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Modern trio: Terrace Houses in Fremantle

Combining playfulness, restrained minimalism and respect for the terrace house typology, Blane Brackenridge Architecture has created three “convincing” hillside dwellings in Fremantle, Western Australia.

As a jury member for the multiresidential category of the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2015 Western Australian Architecture Awards, I was fortunate enough to visit a broad range of projects. This year’s entries varied from very large and medium-scale apartment buildings to social, elderly and student housing in and around central Perth, as well as remote projects in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia. Diversity in scale and function makes the judging process within this category seldom easy and this year was no exception, especially given the generally high quality of submitted work. At the preliminary public presentations, architect Blane Brackenridge introduced his Terrace Houses in Fremantle project in a somewhat disorganized manner, very much at odds with the actuality of the work. Despite this, his scheme left a significant impression on all the jury members and went on to win the Harold Krantz Award for Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing.

This group of three houses is strategically embedded into a hillside on one of the highest points in Fremantle. Facing west and enjoying an extraordinary outlook to the city, the port and the Indian Ocean, the site is amazing but also quite difficult due to the steep terrain. It is ordered by subdivision into three long and narrow allotments, approximately ten metres in width and reminiscent of the local terrace house typology. The surrounding physical context includes quaint and moderately sized heritage homes. There are some attempts at architecture, with varying measures of success, and the usual over-scaled suburban mansions that bear no relationship to architecture. One could argue that Brackenridge’s project might be better suited to a hillside in Portugal, but its neutral and restrained minimalism, in terms of both formal arrangement and colour palette, focus our attention on the realization of deeper and more fundamental relationships to context, planning resolution and attention to detail.

The Terrace Houses in Fremantle are embedded into the hillside, easily recognizable by their white forms and accents in primary colours.

The Terrace Houses in Fremantle are embedded into the hillside, easily recognizable by their white forms and accents in primary colours.

Image: Robert Frith

Through the preservation of the existing front and rear limestone retaining walls, the project holds onto a historical thread and reaffirms a connection with the past and the more public realm of the street. The east–west section reveals the clever organization of the site and brings to the fore seemingly effortless terracing. Through extensive excavation, the redefinition of the ground line is concealed behind the front wall and a private service road created for the residents. More importantly, the scale of the buildings is contained, while maximizing floor area for the dwellings. This front “yard” becomes an extension of the public realm, an inner street that is a shared, semipublic and social domain. Progression from this space to the three entries and the levels above relies on dramatic double-height fissures that visually continue to small sunken gardens. These gardens are set at the level of the basements, adjacent to generous studios that are otherwise subterranean. Vertical circulation is centralized and articulated by a lift and a horseshoe-shaped stair, which together create a sculptural piece that physically ties the functions together. This central vertical element allows the house to be split into east and west wings, separated by an internal void and resulting in simple and efficient planning. At the top of the stairs, mechanical hatches give access to generous roof terraces, each slightly different in configuration and colour and with remarkable views in almost all directions.

The organization of the houses is simple and rational. The basement is conceived as a utilitarian zone, with entries, garages, stores and studios. At this level, the garages are camouflaged by the same material as the walls and are barely visible and the studios are set up with concealed plumbing, with the potential to become self-contained granny flats, guestrooms or home offices. Bedrooms are arranged on the ground floor and living areas on the upper level. Moving through spaces and different levels, one is constantly drawn back or projected forward to other spaces through a series of courts, gardens, light wells, ruptures and voids. These elements are the key to this project as they connect the various parts of the house and also serve to establish and reinforce striking perspectives of the immediate and distant site.

The setback zones allow light and air to enter along the side of each house and an external stair that runs past a sunken garden connects the front and rear of each lot.

The setback zones allow light and air to enter along the side of each house and an external stair that runs past a sunken garden connects the front and rear of each lot.

Image: Robert Frith

The use of materials is restrained and carefully considered. Finishes are neutral and consequently our attention moves to the qualification of rooms through the study of openings and to the dialogues between one space and the next. The way in which the outside environment enters rooms is carefully coordinated with windows, glass block walls, roof lights and voids. It is generally controlled through inconspicuous shading devices, orientation and landscaping. The east- and west- facing elevations have deep facades that result from shifts in the plan and from generous balconies. Small details, such as the use of curved glass block to construct the showers, show a high degree of refinement and elevate the project. The mirrored walls in the bathrooms amplify the scale of the rooms, and the resolution of the stairs and mechanical hatches demonstrates an extraordinary attention to detail.

The three dwellings are similar to each other but not exactly the same. Two are repeated and one is mirrored in consideration of the neighbouring property. Each has a side setback that allows for an external stair to connect the front to the rear of the lots. These setback zones are important in the way they manipulate views, light and breezes in and around the site. The walls and forms that define them play games with the sky and create unexpected compositions of light.

At first sight this project beckons images of work by Le Corbusier, Luigi Figini, Luigi Moretti, Luis Barragán and Alvaro Siza, to name just a few. The pure white forms punctuated and differentiated by the primary colours are almost too obvious, the timelessness of the language almost too denying of our own place in time. Looking at this project as a whole, though, there is nothing superficial about the work. It stands solid and convincing in its own right. This project by Blane Brackenridge will inevitably reignite conversations about the relevance and contribution of the modernist idiom to contemporary architectural language, if there is such a thing.

Credits

Architect
Blane Brackenridge
Dalkeith, Perth, WA, Australia
Project Team
Blane Brackenridge
Consultants
Builder A. T. Brine and Sons
Engineer Airey Taylor Consultants
Landscaper Tish Oldham
Site details
Location Fremantle,  WA,  Australia
Category Residential buildings
Type Apartments, Multi-residential, Residential
Project Details
Status Built
Completion date 2014

Source

Project

Published online: 6 Apr 2016
Words: Marco Vittino
Images: Robert Frith

Issue

Architecture Australia, January 2016

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