What is it?
A house by Neeson Murcutt Architects for clients Jo Nolan and Luke Hastings, and the subject of the Our Houses architectural talk on Wednesday night. The series is unique in inviting both architects and their clients to discuss their projects, attracting not only architects to the audience, but design-interested members of the public also.
We discussed the last Our Houses event here.
Held in the courtyard at Robin Boyd‘s Walsh Street House, unfortunately covered by a noisy blue tarp to fend off the inclement weather, this event was more story telling than lecture, gently unfolding as a conversation between the architect, Rachel Neeson, and her two clients.
What did we think?
Castlecrag House is located on the sort of site that features heavily in many architects’ vivid fantasies: rich architectural history, strong personal attachment, steeply sloping, densely wooded, magnificent views. Indeed, Neeson introduced us to the project via a study of the site’s most significant qualities: a steep topography cascading down into, and affording views over, Sugarloaf Bay; densely planted, mature Angophora trees; a connection between the site and Hastings, whose grandfather built the house in the 1940s; and an architectural lineage dating back even earlier, to the 1920s when Walter Burley Griffin planned the suburb’s winding roads, generous plot sizes and native vegetation.
With such an impressive history and many fine, recently-built examples of modern architecture in the area, Neeson commented that she and her late husband, Nick Murcutt, had felt compelled to lift even their considerable game for this project.
The project is a magnificent example of Neeson Murcutt’s recent work, displaying a strong vision for clear formal resolution tempered by the confidence to break protocol when necessary. It resolves the planning of the house with simple orthogonal arrangements juxtaposed against curves and odd angles that engage with important elements of the site. It explores the tactile possibilities of materials in a way that is both honest and experimental – there are many materials used, but they never compete, are always complimentary. And its detailing has that rare ability to be loose and unfinished in places, whilst tightly detailed and highly refined in others.
As embodied in the conversation between Neeson, Nolan and Hastings, the project is the result of a lengthy (taking the better part of five years from inception to completion) and enriching dialogue between architect and client. Based on a firm foundation of mutual trust, the design shifted again and again to accommodate meaning and nuance in every corner: tiles from a long demolished Griffin incinerator are embedded into a sandstone wall; a fish tank recalls its cousin in Hastings’ grandfather’s original; a copse of Angophoras crudely and illegally felled to make way for a neighbour’s house are revived in the brick patterning of an external wall.
Right until the key was handed over, and even beyond, Neeson Murcutt continued to refine details of the project, subtly shifting a window sill here or leather-wrapping a door handle there, to ensure every moment within the house maximises its potential, does justice to its surrounds.
What did we learn?
There are architects whose work we admire for their singular vision: Sean Godsell‘s austere boxes for instance, or Santiago Calatrava‘s structural formalism. But even more inspiring are those architects whose work embodies a cultivated looseness, an ability to be simultaneously bold and feathered. Donovan Hill are such architects, as is the inestimable Peter Zumthor.
With much of their recent work, but Castlecrag House in particular, Neeson Murcutt show that they too understand that the best architecture is the result of dialogue, not monologue. Such architecture is not just a destination, but a whole journey undertaken by architect and client, and limited in the meaning it can accumulate only by both parties’ willingness to allow it.