Glass House

Television has re-written the guidebook of home renovations. What began as a swirl and flurry is now an avalanche of brick, tile and concrete makeovers. Almost everyone appears to be in on the act. The impulse to decorate and re-build began in the cave and tree-tops, so the urge to embellish domesticity is a deeply imprinted part of the human psyche. The urge to ascend a Darwinian order of stronger and safer shelter has been overtaken by a flurry of fabrics and gadgets. Despite all of the considerable odds, architecture still manages to hold its place and provide a way to live rather than simply a place to live. On the edge of the Melbourne’s CBD, Richmond is one of the city’s oldest suburbs and is close to the epicentre of the renovation kaboom.

Demand has been further fired as prospective buyers turn away in droves from the expressionless, Botox inspired, towers at nearby Southbank. The desire to make a mark of a low-rise kind has resulted in some ugly, discounted modernity, hybrids neither wholly modern, or sympathetic to the original. Housing can be so much more than a tilt-slab, work-to-regulation, dull as you like, pot plant plastered palazzo. No amount of building and planning codes create great design. Painting by numbers never produced great art and it consistently fails as architecture. JCB  is well and truly divorced  from the prevalent catalogue of affectations and mannerisms.

There are exceptions and this one is luminous as both theory and practice. Jackson, Clements, Burrows continue to shape some of the best architecture in town and is winning recognition in the process. But this project is no quickie turnaround. Crafted, considered and imaginatively resolved, the project is an exemplar of rejuvenation. There is obviously radical difference behind this house of two parts and yet the transition from old to new occurs seamlessly. Additions frequently mock the old with their sheer scale and divorced style. JCB’s response complements the original through sensitive contrast as opposed to being a dandified version of the original, or parody of steroid-sized proportions.

Visual bulk and associated overshadowing have been addressed with the main building form tapered to the southern site end. A narrow'ish' footprint projects along the north/south axis of the site. Cleverly concealed from the street frontage, the brilliant glass ‘wall’ towards the property’s symbolises deft touches contained throughout. Leaf-like louvres - clear glass with applied film of subtley different hues devised on computer - achieves a lustrous, luminous suface ‘skin’.

Further adding to the blurred relationship between earth and sky is a filigree of garden imaginatively planted and landscaped by Jenny Smith. Architecture and landscape often fail to fully engage, yet here the relationship between filtered views, privacy, light and breezes is quite magical. By day the screen is a sequence of glittering glass fillets. By nightfall it acquires a lantern-like incandescence.

It is a most considered design program that creates a strong relationship with the immediate site, neighbouring properties and city. Essentially a steel and glass box on a north-south axis, the result produces a pavilion lightness from its steel shell and extensive glazing program. Conceived as an object within a garden, this is pavilion as cave and tree house. Walls are dissolved and the garden is an intimate part of the ground floor, separated only by veiled structure.

The architectural focus of adjustable, glazed louvred 'wall' provides shade in summer and daylight penetration in winter with the concrete floor acting heat sink to warm the house by evening. The syncopated patterning of louvres and planting of silver birches along the western fence-line provide appreciable mediation of harsh summer sunlight. Cross
ventilation is provided throughout the narrow-waisted volume via sliding doors. A linear pond along the full length of the glazed western wall offers an appreciable layer of subtly
to the transition between veiled structure and the scribble of succulents.

Decks and outdoor dining tables for the alfresco experience to the east and west are integrated with the landscaping rather than treated as clumsy additions. The architecture has a most direct visual relationship with the site and from the upper levels, delivers a rare vista to the CBD. Less than a kilometre away, the MCG stands with cranes working around the clock in a makeover of its own for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Everyone , it seems, is at it.

Once banished as sweat shop and blue-collar activity, the kitchen has powered its way into our imaginations and reality once more via television. JCB's treatment reinforces this appreciation and regard for the preparation of food that is most relevant to their clients needs. Generous work benches and a vast, polished concrete table serves as extended communal space, workspace and eatery. Its linear quality echoes the volumes and drive of the expansive living area.

Ground floor spaces are fully connected to the delicate rhythms of Smith’s exotic landscape and planting that frame floating decks as dining areas on the east and west elevations. Sliding glass doors on each side, together with louvred windows,  easily achieve appropriate comfort levels without the repetitive whir and expense of mechanical cooling or heating. Although both are on tap, these are rarely needed according to the clients who enjoy the inherent efficiencies of sucking light and fresh air through the house.

Extensively steel clad it revives the Victorian era lean-to without any of the negatives associated with such early corrugated utility. The stellar west elevation, a tour de force with its glittering regiment of leaf-like louvres provides a sign-post of inspired energy management. Privacy and mediation of solar loadings are beautifully managed via an easily accessed gantry that runs full length of the screen. Bedrooms, bathroom and office are situated behind and have easy access to the gantry via sliding glass doors.

This metre wide intersitial space is also service corridor for cleaning and louvre adjustment. Operable as  clusters, the bank of louvres permits individual zoning of aspect and ventilation. Filtered and striated light is easily raked into the upper level rooms thereby introducing a genuinely sub-tropical quality into rooms that more commonly would be either dark or bright, hot or cold. Thermal performance is further aided by sliding glass doors from all rooms on the louvred elevation.

Modest in scale, this house is the big picture item. Architecture’s biggest challenge is to shift direction from the ambition of big, bigger, biggest. Instead there needs to be some serious morphing into aspiration for inventive, sustainable solutions presented as good, better, best. Such architecture as labour of love brings rewards unknown to profiteers anxious for the fast buck.

Peter Hyatt

ESSAYS

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.