Of Stone and Wood

Review of house at Stanwell Park by Casey Brown Architecture, HOUSES Magazine, vol.66, 2009. 

Rob Brown is making a habit of designing well-crafted houses on steeply sloping beach sites. He has previously created award-winning houses around Pittwater to the north of Sydney and a number of south coast residences. For his latest venture he has turned his attention to Stanwell Park.
 Stanwell Park is a seaside hamlet, located an hour south of Sydney between the Royal National Park and Wollongong. For many years it has been to the south of Sydney what Palm Beach is to Sydney’s north, a beach setting full of weekend houses, though in a poor-cousin kind of way. While there are many established houses, few are architecturally designed and the area has been largely preserved from development. The clients had owned the site for some years and used the charming, albeit falling down, fibro beach shack for weekend and holiday escapes from the city. When they returned after living abroad, it was time to create a more substantial home and they engaged Casey Brown Architecture.
 The site is at the bottom of a steep hill. It faces north-east up the beach and further up to a headland used for hang-gliding, providing a colourful background of thrill seekers. Adding to the dramatic scene of beach frontage, ocean and hang-gliders, the village is set in a green bowl of steeply rising hillsides, all the more green because of the area’s uniquely high rainfall. Construction access was difficult, but the architect used a builder he had worked with on a number of south coast residential projects, who revelled in the challenge of a difficult site. The owners held a barbecue on site for all the builders once it was finished.
 The building has been arranged in three separate pavilion forms, staggered in plan and section to maximize the north-eastern beachfront aspect and the steep topography. There is only one neighbour and the house turns its back on it. The main pavilion is the entry point and houses the primary living space. Walls are not parallel and the space fans open in a wedge shape to open up to the view. A wall of local stone forms the southern edge, with the kitchen at the back of this space and a TV room in the south-western corner.
 The house then drops down to the middle pavilion, which houses a central dining area and outdoor deck areas at front and back.  These two separate decks connect with the western deck, providing a protected court that shields against the howling north-easterly breeze on a summer afternoon. When all doors are opened this becomes the big verandah.  The northernmost pavilion steps down again to create the main bedroom, though interestingly this is almost a full level change. Here the architects have used the fall of the site and a complex series of floor levels to create separation. The master bedroom has been separated completely from the other bedrooms, even though it is immediately adjacent and above other rooms. Circulation has been arranged so that stairs lead from the central dining space north down to themain bedroom and south down to the other bedrooms. This enables complete privacy, and two families can use the house together without intrusion. Rob likens it to an Escher drawing, with an intertwining series of ascending and descending stairways.
 Continuing with the Escher theme, there are two entry points to the house.  The first is via an angled ramp that leads from the footpath into the main living space, though in truth this is more homage to Seidler and Corbusier than to Escher. Rob confesses he had always wanted to do an angled entry ramp. The second entry is via the floor below, whichleads in from an undercroft parking area and into the bedroom level.  Stone walls are used to create a series of terraces, which Rob likens to rice paddies, that follow the contours of the site. These walls bring the outside retaining walls into the house so that it is integrated with  the landscape.
 Materials have been selected to withstand the extreme maritime environment. External materials include local basalt for the stone walls, copper and teak that will weather to give a patina in time. The roofing consists of a series of layers: an upper scoop, shielding the house from neighbours, then a gap of glazing that allows light to enter, and then a flat hood. The flat hoods are trafficable, allowing maintenance access to wash salt off the windows. External timber has been stained black, an effect designed to recede the building and to create a contrast with the other, more rich materials and colours. Internal finishes include oiled natural timbers. Recycled timber is expressed as the structural framework, a reinforced grid built off concrete floors. The lightness of the timber contrasts with the mass of the stone walls.
 While the house has been laid out on an orthogonal grid, it is not afraid to loosen up and break the grid in response to site constraints, evidenced most notably in ººthe wedge-shaped living space. Here a mix of geometries and a play of spaces lift the spatial experience from static to dynamic, and the roof continues this with a twisted, warped form that follows the plan below and produces a slight curve.  The design is an extension and evolution of ideas that the practicehas used in previous houses: pavilion building types, mono-pitched roofs and hoods, and rich, dramatic materials. Each house responds to the vagaries of its setting and conditions.
 Architecturally, the house is timber-and-stone rustic as well as glass-and-copper sophisticated.  The richness of the materials and drama of the roof forms complement the surrounding dramatic views in a celebratory manner, unlike the more prevalent banal surrounds. Many houses in such beautiful settings are content to lie back and rely solely on the view, while not trying too hard with the architecture. In this case, the thrill-seeking hang-gliders on the headland really have something to soar about.