Building Review of Two Houses by Nick Murcutt, co-author Maryam Gusheh

In the 76th issue of this publication, Gerard Reinmuth reviewed two early ‘shacks’ by Nick Murcutt – the ‘Box House’ (which was later to receive a commendation in the residential category of the RAIA Wilkinson Awards) and the Collopy House. Reinmuth closed his lengthy review with a pointed question: ‘In the face of larger budgets, changing client expectations and, perhaps ironically, an increasing sophistication in his work, I wonder if Murcutt can retain the freshness and inventiveness of these earlier buildings. Or, will we see a suffocation of these qualities, just as the idea of ‘the shack’ has been suffocated within Australian architecture?’

The speculation is perceptive, and well stated. In light of developments in Murcutt’s oeuvre, and given that two of his recently completed works represent precisely the larger budgets, changing client expectations, and increased sophistication that Reinmuth predicted, it is timely to revisit the question. It is especially interesting to examine these two new, relatively conventional suburban projects, the Reeves and Harrison Houses, in light of the apparently unconstrained and carefree rural idyll of the Box House. One way of linking the three schemes might be through the different sets of constraints which conditioned each design, and their encroachments positive and negative on the ‘autonomy’ of both the design process and the completed architectural object.

To begin, then, the Reeves house is an extensive renovation of a three-story nineteen seventies masonry dwelling, cut into a steep site in Sydney’s Clifton Gardens with sweeping views of the South Head and a nearby ridge of foreshore bushland. Murcutt has made significant interventions in the existing fabric, including the excision of a double height entry slot in the front elevation, the insertion of a glass-lined, sky lit stair shaft in the centre of the volume, and an entirely remodelled top floor. It is in the sequenced progression through the building as well as the spatial layering of the upper floor plan that the majority of the architectural ‘moves’ are made. It is here that the re-worked relationship between the existing house and both its immediate site and distant view is most felt.

The carefully choreographed passage from the street to the top floor aims for a dramatic point of arrival, attained through the juxtaposition of the confined, and somewhat severe, vertical climb against the horizontal expansion of the upper floor to the extravagant views beyond. This predictable celebration of the visual scene and the rendering of the third level as an elevated viewing platform are, however, complicated by the unique site conditions that unexpectedly ‘ground’ this plane, allowing a fluid transition to the grassy and enclosed back garden. A similar tension is present in the internal spatial articulation, where the boldness and excess of the open plan is tempered by the enclosure of the southeast corner into what Murcutt decsribes as a ‘nut’. Slightly elevated on a podium-like timber floor, with timber clad internal walls, this peripheral living space offers diagonal views of the backyard, mediated through a close visual connection with a Barragan-esque outdoor pool ‘room’. Whilst not fully resolved in formal clarity or detailing, this interrelated series of compact enclosures offer intimate settings for the intricacies of daily life. They stand in contrast with the profligacy of space and prospect which conditions the viewing platform, and which on its own could be seen as a singular, even alienating strategy. It might be said, then, that the broad architectural gestures in the project are conditioned by the necessary specificity of dealing with both the original house, and its embedded siting.

In the Harrison House, particularities of the site also made a significant impact on the final form, but for different reasons. This is a large house on a relatively small block, jostled by close neighbours on two sides, but with superb views towards the front. Murcutt describes the design process as extensive, involving numerous options aimed at the effective negotiation of the desired architectural strategy within the planning requirements of the Manly Council. In light of this, the original dwelling, though demolished, retained a ghostly presence, its bulk and proportion serving as a precedent in Murcutt’s argument for allowable development on the site. The evolution of the siting strategy is also telling. In accommodating competing demands on the harbour views, an early, and conventional, L-shaped plan with a side courtyard to the north was moulded into something more like a curved 7. Whilst the front rooms retain a rectilinear order, offering a simple and elegant platform towards the view, the tail of the building curves to a centralised and pavilion-like position at the rear of the block, enveloped by generous open space on three sides. This ground plane is articulated by a series of raised edge garden beds and water pools, creating a complex interplay of built, landscape, and water elements, and allowing the landscape to merge with the living spaces. That the effect works well is partly a result of the skill with which the garden itself has been designed, and collaboration was an important part of the project – not only between architect and landscape designer Sue Barnsley but also between Murcutt and colleague Joseph Grech, whom he credits for much of the resolution and finesse of the documentation and detailing. So the principal constraints of this project lay in the desire to take advantage of the site and view, whilst accommodating both the wishes of the neighbours and the regulations of council. All of these made significant impacts on the completed house.

To return to Reinmuth’s question, re-stated at the beginning here, of whether these two new buildings retain the lightness of touch, the experimental and speculative air of the Box House, the simple answer would be no. But this need not be a criticism: the Reeves and Harrison Houses are decidedly not shacks. They are large, expensive, suburban dwellings, their clients’ primary places of residence. This is not to say that they are ‘suffocated’, but rather that they respond to a different, more complex and constrained design problem with a different solution.

The appeal of the shack is akin to that of the architectural folly: it holds out the tantalising promise of the unconstrained, self-evident expression of an architectural idea. And the Box House is an exceptionally neat formal materialisation of this notion – free-standing, detached in every sense of the word, it is an object both in the round and fully rounded. But the reality is, of course, more complex. The Box House had constraints of its own – for one thing, it was partly the project’s restricted budget which led to the choice of materials, which contributes so much to the finished object. And this idea, that constraints can be constructive and productive in themselves, that they can resist an unmediated, apparently ‘autonomous’ design process, is the crucial link between the Box House and these two new projects, and the mark of a maturing design sensibility.

The Reeves and Harrison Houses thus raise a series of questions of their own: about compromise, about a difficult complexity, about the judicious balancing of competing concerns. Ultimately, in these two houses, such apparent irritants reveal a potential of their own; they are the grit around which a less straightforward but possibly more rewarding whole can accumulate. In their context, and with all their constraints, it is only right and appropriate that these two houses should leave the increasingly romanticised ideal of the shack well behind.

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