Appearing “more medieval village than inner-city extension,” a collection of timber shingle-clad towers by Andrew Maynard Architects have been added to the site of an existing mid-century bungalow.
In an early meeting with their clients for the renovation and extension of a home in the Melbourne suburb of Alphington, architects Andrew Maynard and Mark Austin presented a quick sketch. In the drawing, the existing mid-century bungalow was still recognizable but had been appended with an archetypal modernist box; a functional rectangle encompassing the extra amenity in the clients’ brief. Superimposed over this sketch was a large cross. Regular readers won’t be surprised; you’ve seen enough of Andrew Maynard Architects’ work to know that the practice doesn’t do archetypal. The clients had too, and the design process progressed.
Track forward to a subsequent meeting, and Andrew, Mark and the clients were poring over drawings and working through ideas. The box had dissolved into a much more intriguing, amorphous shape, but there was still no resolution on a final design. Not wanting to be distracted by the chatter and clatter of the clients’ twin sons, the adults gave the boys pencils and paper and told them to find a quiet spot to do some drawing. The boys reappeared a short time later to slide a handful of neat sketches of their house, including a tall, simple tower, onto the table, with nothing more than a casual, “There you go.” Their naive, honest vision set the impetus for what is now the Tower House.
That story may have evolved in the retelling, but such a folkloric cosmology is perfect for a house that looks more medieval village than inner-city extension. Tower House wraps around a large central courtyard in a series of small, interconnected structures, all with eaveless pitched roofs and clad in a combination of timber shingles and standing-seam steel sheeting. Thinking about how that archetypal living box would have dominated this site, the difference is remarkable. This house sits quietly in its context, its form and materiality merging with the naturalistic landscaping, becoming part of the topology rather than a structure placed onto it.
This is no mean feat, seeing as the “village” includes a two-storey tower that houses the boys’ study. The tower’s interior has been designed with both the present and the future in mind, and will accommodate university swotting just as well as it currently facilitates drawing and Lego construction. Its bright white walls and vaulting ceiling feel less like a belltower and more like a chapel and, in place of a regular floor to the upper level (expressing this in straightforward language masks the incredulity with which a visitor experiences it) is a net. It hangs four metres above solid concrete, and in the split second before it takes your weight, your brain thinks you’re stepping out into thin air. But once you get used to it, and you lean back into the net like it’s a massive hammock, it feels fantastic. Huge windows provide views over the surrounds, and the clients tell stories of watching bats fly past at dusk, oblivious to the humans nesting nearby. Of course, the net tells its own story, of trusting and adventurous clients.
At the other end of the house is a very different space, a library, sunk into the ground, darker, closed and nurturing. Books line one wall, and a desk, level with the soil outside and facing out through a large operable window, provides a vantage point to the courtyard through a foreground of plants and bushes. The study in the tower is transparent, open and public, while the library is much more intimate and private, but they share something in the way they play along the vertical axis. Within the familiar constraints of a standard residential block, and especially in dead-flat Melbourne, it’s an effective way to create very different spatial experiences. (This is repeated in a hidden mezzanine platform over the kitchen – a place for the boys’ dad to read, lined with synthetic grass and accessed by integrated shelving that doubles as a ladder.)
Between the study and the library a generous, modern home unfolds. Although the exterior appears segmented, the rooms inside are highly interconnected, with cavity sliders and other hidden doors and panels that open or close off different rooms for privacy, warmth and cross-ventilation. Where the segments meet, the exterior shell is expressed in various ways – for example, a thin strip of glass wraps over the roof to provide a sky window above the kitchen bench, and the exterior timber shingles continue inside the building to create a hidden door to the main bedroom – giving the impression of the house as a single, cohesive structure. In some places, such as the threshold between the tower and the living spaces, where garden plants grow on both sides of the glass, it’s not always clear whether you’re inside or out.
This sense of permeability extends beyond the house and into the neighbourhood. The site runs through from the main street frontage to a more secluded road at the rear. With gates open at both ends, locals are encouraged to take a shortcut and even to share the fruits of the productive garden. In another act of generosity, the house’s timber shingles flow around the outer site boundary to cover a wall shared by the next-door neighbour. It’s a nice touch, as many other projects might have offered up a blank wall. And it also completes the vision of the house as some kind of walled medieval village; happily, though, a village with its gates flung open to the world.
The Tower House by Andrew Maynard Architects received the award for House Alteration and Addition over 200m2 in the 2015 House Awards, and the John and Phyllis Murphy Award for Residential Architecture – Houses (Alterations and Additions) in the 2015 Victorian Architecture Awards.