“A simple gesture across a piece of land” is how Kerstin Thompson concludes a written statement about the design for the House at Lake Connewarre, near Geelong.
It is a phrase that encapsulates many of the aims and successes of the project, but one that also reveals some difficult issues. These are issues that Thompson wants to raise and sharpen at the level of architectural discourse, but they also demand at least a provisional resolution at the level of the object – a beautiful house. The most interesting questions raised are what “simplicity” and “gesture” might mean in architecture – I think in this case they mean finish and roofing – but the first and more general issue is poetry.
Is poetry, or at least some self-consciously metered speech (“a simple gesture across a piece of land”), required for the isolated house in the landscape? Is there any way around the dominant cliché of Australian architecture? Thompson’s strategy is to try for a clean shot straight through the middle of this vexing question. House at Lake Connewarre is undoubtedly beautiful – and to a large extent the concrete experience of beauty is always a moment of singularity, one that sweeps aside the cultural distinctions, codes and ideologies in which the term “beauty” plays its tainted role. What is more, this house is beautiful in ways quite familiar in the canon of great Australian houses going back to John Verge. It manages the experience of the site with simple good judgment and in a way that both the site and building gain in interest and stature.
Lake Connewarre provides a rather tough landscape of shaggy marsh and superannuated farmland around the shallow lake to the south of the site. The sky is huge and the scaleless lake is home to black swans which, when seen from a distance, look like flies. The house sits on and thus conceals a high ridge at the edge of the buildable area and above the marshy flood plain of the lake. The drive to the house runs parallel to its length and slightly above it so that one looks down to a low, black and very long building which largely obscures the lake. The drive swings around to approach the house from one end where the lake is revealed and one sees the house on its narrow end elevation, confusing one’s sense of its size – it seems to become smaller as one comes closer. The rooms of the skinny plan look out at eye height to the northern sheltered side which is being revegetated with heathland plants and daffodils. These same rooms also perch high above the blustery lake and the huge blue of the southern sky. Thus the house is actually an extension and heightening of the drama of a pre-existing site condition, like a line drawn heavily to emphasize the ridge, like an extension of the dark oily green of the Cypress windbreaks of the former farms. Yet (and this is where the house’s charm exceeds a certain earnest devotion to genius loci ) the house is also a singular object that arranges the landscape around it as its field, as an issue of its presentation, for one can’t really think of beauty without a thing to possess.
It is surprising then to enter the house and find that it is not so conventionally beautiful inside. It is, instead, simple to the point of bluntness. Ply floors and plasterboard lining follow the exterior cladding in a straightforward manner, and it is very large, some 500 square metres. Partly the building’s simplicity results from the architects’ thorough impatience with the idea that elaborated detail, finish and fittings are the sweet lickable parts of building that will get bourgeois clients to eat their architectural dinner. But more significant are decisions by Thompson and her client that have resulted in a strong emphasis on maximum enclosure over quality of finish. As the form and planning of the building are quite complex it is clear that this simplicity is not naivety, but it is being presented as a virtue. What is simplicity when taken as a value in architecture? Where, for instance, does it lie between classical abstraction and unreflective rusticity? The House at Lake Connewarre strangely oscillates between these definitions. Simplicity here is not simply the aesthetic strategy of reduction where a surface, a joint, or a proportional relation, are presented as the distilled essence of the project. But, neither is this simplicity that of unreflective rusticity, a refusal of sophistication in the name of honest tastes and efficient solutions.
Despite its size, this is a weekender and a certain reduction in finish is entirely appropriate. The premium put on size (the 500 square metres, the three bedrooms, guest suite, recording studio, swimming pool, sauna and five-car garage) also speaks of the ruthless drive for maximum enclosure of the boxy form of vernacular holiday houses, where the issue is hospitality. While hospitality in the city might be an issue of quality, in the country it is a matter of scale. There should always be a bed for another visitor, for the largest weekend house party, and their cars.We might say that in its simple box-like construction the house possesses a self-conscious and critical rusticity. But this account is complicated by the roof. The roof is a kind of abstraction of the plan and a reduction of the bits of the building into a single intelligible form, as I will discuss in a moment. The simplicity of the House at Lake Connewarre is, then, a complicated thing, unstable and momentary, flickering back and forth between the blunt rhetoric of its holiday-box ethic and the sophisticated abstraction of its roof.
The design of the roof is faithful to a metaphor from which it was conceived, an origami swan. The wedge-like shapes of the internal planning are derived from the same procedure. The spatial effect of this is that the plan, which seems rambling and unfolding becomes quite taut because the ceilings’ fall across the spaces is generated from the same geometry. However, I think that the real significance of this is not the ceiling but the roof. The house has a roof, one that is not only visible at the eaves but, sometimes, at the ridge. While in some places the roof forms a daring butterfly, it occasionally risks a form that could only be named in a whisper – a gable . In other words, Thompson is breaching one of the unwritten taboos of contemporary architecture, which demands that roofs should be hidden behind parapets unless they are mono-pitch skillions, centre-less and of a weaker form than the plan. In this house the roof makes a quite traditional gesture, an encapsulated action, which ties the part and spaces of the house into an object form. It is not that the roof itself is of traditional form, but that it plays the role that roofs used to play. This marks, I think, a particular historical moment. Through most of the recent past, respectable architecture has been wall architecture, largely because popular house architecture has emphasized roofbased historicist forms, neo-Georgian, Tudor, Shanghai-classical or whatever. Few architects would dare to do a roof because it would break solidarity in the task of distinguishing architecture from popular taste, and because it could not but be identified with post-modernism. But this glacier is on the move. Modernism is now popular in developer housing in the city centres, and, perhaps, it is now possible for architects to do roofs again. I don’t mean by this that architects will now be obliged to do roofs to oppose the popular taste for neo-modernism, but rather that through this change in taste the concept of the roof has become less over-determined and has been reopened to design investigation.
Thompson’s roof is prominently visible on the approach, and it is a kind of summation of the plan. This is because in its simplification of the plan geometry it allows one to read the plan depth from the exterior. Partly the roof is a sign of the house being a house, tying its parts together into the ambiguous object/field condition I described earlier. But in the text we have been following Thompson calls this a gesture. Human gesture is a paradoxical sign system because it is utterly conventional and, at the same time, immediate, expressive and lived. A gesture is in a continuum with the unself-conscious actions of our bodies, and at the same time it is an interruption of this, a freezing of a movement into an image and a rhetoric.
The House at Lake Connewarre has what one might expect from an architect – a poetic interpretation of its site, an ethic about finish, and an interesting roof – but in these aspects Thompson has raised a whole agenda of how we might think about contemporary architecture and the house.
Published online: 1 Jan 2004
Words: John Macarthur
Architecture Australia, January 2004