The Domestic Ideal

After nine years of gestation, Donovan Hill unveil their long-discussed ‘hill town’ villa for a client in suburban Brisbane. The C House already has sophisticated pilgrims swooning about its conceptual complexity and fine construction.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Looking north from the outdoor room in the centre of the house through the kitchen to the deck, with the ‘window seat’ at right and the kitchen roof garden above.

Project Description
After eight years of design and construction, Brisbane architects Donovan Hill have completed one of Australia’s largest and most conceptually complex houses. Created for a businessman, the ‘C House’ tightly occupies a steep, suburban site (accessed from a right-of-way) with distant views of the city. It has been constructed principally of fine-grade concrete and is intricately elaborated with cabinets, screens and finishes in fine timbers, metals, glass and ceramic tiles. The plan arranges rooms of various dimensions and volumes on four levels connected by 16 flights of steps.

Architects’ Note by Brian Donovan and Timothy Hill
The site has been refashioned into a series of overlapping sub-sites (both indoor and outdoor), with their interconnections across the climbing topography resembling experiences typical of ‘terrain’. The landscape metaphor has been extended beyond physical representation to enable the everyday experience of occupation to be as if it were in a landscape. This experience is reinforced by the handling of light, which emphasises changing conditions during the day and year—contributing to the house’s sensual and varying atmosphere. The principal sub-site is an outdoor room which can be occupied for most of the year in our benign climate. This ’public’ space of the house enables minor/private rooms to be useful for many types of households—single family, shared singles/couples, extended family or home/office. The contemporary package delivery system of procurement has been utilised, with staged documentation to suit site requirements.

  Comment by Peter Tonkin Patronage
The delicate balance of designer and client, the foundation of all success in architecture, sometimes works to produce something beyond either’s early visions. Patron, architect and builder—and the spirit of the time and place—unite like good cooking, and our whole culture benefits. The C House, as it is called by its architects Timothy Hill and Brian Donovan, is exceptional not only in its constructed quality but in the richness of its design and the dedication of all of its creators. Eight years in the making, the house has no sense of the universal—it is the particular result of one man’s ambition and the vision of its architects, utilising an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and “very significant resources” [all unreferenced quotations are from discussions with Brian Donovan]. The architects were commissioned as an untried partnership in August 1991. Two years later, the concrete shell was commenced, to be completed in 1995. The following three-and-a-half years were dedicated to the infill timberwork and the finishing. The complexity of the design was unforeseen at the stage of the initial commission, but its growth and development was welcomed by both client and architects. The client requested the use of concrete only “where appropriate”. Donovan Hill chose to take advantage of the builder’s extraordinary skills to make a house which celebrates the potential of this massively plastic material. When the concrete shell was completed, the details of subsequent packages were prepared in collaboration, using the skills of two woodworkers from Maleny, Jim Evans and Phil Green, as leading carpenter and joiner. Other Donovan Hill houses, particularly the Kangaroo Point and Stradbroke residences, “acted as experiments”: laboratories for the ideas worked out with greater complexity and a higher level of finish here.

For the owner, it was to be a long-term residence, a place which accepted the future growth and change of a possible family. It thus carries with it an air of one of those Lutyens country houses built to found a dynasty: complex, grand and rich, but practical too. It is full of nooks and holes to be filled with the needs of a family life.

Despite the intricacy of the architecture, the imagined model of the house which can be built up from the plans and photographs is surprisingly accurate. The experience of the real house is of course what architecture is about, and no printed page can communicate the complexity of scale, the kinaesthetics of climbing through space, the smells, or the play of changing light across surfaces. The C House is embedded in its site, to firmly anchor it to the Brisbane rock and so that inside and outside could flow ambiguously. Its base is shaped by a metaphor of rock; the architects calling its four levels “plates”—entry plaza, office and pool, communal living level with its bedrooms intended for children and the private top floor suite—whilst the roof forms a fifth plate. The lap pool is designed to have the feel of a creek running between stone faces through deep shade and bright light. The completed but unadorned concrete shell looked archaeological; “ruinous”. The materials are important in themselves, being the media with which we architects express our art. All were selected to be self-finishing and to grow with age. Most are warm greys and browns, with small accents of colour, as a setting for a tranquil domestic life.

Everywhere is the concrete: a controlled mix of off-white cement and a pale warm golden sand. Impossibly smooth, sharp and accurate inside, it is rusticated with clear and perfect boardmarking outside. The pantry is off-form concrete, the walk-in wardrobes are off-form concrete, behind the glass splashbacks in the bathrooms is off-form concrete. There are defining planes of blue-green in glass and tiles, and warm dark pink glass placed to cast coloured blobs of light on the beautiful rock maple floors. All of the timber is pale: celery top pine inside and, externally, white beech weathering to grey. The richest is the great, double-height Formal Room, with its echoes of a medieval hall, complete with a minstrels gallery and, instead of Arras tapestries to warm and soften its concrete walls and roof, a separated ‘box’ of lightweight timber. Here, above a floor and a low dado of the rock maple, the timber was 100 years ago the vats in which rum was aged at CSR Pyrmont—the dark honey-coloured NZ kauri still gives off the whiff of burnt sugary alcohol. Red patinaed copper, brass and some stainless steel, the sandstone base and the ceremonial ‘white carpet’ in the Outdoor Room are really the only other materials. The detailing is considered and complex, making felt “the presence of construction”. The principles were established on site in collaboration with the carpenter and joiner. Each element was developed over time with great care and documented in several hundred working sheets, but there were surprisingly few study drawings. From the outset, the concern was chiefly with the edges and reveals. Donovan Hill were “obsessive about flushness”, with consistent rebates cast into the concrete for the infills, which were only partially designed at the stage of the concrete construction. There are no visible frames or sashes when windows and doors are open; the screens slide right past the deep bare reveals, thus the openings capture the surrounding landscape without interruption. The elements which fill these openings are developed to an extraordinary complexity. Sliding screens are buildings, with their own rooms, windows, walls and even small doors. They are always bigger than the openings.

The infill bays to bigger openings are towers two and three storeys tall, with their own copper roofs, built in layer after layer of fine woodwork. In the kitchen window seat, a timber, glass and sailcloth lantern, there are four layers—sashes with flyscreens, the load-bearing structure, glazed casements and a light trellis—each with a different structural rhythm.

Australian domestic architecture rarely exhibits much depth. Houses are sometimes jewels—beautiful and resolved responses to particular conditions or else powerful expositions of one or two themes, but seldom do they cohesively contain a broad range of ideas. The C House, however, is as rich an architectural creation as any recent house, and here it is analysed according to some selected themes. These are presented as archetypal analogies and are not intended to be read as if they were conscious precedents.

Evident in the underlying ideal of the house, the first suite of such analogies concerns the Classical tradition of villas; large and lavish enough to contain a great deal of architecture, but small enough to be concentrated and controlled.

Palladio “That the houses be commodious for the use of the family, … great care ought to be taken, not only in the principal parts, as the loggia, halls, courts, magnificent rooms and ample stairs … but also that the most minute … parts may be accommodated to the service of the greatest …” [Andrea Palladio, trans. Ware Isaac. 1737, Four Books on Architecture , II p 38].

High on its hill, the house is not a suburban bungalow in its typology. Neither elevated Queenslander nor earth-bound brick-veneer, it is the villa of a nobleman, where a private world is perfectible because controllable. Yet this large house scarcely fits on its constrained site, and its sculptural, sophisticated presence has no Palladian dialogue with its neighbours, its street or its city. Similarly, the basic scheme of the house seems Palladian, both in the way small suites of rooms open off great ceremonial ‘public’ spaces and in the way dimensions and proportions are controlled to give a pervasive harmony and unity. Its surfaces have the same control and richness as the Veneto villas—but here the rustication is boardmarked concrete and the string courses are carefully articulated pour joints.

Hawksmoor Easton Neston, the first house of this Baroque master, appears on the surface symmetrical, but its regular exterior conceals an off-centre Great Room rising through two levels, carved out of the rectangular mass of the house. The basic plan of the Donovan Hill house contains a similar heart: a large, elevated, stone-paved, sculpturally-walled room, hovering between interior and exterior. Despite its big open fireplace and smooth finishes, the “Outdoor Room” is open to the elements, capturing the dramatic north-western view towards the city and the neighbours’ lush sub-tropical backyard. Similarly, the advancing and retreated planes of masonry, the contrast of rough and smooth, the reliance on great, simple, unadorned and unpenetrated blocks, the sculptural interior; all are common to both architects—one in white Portland stone, the other in some of the best concrete seen in Australia since the Opera House.
Le Corbusier Elevated and rectangular, eroded to contain a double-height Outdoor room, the Brisbane house has much in common with Corb’s villa at Garches. Its cubist play of forms recalls one of Corb’s paintings rather than his architecture, but this is very much a building “designed to respond to light”, in the purely sculptural sense of the “jeu magnifique” [Le Corbusier, 1957, Ronchamp , p 27].

Le Corbusier also defined a “promenade architecturale” [Maurice Bisset, 1968, Qui Etait Le Corbusier, p 100] as one of his six design principles, and the circulation of the C House, with its 16 separate staircases, is very much such a sequence. Like a Corbusian villa, the house surveys rather than connects to its site, cut off as it is from its garden and pool. Reliant on the continued presence of lush backyards either side, it is crowded on its 1500 sq m block, recalling the 1990s experience of the Villa Savoye, surrounded by development.

The second, equally important, basis to the design is a more craft-based, organic tradition, evident in the fabric itself.

Japan The client selected the architects, then only just setting up their partnership, partly because Brian Donovan had worked in Japan and was thus familiar with contemporary Japanese architecture, particularly the work of Ando, in which the client recognised a common approach to house design. In a different way, the Brisbane house powerfully recalls a Japanese tea house of the 18th century, or the Katsura detached palace: all Zen restraint and superficial roughness; beaten earth walls and careful timberwork in modulated, gridded proportions. The utmost effort is put into achieving an air of simplicity.

Wright As Wright united a cubist massing, a delicacy of timberwork and glass, a love of weightless masses and long horizontals, so does this C House, with its ‘industrial’ concrete and loving metal and timber craft detail, its architect-designed hardware, furniture and fittings. Donovan Hill also sought a Wrightian compression and release of scale, achieved with the sequence of very low and high spaces, emphasised by variations in ceiling treatment, including the blue-green tiles in the entrance and woven timber offcuts in the Outdoor Room.

Scarpa Late in the construction of the house, the client visited some of the work of Scarpa, an architect he had already discovered. The C House has a similar obsessive approach to detail, set against plain surfaces. Timber handle grips on the stairs are cane-wrapped at contact points; there are panels of coloured tiles; even the pivoting pairs of doors and flyscreens to the bedrooms open to become part of delicate timber portals within the deep concrete reveal.

Brisbane No built work can escape the ingrained sensibilities of its place and owner, its designers and builders. The Brisbane climate has produced a culture of outdoor living, a domestic architecture of timber screens and exposed stud framing, both of which deeply underlie the planning and architecture of this house. There is also an evident ‘Batten School’, which is manifest in the work of Donovan Hill and several other contemporary Brisbane architects.

Consciously against the Brisbane tradition is the way the C House is embedded in its site, the planes of the floors and stairs like the eroded sedimentary layers of the bedrock, emphasised by the literally layered stone of the main ‘public’ stair and hall. The feel of the layering, presently very geological, will be transformed into a landscape as the planting matures, creating green tunnels and a vegetated hill over the kitchen roof.

Few contemporary clients, once they have chosen an architect, have sufficient faith to allow them to design to the fullest of their abilities, trusting them to undertake their art to achieve the client’s aims. Perhaps few contemporary architects would justify such trust but not, in the case of the C House, Brian Donovan and Timothy Hill.

The designers state that their architecture is generated from concepts of “use and experience”, rather than from a “modernist concern with forms and details”, and whilst both approaches are evident in the completed work, the house stands as a rich and satisfying artefact. Here is a building which comes close to being a perfect response to the particular ideals of a dedicated client.

Images: Anthony Browell

Looking north-west over the formal garden.

The projecting deck.

Staircase leading from the landscape plate to the livingplate.

South-east/north-west section.

The main bedroom, with American hardrock maple floor and kauri wallpanelling.

Looking south from the window seat across the outdoor room to the front door; kitchen at right.

Cane-wrapped front door handle with untreated brass backplate.

Detail of the frontgate.

Doors throughout are designed like gates; this lower-floor example is accompanied by stacked local sandstone at left and off-form concrete at right.




Published online: 1 May 1999
Words: Peter Tonkin


Architecture Australia, May 1999

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