A tiny Sydney terrace is made modern and robust by Anthony Gill Architects through clever planning and resourceful use of materials.
From the street, the house is strikingly modern. Two dusty grey walls recede from the pavement; bougainvillea pokes its head over the wall. The house is located on a steep side street in Surry Hills and flanked on either side by rows of nondescript terrace houses. Across the road is an enormous hole, at some point soon to be filled with an underground switching station below a park.
The Surry Hills House is one of many projects that Anthony Gill of Anthony Gill Architects has completed for this client. The owners run a mini empire of Surry Hills eateries: the wonderful Vini, Berta and recently 121BC, a “cantina and enoteca;” that is, a bottle shop and bar. While fine food and Italian wines are the focus of these establishments, the carefully considered design of their rooms adds considerably to the dining experience. The restaurants each have a distinctive style, demonstrating strategies that Anthony also employs in his domestic work. There is the resourcefulness and attention to detail, the combination of inexpensive materials with carefully crafted parts, a sense of casualness and a good eye for when to hold back, when to leave a concrete ceiling exposed, a wall unfinished. There is a recurring palette of materials; black formply (the black-paper-lined plywood used in construction as formwork) is used frequently, as is brass detailing and the occasional piece of marble.
Anthony has employed these strategies to great effect here. The original house was a small, two-storey cottage set well back from its neighbours. Due to a limited budget and scope, the project is concentrated on minor refurbishments to the ground floor, leaving the upper levels largely untouched. A single-storey room containing the kitchen has been added at the front. The roof of this addition is used as a deck off the upstairs living space and overlooks the very large hole/soon-to-be park across the street. Materials and finishes are simple: plywood, formply, polished concrete, stainless steel and white laminate.
Appropriately, given the owners’ occupation, the kitchen is the focal point of the house. A long polished concrete bench sits in the centre of the front room, a surface we are told is excellent for rolling pastry and making pasta. Unfortunately, given the early hour of our visit, this remains unverified. Behind the kitchen is a living area, simply fitted out with formply bookshelves and storage.
At the rear a lean-to was removed to create a second, smaller courtyard, which brings light and ventilation to the back of the house. The step up to the courtyard is an opportunity to sneak in some additional storage in a plywood bench. A small blue-mosaic-tiled bathroom is tucked in next to the deck (in what must be a surveyor’s nightmare, it is within the property boundary but underneath the neighbour’s wall), allowing it to be naturally ventilated. Beyond these interventions much has been left untouched. The original stairs remain in place, propped up by three new concrete treads.
The project is full of small, delightful details such as a wedge cut-out at the front door lined in plywood, a place to drop keys when returning home. Elegant brass street numbers add a fine line to the front wall of the house.
The presence of the house on the street is its defining feature. The elevation of the front walls is a sophisticated interplay of subtly receding and overlapping black, white and grey planes. The vertical slot for the letterbox, the brass numbering, the concrete base recessed to accommodate the sliding door and protruding to form a step, all add an overlay of detail to what may appear at first glance to be a blunt gesture.
It is a robust project, appropriate to its dense urban situation in the inner city. It is also a resourceful project; much has been made with little through restraint and careful planning of new elements and a limited palette of largely inexpensive materials. The ongoing partnership of Anthony and the client has resulted in a house that displays a conviction often lacking or shied away from in new houses. Its assured street presence is unapologetic and direct; it is confident in its place in the city.