This house, by KebbellDaish Architects with Peter Adsett, is an experiment in how architecture can be combined with painting.
This house is the result of a dialogue between painting and architecture,” says artist and client Peter Adsett. He insists that the process was not a collaboration between an artist and an architect. A collaboration implies a coherent, cohesive whole. A dialogue, on the other hand, is a back-and-forth between two independent entities, without the need for compromise – an argument, perhaps, between strongly held points of view. Peter is an artist and academic. Sam Kebbell of KebbellDaish is an architect and academic. Their dialogue was literally a series of discussions on Skype (because the house is in Shoreham, Australia, and Sam lives in Wellington, New Zealand). They would swap essays and ideas on both painting and architecture. In the end, they found common ground on which to play with ideas of painting and architecture at the same time, centring on the notion of figure and ground.
All this was over the design of a modest little seaside house: a simple, timber-framed, two-storey, rectangular box, with a repetitive structure that evokes 1950s modernist beach shacks. It is a house for a family of four, as well as a working artist’s studio. “There are no doors,” says Peter. Open planning, a key feature of 1950s modernism, is still quite a radical idea in a family home. For example, upstairs there is no door dividing the parents’ studio/bedroom from their teenaged daughter’s study/bedroom. The design required a new way of life for the family, a new conception of privacy. According to Peter, this has worked very well. “My daughter’s high school grades have improved this year,” he says, a fact that he credits at least in part to the new social dynamic. So: the house looks conventional, the parts look familiar and the design appears rational. Yet the objective of the architecture is to unsettle the limits of each discipline, or at least to frustrate expectation.
The other unconventional room in terms of privacy is the bathroom downstairs. A large window faces the house at the rear. There is no fence between the two properties, and the landscaping provides minimal screening. “The neighbours wanted to talk about the fence, but we said, ‘Wait until it’s finished,’” says Peter. There is no fence, and everyone seems happy with the result. According to Peter, “People feel relaxed here. It’s not formal, it’s casual.” There is something akin to the feel of camping in this house.
So how is it like a painting, you might ask? Most of Peter’s work is painted on square canvases, 1.2 metres by 1.2 metres. He paints them flat on the floor. “The first part of this dialogue was to mark out a big square at the middle of the site, twelve metres by twelve metres,” says Sam. The idea is that this garden will be a “painting,” an organic, ever-changing one. “In the future it could be a square of sunflowers. Or a field of broccoli.” So the square is the “figure” (the object to be viewed), and the architecture is its “ground” (part of the frame for that object). Then the house itself was inserted at the back of the site, behind the square, like a kind of fence. “The site was empty – there were just these different fences surrounding it. The rhythm of the house matches the scale of Peter’s paintings – the repeated module that is reminiscent of a typical fence structure is at 1,200-millimetre intervals, the size of Peter’s canvases and, helpfully, the standard size of a sheet of building board. The idea of the house as a fence is consistent with the idea of the architecture as ‘ground,’” says Peter. However, the figure–ground relationship can be read in reverse. Viewed from the road, the square becomes a plinth for the “object” that is the house. What was figure has become ground. This is the way in which Peter and Sam thought about each design move, each decision. Expectations are set up, and then thwarted, in order to confuse the viewer about what is figure and what is ground.
The front facade plays with conventions of boards and battens, which are designed to cover the joints between sheets of cladding, but are instead shifted around. Some of them become “spare,” because the joint is revealed as a shadow-line detail. Peter and Sam (who flew in rarely but at critical moments during the construction) stood across the street to determine the final positions of the spare battens. The white spaces between joints/battens are the ground for the black figures, yet our eye perceives white as advancing and black as receding. The black becomes the ground for white figures – a flickering between figure and ground, as Sam puts it.
Peter and his partner sleep in the studio upstairs, a big room that matches the size of the open-planned kitchen/dining/living directly below. The edge of the studio floor is treated as if it were part of the balcony flooring – the timber is outdoor decking, complete with gaps between – creating visual and acoustic connections with the floor below, as well as a sense of vertigo. Big sliding glass doors open the space up, further blurring the threshold between balcony and interior. Pivoting windows on the far wall allow excellent cross-ventilation for summer cooling.
Black-and-white striped canvas forms the balustrade to the balcony, a deliberate reference to the black-and-white striped art of Daniel Buren, a painter whose work has veered into architecture and who is admired by both Peter and Sam. On the balcony, the little homages to Buren present themselves as seats – the familiar suburban shadecloth becomes familiar deckchair fabric, inviting you to sit. As Sam says, “You don’t usually get to sit on a painting” – another source of fun for the painter and architect non-collaborators, another reversal, another ambiguity.