Oyster Blade

Ed Lippmann is surely one of Australia’s most consummate architects to have emerged from the modernist tradition. Among his most recent projects, the Johnstone House at Pearl Beach on Broken Bay north of Sydney, is a model of environmental translation. Clean lines and crisp resolution characterize a pavilion with beach shack attitude.

Pearl Beach has quickly become an upmarket ‘escape’ only recently discovered. It has clogged quickly with heavy-duty, prestige ‘weekenders’. In contrast, and lightly placed, the Johnstone House avoids the common trap of excavation and concrete slab. Instead it forms a beguiling connection.

Its pavilion origins are emphasised by subtle elevation and separation from the earth through raised footings to minimise impact on the natural in-ground dune systems. This lightweight stance continues throughout the finely honed interior. In all a light-filled, permeable sequence of volumes underscored with natural materials.

A series of steel-framed and glass walls based on a simple 6m. x 6m. grid spells out the mechanical framework that manages to so poetically interpret place.

The task of staying open to the environmental possibilities while retaining privacy is no small feat. Adjacent, and opposite, are rows of holiday and permanent houses all jostling for pre-eminence.

Many developments let the true opportunity of location slip between their fingers like sand. Lippmann realises place without resort to celebrity mansion or brick box. What better way to connect with people and such a place than to make a loose, light filled fit, instead of dimming down?

With the slap of waves at the back door and the pride rock presence of Mount Ettalong launching itself just metres away, this house could just as easily be a away from the madding crowd thanks to the architectural focus.

Lippmann demonstrates resurrection rather than ruination with a jeweller’s eye for detail as well as the bigger picture. He uses a lightweight steel framed structure to incorporate glazing as a selective chequer-board of privacy here, outlook there.

Deftly clad in vast spans of glass, the result is incentive enough for light to dance throughout. It caters for the obvious noon brilliance as easily as the almost horizontal shafts of crimson sunrise and golden dusk.

Light is the essence of architecture and in the true Modernist vein Lippmann embraces it here for all it is worth. It cascades and filters by precise measure and means. Direct, bounced, splintered and dappled, it evokes the modern day coastal light house.

The role of glass is difficult to underestimate here. Transparent walls slide as effortlessly as Japanese rice paper screens to produce varying spatial relationships, or to capture breezes. Courtyard and lounge, or kitchen and deck, or another partial combination generate a flowing, adjustable design dexterity.

Measuring 420 sq.m. the construction is faceted inside and out to provide clean, uncluttered lines consistent with the notion of drawing air and light throughout the house with a minimum of obstruction. Boxed, full-height glazing of the central staircase affirms an appreciation of daylight as an omnipresent, ever-changing source.

Proportion is almost everything in architecture and Lippmann’s selection of materials has a descending order of balance, compatibility strength and refinement.

It’s a project full of surprises. The west-facing street elevation is low-key with little to announce what lies behind. Soft grey coloured walls and garage door are subtle and recessive. The roof-line features steel blades as eye-lids that direct views towards the verdant face of Mount Ettalong. These blades also introduce warm winter light to the upper level. Not surprisingly in a house of glass and light there are sequences of louvres and sliding doors/windows to ventilate as required.

The roof comprises a series of flat and sloping surfaces (gravel and pitched corrugated) to permit maximum light penetration yet shield summer sun and harsh winds.

Entry through a large pivoting glass door and breezeway instantly reveals patterned shade through the screened, glazed roof. Such details produce a sundial effect of slatted light and offers shade, pattern and filigree form as a progression between spaces and zones.

Circulation via a central passageway leads past a central, courtyard that can be accessed on all three sides by full-height sliding glass doors and extend the indoor-outdoor relationship.

A wall and staircase momentarily subverts views along the passageway and restricts the sea to a teasing glimpse. The larger of two courtyards on the south side amplifies the staircase as a lightweight, floating element. Arrival in the kitchen/living/dining area finally unfolds the full experience of framed sea, sky and horizon.

This is clever architecture because it provides a deft reference for the distant image. Only the thinnest of window mullions remind the visitor of the veil between interior and the genius of place. A floating ceiling and skillion roof on ground and upper levels draws the easterly sky and Mount Ettalong to the north ever closer. This highly considered design demeanour flows through to furnishings and in such details as slender, taut cabinetry.

Lippmann makes the transition between commercial and such residential work appear effortless. Scaling up and down from urban planning schemes to bespoke housing requires special competence. It’s something that cannot be claimed by many architects who avoid residential work as too much trouble for too little return, or who simply lack the horsepower to take on major design work.

Lippmann’s early experience was shaped by working for the famous architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer. While those days are distant memories, the experience of rational form rather than faddish geometries, continues to guide his work. Simple materials suitably worked make sustainable design sense without the aid of hokey-pokey regulations.

While it’s true that his stupendous Butterfly House at Dover Heights, Sydney, is more iconic, as a fine fit for place, the Johnstone House is hard to surpass.

Above all it rewards the senses of sight sound and smell. Like a great book or film, it concertinas in progressive, satisfying and entirely convincing ways. The crashing waves, timeless vista and magical light are all effortlessly drawn towards this house where it is possible to fully appreciate what it means to be alive.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2006


Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.