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Sydney Civility

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Mannered sophistication meets modernity in Alexander Tzannes’s elegant development of the urban townhouse typology.

Text by Philip Goad. Photography by Bart Maiorana.



The spectacular setting overlooking Sydney’s Cooper Park inspired the design of this residence. The most important architectural experience is created by a large private terrace, extending from the principal living areas and overlooking the park.
The design of the house was developed from a detailed study of two major considerations: site and context. The form and street arrangement of the existing adjacent buildings gave the site a distinctive character. The site itself was a larger block of land, which provided scope for a courtyard and private landscaped area. Entry from the street is via this courtyard, which also contains a water garden and indoor/outdoor living areas. This courtyard has informed the design of the surrounding built form, and has led to an external form that is similar and sympathetic to the adjacent buildings.
Within the house, character is given by special interior elements such as moving walls, the stair, skylights and fireplace. These elements also complement the range of artefacts and art on display – an essential component of the brief.
The other major site issue was the spectacular elevated views over Cooper Park. The building design was developed around these views, with careful room arrangement and the detailed design of fenestration, terraces and balconies. Elsewhere slot windows, and the use of timber, steel or glass in response to particular constraints or environmental effects, also relate the house to both site and context – Alexander Tzannes.

Above Street elevation showing the U-shape of the house around the central entry courtyard.

The urbane townhouse has a venerable tradition in Australian architecture. It is, however, a tradition which does not necessarily court any fetish for the new, nor is it one which those seeking to bestow accolades wish to currently acknowledge. That was not always the case. The 1930s houses of Marcus Martin and Geoffrey Sommers in Melbourne, and John D. Moore and Leslie Wilkinson in Sydney; the 1950s and 1960s houses of Roy Simpson, Roy Grounds, Neil Clerehan and Guilford Bell; and those of the last decade from Espie Dods, Alex Popov and Allan Powell were and still are widely admired for their mannered sophistication. The perfection of a type was considered a worthy goal, as were the notions of respect for the street, the rituals of entry and of receiving guests, and the etiquette of the salon. All were seen as proper aims for the maintenance of the city as an institution of civic decorum, a term which is now almost in danger of becoming overused in Sydney, thanks to the persuasive rhetoric of Peter Kohane and others. However, the irresistible twentieth century rise of the mythologised architectural genius, and the accompanying cult of originality, has meant that to applaud or practise such architecture too much is to risk being labelled conservative or unoriginal, or of bowing to the so-called Georgian rule of taste. In the case of houses, such a dignified architecture seems to reek rather too openly of class and privilege. Such opinions are shortsighted. They overlook one valid architectural position among many and, more importantly, they disregard the invariable subtle nuances in the development of a type. Continuity and tradition rarely shape up to the "architecture wow" factor. This is, instead, a quiet architecture, serious and equally worthy, susceptible to bad copies and prone to ponderous but unquestionably solid good taste. Its perceived safety (if done well) threatens.
In Sydney, the office of Alexander Tzannes Associates has been designing urbane townhouses for more than fifteen years - in

Above The vestibule looking east.

addition to free-standing houses on bush sites that celebrate the landscape and mediate the Australian climate, and the grafting of formally innovative works onto existing buildings. Tzannes is open about his office’s design trajectory. It is a relentless and conscientious pursuit of the refinement of a series of types, an obsession with fine detail and a love of craft, and the pursuit of placemaking that is archetypal rather than one of critique, calm instead of ironic, formally austere rather than image rich, accomplished rather than dangerous.


In the design of a family residence on Cooper Park in Sydney, Tzannes has orchestrated the U-shaped townhouse with a courtyard entry as a highly controlled sequence of vistas and subtle spatial and axial shifts. It is the sort of house that Lutyens would have enjoyed. It plays his "high game" - the setting up of an order and its constant and subtle deferral. There is also the added and strangely complex vertical sliding shutter detail. It is the traditional shutter made difficult but more interesting. This is what Coderch might have done in Barcelona in the late 1950s. Tzannes’s clients had lived for some years in the tropics and they had enjoyed the sense of the house as a box that could filter light and air. The louvred shutters enabled this house to become entirely self-ventilating and private. In Sydney’s benign climate this tactic makes eminent sense. Upstairs, one can slide the shutters closed at night and the bedrooms expand in scale with an internalised skirt of timber decking. The verandah has been brought within the envelope of the house.
The strength of this house however lies in its understanding and response to its site. Cooper Park is one of those hidden pockets of Australian bush that surprises one suddenly in inner Sydney. From the street, one is only just aware of the Dupain-like silhouette of eucalypts beyond. Studying the section, one realises that this house is a series of designed thresholds, a progressive series of platforms stepping down the site. The prize, once one passes through the entry vestibule (which itself entices with an axis immediately to the right), is the formal salon. On its transverse axis, this long rectangular space has a centrally located open fireplace on one wall and, at the other end, a symmetrically located island bench. Ahead is a giant landscape panorama of silver trunks and a filigree of leaves. It is as if the open space in front is a Fred Williams painting stretched across the entire face of the house. This feeling is accentuated by the fact that one is elevated high above the park. The final threshold of the house is the outdoor terrace whose outer edge sits on a cliff-like embankment. Looking back to the house, the long horizontal space of the living/dining room echoes the generic shelf-like open living space so characteristic of Sydney Modernism - the space sought by so many from Utzon to Leplastrier to Murcutt but with its basis in work by architects like Ellice Nosworthy, Derek Wrigley, and Walter Bunning in his own home at Mosman. This is a space which

Left The entry courtyard. The complex of louvred shutters controls ventilation and privacy. Right Looking south to the library showing the stair and library joinery. Access is at right angles to the entry hallway.

can be opened up entirely to the elements, a space which could be the cleft in arock face. Tzannes overlays such a space not with the aura of holiday good-times but with gracious urbanity and a palette of enforced material and chromatic restraint. Like Adolf Loos’s Viennese interiors of marble veneers and pale walls, this interior becomes the white flesh backdrop for the clothes, furniture, paintings and personality of its owners. This house risks being almost too cool, too serene, in its resolution. It is, however, the next logical step in the inevitable process of the Sydney townhouse where manners now meet modernity. Tzannes has reached a point in this house where, like Guilford Bell before him, the seamless notion of the good citizen without conceals a wealth of complex architectural intention within.
Dr Philip Goad is a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Melbourne

Cooper Park Residence, Sydney
Architect Alexander Tzannes Associates - design architect Alec Tzannes; project architect Phillip Arnold; assistant architects Anna Power, Ben Green, Sara Stace, Alister Coyne. Structural Consultant Taylor Thomson Whitting. Mechanical Consultant Bill Nappin & Partners. Hydraulics Consultant DCH. Landscape Sue Barnsley Design. Contractor P & L Brandon Building.

Above The north elevation looking into the living areas. The outdoor terrace is visible in the foreground.
First FloorGround Floor

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Published online: 1 Sep 2000

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Architecture Australia, September 2000

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