The story of Hugh and Eva Buhrich is one of those grand narratives, the same epic kind of story that drives many a great film or novel. A young couple, each of them talented and committed to the art of architecture, are forced to leave Germany, flying before the winds of war and persecution. Assisted by supporters in London, they arrange passage to the new world, tossing up between South Africa, America, and Australia. Almost by accident they eventually reach Sydney, but their trials as refugees are not over, since their professional qualifications are not recognised here, and work is hard to come by. Persevering, Eva goes on to become a respected architectural journalist, while Hugh pursues his craft under the title of a ‘planning consultant,’ going on to design a suite of fine but under-appreciated buildings, most of which are demolished or irreparably altered in subsequent years. But the thing that makes this particular émigré architect’s story into a unique and significant one is the quality of two of these works, two houses designed and constructed over many years by Hugh, for Eva and himself, on the same street in Castlecrag.
The latter of these, usually known simply as the ‘Buhrich House,’ has been famously, and justifiably, described by Peter Myers as ‘easily the best modern house in Australia.’
It was this house that I first heard described, in almost whispered tones and always by word of mouth, when I first moved to Sydney. There was tell of a legendary house, perched on the edge of an escarpment in Castlecrag. There was talk of an extraordinary undulating timber ceiling, a concrete spandrel panel studded with semi-precious aggregate, a vertebrae-like cast-concrete spiral stair projecting wildly out into space without a handrail, and a bathroom with the most luscious red custom-moulded fibreglass bath you could imagine. It was said that this house was one of the great, secret gems of architecture in this city, and indeed in the whole country. It has only been in recent years, those leading up and now after his death, that this house in particular, and the work of Hugh Buhrich in general, has at last been recognised as that of an unsung pioneer of modern architecture in his adopted country.
But while this later 1968-72 house is an acknowledged masterpiece, it is also worthwhile to examine its lesser-known precursor, built just up the road between 1939-49. Retrospectively, it is possible to see certain commonalities of idea and technique between the houses, and to appreciate the way that certain motifs, tried very modestly in the first house, were brought to a much more refined and lavish apotheosis in the second.
The most obvious commonalities between the houses are in both site and siting. Being located so close together, it is the same sandstone escarpment that they occupy, the same reach of inner harbour they look onto, the same eucalyptus forest that they nestle within. There are also similarities with the way they occupy their respective steep, rocky sites, stepping assuredly down the hill towards the water whilst layering a series of horizontal views outward from each level.
The street frontage of the earlier house sees a modest, not entirely remarkable white-modernist rectilinear façade, with a vaguely nautical air loaned by the roof garden handrail above, and the whole pattern anchored and unified by the heavy stone chimney on the Southern side. It is not until you circumnavigate the house that the true elegance of its formal composition is revealed on the Northern and rear garden facades, where solid and void, room and balcony, concrete and steel and glass elements are all balanced in tight but harmonious tension. The entry is on the mid-level, and on approach to the front door a glimpse of the living room is tantalisingly revealed, as it is possible to see right through this narrow space from outside, to the expanse of sky and tree canopy beyond. This room, with its marquetry floor and small street-facing kitchen tucked behind a screen wall, is easily the most beautiful space in the house. It is also (seemingly) the least affected by later alterations and additions that, over time, have given the rest of the house a somewhat sprawling air.
Many of the virtues of the first house are common to the period of its construction – it was a lean, modest, tightly planned little house. Its scale is more closely fitted to the human body than opening itself extravagantly to the view. Buhrich used whatever materials were cheaply available in as efficient and inventive a way as possible, and those materials were fitted together by a hand that was direct and unfussy, resolving details as it went. Neil Buhrich, Hugh and Eva’s son, recalls watching his father carry the stones for the monumental stone chimney and side wall of the house up a rickety, three-story scaffold; “that’s why they get a bit smaller at the top”, he observes laconically. These stones were all hand-hewn from the site, which was to be repeated for the hearth of the later house. Both houses also feature fine built-in furniture, and perhaps more revealingly, each has a highly sculptural, hand-made spiral stair. The earlier stair is made from timber rather than concrete, and therefore has a different structural system, but it is just as daring. Meticulously hand crafted by Hugh, it has a central spiralling plywood spine notched with wedge-shaped treads (rather wobbly now, it must be said, and a little unnerving in the absence of a balustrade – Neil Burich says mildly that “some people get a bit worried”) and is located within a sky-blue alcove leading up to the library and roof garden above.
The concrete spiral stair in the later Buhrich House was once memorably described by the architect Neil Durbach as ‘projecting out into space like some tentative form of infinity.’ Durbach and collaborator Catherine Lassen carefully documented the house for an exhibition at Garry Anderson Gallery in 1991. That catalogue is now almost as legendary as the building, and as rare. Lassen was later to write in an obituary for Buhrich, who died in 2004, that the ‘imagined life’ of the house ‘is one of endless delight, a constant reminder of the wonder in the world, natural and constructed,’ and these comments are equally true of the earlier work.
At the time of writing, the older house is on the market. Its end of Edinburgh road, once an undulating track along a decidedly out-of-the-way peninsula, is now a bustling building site with enormous, stolid new buildings crouched on both sides of the ridge. The house is not under heritage protection, which means there is a very real possibility that it will be purchased and quickly bowled over to make way for something bigger. But whatever is to be its fate, the legacy of this small house, hand-built by a refugee architect for his young family in the austere years during and after the second world war, will endure both in the second Buhrich House down the hill, and in the story it tells about the crucial role of émigré architects in our architectural culture and history.