by Neometro

A Calm Japanese Aesthetic

Architecture - by Stephen Crafti

This Italianate Victorian house in Northcote dates back to the 1880s and is thought to be one of the area’s original farmhouses. What would have been rolling orchards, is now inner city, with cars darting past along Westgarth Street. Although Italianate suggests intricate mouldings and flourishes, this home, on a wide frontage, is relatively plain and unadorned. And what was there was in relatively poor condition, with the architects virtually needing to rebuild most of the walls. “It would have been easier to knock the place down and build a new house. But the owners (a couple with three young children) were keen to build on the past,” says architect Phil Snowdon, director of Ola Studio. “We ended up only retaining two of the original walls. The rest had to be completely rebuilt,” he adds.

Photo: Derek Swalwell

While the walls were coming down, the couple found out that they were expecting a third child. “They were delighted, but that also meant slightly altering the design to accommodate an additional bedroom,” says Snowdon, who was pleased to retain as much of the original Victorian house as possible. “It gave us something to respond to,” he says.

In contrast to the white-painted rendered Victorian house, the new wing is constructed in a lightweight timber frame and entirely clad in burnt timber, evocative of the Japanese aesthetic. “Our clients love the Japanese, as well as the Scandinavian, aesthetic. It’s also something that feels right with our practice,” says Snowdon, who is in the process of designing a Japanese-style house on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

Photo: Derek Swalwell

There’s a clear division between past and present in the Northcote house. Apart from the materials and colour, there’s a glazed link between the old house and the contemporary addition. “We wanted to clearly delineate the two rather than ‘muddy the water’,” says Snowdon, who located the stairwell within this link.

The original Victorian house has been completely reworked by Ola Studio, including new windows (the original ones had long gone). The rooms, including three bedrooms, a lounge, a bathroom and a guest powder room, are all enclosed. However, the new wing is essentially open plan, with a kitchen and living area leading to the north-facing garden via generous sliding glass doors. The only exception is the dining area, located opposite the kitchen and finely delineated with exterior timber battens. “I saw the new areas as a collection of spaces rather than individual rooms. When you venture into the back garden, you can easily see how each space is defined,” says Snowdon, pointing out the various black timber-clad boxes.

The dining room, although open to the kitchen and living areas, feels intimate as a result of the timber awning. Lowered to camouflage a neighbouring home, this screen also directs diners to the Japanese-style garden, complete with bamboo, that surrounds it. “The garden was pivotal to the design,” says Snowdon, who also included a glass window instead of a splashback in the kitchen. “Our clients own three restaurants, Bomba (CBD), Anada (Fitzroy) and Park Street (North Fitzroy) and they grow a lot of their herbs, fruit and vegetables in their garden,” he says.

Photo: Derek Swalwell

One of the areas most underutilised in the house was the space in the roof cavity, used predominantly for storage. While the main bedroom occupies part of the new wing on the first floor, the extruded library was previously an unused attic. “We kept the original floor but glazed the end wall to create a connection to the new void/stairwell,” says Snowdon.

As with many of Ola’s projects, materials are used simply and sparingly. The balustrade for the new staircase, for example, is simply sheets of steel, finished with boot polish. And rather than ornate Victorian chandeliers, there’s cloth-covered Japanese-style lanterns over the void. “It’s a relatively simple design, but with three restaurants to manage, it’s a sense of calmness they were looking for at the end of each day,” says Snowdon.

Photo: Derek Swalwell

Ola Studio can be contacted on 03 9942 0812


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