Establishing a direct connection with the “civic heart” of Ballarat and its community, this new house by John Wardle Architects is composed as a series of pavilions, courtyards and gardens that are slung off an anchoring spine.
People the world over form strong attachments to their particular bodies of water – be it harbours, rivers or lakes – and residents of Victoria’s Ballarat are no exception. While not the city’s geographic centre, Lake Wendouree is definitely its civic heart, with residents regularly gravitating to its shores. The lake is, however, actually an artificial construct. Originally Yuille’s Swamp, it was dammed to provide the burgeoning town with a recreational hub and its banks have since become the city’s most prized stretch of real estate, with tightly held parcels of land rarely changing hands. As long-time Ballarat locals, the clients understood this and offered John Wardle Architects the commission for their home on the proviso that it “would do justice to the lake.”
Discussing the genesis of the project, John Wardle puts forward the idea of an “invented logic,” a product of recording and investigating the very first impressions that the site makes. For Lake Wendouree House these were threefold. The first was a notion that the site had a panoramic vista beyond its dimensions, a result of the long views across the lake and also the setbacks of the houses to either side. The second impression was an observation of Ballarat’s love affair with its gardens, its conservatories and, in particular, its hedges. The third impression was one left by the lake’s many small boathouses, which hover gracefully over the water itself, seemingly weightless against their bigger, heavier kinfolk built on the shore.
The first impression, the “panorama,” was explored by the architects as a series of photographs of the possible views, stitched together and then edited into a shaped experience that was then, in John’s words, “packed up and reformatted over the front of the house,” applied like another skin of cladding. The resulting window is a complex contortion of incredibly deep timber sills that twist and turn across the front elevation. Reading as a positive element, distinct from the typical window as a void or negative in the facade, the window creates a generous and open engagement with the street.
In response to the second impression of the “invented logic,” the dead-flat landscape of the site was manipulated to explore an artificial topography not unlike the lake itself. Exaggerations of the ground plane shape a series of distinct spaces that relate to their use and have been planted to flower or change colour in a dynamic progression across the site that will mark the changing seasons. The front garden is formed into a skate-park-like series of gently rolling berms that slope up to the house, eventually reaching waist height, where they lend the dining room a sunken, almost subterranean aspect. The house itself will eventually become another of the admired Ballarat hedges as the Boston ivy that has been planted starts to grow over the external brickwork.
Rising from this landscape, the house is composed as a series of pavilions that are slung off an anchoring spine. The living room and its incredible window form the welcoming pavilion, nosing past its flat-fronted neighbours and embracing the view. The dining room is next, a space that is deliberately moody, emphasized by the lofty void overhead being wrapped completely in a dark-hued timber (and by one teeny-tiny window in a corner that just barely relieves the tension).
Cantilevering into this room is possibly the world’s longest kitchen bench, which floats through the kitchen against the solid bank of warm timber joinery on its opposing side. The kitchen was the room that the clients identified to John as being the one they’d have if they had to have a house with only one room. Justifiably it has been lovingly crafted and given pride of place at the centre of the house.
The conservatory is the third pavilion and leads on from the kitchen. Interestingly it was not part of the original brief but rather a development that emerged through discussions about Ballarat’s beautiful gardens and also a nod to Peter Elliott’s fantastic conservatory just a little further along the lake shore. More importantly, it allows the clients to inhabit the garden year-round, which is no small feat given Ballarat’s notorious winters.
Floating over the conservatory are the “boathouses,” the bedroom pods for the clients’ three boys, each with its own external identity, a playfully literal expression of the house’s inhabitants and the third component of the “invented logic” of the design. Over the front of the house the study and main bedroom jut towards the lake to capture elevated views.
I finished up my visit by sitting in the panoramic front window’s deep recess, and the clients noted that this was how they finished most days. Initially hesitant about the gesture of bringing the lake “into” the house, they trusted their architect and now revel in the direct connection to the lake and its community that the house has brought them.