Wright of passage: The Great Australian Bight

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The expressive curve serves the practical purpose of delineating space while retaining familial connections.

The expressive curve serves the practical purpose of delineating space while retaining familial connections. Image: Emma Cross

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The curved wall of steel-framed glass frames a garden courtyard, with landscape design by Mel Ogden.

The curved wall of steel-framed glass frames a garden courtyard, with landscape design by Mel Ogden. Image: Emma Cross

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Designed by Multiplicity, the striking window system provides “the Bight” with a bespoke character. Artwork: Julian Wilson.

Designed by Multiplicity, the striking window system provides “the Bight” with a bespoke character. Artwork: Julian Wilson. Image: Emma Cross

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The staircase landing opens out to a garden at the southern end of the house.

The staircase landing opens out to a garden at the southern end of the house. Image: Emma Cross

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A clerestory window floods the bathroom with light, while a small triangular window offers glimpses of the garden.

A clerestory window floods the bathroom with light, while a small triangular window offers glimpses of the garden. Image: Emma Cross

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A cast concrete bench set in the glass wall forms a two-sided gathering point between the kitchen and the garden.

A cast concrete bench set in the glass wall forms a two-sided gathering point between the kitchen and the garden. Image: Emma Cross

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Cutting a dramatic curve through its inner-Melbourne lot, this distinctly “Wrightian” house by Multiplicity is grounded in its garden setting and built for family life.

There is something nice about houses with names. This is particularly true when the names are idiosyncratic and emblematic of something special about the project or the clients. In the case of this East Brunswick renovation, the Great Australian Bight, the reference is only obvious from a certain angle. It is an interpretation of the sweep of a glazed wall seen from the roof, of all places, and its resemblance to the dramatic sweep of the southern coast of the continent seen from a clifftop lost somewhere in the Nullarbor.

The curved wall of steel-framed glass frames a garden courtyard, with landscape design by Mel Ogden. Image:  Emma Cross

With more than a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright (the 1953-designed Cooke House in particular), the Great Australian Bight is focused around the eponymous sweeping curve, a gesture that defines and grounds the house in its garden setting. Arriving at this apparently self-evident solution, one that was anything but self-evident before it was built, required a “searching” approach by the design team at Multiplicity. And that’s where the real story begins.

Multiplicity is composed of two directors, Sioux Clark and Tim O’Sullivan, five design staff and a fluffy little dog called Chippy. This bare summary of human (and canine) resourcing does nothing to communicate the culture, ethos and style of the studio. Although committed to the architecture they create, there is nothing corporate about Multiplicity, inside or out. The practice name hints at not just the range of influences and “flavours” explored by the team, but also the methodology of design.

Designed by Multiplicity, the striking window system provides “the Bight” with a bespoke character. Artwork: Julian Wilson.  Image:  Emma Cross

Multiplicity approaches each project from multiple angles; at the early concept stage, the whole team proliferates design and planning options for client review. Up to ten or more widely divergent options, drawn by hand by any member of the studio, are not unusual in a Multiplicity project, and that was the case with the Great Australian Bight.

Some options shared with me in the interview for this review were explicitly “Wrightian,” others hinted at fleeting “moments of Mies” and every one was distinctly and entirely different from the others. They were different in approach to site, massing, spatial conception, organization and circulation – almost everything. This resulted in the client having genuine choices to make; the technique serves to draw the clients deep into the process of design.

The collection of potential approaches ranged from demolishing the existing house entirely through to maintaining part or all of the weatherboard cottage structure, with its two double-sided brick fireplaces. This was not a process of generating architectural drawings for the sake of appearing busy. It was very clear to me that the team was genuinely interested in canvassing radically divergent potential directions – and that the architects did not have a preconceived idea about the “preferred” solution. Suspending design judgement in this way is a real skill and signifies a genuinely disciplined approach to practice.

The staircase landing opens out to a garden at the southern end of the house. Image:  Emma Cross

Through a process of dialogue with the client, the final strategy was agreed on and the approach to the site, existing house and future extension was developed. The anchor of the solution is the curved wall of steel-framed glass that carries down the body of the site, framing a garden courtyard with landscape design by Mel Ogden. This gesture is satisfyingly formal and yet it serves a practical purpose as well as an expressive one.

Integrating a large-radius curve into the plan created a wide space at one end (the children’s play area leading to their bedrooms), a narrow space in the middle (the kitchen, the pinch point) and a wider space at the other end (the adults’ main living space, with the main bedroom above). The curve defines these three zones, but they remain connected. This is practical in young-child parenting terms, and in the future will allow grown-up family member activities to be segregated when needed, but still fundamentally connected. The kitchen is the heart and soul of the house, with parents at the back end and kids at the front, meeting in the middle. In that middle point, addressed by the mirror-backed kitchen, is the widest point of the courtyard garden. The garden is engaged from the kitchen side across a cast concrete bench set in the glass wall, forming a two-sided gathering point. This simple, expressive gesture has achieved a thoroughly practical, functional result.

A clerestory window floods the bathroom with light, while a small triangular window offers glimpses of the garden. Image:  Emma Cross

Finally, a measure of the love and care Multiplicity puts into each project is seen in the proliferation of handmade elements throughout its architecture. Everything from the front doorhandle to toilet roll holders is purpose-designed and handcrafted by the team of the studio’s regular, and highly talented, builder. The fruit of this constructive working relationship is seen particularly in the windows of this, and other, Multiplicity projects. At the Bight the entire window system, including the faceted, curved wall of glass with its operable panels, was purpose-designed by Multiplicity and fabricated in steel by hand by the builder’s own tradie. Without this bespoke element, the most crucial expressive component of the overall architecture may have become generic and, dare I say it, more commercial.

Multiplicity means many things: literally. In this case, it signifies the thorough exploration of a diversity of approaches, options and solutions to a creative problem. The results of this approach applied to the renovation of a little cottage in East Brunswick are, on balance, deeply satisfying, and will serve the owners for years to come.

 


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