Concrete Jungle

Review of house at Wonga Beach by AKA Studio, HOUSES Magazine, Issue 64, 2008

It’s a bleak and wintry morning when I meet with architect Domenic Alvaro of AKA Studio under a heater at a Darlinghurst cafe. We are transported, via his photographs, to the tropical heat of Wonga Beach in Far North Queensland and to the house he has designed there.

Wonga Beach, is not (yet) on the radar of Queensland pleasure seekers and still clings to its backwater obscurity, somewhere between Port Douglas and the Daintree. As a coastal sleepy hollow, it houses long-time locals and new arrivals who believe they have found the next big thing. Local housing is built as a direct response to climate: heat, humidity and cyclones, not to mention a need to keep out all those critters that seem to thrive in the tropics.

Unlike the majority of southern Australia, coastal settlements in Far North Queensland are unique in that the available land is separated from the coast by a band of thick rainforest vegetation. It is just such a strip of lush vegetation that provides the setting for this house, nestling behind to create a green backdrop, with walking tracks through to the beach.

Domenic was commissioned by his New Zealand–based client to design a house that could be used as both a family holiday house and an income generator via holiday rentals. The brief required a tropical-modern solution to a holiday that could be differentiated from the mainstream luxury offerings.

Such a remote setting has its challenges – not the least of which is finding a builder who can service the project. At the same time, the challenge for the architect is to design a house that utilizes locally available building technologies. In this case, the builder was sourced from Port Douglas, and the predominant building method was to lay concrete block walls that are core-filled to withstand cyclonic conditions.

Domenic embraced and ultimately celebrated this construction type, creating a series of parallel exposed-concrete block walls that he describes as traces in the landscape. They form the main skin and structure of the house, connected with a portal-framed structural system and simple skillion roof. While they perform a cyclone-resisting structural role, the walls also play a more subtle game in directing the view out and enhancing the connection to the landscape beyond.
The house has a split plan with two separate parallel wings divided by a central landscaped courtyard. Landscaping is brought in and through the house from west to east, as a constant reminder of its location. The split plan facilitates shared accommodation for two families, providing living flexibility and the ability to share costs. This plan is generated from a series of parallel blade walls that are infilled at each end, typically with glazing. At the western end of the house are the entry, driveway and garage; at the eastern end are a swimming pool and large openings looking onto the rainforest.

Inside the house, a carefully chosen though limited palette of materials has been used: polished concrete floor slab, local spotted gum wall linings, and glass louvres. The core wall is lined in timber and the kitchen is decked out in dark stone and stainless steel. It seems more Richmond than Wonga, an outcome sought by the owner with his brief to house such fine finishes, furnishings and artworks.

While the connection to landscape is prevalent, there is a sharp contrast between inside and out. Inside provides a darkened, cool sanctuary, while outside offers the heat, humidity, bright tropical light and crocodiles. The shuttering system in the bedrooms highlights this – the bedrooms have aluminium louvres with flyscreening but no glass. At night, one lies in bed and listens to the critters in the rainforest outside.

Of course shade is vital in the tropics. A covered outdoor area is adjacent to the living room. It houses an external dining table that was cast in the same concrete as the floor, making sure that no cyclone will blow it away. Nearby a built-in barbecue, in a clever twist on the norm, has been turned around so that he who holds the tongs can face everybody at the table. The covered porch links north to the pool. Here both wings of the house plan connect across the central spine via the pool, which cleverly does not impede the axial view. 

The project owes a great deal to the vision of the client. His brief was to redefine tropical modern and demonstrate that it could be more than cane and wicker furniture. The fact that he was based in New Zealand added another layer of complexity, though Domenic recalls a healthy email dialogue and the client’s very considered responses to his suggestions. The architect visited the site every couple of months and relied heavily on photography from the builders on site for updates. He does concede that the biggest challenge was to maintain the design integrity of the building as cost constraints kicked in. His growing practice is now working on a number of remote projects interstate and in New Zealand.

For Domenic, the project presented an appropriate opportunity to explore his interest in regional modernism, whereby the architecture respects the local conditions, though in a modernist response. This focused on the Florida houses of modernist architect Paul Rudolph and the Case Study Houses, which worked with low-cost building materials in postwar California. The result is manifested in the ordered and linear plan, the material palette that almost celebrates the rawness of the concrete-block walls, and the clear articulation of surfaces. 

As Domenic and I discuss the project, studying plans and photos, wrapped in our winter jackets and scarfs, this house at Wonga Beach is a distant idyll. The palm trees, the blue sky, the tropical rainforest and the reflection of the pool capture the viewer’s imagination. More striking, however, is the simple yet sophisticated house that sits in this location, displaying a new benchmark for what tropical modern architecture can be.