Brisbane-based James Russell Architect, whose Bisley Place project won 2013 Australian House of the Year (Houses Awards), profoundly engages with subtropical conditions, taking the idea of a breathing building to a new level.
It may seem odd that two of James Russell’s professional formative years were spent in Ireland. His distinctive architecture engages so profoundly with nature and embraces and celebrates subtropical conditions with such vigour and joy that the Irish climate seems an unlikely crucible of experience. But it was to Dublin that James went in 2000 with his wife Trish, “wet, poor and freezing,” after a journey to Central America. Then, one day in the Dublin bayside suburb of Howth, he spotted architect Tom dePaor (one of the young guns responsible for the revitalization of central Dublin) and, in his own words, “pestered him to let me work for him.”
James had already got his hands dirty with a renovation of two upper floors of a Georgian mansion in Dublin, building and designing everything down to the light fittings. Then came the opportunity to build and design and observe his mentor’s experimental meanderings within a “beautiful skinny building on the wrong side of town” – dePaor’s own house near Croke Park. Attaining a balance between making and designing remains a central tenet of James’s practice today.
Meanwhile, back in James’s hometown of Brisbane, an old masonry church in inner-city Fortitude Valley came up for sale. The couple purchased it and returned to Brisbane to establish the practice and their home. The restoration of the neo-Gothic church gave James a chance to test ideas of enclosure and shelter, and establish a model that could encourage clients to share in a similar journey.
A transparent coffee-shop-cum-office was grafted to the front of the building on the street side, allowing full engagement with passers-by. On the eastern edge, receding into the shadows, the couple established their own nest. The three-tiered modernist box, sitting on a tight 5.6-metre-wide slice of land, abuts the church wall so that living spaces are level with its stained-glass, pointed-arch windows. A central grassed courtyard on the piano nobile brings in light, rain and breezes. On either side, the living spaces open (or close) their walls to the outdoor court. From above, timber hatch windows pivot open to reveal the sleeping nests, which also look down onto the court, which functions as a “village green” and gathering point. A slice of space along the east holds bathrooms and services, and an enclosed wedge of entry stairs. The exterior wall here is permeable: it is layered with battens, glass and shade cloth, and there is a fence of sorts that recalls garden structures rather than domestic dwellings. In the same spirit, cooking is zoned outdoors, under the clear roofing that lightly touches the old church wall.
At the rear of the church on the western side a second office space has been created with intricately crafted brickwork. Here, a semi-outdoor shower and workbench is protected from the vicissitudes of nature by a thick curtain, and a cellar has been established through a discrete passage under a platform of ledges. The ledges perform as both entry stair and meeting space.
The experience of light, sky, rain and earth in each of James’s buildings is paramount, and draws on his fond memories of sailing and camping. It’s an engagement that requires a leap of faith from clients – they have to be willing to leave their comfort zones and preconceptions behind – so it is interesting that James’s work has penetrated the brick-and-tile, covenant-prone housing estates as well as the more architecturally progressive areas.
The Boston Street House is one of a series of 1990s project homes in suburban Clayfield. The original point of arrival was a fourteen-metre concrete driveway and double garage exposed to the afternoon sun. James has created a car lodge on street level under two generous poincianas, and exchanged the sloping walk down the driveway for a stepped, landscaped route beginning under the foliage and then continuing around the side of a grassed court. The original garage is now a library and lounge that opens its walls to the court on the north. An outdoor kitchen tucked into the earth on the street edge has a roof of tangled, prickly bougainvillea, exchanging built landscape for the natural while forming an impenetrable boundary. The bougainvillea branches droop over the cave-like opening of the outdoor kitchen below.
A filigree brick screen covers the front facade of the house, protecting the main bedroom behind with an extra skin while celebrating the original brickwork. “Boston Street House represents part of the development in the practice [in terms] of how to use brick appropriately,” says James. “The vast majority of new houses happen in outer suburban estates, so it’s important to tackle the issues and develop sustainable living in them.”
In Bisley Place House (winner of Australian House of the Year in the 2013 Houses Awards), another foray into a brick-and-tile estate, handsome black gloss bricks perform the double job of bracing and weatherproofing. A double garage area facing the street, replete with mesh tilt doors, is the kitchen and dining space, which during the day acts a type of communal playground for local children. The house features a central court and circulation zone, and an encircling attic space is accommodated under the essential 22.5-degree roof pitch. Working within the constraints of the covenant in this way has turned uniformity on its head, with delightful surprises the result.
In gesture of welcome similar to that offered by Bisley Place, the White Avenue House features a sliced-off front wall. The honest structure of the postwar timber home is playfully revealed and manipulated. A continuing experimentation with timber construction characterizes the practice and has its genesis in the pragmatics and language of the old tin and timber Queenslander homes. Here, the “front parlour” etiquette of remnant Victorian sensibilities is boldly exchanged for a stage set within the newly formed proscenium arch/entry, with the audience the nearby street traffic. A double garage is tucked into the lower level (the “orchestra pit”) beneath a sloping grassed mound that connects with the lower level of living spaces. A wide ceremonial stair leads to the open room, the deep reveals on either side providing a strong sense of protection within the very open tableau.
In each of these houses, an open grassed court, often sporting a bottle tree or frangipani, is seamlessly integrated into the floor plan. But perhaps nowhere does the outdoors so evocatively infiltrate as in the Raven Street House. Here, a shaft has been cut through the roof of an old timber workers’ cottage at its connection point to a new pavilion at the rear. An olive tree planted at the base of the shaft grows up from the kitchen floor, pulling up and drawing in the light. The surrounding permeable timber structure takes the notion of a breathing building to a new level. The exposed timber joists, studs and rafters are true to the rigour and honesty of the original home, and honour the way in which these traditional buildings engage so directly with the subtropical climate. James puts it best in his own dedication to the beautiful timber vessels of his early days:
“There is a boat from my childhood, Makaira, which inspires many of my projects. In that boat I felt cradled and protected, but if I chose, I could open up and be aware of the broader context around me … As a structure, what a beautiful work in timber!”
See James Russell’s material palette from Houses 94.