Sydney’s signature-designer housing boom spreads to its northern peninsula with a sold-out, up-market, oceanfront development exploiting Alex Popov’s style and name.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting


Night view of the eastern elevation of the development


Architect’s Statement by Alex Popov

is a two-storey housing complex fronting Mona Vale Beach, on Sydney’s northern peninsula. It comprises 17 one and two-storey apartments organised in two lineal groups separated by an internal pedestrian spine. The design was developed with equal consideration given to the public amenity of the local precinct and the relationships between the apartments themselves. This scheme allows for a diverse range of apartment types sustained within a common structural framework of shallow-vaulted steel portals. It differs from the conventional approach to apartment design by breaking down the massing into separate and identifiable units that step to resolve the irregularities of the site and significant trees. Within this framework, each dwelling is highly articulated, with the layering of materials, openings and deep shadows in order to create rich and lively facades.

The proposal also addresses the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ through the site plan. Building types are separated and focused along an internal ‘street’ which provides good landscaping and a sense of suburban scale.

Comment by Lawrence Nield

What is the most important building type? It is high density, low-rise, as Kenneth Frampton has pointed out. Cities are in crisis all around the world. “The typical downtown surely which, up to 30 years ago, still presented a mixture of residential stock with secondary industry, has now become little more than a Motopian landscape dominated by tertiary industry.”

“By similar token,” he continues, “the unremitting suburbanisation of North America and the simultaneous dissolution of the nineteenth century provincial city, structured about the railroad, has been brought about by the deliberate maximization of private transport, sponsored by oil and automobile lobbies and by the corresponding contrived decline of public transport. While these symbiotic consumerist processes are at their most extreme in the US, it is clear that this tendency is to be found throughout the developed world, so much so that one is tempted to assert that if there is a single apocalyptic invention in the 20th century it is the automobile rather than the atomic bomb.”

The way to address these problems is by adequate and multi-modal public transport and more collective ecological housing, particularly low-rise, high-density housing. Successful low-rise, high-density housing is not new. It has been built in many isolated locations over 30 years and there are exemplars. One thinks of the 1960 Siedlung Halen by Atelier 5 in Switzerland and there are a number of important Australian examples, such as Lindsay and Kerry Clare’s public and private apartments outside Maroochydore. Surprisingly these vitally important building types are few.

Exemplary low-rise, high-density housing is clearly different from higher density residential units – the typical Australian ‘units’. Low-rise, high-density housing anticipates a future with networks of circulation and ways of dealing with the car or public transport. It emphasises compact low-rise development which allows it to “more than exist” in typical urban and suburban environments. It sets standards of ecologically sensitive planning. In every way it prevents urban degradation.

Alex Popov’s Rockpool housing on Mona Vale Beach is an important example of low-rise, high-density development. It also shows a way out of our urban crisis. Here, on what was four quarter-acre blocks housing at the most 16 people, there are now 17 residential apartments in one- and two-storey formats.

Its internal circulation, one can imagine, and courts could be extended as a pedestrian network back from the beach and through to the Mona Vale shops. Here is a fragment of a future city.


Ground Floor Plan

First Floor Plan

This development does something equally important. It provides an exemplary demonstration as well as meaningful architecture. So often our cities are impoverished by the work of planners who ignore the issues of Motopia and ecological degradation and try to be urban planners and architects – usually without training. The architectural response to local character and situation makes the Rockpool apartments doubly important. This is not just another beautifully located, place-specific building, taking advantage of Sydney’s sea and sand. This is part of how Sydney might have looked, or can look in the future with rational planning and tectonic architecture.

To the beach, the development presents a series of vaulted forms behind a dry stone wall. Openings lead through to a series of similar but different forms in a layer behind. The openings permit glimpses for the residents behind the beachfront to enjoy the sea, while the plan adapts, compensates and adjusts to provide amenity for not being on the beachfront.

Each apartment on the seafront is made of two vaults, a form reminding us of Le Corbusier’s famous vaulted houses, the Weekend house in the suburbs of Paris of 1935 and the Maison Jaoul of 1952. Generally, the residential units occupy only one floor, though some end ones connect and make full spatial play of the two-storey architectural form. Facing the sea, the width of the vault is determined by the bedroom.

Longitudinally, the building is then divided with sleeping on one side and living and eating on the other. The living room breaks this neat order by occupying two vaults across the front of the building with balconies opening towards the east and the sea. The deep balconies of each unit are ‘adjusted’ to capture the view of the rock pool ‘on stage left’. The rock pool, carved out of the reef, sits out in the breakers. The development then not only ‘captures’ the beach but connects to the nature and artifice of the rock pool and its relation to the ever-changing sea.

The vaults are remarkable for their simplicity, almost primitive-ness. There are primal qualities in Popov’s work. In his use of the simplified frame, we are reminded of the very origins of building. Here, as in many of his buildings, there is a superimposed ‘frame’ that remembers building‘s origins in the hut. Of course, the hut was not just a prototypical and simple structure, it was a differentiation of inside and outside and therefore gained social and psychological significance. The vault is an evocative form but it is also very difficult to carry off architecturally and tectonically. A precise curvature is required: not too arched and not too flat, preserving a muscular tightness while meeting rainwater and spanning requirements. In its several variations, the vaulting here exhibits that simple subtlety of curvature that makes it feel light and right.

Seen as an entity, this suburban group plays and inflects the vaults while the elevation steps along the road alignment behind the dry wall; the vault providing both a recurrent theme and an organising discipline throughout. However it is a complex play. On the beach side, each unit has two vaults while on the land side they occupy a single vault. So this is not simply a banal piece of addition; the end units have a rising and dramatic part-vault providing, effortlessly, both closure and edge condition.

The units at the rear of the site look at both the landscaped ‘inner’ street and the rising hill of texture bricks and fibro behind – the collage of an old beach suburb. The composition is full of subtleties and association. On the beachfront there is sand and two great canary palms giving reverberations from the tight urbanism of North Africa and the Mediterranean. How extraordinary that these evocations are arrived at without sentimentality, by direct tectonic and architectural effort.

Images: Kraig Carlstrom


The eastern (ocean-facing) elevation, seen from the beach.


Top An upstairs living area, spanning two barrel vault modules of the plan. Bottom Central entrance on the eastern street frontage.



Published online: 1 Jan 2000
Words: Lawrence Nield


Architecture Australia, January 2000

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