Coastal Forms

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Obvious marine analogies are not reliable for understanding the subtleties of Greg Burgess’s organic family holiday compound of living pods and terraces on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

Photography by Trevor Mein. Text by Paul Carter.

Sited on elevated coastline at the south-west corner of the Mornington Peninsula, the projecting rooflines, bow-shaped hulls, prominent portholes and shelved decks of Greg Burgess’s recent house, Burraworrin, together with its crowning forward bridge, inevitably suggest the naval analogy. But analogy has sometimes been a false friend in explicating the appeal of Burgess’s architecture. Any large structure emerging from a graphic trace that magnifies the arc of the draughtsman’s hand across the page, that composes this into parabolae or extracts of sinusoidal waveforms, will suggest organic forms. The profile of the wave and the cruiser’s bow obviously suggest a working relationshp between culture and Nature.
Likewise, exposés of Burgess’s empathetic articulation of a sense of place need to be carefully nuanced. To gaze out of the forward master bedroom down the line of the coast is to be struck by the effortless incorporation of a row of headlands into the looming bow-form of the balcony. Once on this track, the repetition of these same looming forms at the intimate scale of three projecting kitchen cupboards – demarcating food preparation bays – comes as a delicious surprise and as evidence of a brio, or self- confident (and self-aware) wit; one not immediately associated with Burgess’s better known, topographically incorporative, works at Uluru and Halls Gap. Yet, and again, this environmental derivation risks ignoring the distinctively architectural nature of Burgess’s formal intervention, the sense in which, departing from the site’s physical disposition, Burraworrin becomes a dwelling place.
The architectural signature of Burraworrin is undoubtedly its complex of parabolic curves, the scaled-up and scaled-down family of bow-forms mentioned before. Besides providing internally a functional array of floor spaces, pulling into their orbit oval ceiling recesses and a correspondingly formed firepit, staggered window bays and a promontory-like bar, these forms also generate externally interlocking terraces and a triangular, sail-like courtyard.
Unlike a closed geometrical figure, Burgess’s elongated ellipse – which I call a ‘loom form’ with the seaman’s sense of land’s curved outline looming on the horizon – is constitutionally incomplete: the arc of a curve whose ends will ne’er meet, it depends for its support on attachment to neighbouring structures. Conversely, its projection, and with it the making of prospects that also act as cavelike refuges – as if a permanent cloud stood over the site, mediating between fireplace and horizon – supplies an architectural abstraction that makes a house into a dwelling place, a built analogue of the family. What would a family be? In our strangely schizophrenic culture, where families tend to be isolated and nuclear, but where the media project images identifying well-being with a kind of placeless individualism, it is almost a project to stay together. An architectural project, too, when most family homes further segment an already isolated social unit. Here the clients intervened decisively: Burraworrin was to be a residence where three generations of an extended family should feel at home. As descendants of migrants who came to Australia in the late 1920s, the clients sought in this sense to celebrate a successful sowing, reaping and gathering together. But here, on a finger of land overlooking Western Port Bay, this aspiration had a double aspect. While it expressed intra-familial processes of filiation, it also expressed the migrant’s desire of affiliation to the land. It is no accdent that the house’s name is derived from a word supplied by William Buckley, the runaway convict who lived peacably with the Aborigines of the Bellarine Peninsula, and who acted as go-between in negotiations between Melbourne’s colonists and the indigenous people.
Attachment to what remains spiritually contested land: this also represents an architectural challenge. How can the physical isolation and detachment of the country house register the family romance of attachment? How, say (in an analogy relevant to the atavistic fantasies of domestic space informing this project), to translate the Polish stetel or village to the bush?
Coastal Forms

It was not the house as proud refuge so much as an attachment of familiarly related living spaces that was sought; a neighbourly assemblage of converging passages enclosing sociable gathering places. In the dynamic cross-generational communication imagined here, the emphasis is on the crystallisation of a family dynamic in a network of meeting places. These need not all be functionally prescribed: as in a village, the uses to which they are put determines their value.
And, as in any evolving dialogue, the uses, like names, can signify an entire biography in the life of a family. The beautifully conceived arc of children’s bedrooms opening onto the sheltered courtyard communicates with the half-outside of the terrace, entered by a decidedly theatrical three-step stone doorway; which in turn brings you alongside the pool’s boat-shaped vessel of water, with the horizon prospect of French Island ahead and, to the right, the sheltering return to the body of the house: so are archetypal rites of passage, birth, initiation, journeying and return inscribed in the vestigial nautilus shell of Burgess’s arrangement.
Yet, to go back to my scepticism about overly sentimental accounts of architectural empathy: possibly reinvigorated by the forceful individualism of the clients, by their lack of any need to act like a family, Burgess has interpreted sociability in terms of colliding life paths, that overlap but also diverge, and has exploited the two curved wings of the loom form to suggest pathways and life trajectories sliding over one another, either coiling into one another (most elegantly in the vestibule design) or else bending by curved pathways towards different visions of the world.
It is symptomatic of the success of this design, its understanding that the making of a family of forms is a project, a process of active attachment (and not merely environmentally reactive), that the prospect/refuge dialectic is largely refused in the public areas of dining, living and breakfast rooms. A skilful exploitation of different ceiling and floor levels, combined with deeply recessed, staggered lights means that the sightlines to the outside primarily articulate internal relationships. As a result, even though the sloping land, the looming headlands, the grey-pink sea hues and the flattened arc of French Island are everywhere visible, there is no sense of the outside looking in, or spying. The multiplication of viewpoints equalises architectural, as well as generational, relations.
There is opportunism about these effects – Burgess’s unconventionally opalescent palette for walls and furnishings brilliantly suggests the reflectivenature of the inside-outside relationship, as these hyaline colours pick up sunset tones as they are reflected in the subtler pinks and greys of the eastern sky. At the same time nothing is adventitious about the design. It’s enough to compare Burraworrin with Burgess’s earlier Fraid residence, also at Flinders, about about two kilometres south, to appreciate that formal family relationshipsare being renegotiated and redefined at Burraworrin. The recombination of parabolic forms, their spiralling partial eclipse or – as is spectacularly demonstrated in the tendril-like double curve of the library in Burgess’s about-to-be completed Catholic Theological College, East Melbourne – their bending back like Persian bows to give an impression of capes and bays staggered with harbour-like window recesses – these evolutions of the constitutionally incomplete loom form attest not only to the fertility of Burgess’s architectural invention, but to the desire of joining his lines generate.
Paul Carter is the Professorial Research Fellow at The Australian Centre, University of Melbourne. His latest books are Lost Subjects and, with Ruark Lewis, Depth of Translation: The Book of Raft

Burraworrin Residence, Mornington
Peninsula, Victoria
Architects Gregory Burgess Architects– design architect Greg Burgess; project architect Peter Ho; project team Steve Duddy, Alvyn Williams, Michael Mossman, Thomas Kinloch, Alice Bellamy.
Structural Engineer P.J. Yttmp & Associates. Electrical ande Hydraulic Engineer Elms Consulting Engineers. Landscape Architect Taylor & Cullity. Interior Designer Skidmark Designs. Quantity Surveyor Slattery Australia. Builder Rob Gaffney.

Coastal Forms

Top left Living room. Top right Dining room. Bottom Detail of the vestibule staircase.

Coastal Forms

Top and bottom Views of the coastal (east) elevation. Centre South-west facade.

West Elevation



Published online: 1 Jan 2000


Architecture Australia, January 2000

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