Stillness and emptiness

Robert Simeoni Architects completes new house in Melbourne

The site is nearly flat, and wide in a street of already substantial suburban blocks. It was noted that the character of this suburb is rapidly changing from the dominant old model of the villa with a front and a back yard to a new model of the villa with no front yard. In this sense the house is conservative in as much as a strong, established tree towards the street front suggested a return to the old model. But where most traditional houses in the street are demonstrative about their identity this house’s wide front is broken into three, its mass dispersed, coloured with neutral shades of zinc and concrete, it defers to the principle streetscape gesture: the tree.

The block guided us towards other decisions too, its width making possible a house largely enclosed from the side boundaries where planning regulations prohibit overlooking. It then opens itself to a central north-facing courtyard. This courtyard was conceived as an empty space to look through or down into rather than to occupy, a canopy hovering above ambiguously enclosing it in part, creating a kind of shelter, abstracted in ways inspired by Terrangni. Halfway between courtyard and backyard there is a place for the family to gather for meals in the fresh air. There is a distant sense of the colonial in viewing this kind of clear, bright sun from beneath the deep shade and here the house shares an affinity with, not a literal, physical one, with the Australian verandah type.

Contradictory terms of scale are negotiated to redress intimacy in an otherwise expansive program, the building often composed to encourage an ambiguity of appearance between it as a singular object and multiple. The circuitous nature of moving through it and around it then seeks a slow revelation of this quality. Pockets of repose are cultivated for their luxurious emptiness, rest nodes from which to view other spaces. These nodes are mostly created by way of spatial overlap, repeated throughout the home so that the relationship between room and passage becomes at points deliberately unclear.

Light is directed through and across spaces and bounced-off surfaces, an awareness of the building’s orientation used to create a variety of different natural lighting conditions appropriate to the use of each room. Thus for example the parents’ study is an introspective room with no long view out that has four differently oriented natural light sources, its character shifting throughout the day, but always diffusely lit for reading.

Throughout the home and at every scale asymmetry is favoured. There is a cultivated sense of the incomplete arising from the invention of a pre-existing condition; an archeological-like set of structures, made of pre-cast and in-situ concrete that are in turns built over, around and strategically revealed. The thickness of materials is important to sensing weight, zinc is thus finished in such a way at critical junctions to emphasise its thin materiality and the truth of its role as cladding.

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