Modesty is not a word usually associated with the manicured, well-heeled streets of Brighton. Yet among the baroque excesses of revivalist mansions lies a string of politely sited and quietly elegant modernist gems. One is Neil Clerehan’s Brighton House – completed in 1968 and, apart from some minor incursions, found in next-to-original condition.
Described by Neil as a typical commission for a family, the house reflects many programmatic requests typical of the time – garaging for two cars, direct access from carport to entry and a mostly closed plan in order to separate areas for adult and child activities.
At the time Neil was also working on the design for his celebrated house in South Yarra, and such was the pace of the office – with more than nine projects in planning over the year – that Neil recalls bringing a television to the site to watch the moon landing with one of his staff members and the clients.
This house – like most of Neil’s residential projects – marks a committed point of research into the nature of the Australian suburb, which was developed and honed through his collaboration with Robin Boyd and The Age’s Small Homes Service and was predicated on the idea that a reasonably sized piece of land combined with a dwelling that uses it properly can be the perfect place to raise a nuclear family.
Typically the designs were imbued with a sense of economy and clarity expressed by full-height glass openings, fluidity of living spaces and a connection to the exterior that aided light penetration and ventilation into plan.
As Neil describes: “The Small Homes Service was a response to the postwar building boom and simply proposed small houses for mass consumption. [We produced] sixty designs at five pounds each – simple plans, with correct orientation to the north, composed for modern families for Australian conditions. The Small Homes Service gave people access to architectural ideas that they simply couldn’t afford.”
Like designs for the Small Homes Service, the Brighton House is generous but not bloated. The economy of the building lies in its use of material – face brickwork – and the flatness of its section. The ceiling height is adequate, and the building reflects a fundamental understanding of the constraints and opportunities of Australian brick veneer as a construction system.
An enduring aspect of Neil’s work is described as an “absolute grave determination to face main spaces of the house to the north – the result being that many of my houses look plain from the outside.” He continues: “Facing west they get a blank wall and another blank wall facing east, [but] orientating to the north is the only way to live in Melbourne because the sun can come in five metres in June and not an inch in summer.”
In conjunction with this pursuit of solar access, the brickwork in Neil’s projects is used strategically and rigorously as a dimension defining space and openings – the brickwork and glass openings run floor to ceiling to enhance the simplicity of the materials and to avoid the costly structure of lintels.
There is an inherent logic to the Brighton House plan. The spaces rotate around the centrally located kitchen in the “closed plan” of the 50s and 60s, in which meals were prepared away from what Neil, tongue-in-cheek, calls the “family planning centre.” There is also a marked intelligence in the siting of the house’s exterior space on the block to ensure that it folds out as an extended living space from the kitchen and family room.
In both orientation and scale, the courtyard is suggestive of Neil’s later move towards the open plan, in which the use of space both internally and externally is not dictated but suggested.
A criticism of this project may be found in the way the house addresses the street, but arguably this is implicit in the nature of the architecture. “I’ve never tried to fit into the suburb,” declares Neil, “so in that respect I’m not interested in the idea of context but I am interested in site. I like to work inwards from the boundaries, and if I had my way the boundaries would be architectural elements and not simply planning fences – I like to do walls on the boundary and I’ve managed to get away with doing that a few times.”
Certainly, the internal focus of the dwelling challenges a traditional acknowledgment of the street and embraces the modernist ethos of effective land use and austere materials. Neil lists Frank Lloyd Wright as an influence reflected in his signature face brick work, explaining: “The rusticity of the exposed internal brick has gone now in my work but I think you can see a connection to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in terms of materiality.
In retrospect I feel I embraced the sense of rusticity a little too strongly, especially with the wire-cut bricks in this project. My own house in South Yarra – completed around the same time – is block, and I washed the block work with a light paint so you achieved texture and a different mood.”
However, the immediate issue is what will replace these houses as this and similar suburbs continue to grow in stature and land values. These modest, well-planned and rigorous dwellings are either badly reappropriated with overscaled second-storey additions or demolished to give way to greedy development, with houses pushing the envelope of their sites and jammed with too many bedrooms and the ubiquitous home theatre.
The Brighton House is a successful manifestation of Neil’s determination to embrace and uphold the importance of site as the driving force of his architecture. By responding to the opportunities and constraints within an individual site with rigour and appropriateness of orientation, planning and materials, these dwellings collectively played a critical role in the development of our architectural heritage.
Given the opportunity to revisit these modest projects, it is possible to understand further the nature of their early success and, in doing so, to reconnect with the values, ideas and aspirations in each one.
This review is part of the Houses magazine Revisited series.
- Site details
Site type Suburban
Category Residential buildings
- Project Details