Emery House

Emery House from the west

What is it?

A holiday house for graphic designer, Gary Emery, by established Melbourne architecture practice, Denton Corker Marshall. Located in Cape Schanck on the Mornington Peninsula, the house was completed almost fifteen years ago yet boasts a timelessness that has preserved its elegance across a decade and a half of shifts in fashion and taste.

The house was the subject of an informal discussion at Walsh Street House last week, courtesy of the Robin Boyd Foundation. Using the same format as the recent Our Houses presentation of Castlecrag House, both architect and client discussed the projects design, its use and their memories of its construction.

What do we think?

Emery House is immaculately detailed, a carefully-crafted jewel. Denton noted during the discussion that despite its small size, a hefty 69 A1 drawings were produced to document it for construction. There is not a single element out of place; each wall, window, joinery item and light fitting was considered, worked over and considered again. The columns are particularly illustrative of this: cruciform in cross section, they liberate the west-facing side wall from structural responsibilities, permitting a cinematic ribbon of glass looking out over the tee-tree. Their protruding flanges also conceal the gap between blinds that descend from impossibly sharp cuts in the ceiling.

The cruciform shape gives another, telling clue into the design process embodied in the house. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the godfather of minimal modernism, used them extensively, most famously in his Barcelona Pavilion.

Barcelona Pavilion by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, cruciform column in foreground

The columns in Emery House may not be finished in polished chrome, instead made from galvanised steel (perhaps a subtle nod to Australian architectural culture), however their inclusion cannily signposts DCM’s occasional practice of selective architecture, an approach to design first mastered by Mies.

To explain: architecture is charged with engaging a wide range of design issues – environment, history, structure, urban planning, context and industry to name a few. Often, a project attempts to reach across all issues, but falls short of the mark. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was celebrated for ignoring some in order to brilliantly address those that remained. Farnsworth House for instance may have terrible thermal performance, but remains a stunning example of fine architectural sculpture.

With Emery House, DCM have similarly crafted a beautiful piece of architectural sculpture, a refined series of living spaces too. However, to balance these qualities they have questionably ignored issues of environment and context. Emery recounted a somewhat bewildering phone conversation he had with Denton while he was walking the site he had just purchased. Denton was in his studio in Melbourne and asked Emery to describe what he could see. Not satisfied with the answer, he instructed him to walk further up the hill and once again describe the view. And thus the house site was selected.

Other elements further illustrate this carelessness with context. The west-facing ribbon of glass, and large south-facing wall of glass in the Master Bedroom are deliberately static. There are no balconies beyond, the windows do not even open. The landscape is intended to be viewed, not experienced. The first sketch design presentation, another story recounted by Emery, involved a few rough lines on a creased piece of yellow trace. No site plan, no renders of house and context. This is the theory of high modernism at its most dogmatic.

What did we learn?

DCM are one of Melbourne’s and Australia’s most important architecture practices, with an oeuvre covering museums, embassies, hotels and urban parks. In their many decades of projects, they have however built only six houses. Denton said that the practice is not geared up to work on such small scale projects – they lose too much money. Despite our above criticisms, we nevertheless feel this is a pity. We are enamoured with a lot of their work, their smaller buildings in particular. They have a great eye for form and detail, and perhaps thanks to their preparedness to be selective with the issues they address, are excellent at reducing a building to its essential elements.

DCM may have disengaged with the context of Emery House, but they have done so compellingly, with panache and a smile on their faces. Within the complex, multifaceted architectural community in Melbourne, surely there is room even for the makers of fine objects, architecture to be admired more than inhabited.

We are very much looking forward to visiting Emery House in the upcoming Robin Boyd Foundation Open Day. We hope to be educated by its detail and perhaps discover a thing or two about the crafting of architectural jewels.

Emery House from the south

Secret Walls – a graffiti showdown

Finished artworks – Hancock on left, Reliable on right

What is it?

Secret Walls is a live graffiti showdown between two street artists. Armed only with black markers and paint, they have 90 minutes to each transform a large, white wall into a work of art. The audience watches as they sketch in outlines, block out shading and render detail, and contributes to the judgement of the works with the volume of its cheering. The winner proceeds to the next battle, where it all happens again.

Secret Walls was founded in 2006 by Terry Guy, starting life in a small bar in East London and since spreading to the rest of Europe, Russia, the United States and Australasia. The Australian events were initiated, and continue to be coordinated, by Shannon McKinnon. Last Wednesday, the first battle of the 2012 Melbourne tournament between Hancock and Reliable took place at The Order of Melbourne in front of an enthusiastic crowd of what we estimate to be 300.

What do we think?

Watching an artist at work is a unique experience every person should have at some point in their life. The technique of applying paint or marker or charcoal or pencil to a blank surface, the construction of layers of depth and detail, can be as revealing as the final work itself.

At the other end of the artistic spectrum, the National Gallery of Victoria recently announced that drawing and even painting within the gallery is permitted. Somewhat sheepishly admitting that this has been allowed for many years, though never strongly publicised, the NGV now steps into line with many other major art galleries and museums around the world. We can only see good things arising from this – amateur artists will learn directly from the masters’ works, experienced painters will study advanced form and technique, and the public will witness art as it happens.

Secret Walls takes this process a significant step further. The need to avoid detection during late-night train bombings, wall-taggings and team-murals imbues the street artist with a loose and rapid method of execution. When the fuzz is bearing down, agonising over the precise weight of a line is a luxury the street artist cannot afford. Combining this natural speed with the condensed timeline of a graffiti battle permits original artworks to unfold before our very eyes. Indeed, neither Hancock nor Reliable truly needed the full 90 minutes – the works were mostly laid down within 45, the remainder used for extra shades of detail.

Undoubtedly via pre-arrangement, both artists satirised the other, using their names, attire and images for clever word and picture-play. This was graffiti at a far more sophisticated level than “Daz Wuz Here”, not only in content but in execution also. Hancock used a clean style with clear influence from comic book art, while Reliable had a grittier feel dominated by jagged text and rough shading. We particularly enjoyed the small but elegant city behind Reliable’s central character, and the dramatic curvature of Hancock’s prison cell, a classic comic book technique. What follows is a short series of photos taken during the Secret Walls battle:

In the end, though we voted for both, Hancock earned a 116.4 decibel cheer from the crowd while Reliable could only manage 114.

The 2012 tournament comprises four Round 1 battles, of which last week’s was the first, followed by two semi finals and one grand final showdown. The battles take place once a month until November. We look forward to attending many more.