Sometimes, the most unapologetic pieces of architecture are the most successful. A design where compromise isn’t an option – where every concept, space and detail is executed as envisioned by the architect. This doesn’t happen very often when it comes to building in Australia, where the reality of codes, budget and regulations often requires a departure from the original intent. In the design and realization of this house in Melbourne, however, there was an unwavering commitment to the concept from the start – by the client and two architects, all working in close collaboration.
The unusual procurement of this project reveals that relationships lie at the heart of this commitment. The client is a surgeon who went on exchange to Mexico City as a student, where he started two love affairs – one with his future wife and another with the country and culture of Mexico. Since completing his studies, he has over the years worked intermittently in Mexico and established a close friendship with the surgeon who had taught him, and whose house had been designed by Andrés Casillas, widely acknowledged as Luis Barragán’s only protégé. The young doctor had always admired this house (as he had the World Heritage-listed Luis Barragán House and Studio) and set about finding out if the architect (now in his eighties) was still practising. It turns out he was. However, rather than discussing any potential design work, Casillas was more interested in fostering a new friendship. Eventually, after many years of friendship, Casillas was convinced to design a house for the client’s site in the inner eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
With a set of final design drawings from Casillas, the client came back to Australia and chose a builder with a commitment to a similar type of monolithic, minimalist architecture. At this point it became clear that a local project architect would be required to deliver the building. The builder recommended Matthew Scully, who had spent many years working for Allan Powell Architects and had recently established Evolva Architects with Peter Sofarnos. Throughout the build, all amendments to the drawings were fed back to Mexico via the client, ensuring Casillas was consulted along the way. Scully also has his own connections to Mexico, strengthening his understanding of the essence of Casillas’s architecture.
Despite considering emigration in the late 1960s, Casillas has never visited Australia, which raises the question: How does this archetypal modernist Mexican design fit into suburban Melbourne? On a conservative streetscape of varying architectural styles, its strength and simplicity are overwhelming. A beautiful, blank off-form concrete wall is set behind a front garden entirely filled with water – a pond, with stepping stones hewn from volcanic deposits in Mexico. Casillas’s original design used white-painted, roughcast rendered masonry, but due to cost, this was changed to concrete late in the process. Using concrete was not new to Casillas – one of his recent Mexican projects provided a precedent – and this, along with further investigation of the work of Japanese architect Tadao Ando, convinced the client that concrete was the right choice. The craftsmanship and commitment of the builder are apparent in the exquisite detailing of this difficult material.
Casillas has marked his signature on the street facade: a decorative concrete element known as a paloma (Spanish for “dove”) caps the top right corner of the blank concrete wall. This detail appears as an abstraction of a bird and is seen in a number of configurations and shapes on Casillas’s buildings in Mexico. The dove is the international symbol of peace and hope and, as Scully says, “when you live in Mexico, peace and hope are very important beliefs.”
The experience of walking through this building is an orchestration of compression and expansion. Because of the number of choreographed changes in levels and ceiling heights, it is almost impossible to understand this house without a third dimension. The ceiling of the small entryway is the height of a doorway at 2.1 metres, which then opens up to the grand, triple-height space of the main living area – a classic Barragán move. The narrow stairwells are all hidden from view, such that you almost stumble across them as you arrive at the foot of the first step. Above the kitchen is a study area that is open to the living area below. It features another 2.1-metre-high ceiling, which extends to become the ceiling of the space below, and you are always conscious that there is a weighty object above your head. Elsewhere in the house, the ceiling is often out of your scope of vision, but here its expression is amplified to great effect. Casillas’s interest in the theories of Gestalt – a psychological term describing how we tend to organize visual elements – is evident in this spatial arrangement.
Barragán took a firm stance against the functionalist aspect of modernism and was drawn instead to its spiritual and poetic qualities. He believed that “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake.” 1 The architecture of this house achieves a sense of calm and becomes a sanctuary within the surrounding suburbia. The large window at the eastern end, clearly derived from the signature window of Barragán’s own house in Mexico, casts cruciform shadows that track their way across the wall and floor. A north-facing clerestory window reaches up to form a lofty triple-height space above the living area, intensifying the drama of the encounter.
The house is orientated east–west, with bedrooms located along its northern edge. This is an unusual move in Melbourne, as is building a house entirely of off-form concrete. According to Scully, achieving optimum energy ratings was challenging and the team “had to search nationwide for an energy consultant.” To maintain the minimalist aesthetic, the sunshading was detailed to be completely invisible when not required – an external motorized blockout blind shades the north-facing clerestory window and internal motorized blinds are fitted to the large east-facing window. As well as opening the house to light from the north, the clerestory shaft functions as a thermal chimney, with a small, motorized shutter at the top of the shaft to purge hot air.
The rear elevation is the one moment when Barragán’s quintessential pop of colour appears: a small opening in electric pink. This colour is known as “Mexican pink” and comes from traditional clothing and fine arts and crafts, including vernacular Mexican houses. In some ways, it was slightly disappointing not to see more of Barragán’s infamous colour. Casillas prefers a more subdued colour palette, using whites and chocolate browns with the occasional and deliberate pop of colour. Lighting plays a vital role in the perception of colour and, according to the client, Casillas picked out the colour of the paper light shades for this home to create what he calls a “warm minimalism.” Another Barragán-esque moment is found in the pool at the end of the backyard, which winds around a series of high concrete walls.
The faithfulness to the Barragán/Casillas approach goes as far as using objets trouvés from peasant culture as a vital contrast to the modern abstraction of the building itself. For example, barriques – terracotta barrels used in the artisan production of tequila – are seen at the front door and in other locations around the home. The client also owns a large amount of Mexican furniture, meaning the entire house becomes a gallery of all things Mexican. Materials for the house were imported from Mexico, such as the water cypress timber used for some of the built-in furniture, handmade timber shutters and the volcanic rock pavers for the ground-level flooring.
Although on first impression this house appears grand in scale, it’s a relatively compact home. The deft play of compression and expansion paired with choices of light and colour are what controls the perception of space. Scully’s uncompromising commitment to realizing Casillas’s architectural vision matches that of the client, and the result is an intriguing home that embodies Mexico’s modern art and design culture.
1. William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900, third edition (London: Phaidon, 1996), 497.
Andrés Casillas de Alba and Evolva Architects
- Project Team
- Andrés Casillas, Matthew Scully
Building surveyor BSGM Consulting Building Surveyor
Energy rating John Armsby
Structural engineer Clive Steele Partners
- Site details
Category Residential buildings
- Project Details
Completion date 2015