A Japanese–Australian collaboration between Tato Architects and Phorm Architecture and Design has resulted in an unusual hybrid of contemporary Japanese design and the local Queensland vernacular.
After sustainability, regionalism is the dominant morality in Australian architectural discourse. Each city, each community, each place is exhorted to find and express its distinctive architectural identity. Architects routinely scour the context and history of a site for patterns, materials and images to weave into the design of any new intervention. And if through incompetence, insensitivity or aesthetic bloody-mindedness the architect somehow doesn’t do this, local planning codes will do it for them, dictating built form, fenestration ratios, roof pitches, material palettes. The underlying premise is that the character of a place should be distinct, and drawn out from the specificities of that particular location on the planet.
House in Hamilton is a project that explores and questions this dominant morality, even as it partakes of it. The hybrid offspring of an unusual Japanese–Australian design collaboration, the project is both of its place and detached from it. The result is a remarkable proposition that demonstrates the potential of a design approach that explores displacement and misinterpretation rather than fidelity to place and typology.
The house is on a steep, south-east-facing slope in Hamilton, a plush Brisbane suburb where neighbours’ homes tilt toward grandiose piles of stuccoed terracing. In this context, the house appears relatively unassuming, propped on stilts, dressed in grey fibre-cement weatherboard and capped with a hipped roof of galvanized corrugated steel. So far, so vernacular.
But the impression of a remnant Queenslander cast adrift in a flotsam of polystyrene boxes is up-ended by its striking X-shaped form, in which two long, double-storey volumes collide; its attenuated proportions; its unusual interweaving of enclosed rooms and open terraces; and the precision of its junctions and openings. And while its impressive height and the extension of its wings over the site give it an expansiveness to rival its bulky neighbours, on entering the house it becomes clear that it is intimately scaled and precisely configured. Although visibly conscious of local patterns and traditions, it avoids any overt genuflection to them, instead asserting the outsider’s prerogative to misinterpret and disrupt them.
House in Hamilton is a collaboration between Kobe-based Tato Architects, led by Yo Shimada, as the design architect engaged by the client; and Brisbane-based Phorm Architecture and Design, led by Paul Hotston, bringing local knowledge to the table. It was the first project outside Japan for Shimada and the first international collaboration for Phorm. This made each practice acutely aware of the other’s cultural baggage, theoretical agenda and design language – the architects sought to be respectful of each other and to find common ground while being conscious of gaps and misinterpretations that could separate them.
Shimada’s work is not easily positioned in the genealogies that map the dominant tendencies in contemporary Japanese architecture. His architecture and writings trace an exploration of what he terms “anonymous intelligence,” the embedded knowledge found in everyday objects and environments seemingly devoid of conscious design intention – an approach that has some resonance with Kazunari Sakamoto’s “poetics in the ordinary.”1 But this is not just about rediscovering the beauty of ordinary things. The simple shapes, industrial products and unprepossessing materials found in Shimada’s work are valued because they are functionally adequate but symbolically mute. This quality of neutrality presents a kind of open canvas for both designer and user, enabling unexpected configurations of these elements, thus engendering shifts in the perception and occupation of the everyday environment.2 Or in Shimada’s words: “weaving new sentences in a timeworn architectural language.”3
Hotston describes himself as “a custodian of the tradition of the Queenslander.” His practice’s mission has been passionately engaged in the upholding of a regional architectural identity rooted in the folklore of this housing typology, with its tripartite section of an open underfloor of supporting stumps, an elevated “bodice” for living, and a pitched roof as the sheltering cap, wrapped by a deep verandah and assembled using timber construction techniques.
The encounter of these two perspectives, one devoted to the neutral, the other to the regional, arose out of an uncanny recognition made serendipitously by the client, who linked the prototypical Queenslander to one of Shimada’s seminal projects, the House in Rokko (2011). Shimada’s design imagination had produced a scheme that paralleled the anonymous intelligence of an icon of Australian regionalism. For the client, it was precisely this combination of personal resonance and Japanese minimalism that was sought for House in Hamilton; for Shimada the project was an opportunity for “active misinterpretation” of an anonymous intelligence; for Hotston it was a chance to bring an international perspective to a local vernacular.
The resulting building transforms and recombines the principles of the Queenslander into an entirely novel configuration. The timber framing has been recast as galvanized steel structure, bringing slenderness to the proportions and generosity to the openings; the four-square plan has been reconfigured as two extended bars, intersecting in an “X” at forty-five degrees; the verandah, comprising a third of the plan area, has been disposed over four outdoor rooms opposing and interlacing with the enclosed interior spaces in both plan and section.
In conformity with the climate and lifestyle of Queensland, a degree of spatial and functional openness is maintained between inside and outside through carefully detailed sliding openings and a unified surface finish of burnished concrete and fibre-cement panels. However, unusually for an Australian dwelling in the tropics, the aesthetic treatment of the interiors reinforces the sense of a distinct and private realm, exhibiting a sharp abstraction enhanced by glass partitions and foil curtains on the lower level and by a whitewashed plywood ceiling with a dramatic faceted concavity at the intersection of the “X.” This purification gives the interior a contemporary Japanese quality.
Dispersed throughout this ensemble are the smaller elements that mediate the scales between the house and the hand: balustrades, stairs and bespoke timber furniture designed by Shimada and finely crafted by noted woodworker Roy Schack, all bearing a sense of care and delight; the kitchen bench sliding over the top of the stair balustrade; a freestanding handbasin for the toilet, which doubles as the barbecue sink when the house is opened up; and the laundry box, placed at the utilitarian rear of the dwelling, housed in its own little tin shed in a witty poke at Australian clichés. The house is filled with bursts of surprise or recognition, familiar things seen through foreign eyes.
It is the subtle displacement and otherness threading through this project that give it its authenticity and freight it with significance as an exemplar of a trans-regional architecture. Its identity does not grow organically from its site, but rather emerges from the intersection of trajectories. It is a coalescence of “elsewhere” – like our cities, our buildings and indeed ourselves.
1. Kazunari Sakamoto, House: Poetics in the Ordinary (Tokyo: Toto Publishing, 2001).
2. For elaboration on the idea of the neutral as a contemporary architectural quality, see the author’s essay “The Nakwon Principle,” in Kim Sung Hong et al (eds), The Far Game: Constraints Sparking Creativity , publication of the Korean representation at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2016 (Seoul: Space Books, 2016), 140–147.
3. Yo Shimada, Yo Shimada: Everyday Design Everyday (Tokyo: LIXIL Publishing, 2016), 109.