Immersed in a luscious rainforest, this home by Jesse Bennett Architect is a precious, handcrafted object that embraces the tropical climate and is a delight to inhabit.
Planchonella House by Jesse Bennett Architect perches high on a rainforest ridge in Cairns, facing south. It is a beautiful and raw, handmade object envisaged by a young design couple. Planchonella House prompts a consideration of the relationships between vernacular architecture, history, experience and design constraints..
The design of Planchonella House is open, playful and relaxed. It embraces the beauty of living with the tropics, its detailing and construction showing no fear of the environment. This is a rare characteristic in the housing market in far north Queensland, where neuroses around cyclones, insects and wildlife can become dominant design constraints for many residents.
Jesse is an architect and a builder and has worked closely with Sydney architect Drew Heath. Jesse and Drew represent a generation of young designers who are both architects and builders committed to handcrafted buildings with a low environmental impact. Jesse established his practice in Cairns almost three years ago when he and his wife, Anne-Marie, moved north to be closer to her family and escape the rat-race of Sydney. The house is a labour of love and took longer than two years for them to build and craft – Jesse was the architect on the project and Anne-Marie the interior designer.
The form of the house is created by two curving concrete slabs (one for the roof and one for the floor, which overlap but are not the same shape), some intermediary masonry walls of different types (brick and link block), glass walls, black steel, and timber windows and door frames. The two overlapping and curving concrete slabs create organic cantilevers and non-symmetrical spaces that are dynamic and a pleasure to be in, while the simple palette of materials keeps the house raw, earthy and sculptural.
Jesse says that the form of house responds to the topography of the site. The plan pinches in at the entry to the site like the curves in Alvar Alto’s 1936 Savoy Vase. You approach the house from below. It sits on large black columns and cantilevers above you as you swing up the driveway. The house seems like something from The Jetsons, South America and Italy all at once. The plan form is an L shape that creates a courtyard to the north-east corner of the site, nestled into the rainforest ridge.
In keeping with the mid-century aesthetic, Jesse has made most of the furniture himself. There are luscious, tactile and elegant timber curves at every turn – from door handles and tables to clothes hooks. These are balanced against clean black, steel balustrades and bookcase shelving, which Jesse has also made. The level of craft in this dwelling is unusual and special in the current culture of proprietary items. It is not dissimilar to the level of craft in the Oribin House and Studio by Edwin (Eddie) Oribin, which is only a few hundred metres down the hill.
Planchonella House works well for the local climatic conditions and has been created using passive design principles. Like the Oribin house, Planchonella House uses the Venturi effect to create airflow. The largest openings are on the leeward side of the dwelling, with small openings facing windward. There is no airconditioning and the home is very permeable, with most walls containing either casement or sliding windows or doors to capture the southerly and easterly breezes. There are no orthodox flyscreens. Instead there are flyscreen curtains in the bedrooms, which can be drawn if insects are a problem. Most external windows and doors have to be operated with a level of attention and care not dissimilar to driving an older manual car. Jesse calls this “lo-fi technology.” Le Corbusier called it “a machine for living in.” I would say it’s the middle of the wet season in Cairns, and once the timber has settled and Jesse has made his adjustments, everything will work smoothly.
The house also works well for the climate because it faces south and is protected from the north, west and east by dense rainforest ridges. Jesse’s site selection and orientation is clever, as is his use of an earth roof garden to control the median temperature of the house, and create a Mediterranean mounded roof plaza on the top of the dwelling.
With regard to materials and landscaping, Jesse chose Papua New Guinea rosewood for all the window and door framing because of its hard-wearing properties, workability and suitability for the climate. It also has a beautiful lustre and texture. Rosewood is not a native Australian timber, but forestry authorities in Papua New Guinea have been working to rectify non-sustainable practices. The majority of plants used in the landscape design are native and in keeping with the mid-century references in the house design – they have strong lines and clear pattern and structure to them. However, I also observed some invasive, non-native plants chosen for their aesthetic and drought resistant qualities.
The most spectacular space created in this dwelling is not the space you would expect from looking at the photographs. It is a transitional space between the kitchen and the rear courtyard, where there is a generous, low-slung timber seat that backs up against the kitchen servery. When you sit here with your toes in the grass, the projecting and curvaceous concrete ceiling is nearly three metres above your head, and your view is upwards towards the towering rainforest ridge. It is the view you get when you look up the mountain as a rainforest bushwalker, but you never have a seat facing up the track to sit on and admire the view. Jesse has created that seat, and with it a quintessential Queensland experience.
The Planchonella House by Jesse Bennett Architect was awarded Australian House of the Year at the 2015 House Awards; House of the Year and Regional Project of the Year at the 2015 Far North Queensland Awards; and the Robin Dods Award for Residential Architecture – Houses (New) at the 2015 Queensland Architecture Awards.
Read Jesse Bennett and Anne-Marie Campagnolo’s interview with Urbis magazine.