The Queensland home of maverick architect Edwin (Eddie) Oribin, was an experiment in form and structure. Decades after it was built and then unsympathetically altered, it is enjoying a renaissance.
In Cairns between 1956 and 1958, architect Edwin (Eddie) Oribin designed and built a small, exquisite jewel for living in. It was the first house he built for himself and his family and the design was strongly influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Oribin is described by people who know him as an extremely resourceful, energetic, pragmatic and creative man. He has designed many extraordinary houses and has also rebuilt and restored aeroplanes, was a flying instructor, played jazz and designed and patented a tent. The Eddie Oribin House and Studio demonstrates a young, unconstrained and industrious spirit.
The property was acquired by Joseph and Susi Jacobs in 2006, by which time the building had been altered by a variety of owners and many beautiful elements had been covered with linings or paint. The Jacobs removed any light fittings, blinds and built-in joinery that were not part of the original house, describing the process as being “a bit like an archaeological dig.” Through their attention to careful restoration and appreciation of beautiful 1950s design and art, the house has been returned to its original state and has experienced a cult-like design revival. Over the past few years more than one hundred designers, architects and citizens have visited the house to appreciate its beauty.
What makes this house so memorable is its geometric rooms and patterns, exquisite detailing, beautiful use of materials and control of natural light, along with its handmade light fittings, fine tinted concrete and the lustre of the clear-stained silky oak timber throughout. The house is finely crafted but robust and well suited to life in the tropics. It has innovative construction technologies and climatic design features and the story of the house, its history, the architect and its construction contribute to making it very special indeed.
In 2009 Edge Architecture was commissioned by the Jacobs to extend the house to include new sleeping spaces. Originally the site included an architectural studio joined to the house by a bridge slung across the rainforest gully between the buildings. However, between the 1970s and 1990s the lot was subdivided into two parcels and the studio sold as a separate residence. The recent architectural additions pay respect to Oribin’s original intent by sliding off the original house at an angle, making use of geometric forms in plan and using timber finishes to complement the original.
The new rooms create a courtyard to the northern part of the site and offer the new main bedroom a lush view of the rainforest gully. The original bedrooms that were originally the bedrooms are now reading, library, play and craft rooms, providing places of refuge and appreciation for many of the Jacobs’ fine objects and their art collection, and places for their children to play, create and relax.
The house has an uncommon lot orientation, with the long side of the site as the street frontage and the width of the block constrained by an existing creek on the western boundary. The site slopes away to the creek on the west. The result is a house with a long, ship-like timber entry wall to the east, which also shields the house from the street, and generous patio and pergola spaces to the north and west. The width of the house is quite narrow and this allows it to be ventilated beautifully. The floor is cool underfoot – polished and tinted concrete, inlaid with timber strips following a large diamond pattern, which is the structural pattern for the plan of the house. The floor slab consists of concrete poured over reinforcing wire, chicken wire and blue gravel. The plan of the house is based on an equilateral grid system where there are no 90-degree right angled walls; instead, triangular volumes form the basis of the plan. This sounds uncomfortable, but it actually creates intriguing spaces that provide great visual variety and interest.
The wall partitions that create the original children’s bedrooms are raised above the floor by 300 millimetres to enable natural ventilation and suction from the leeward side of the house to the windward. To maximize this effect, the long windward side of the house facing the street contains a low timber garden wall and flanking stone culvert along the length of the base of the house, where there is a screened gap at floor level. These features compress the fast-moving air along the side of the house. Air is literally sucked from the west and open side of the dwelling, through the house and out of the floor-level opening on the street side: an ingenious tropical ventilation system that reduces the need for active cooling.
Natural light entering the house is controlled in a beautiful way. On the eastern side a strip of light at eave level penetrates the house through handmade diffusers. Many walls are not full height, which enables light to move across the full width of the house. The light to the west and south is mediated and filtered through pergolas, shutters and extremely wide eaves. The western edge of the house, which faces the gully, draws your attention to the rainforest. The interior living/kitchen space has a high, raked ceiling, while the ceilings in the bedrooms are low and comforting.
My experience of this house relates to texture, light and shade, and finely crafted elements. The patina of the surfaces, the timber, the concrete and the diffused light all create a refuge from the harshness of a tropical summer. The variety of interior spaces is exciting and captures your interest for a long time – every room and every aspect gives you a new experience. The house offers great textural and spatial variety, and that is what makes it amazing.