Victorian homes, for all their imposing ceremony and gilded glory, struggle with contemporary aspirations of informality and a connection to light and nature. Matt Gibson Architecture and Design was charged with the task of retaining the ‘great bones’ of a two-storey terrace house while infusing it with natural light to create an urban hideaway. The architects’ desire was to create a home with a sense of theatre, with “specifically designed moments of surprise and delight providing a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of inner-city life.”
Located in Albert Park, 3.5 kilometres south west of central Melbourne, the house sits snugly on a main street in Albert Park in a row of impressive two-storey Victorian terraces that have hardly changed since construction. The site has many limitations characteristic of residential terraces, with long and thin boundaries being hedged in by large intertenancy walls that made the existing house dreary and enclosed. This, combined with onerous historical building restrictions and previous unsympathetic alterations, meant the architects had their work cut out for them. In all instances the architects turned these negatives into positives, embracing both the heritage and eclectic fabric of the neighbourhood.
This project, to use a hair analogy, is not your usual “mullet alteration” of a historic building – business out front, party out back. The architects employed what they call “historical storytelling” to celebrate continuity and newness. “We like to create a story with the existing building, by doing research on the evolution of the site over time. What we do to it is the next chapter in the story of the building,” says Matt Gibson. The design moves effortlessly between the old bones and new addition that is generous in parts and intimate in others, celebrating the virtues of each architectural period. From the moment of arrival, a continuous passage from the front door to the rear yard reveals a light-filled inner-city sanctuary. This allows the owners a connection to the outdoors.
The architects have consciously used the Victorian-era compartmentalisation of rooms to their advantage by keeping more cosy activities in the original drawing and dining rooms. The traditional connection to the street verandah is maintained, as are the cosy ground floor formal living and dining spaces. Where possible, the architects have respectfully chosen restoration rather than demolition, thoughfully preserving the existing decorative archways, fireplaces and cornicing that are typical of high Victorian grandeur. The working areas of the house: laundry, powder room and a service courtyard, are placed in the interstitial areas between old and new. Upstairs there are three bedrooms and a bathroom including a generous master bedroom with walk-in wardrobe and ensuite bathroom. The bedroom to the rear has a balcony that looks back into the light-filled central courtyard.
“The rear is a contemporary incarnation of the front. It is more open to the elements and breaks down the compartmentalisation of the Victorian house, yet it still has designated spaces in an open plan,” says Gibson. The new-open plan footprint is designed to maximise northern light. The central courtyard pulls light deep into the plan and becomes a passage between old and new. The existing intertenancy blockwork and brick walls are utilised to contain the courtyard and will eventually be covered in vines. The kitchen and dining table run parallel with the light courtyard. The family lounge opens up to the rear courtyard and expands in height. A garage and sleepout backs on to a laneway and encloses the private rear courtyard.
A seamless transition between outside and inside has been achieved by continuity of materiality and crisp detailing. This is best exemplified by the 20-metre long banquette concrete bench that runs through frameless glass and folds up into a BBQ bench. The blackbutt timber decking and flooring gives the appearance of interrupted flow when the sliders are open. Basalt, Calacatta marble, off-white concrete and light coloured timbers give a natural warmth to the interior. Accented features and window joinery are in contrasting black. This restraint of materiality allows the colour of the garden to shine through.
The street façade has been immaculately restored, while the exterior of the extension is unapologetically contemporary using exposed black steel portals to frame the view to the private garden. The scene is set for lazy summer barbecues in this urban sanctuary.