A grand old Edwardian in Melbourne’s suburbs has been respectfully renovated and extended Iredale Pederson Hook, each room given a distinctly different scale and character.
Is there any ground more wedded to the idea of the suburb than the hallowed terrain of Melbourne’s Grace Park Estate in Hawthorn? Here the decorative effects of “blood and bandage” brickwork, lacework verandah trims and terracotta tiled roofs have been nurtured for a hundred years. The idea of house as a perfectible, controllable universe is palpably present. But look a little closer and here and there you see evidence that the way we live now is transforming these nineteenth-century ideals. The architects describe a planning regime that – quite properly – seeks to preserve the illusion of a suburb in aspic, while clients seek spatial extensions that defy the old divisions between inside and outside. Australian houses are now routinely the largest in the world, preparing for climate change by incorporating within their shells almost everything that was once in the gardens, from the drying of washing to the riding of tricycles.
What has happened here? The original house has a corner lot configuration: an L of garden surrounds a central gabled entry porch flanked by gabled bays. The landscape architect (chosen because of his Lilliputian work on the Ian Potter Foundation Children’s Garden at the Botanic Gardens) has evened up the two arms, fencing off a Leunig-like play garden at one end, and has located a turning circle on the diagonal of the block. Two small islands of grass surmounted by bottle trees flank the entry porch, looking for all the world like a pair of spectacles. And indeed, on entering the house, there has been much Alice in Wonderland scale shifting.
Grand though the existing spaces were, they were connected by mean standard doors. The openings have been hugely enlarged and extended so that once inside you feel suddenly much smaller, as if you have popped through the front door into a TARDIS. Working back from sight lines that preserve the illusion of Edwardian splendour outside and in, the architects have then carved out oodles of space. During design they thought of this as “stealth” operation. The form – in abstract terms – streaks away back from the front like a stealth bomber. It is sheathed in copper, startling at first but already in a warm partnership with the existing brickwork. A double-height library is incised between the front rooms and an existing music room at the rear. Through this descends a staircase that seems to hang from the new space upstairs, as if let down as undercarriage to the “bomber” that has settled above. This effect is achieved by locating trusses in the walls of the library void and having them carry the hidden beam from which the stair hangs. Upstairs there are bedrooms, walk-through bathrooms, walk-in cupboards and a long laundry. The plan is cleft: a roof light to the new centre of the house defines the base of the cleavage. Between the two wings – one for parents, the other for children – is a deck overlooking the swimming pool. On this deck a large deciduous tree in a pot will cast its shade.
Let’s go back to the entry. At your left, through the palatial new doorway, is a study with a concealed cellar and operations room. Ahead of you the old reception rooms are linked by wide openings. As Louis Kahn might have put it, these rooms are at last what they always wanted to be. The hall leads you past the library incision, towards what at first sight seems to be a wide outside plane. A curving timber wall eases you from the hall into a space that again makes you feel that you have had a nibble at one of those mushrooms that had such dramatic effects on Alice. This is not really a room at all, but a very deep verandah, where – as in some tropical houses – regardless of the formal naming of the enclosed rooms of the house, everyone lives. Certainly it is glazed in, but at a touch of a button blinds glide up; with a little effort the glazing opens and there is a continuous flow to the lawn and pool beyond. Floating magically on this neutral plane is a cloud-like object, around one lobe of which six children can sit to do their homework. In another lobe is a sink and at the further end a meal can be prepared within easy reach of the capacious pantry lurking behind the curving timber wall. A jumping castle of beanbags faces a TV, inviting release when homework is done. Beyond is the quiet dignity of the music room held down by a grand piano.
At the rear is a small circular lawn arranged in rings like a target. From here you take the money shot of the house. A place to stand, G&T in hand, and think, “Yes! This is our idea of a house.”