Begun in 1983, the Phillip Island House by Denton Corker Marshall rejects nostalgia in residential architecture, instead pursuing monumentality and restraint. Considered “ruthlessly elegant” when completed, this concrete bunker remains one of a kind in Australia, says Houses editor Katelin Butler.
Denton Corker Marshall, unlike many practices, did not cut its teeth on residential architecture. However, among many award-winning civic and commercial buildings, in Australia and abroad, the architects have completed a few outstanding residences. The Phillip Island House is one of them. Designed in 1983 but not finished until eight years later, this family holiday home for one of DCM’s founding partners, Barrie Marshall, became a site of experimentation.
The most striking aspect of the house is that it seems to reject all traditional notions of what makes a “home.” As Barrie explains, “Everyone’s holiday house is light and bright. This house was an experiment in the reverse.” The building is made of heavy, solid materials – concrete walls and roof, with a dark terrazzo floor throughout the interior. Before embarking on the project, Barrie and his wife Raine owned a compact timber house on the other side of the island, more akin to the traditional beach “shack.” Although their second home appears to reject most of what the original house was, the couple learnt from their experiences there. For example, like the first house this house has a separate living room rather than an open-plan living area. This is another way in which the project rejects traditional notions of a holiday home – where open-plan living tends to be standard. “We have an open plan at the Melbourne house instead, reversing traditional living,” says Barrie.
Essentially the house is made up of one long concrete box, 5.5 metres wide and thirty-three metres long. Three steel boxes containing service areas have been inserted into this volume – two bathrooms and a laundry. The bathroom walls are lined with white aluminium and become bright spots within the dark volume. The spaces between these service boxes then form the bedrooms. Full-height, custom-made pivoting steel doors open the bedrooms directly into the passageway. The house is consciously designed from the inside out; each room has a window placed for the view rather than for external expression.
The walled courtyard forms the entry point and creates a dramatic architectural moment. Upon arrival, visitors drive through a narrow slot in the concrete perimeter wall and across the thirty-three by thirty-three metres of open grass. When the Marshalls first came to the site, this space was actually already a cleared field, so the design amplifies the existing landscape. A white sculpture sits in the southern corner, a gift from artist Akio Makigawa, who created some commissioned works for DCM’s Australian Embassy in Tokyo. Although this spatial arrangement adds to the monumentality and drama of the project, Barrie thought he might “one day grow a big vegie patch or a rose garden. But as it turns out we have just left it.” Instead the couple tends to a vegie patch outside of the walled courtyard.
A galvanized steel screen that guides the visitor through to the spectacular view marks the doorway. The kitchen is located to the left of the entry and consists of two stainless steel benches floating within the concrete walls. A fully glazed nook with a lowered ceiling height pokes out into the courtyard and receives ample northern sunlight. Custom-designed, full-height sliding doors can be opened on two sides. This room was the last to be finished, some eight years after building commenced.
Although the materiality and starkness of this project give it a monumental presence on the site, the house actually sits discreetly in the landscape when viewed from afar. All that can be seen is black-pigmented in situ concrete forming a single parallelogram wall, cutting into the dunes at the western end and angling down to meet the ground on the east. This form allows the landscape to extend over the roof of the house, giving a further discretion to the project. An angled chimneypot protrudes through this landscaped roof, reminiscent of how the yellow poles pierce the winged roof of DCM’s Melbourne Exhibition Centre.
From the south-eastern side of the building, one might expect a protruding deck in a traditional holiday home. This is not the case at the Phillip Island House. To maintain the rigour of the south-eastern elevation, there is a narrow, covered passageway inset into the main volume. Instead of a deck, a flat grassed area is the perfect place to pull out the deckchairs and take in the view the site has to offer. This outdoor space is another example of how the natural landscape is incorporated into the architecture.
The idea of creating a reciprocal relationship between landscape and architecture is something Tadao Ando has experimented with. Ando argues that “architecture becomes a place where people and nature confront each other under a sustained sense of tension.” The Phillip Island House appears to take cues from Ando’s work – in the way in which the building and landscape merge, but also through the use of in situ concrete and the masterful control of natural light within the unadorned interior spaces.
Reviewing the project in Architecture Australia, Dr George Michell asked: “Can this merging with nature be the beginning of a new beach house tradition?” (“Ruthless Elegance,” Architecture Australia vol 86 no 4, July/August 1997.) Fourteen years later, the answer, unfortunately, is no. This house is definitely still one of a kind in Australia.
Thermally, it has its challenges. The 180-mm-thick concrete walls have no insulation and therefore the house requires in-floor heating for the winter months. The psychological effect of being inside a dark house also contributes to the perceived temperature. However, the northern elevation does have thermal mass benefits, heating up over the course of the day and radiating the heat back into the house. The green roof also helps to insulate the building.
Architecturally this house is remarkable, particularly in its Australian context. Brutal and distinctly the work of Denton Corker Marshall, it challenges notions of domesticity. More importantly, the house celebrates the view and location with little impact on the visual landscape. Although built twenty years ago, the building still appears to be forward thinking in its design ideas. This way of living is not to everyone’s taste, but it is undeniably a beautiful piece of architecture.
This review is part of the Houses magazine Revisited series.