out with breathtaking simplicity to provide views to the side gardens on both sides, where all four curving walls meet. Thus, the building responds to the need to mediate privacy and make a public address with one simple gesture.

Eschewing the use of elaborate brickwork and diverse brick colours, this submission application is direct and bold in manner, avoiding excessive expression. That said, the sweeping arch formed by the opening in the middle does create a sense of lightness, which is counter-intuitive to what you would normally expect from a brick wall. This lightness is reaffirmed by the soft arc of the wall.

One effect of this building plan is to create a large, organically shaped garden that wraps around the house. This house in a garden, provided within a standard suburban block, engages a romantic sense of landscape. Meanwhile internally, the interior spaces are clearly defined and allow for a fluid transition between bedrooms and the open social space of the living room and kitchen.

At both the level of market demand and architectural aesthetics this design roundly delivers a solution that is both elemental in form and imminently practical in plan. An object of intrigue that speaks to all audiences.

*NMBW Architecture Studio, Core House*
At the centre of the NMBW submission lies a commitment to the flexible adaptation of the residential unit, at no time more vitally needed than now. With domestic arrangements continually shifting, working from home now a norm, intergenerational co-habitation, and aging in place a growing movement, the central idea of brick forming a fixed core to the fluctuations of lightweight spatial scenarios around it represents a timely and creative solution.

Akin to the concrete core of the commercial building, the brick core of NMBW’s submission is the primary service area of the house, including heating, cooking, wet rooms etc. Around this core the house opens and closes, expands and contracts, seasonally as well as when utility requires. This is a deeply utilitarian idea, which has a strong lineage in other building types, but less so within the residential type.

This solution also allows for those on a budget to establish a small domestic unit, cheaply and quickly, which can then be added to and ‘finished’ at a later stage. As such, with access to home ownership ever more difficult, this idea has great potential.

Aside from its practical dimensions, the idea also refers to a symbolic representation of the home and the material of brick – that of durability. Informed by the image of the derelict building, where all else is worn down, or burnt out, the image of the lone chimneystack speaks volumes about times passed.

In literally representing the adaptive nature of contemporary living, this submission, with its ‘backbone’ of a brick core, demonstrates the capacity of architecture to engage in social challenges, using strong visual language and clear tectonic form.

*TERROIR, Prototype*
As with the NMBW proposal, the Terroir proposal also takes one of its key cues from commercial typologies – the activation of circulation as an important part of the interior. As with the campus-style corporate interior, where staircases and walkways are now celebrated as an important part of the users’ socialisation, this design proposes an internal open space that is almost a landscape within a house. Instead of the primary attention being paid to rooms, with corridors little more than residual spaces, this proposal turns the corridors and circulation spaces into the important common area. A place to hangout in, play and chat.

As an object in space, the building represents a formidable addition to the street. Though a conventional size when placed next to a standard family home, its scale and sculptural sense of enclosure gives it a sense of almost civic weight. Beyond this figurative element, its robust composition stakes its claim to remain for the long term. As such, though well beyond a standard family home market, there is a clear lifecycle argument regarding the role of architecture to endure and stand the test of time, which may well offset concerns regarding construction cost.

Also thinking of the long term, the embodied energy of such a building would in time be recouped through the passive cooling properties of the building’s exterior and interior. With its interiors that rethink the social space of the private home, and the vaulting, almost cathedral like height at its apex, alongside its bold address to the street, this prototype home pushes the envelope both literally and metaphorically.

*Spaceagency, Street Parti*
Given that one of the key criteria of the About Face competition related to challenging the project home, it was perhaps surprising that this submission from Spaceagency was one of only two to explicitly articulate a vision not just for a house, but for housing, in the plural. The proposal is to generate a series of common elements within a standard building template that could, however, shift and alter along a typical terrace street, creating an interesting and dynamic contiguous façade. More specifically a two-storey wall, perforated to become a brise soleil, allows each building to express individual character through choice of colour and bond, while stitching together to create a large urban effect. Behind the screen lies modest, compact housing, with internal courtyards, roof terraces, horizontal shade structures and generous planting. This model explicitly invites variation and modulation of each building, while nevertheless defining an integrated approach.

While the proposal’s social dimension is compelling, with its commitment to large scale development as opposed to boutique one-offs, the most obvious weakness in the project is the reduction of brick to little more than façade, with most of the interior walls and finishes being suitable for any number of material treatments. There is also the danger that, with all its self-similarity in expression, it starts to become a dominating and restrictive influence on the street.

*James Russell, First Generation*
With this spacious family home, James Russell uses the strength of brick to open the house out to the surrounding garden and landscape through a series of slender walls and roof bearing colonnades. Alongside this relatively traditional material application, Russell also explores the use of brick to form a series of single skin brick barrel vaults. Currently in research, this elegant solution is undoubtedly reminiscent of Kahn’s Kimbell Museum.

Privacy is created through the sequencing of spaces from the street, with the more socially inclusive spaces relatively exposed to the front, flowing through to the working central section of the building and back to the bedrooms at rear. A single monumental chimney is placed in the centre of the house, facing a small private garden.

While these qualities taken as a whole represent a harmonious synthesis of elements, the project did not significantly extend the vocabulary of what is possible with the chosen material. For a competition where research and experimentation is embraced, Russell’s proposal failed to demonstrate sufficient curiosity or architectural ambition.

*Tridente Architects, Red Rhinoceros*
At the centre of Tridente Architects submission was a bold plan to take the simple and make it bigger; that is, turning the small unit into a larger prefabricated brick panel system. This is proposed as being no more complex than stringing individual bricks through a series of steel rods, clamping top and bottom and joining them together in line. By this means, walls of varying size and dimension could be created off-site, then transported to site when needed. Such a system would save money and time, and remove many of the difficulties that follow from wet construction methods.

As a prefab system, it allows for a wide variety of standard spacing between bricks, creating a highly customisable perforated effect. This removes the traditional image of windows punched through the brick wall. Instead, by placing windows behind the wall, the impression from outside is of a porous, pixelated brick finish. Formally, the scheme proposes building forms that break from the orthogonal, with bifurcating pitched roof and walls sloping in a variety of ways. The effect, when multiplied, is to generate a population of housing that is of its time in being ‘standard unique’.

Despite its obvious attractions, as with other proposals for prefab brick systems in earlier About Face competitions (Rowan Opat’s Brick Tower and Bellemo and Cat’s Ride-Park-Shop facility in 2008, for example) there were however major concerns regarding the system’s capacity to work tectonically. This being particularly uncertain when applied to the proposed building envelope’s complex geometry.

In addition, depending on where in Australia the proposal would be built, it is likely that solar penetration would be less than attractive in the interior spaces. With insufficient modelling provided, the quality of interiors posed a challenge. With more time in development this proposal has potential, but as defined remains unconvincing as a genuinely alternative approach to housing.

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