Commanding bunker: Light Vault

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A bold, largely windowless facade caters to the clients' love of concrete and desire for privacy.

A bold, largely windowless facade caters to the clients’ love of concrete and desire for privacy. Image: Derek Swalwell

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Simple circulation spines running north–south on both levels are connected by a meticulously detailed black steel stair.

Simple circulation spines running north–south on both levels are connected by a meticulously detailed black steel stair. Image: Derek Swalwell

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A planted courtyard draws light into the entry and formal dining spaces.

A planted courtyard draws light into the entry and formal dining spaces. Image: Derek Swalwell

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The timber battened ceiling offsets the cool tones of the concrete and softens the space.

The timber battened ceiling offsets the cool tones of the concrete and softens the space. Image: Derek Swalwell

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Dark, veined marble features heavily in the kitchen, and is carried through built-in joinery pieces. Artwork: Sean Meilak.

Dark, veined marble features heavily in the kitchen, and is carried through built-in joinery pieces. Artwork: Sean Meilak. Image: Derek Swalwell

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The external face is monochromatic and austere, while the interior is richly textured.

The external face is monochromatic and austere, while the interior is richly textured. Image: Derek Swalwell

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A skylight allows natural light to wash over the large, open ensuite.

A skylight allows natural light to wash over the large, open ensuite. Image: Derek Swalwell

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Located on an exposed corner in Melbourne’s Brighton, this uncompromising new house by Chamberlain Architects was conceived as a “concrete bunker,” with luxurious, private space washed in light by multiple skylights.

The Light Vault residence by Chamberlain Architects in the Melbourne beachside suburb of Brighton is an example of what can happen when an architect and a client are completely aligned in their aesthetic choices. Unusually for Chamberlain, this house is the result of a new build on a cleared site – many of its previous projects are adaptations and extensions of existing residences – and the lack of this constraint or “anchor” on the finished product has combined with a client’s strong preferences to make something distinctive and uncompromising.

Simple circulation spines running north–south on both levels are connected by a meticulously detailed black steel stair. Image:  Derek Swalwell

Declaring a love of concrete, the client said from the outset that they “wanted a bunker.” The house introduces a lofty physical volume onto a suburban street with little or no interaction between interior, facade and street. Privacy is baked in, with few windows or unscreened openings other than an imposing, apocalypse-ready armoured steel door in a long, high, partially louvred facade. This is an architecture of luxurious exclusivity and it seeks to carve out a commanding and handsomely appointed private domain within, one that the architect has softened and moderated with natural light and a tactile material palette.

The house looks resolutely inward. Light is introduced into its heart by skylights and a courtyard carved deep into the two-level volume, containing a maple tree and groundcover garden. This courtyard, which is on view as soon as you enter the house via the high off-form concrete-walled entry hall, is flanked by a study and guestroom to the south and a glazed formal dining chamber to the immediate north.

A planted courtyard draws light into the entry and formal dining spaces. Image:  Derek Swalwell

Spatially, the house is organized around a simple circulation spine running north–south on both levels, connected by a meticulously detailed black steel stair. The plan is quite simple, but effectively so. Turning north onto the central corridor, you move past the dining room and into the kitchen and family room flanking the spine on the west, with the living room to the east. The client has a background in cafes, restaurants and hospitality and asked for what is essentially a full commercial kitchen fitout, complete with a restaurant-grade, sixty-second below-bench dishwasher and a full-size espresso machine.

The family room table is a substantial and impressive piece. With its in situ cast concrete base, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The kitchen finishes rely heavily on a beautiful dark, veined marble, which continues into the fixed sideboard along the western wall. Marble is used effectively through-out the house, in wet areas but also in built-in joinery pieces.

The living room on the opposite side of the central spine is a vast space, with custom steel joinery containing a fireplace and storage. Both family room/kitchen and living space face due north, with a wall of glass opening into a front courtyard, which includes a swimming pool and outdoor dining space. The commercial nature of the cooking equipment within the kitchen is repeated outdoors, with a bank of stainless steel barbecue and food preparation facilities that would be quite at home in a bistro or restaurant. Taken together, the living and dining spaces of the house are abundant and comfortable, flooded with natural light and oriented for good passive solar gain.

The timber battened ceiling offsets the cool tones of the concrete and softens the space. Image:  Derek Swalwell

The circulation spine of the ground floor is repeated on the floor above. From the top of the stair, you are immediately faced with a choice between turning right and heading toward the children’s bedrooms and study and turning left into the private domain of the main bedroom suite. The main suite repeats the material palette of much of the rest of the house, with variations in the choice of marble – in particular, the ensuite is a festival of lighter toned, butterfly-matched marble sheets, with a freestanding bath situated in the middle of a large open room. One of many skylights is called on to fill the room with natural light.

On axis with the circulation spine, a custom dressing table in marble and timber is fixed to the southern wall of the main bedroom, mirroring a smaller joinery unit at the far end of the corridor to the north. The children’s bedrooms and study are comfortable and finely finished, but otherwise unremarkable.

There is something contained and encapsulated about this house, something distinctive and particular in the approach taken to privacy. Materially rich, bathed in natural light and highly adept in its detailing, this is a quality product and it is also a shrine to the primacy and triumph of private space in the city. By screening the occupants’ lives within from the public sphere of the street, the house provides its clients with exactly what they asked for, and in this regard the architects can measure their success. 


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