Photography Peter Myers Review Peter Myers
With a weekend house in Queensland, Brit Andresen and Peter O’Gorman reveal the subtle joys of streaking along the contours and below the ridge.
Ocean View farmhouse is an important work of contemporary Australian architecture. It is a building mercifully free of the gratuitous localism that has so dogged architecture in the Antipodes in the last two decades. Brit Andresen and Peter OGorman, practising architects as well as lecturers at the University of Queensland, have succeeded in making from their modest commission a work with many experimental attributes. I very much doubt, in these hurried years, that any architects outside academic tenure could make as much fine building from what is essentially a small rural house in a not-too-easily reached location.
The decision to take the site as a point of departure independent of local, so-called contextual, imperatives is long overdue for reconsideration in our architectural culture. At Mt Mee, the analogy of Wrights Usonian houses is apparent, but not in a formally derivative sense; rather it is a fine understanding of how large scale landscapes work that is evident in the siting of Andresen and OGormans Ocean View farmhouse. The actual problems for architects in building in the rapidly expanding close settlement regions of Australia have generally been ignored in a rush to express so-called vernacular attributes to sustain a new motopia beyond our suburban hinterlands.
Thus the prospect of more than one Bingi house sharing the same terrain does seem to have been put aside; maybe we are altogether too busy admitting its singular authority. However, our priorities should be directed towards accruing, perhaps slowly, a new body of architectural knowledge of how to get more rural houses into less hectares. The adjacent precincts of Ocean View are littered with weekend graziers landscape-dominating bungalows, nearly all of which areunlike the suburban badlandsarchitect-designed. As is so often the case, architects are willingly leading the way in designing these unintelligent, overblown, disposable-income rural retreats. So it is a real pleasure to find two gifted academic architects patiently showing their big hit brethren how to mend their ways.
By aligning the gable along the landscape contour and skewing the plan to the roof axis, a very intricate spatial sequence is generated. By further using the existing slope, the plan sits with a natural elegance towards close and distant views. Acknowledging prevailing winds and orientation by siting the long slender plan just below the hilltop is very obviously a successful decision, and the proposed home garden planting is now under way. I am optimistic that this house will cause locals and new settlers to reconsider their altogether redundant top of the ridge siting traditions.
Stock flies were not evident during our visitadmittedly there was a stiff breezeso maybe siting just below the ridge will work as a general limitation for the whole community. I hope the architects and owners take their example of Ocean View up with the local planning authorities; there is nothing like a working model to demonstrate the merits of understated siting!
Apparently the owners initially requested to be up on the ridge like everyone else, and one senses that the subtlety of the final siting is in large part due to both architects and clients gradually eliminating all other possible locations by wanting to really know which was the best siting! This is like the Afflecks Usonian masterwork just outside Detroit: even for Wright, siting was always the decision (once learnt never forgotten). Has anyone ever quantified the multiplying benefit of the ongoing critique generated from each of Wrights tiny wilderness years houses?
Do not be surprised, then, if Ocean View one day is cited not as some recollection of a national archetype but as one of a very few late 20th century rural buildings that looked to the future with a sure sense of architectural purpose.
The elongated plan is carefully balanced, a pleasure to experience. Architectural space is used so sparingly, despite the apparently unlimited site dimensions. Nothing is bigger than it needs to be; the house is very well built and uses everyday materials sensitively. Ocean View, however, is a building that will require, because of much fine section and exposed timber detailing, careful and regular maintenance. Weathering will need to be anticipated, just like it is for its recognisably Scandinavian and Japanese predecessors. I suppose demonstrable maintenance is consistent with the country house as a rural retreatowners will want to lavish the days on regular upkeep that their first-generation neighbours never could spare. And if the understated, plantation-grown, eco-sensitive rural house is to be encouraged by our planning authorities as a major future type then it is appropriate that an architectural approach like Andresen and OGormans be encouraged for what it isfine, sensitive buildingand not reproached for some perceived lack of local colour.
As the architects describe it, Ocean View essentially is a one bedroom, self-contained house with an outrigger of external access accommodation and workshopsbut it doesnt feel like that; it doesnt seem to be a building that is for most of the time only partially occupied. This is a very successful quality for such an isolated building. One, two or twenty people can use the communal areas without the architectural intent being lostnot because Ocean View is oversized; rather it is so carefully scaled that actual dimensions are not an issue (again Wrights Usonian houses are recalled).
I really like the range of dormitory rooms composed as though the house could not work without them; an old device if ever there was one! How often do you imagine Palladios patrons at Villa Maser ever struggled over to the stables that so beautifully terminate their not-enormous refuge from Venices decline? Likewise the spare elegance of leadlight glazing to the dining alcove at Ocean View perfectly complements its spatial importance without killing off the adjoining more prosaic materials, which are used throughout with much ingenuity and respect for their various characteristics.
Perhaps the sitting alcove with its skylight could have been less single minded. To me it is too framed by an arched plywood screen that errs on the side of nostalgia for an inglenook and just fails to embrace either the fireplace or the adjacent glazing. I would spend all my time at the dining table: the intimacy of the distant view held by such a reductive use of leadlight glazing (an easily overwrought medium) is really very good architecture.
I suppose one could propose that good architecture encourages intimate responses and is supportive of wider theoretical interpretation. Ocean View certainly takes you into itself in rather the same way that a care for rural landscape does, and while this is happening ones mind seeks a wider purpose, and is rewarded. For years we have been battered by self-appointed architectural avatars who would show us their narrow path to the deep north. If only we could hack their photogenic exemplars. But it has not worked: we are no closer to finding ways to make more with less and still have the paradise we started with than we were when the whole suburban post-war sprawl began.
What is so encouraging about Brit Andresen and Peter OGormans Ocean View at Mt Mee is not any final answer to any particular issue, but much more it is their acceptance of a historical certainties about the landscape and the conviction to build modestly within the greater terrain without succumbing to the uncivilized certainties of Nature/Nurture.
We do and can really know some things about architecture. Therefore, despite a tendency to perhaps bein some partsover-detailed, this house reaffirms just how far beyond a bicycle shed understated architectural intent can take us.
Peter Myers is a Sydney architect. This critique was written as an independent assessment for the Committee of Heads of Architecture Schools
OCEAN VIEW FARMHOUSE, MT MEE, QUEENSLAND
Architects Brit Andersen and Peter O’Gorman with Michael Barnett. Engineer John Batterham. Building Contractor Taycon.