Completed in 1949, the Eames House in California remains one of the most lucid and potent examples of the possibilities of the steel framed house. Generated as part of the influential Case Study Houses program, it possesses a sense of relaxed inclusiveness not projected by other notable steel houses such as the Farnsworth House or Philip Johnson’s house at New Canaan. Its simple frame, panels of bold primary colours and gridded glazing gave a disciplined backdrop to the creative lives of the Eames. The way it recorded and reflected the shifting patterns of light and the shadows of foliage overcame the sterility suggested by its frank expression of industrialised structure and cladding. Yet, despite the enduring influence of the images of this house, its promise of a more rational way of building entailing the selection and combination of off-the-peg components has not been fulfilled. The housing industry has virtually ignored the possibilities offered by the rational use of engineered steel framing, with most steel housing instead emulating the traditional practices of timber stud frame construction.
Fifty years on, there are few examples in Queensland of steel framed houses that answer the promise of the Eames House in any way. Exceptions include several designs by Chris Clarke who is possibly better known for his contribution, as a director of Bligh Voller Nield, to the design of large-scale steel structures. Clarke’s widely published first house at Ascot, Brisbane, was designed in 1984 as he prepared to return to Australia following several years in England. There, Clarke had had extensive experience in London with John Winter, a recognised specialist in the use of steel, who fostered a familiarity with the work of Mies van der Rohe, Craig Ellwood and, especially, that of Ray and Charles Eames. At the time that he designed the house, he was working for Norman Foster and admits to having been directly influenced by the work of the English High Tech school. Aspects of houses by Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins and Richard Horden can be traced in the design, together with the expertise of the engineer, Mark Whitby, who had worked on many High Tech projects. The sense of this house having been transplanted from elsewhere was amplified by the decision to span across the gully of its site so that it strutted over rather than settled into the fold of the land. Its single-storey, bridge-like frame, glazed along the two long edges to north and south remains a unique demonstration in Queensland of the advantages of using steel as the primary structure in house design.
The recently completed Clarke MacLeod house at Taringa, some seven kilometres from the centre of Brisbane’s CBD, is more closely tailored to the nature of its site and to the micro-climate of its setting. The pocket of land it occupies has been subdivided from an adjacent block and is accessed via a narrow laneway from the street above. Eight other properties bound the site and the location of the house was largely determined by efforts to minimise overlooking and intrusion into existing views. Steeply sloping, the trapezoidal plan of the site created the tapering shape of the roof plane, which is governed by prescribed setbacks from the side boundaries.
The house is discovered from above and its pavilion-like form of galvanised steel and glass contrasts sharply with its more conventional neighbours glimpsed through the mixed vegetation of remnant bush and encircling gardens. The long axis of the house sits across the centre of the site, enabling an orientation to the north, on a levelled bench cut into the land. The two-storey volume of the living space, the exposed steel frame and the horizontal emphasis of both form and cladding directly recall the Eames House. The differences lie in the skeletal order of the free-standing columns that support and frame the veranda roof to the north, and in the need to customise most materials and elements to suit the design rather than being able to select and combine standard, off-the-peg, components.
The veranda rises the full height of the house, mediating between the volume of the interior and the scale of the tall eucalypts that stud the immediate landscape. This veranda-cum-portico comprises a third of the area of the whole house and creates a generous external, covered living space, which complements and extends the enclosed volume of the interior. Suspended from the columns are two secondary roofs; one sheltering the car bays
restrained by stainless steel cables, the other a canopy of draped aluminium slats providing additional shade over the garden table. The columns and roof beams are of the same 120 x 75 x 3 mm pre-galvanised, rectangular hollow-section with internal bolted joints at the mitred junctions. The attention to detail, and to the achievement of accuracy in construction, is directly related both to the potential of the material and to Clarke’s experience with steel construction. Sharply defined but minimal shadow joints separate the columns and beams of the frame from the cladding both internally and externally. Bracing is concealed within the depth of the wall panels, except on the eastern elevation where it is exposed behind the principal glazing. Silver Zincalume mini-orb, sealed with silicone beading, clads the entire southern wall, the high level panels of the other elevations and the soffits of the veranda and the car canopy. At low level, the cladding is of cement sheet painted with high chroma paint. Internally, perforated mini-orb cladding, with acoustic absorbent behind, is used for the principal walls and ceiling of the living space with conventional painted plasterboard in other areas. Glazing is largely fixed at low levels in a black aluminium framing system integrated with the horizontal structural rails of the steel frame.
Clarke was concerned that the house should both be defined by light and invite light into its depth to emphasise the transparency permitted by the frame. The role of the enclosing walls as spatial divisions rather than as structure is revealed by the interplay between solid and glazed panels and further emphasised by the slots of continuous glazing along the head and foot of the south wall. These spill light across the plane of the ceiling above and under the cantilevered kitchen cabinets and across the floor to reinforce the sense of openness and spatial continuity between inside and outside. The inclined, polycarbonate glazing of the upper slot is openable along its length to assist with cross ventilation together with high level hopper windows on the northern face. The house is shaded for much of the day by the many nearby trees and roller blinds on the eastern elevation reduce the glare of the early morning sun.
The most memorable space is the double-storey living area which looks to the north and across the valley to the east. In this space, the precise details of the structure are echoed in the detailing of the freestanding bench and cabinets. Panels of bright colour draw the eye through to the stair and to the utility area beyond the study and a spare bedroom. On the first floor are two further bedrooms, with the master bedroom looking back into the living room, further increasing the sense of spatial continuity and generosity. A sliding plywood shutter can be drawn across for privacy and to exclude the eastern light. The staircase linking the two levels ingeniously forms part of the bracing of the frame with each stair unit formed from folded steel sheet and a timber tread giving low weight, combined with necessary stiffness.
Despite its sense of refined innovation and its spatial generosity, this house is neither expensive nor elaborate. In many ways, it is a prototype that reiterates many of the lessons first offered by the Eames House concerning a way of building that makes efficient use of steel technology. The principles that underlie its construction could enable the design of affordable homes on most kinds of site while harnessing the openness and transparency enabled by relatively benign, sub-tropical, climates. As such, it offers an alternative to the timber frame conventionally used in Queensland, yet it is guided by the pragmatic simplicity and coherence inherent in traditional Queensland construction. It is to be hoped that the prototype continues to be developed and further refined to provide a viable and valuable addition to the stock of contemporary house types designed to respond to place, climate and culture.
Bligh Voller Nield
Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Qld, Australia
- Project Team
- Chris Clarke
- Site Details
- Project Details
Type New houses
Published online: 1 May 2002
Words: Michael Keniger
Architecture Australia, May 2002