Almost one hundred years ago, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier declared “a house is a machine for living in” (Vers une Architecture, 1923). But in contrast to Le Corbusier’s sleek white constructs or today’s appliance-like “automated homes,” the mechanistic qualities of the Osborne House on Sydney’s Pittwater, with its thin skin and the stripped-back revelation of all its parts, recall a motorbike or a yacht. It is genuinely responsive and flexible, but the occupant must be proactive in operating it, pulling its levers and opening its hatches in response to the climate and the needs of their own occupation.
As Tom, the home’s current owner, says with reference to a well-played soccer pass, it is “a house with information” not didacticism, but it is deterministic in its necessity for involvement, its requirement that you engage positively. He also says that the design compels you to be outside, because here is the reason the house exists. Set among tall eucalypts on a gentle north-facing slope that leads down to Pittwater, inaccessible by car and alive with wallabies, goannas and birds, it is a “machine” to make the bush habitable, a device to enable living in and with the environment. This is in sharp contrast to many contemporary dwellings, which are heavily insulated, small-windowed and airconditioned, and which defend against their settings, cocooning their owners from nature’s changeability.
The house, designed by Richard Leplastrier, Karen Lambert and Ian Martin, was built in 1995 for a professional writer and was the union of two small existing cabins, each a single room: one from the 1940s in fibro and one from the 1980s in arsenic-treated pine logs.
Inspired by the original owner’s house at Gundaroo in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands (a series of pavilions on one level connected by a courtyard), the first design move was to raise the buildings to the same height and connect them with as large a deck as possible. The second move was to build a delicate and unifying third pavilion.
The deck is a great stage with the panorama of bush and water as its backdrop – its trajectory “throws you out into the bush,” with the sheltering pavilions at your back. It is a simple structure, with poles and rope as the balustrade and the pipe terminals the ball fittings from car towbars – a genuinely witty machine borrowing. The smaller original pavilion has been minimally refurbished as a cosy bedroom, with windows front and back. The larger pavilion has had its old pine logs removed and a new skin of ply fitted, and the windows have been replaced with light screens of translucent polycarbonate, Japanese-inspired in their subtle control of light and temperature. It is a generous, warm den, a place for study and writing.
The linking pavilion is ostensibly a single room – living room, kitchen and bathroom all in one – but as you move through, it is revealed as a complex series of spaces, large and small, that structure the operations of daily life. To the rear are alcoves for the stuff that needs to be concealed: an indoor toilet, the fridge, shelves for chandlery and tools, and, behind the small bedroom, a deck with the “outdoor toilet,” a place with privacy where this most mundane of tasks becomes an immersion in the bush. Here, the building declares its farmhouse-like acceptance of the messiness of life – transcending the modern desire for decluttering.
The main north-facing room breaks all the accepted rules of house design. The cooking and food preparation areas are far apart, the shower is in the centre-line of the bathroom, paths cross everywhere and the fridge is on the verandah. But it works, highlighting the fallacy that our spaces need to be efficient, ergonomic and tailored to our individualities. This pervasive preconception grew from the same “functionalism” that inspired Le Corbusier and is reinforced in every house and kitchen magazine. Humans, however, are infinitely adaptable. Abandon your preconceptions and you find that this seemingly adverse plan can be the setting for delight, a place where the magic of the bush and the water elevates chores to experiences, and where you re-evaluate your approach to cooking, eating and relaxing.
Architecturally, the house is stamped with the creativity of its designers, fusing a suite of parts into a delightful whole. Leplastrier’s wooden boatbuilding past is evident: a minimum of material is employed to maximum effect, and ply, recycled hardwood and found objects are crafted with care. Elements of yacht design are found in the pulleys that operate the shutters and the great folding door opening the main pavilion to the deck, and in the varnished timber of the walls. The tiny shower and the toilets also seem like they have landed from a boat, along with the rope railings with their pipe stanchions. There is also something of the yacht in the compactness of the whole, the way each part is fitted into the others and the economy of material.
This concentration on minimalism can be understood not only as a desire for genuine economy and a responsible utilization of resources – valuable concerns then and even more poignant today – but also as a response to the sheer difficulty of transporting material by barge across Pittwater and by sheer sweat up the hill from the wharf. It also underlines the careful control of the spaces between – decks, verandahs, bushland “rooms” – as the owner says, “the strongest part of the house is what’s not built.”
The Osborne House was built soon after Leplastrier and Lambert rebuilt their own house a couple of inlets further south at Lovett Bay. Here, too, is the single-layer envelope, the simple pavilion form, with the openings treated not as framed doors and windows but as simple cut-outs in the ply-sheeted walls. At first, these circles appear decorative, but on deeper analysis they are revealed as a straightforward response to the methodology of construction and the qualities of the material itself, derived from the easy sweep of a jigsaw in a cutting beam, keeping the “offcut” as the opening’s closing shutter, artfully spring-loaded and bottom-hinged. The plain brass garden taps and the lovingly sourced and located Japanese pine bathtub are also echoes of the rebuilt Lovett Bay house.
The house’s Japanese-inspired delicacy is surprisingly thermally effective, catching every breeze in summer and cooling down quickly at night. As Tom says, “in winter it’s never too cold – there’s a huge heat sink just nearby.” The benefit of the ocean’s thermal mass is increased by the building’s air-tightness, which allows the small spaces to be heated effectively.
The site seems to sum up the house, beyond any analysis of architecture. Tom attributes this to its key location on the bay – above is a great cave, its midden of shells showing that here, over the millennia, the original owners of the land chose their shelter. Here is a place of connection – of the dwellers to the site, of the house itself to the land. Invisible from the water, the house demands relaxation, engagement and living in its widest sense. It is a place for the magic of the bush.
- Project Team
- Richard Leplastrier, Karen Lambert, Ian Martin Builder Jeffrey Broadfield
- Site details
- Project Details
Completion date 1995
Published online: 10 Feb 2020
Words: Peter Tonkin
Images: Michael Nicholson, courtesy of Modern House
Houses, October 2019