by Neometro
 

What Architecture can Achieve

Architecture - by Stephen Crafti

Some houses make you think about the possibilities of what architects achieve beyond light-filled rooms. This house in Westgarth, Melbourne, bordering a railway line and pedestrian overpass, does exactly this. Designed by Clare Cousins Architects, the brutalist-style home also shows what can be achieved with an extremely difficult site, so problematic that the vacant block owned by VicTrack, languished on the market for three years. “Our family initially questioned our decision to purchase this site. It was only until the house was nearing completion that they started to understand what we saw, and others hadn’t,” says Dani, who lives in this house with partner Simon and their two teenage children. “I just watched as the price (of the land) decreased over the three years. My patience won out,” she adds.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Dani and Simon were moving from a relatively modest Victorian house in Collingwood. As the children grew up and started to invite friends around, rooms began to feel considerably smaller. “We moved from a 200-square-metre site to almost 600,” says Dani, who from the outset wasn’t entirely convinced that buying land next to a railway track was a good idea. “Simon and I said to each other that if the idea to build a new house didn’t work out, neither one would blame the other.”

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

The couple had visited Japan a number of times and appreciated the Japanese aesthetic of building in concrete, and often on difficult sites. Dani in particular had also spent nearly 10 years thumbing through architecture and design magazines, tearing out pages of houses she liked. “I found most of the tear sheets had Clare Cousins’ name on them. So it seemed a good place to start,” says Dani.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

For architect Clare Cousins, a Japanese aesthetic is one to which she gravitates. She also fondly recalls the memories of seeing the Barbican housing estate in London for the first time in the mid-1980s as a child. “It was ‘utopia’ for me, the concrete apartments as much as the landscaped sunken gardens,” says Cousins. Having clients who share such a sensibility from the outset of a project must be a great start for any architect. However, being faced with a difficult environment, adjacent to train lines, must create a level of trepidation.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Cousins’ staring point for the Westgarth house was working with engineers to eliminate noise. So a five-metre-high concrete block wall spanning almost 40 metres was erected. A concrete core for additional acoustic control separates the double-skinned-blocks. And by locating the main spine of the house to the west, adjacent to this wall, further reduces any noise entering the bedrooms and living areas.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Access to the house is via a ‘fortified’ concrete façade with a brise-soleil wall allowing filtered light into the front courtyard. And once inside, there’s a sense of calm and tranquility that evokes many Japanese-style homes. “I thought the courtyard-style house felt most appropriate, given the location,” says Cousins, who included three courtyard-style gardens, with the main garden orientated to the east and northern light.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

The Westgarth house follows a relatively simple, but also complex, plan. To one side of the house is the main bedroom and ensuite together with a second living area that also doubles as a guest bedroom (sliding doors allow this room to be fully screened). On the other side of the house are the children’s bedrooms and bathroom. And between these areas are nifty smaller nooks, one used as Simon’s study, the other as an art space for one of the children.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

However, it’s the living wing, comprising a separate living area together with a combined kitchen and dining area, which the family gravitates toward. Each of these spaces includes black aluminium sliding doors to the garden, offering a secluded outlook. “One of my favourite nooks is my study. It’s only small, but it connects me to my vegetable garden at the back (north),” says Dani, whose plywood shelves are brimming with cooking books.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Like the Japanese aesthetic, materials are pared back with almost no colour. Exposed concrete block walls, concrete floors and black-stained cedar (used for the home’s exterior) are beautifully complemented with black detailing, whether it’s the matt black tiles in the kitchen’s splashback or the blackboard wall lining the pantry, used for food lists or other reminders. “We love grey and black,” says Dani, who is usually dressed in head-to-toe black clothing. “There’s something quite comforting in this palette,” she adds.

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Photo: Peter Bennetts

Friends and family might have initially doubted the decision to build adjacent to a railway line with a pedestrian crossover to boot. But if we didn’t have people with such vision, where would architecture be? Most likely still stuck in the Victorian period is my guess!

Clare Cousins Architects can be contacted on 03 9329 2888