Architecture and compromise

Make Architecture, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Melbourne, House
Local House by Make Architecture

The Robin Boyd Foundation‘s winter open day was held last month, with ten recent Australian Institute of Architects award winning projects open to visit. The unseasonably warm August Sunday was filled with at least 600 architects and architecture lovers roving around Melbourne, enjoying houses and apartments converted for the day into temporary museums. With our 3 year old and 7 month old in tow, my wife and I were grateful to at least make it to three of them:

Local House and House 3 firmly belong to a Melbourne way of making architecture, in their use of space, materiality and detailing. They felt familiar to visit, perhaps because the design challenges they address – a temperate climate, tight sites, ResCode, the changing needs of growing families – are the ones I face everyday in our practice. Sometimes these challenges are inspiring, sometimes they’re painful, but they always imbue a project with a certain Melbourne DNA.

As I nosed around each house, I found myself nodding in agreement. I could understand their design moves, the intent beneath the surface. I recognised both the challenges Make Architecture and Coy Yiontis would have faced and their accomplished solutions.

Each is a clear example of doing plenty with little. Local House cleverly matches a simple form with rich detailing, concentrating the money where it can do most good. House 3 seems hindered less by a limited budget than limited space, tiny bedrooms exchanged for a generous and varied living environment. They are both Melbourne in a nutshell, strong contemporary expressions of Kenneth Frampton’s critical regionalism.

Mexican Contemporary House is, in contrast, an exercise in otherness. Commissioned by an Australian Mexican couple after living for a time in Mexico, it was designed by a protégé of the great Luis Barragán and then documented and administered locally. That it is located in Melbourne seems more of a coincidence than a catalyst. It pays scant heed to climate, planning controls or even the desire for comfortable living. Its DNA is international, even its house-ness is questionable – as much a monastery as a family home.

These are not criticisms, just observations. I loved it. I loved the voyeuristic quality of visiting it, witnessing how the other half live. I loved the quality of its materials and strangeness of its details. I was amazed and delighted to discover that it even smelled like overseas (I still can’t figure this one out: was it the enormous Pine timber floorboards, the Cedar timber joinery, the concrete walls? Whichever, the scent reminded me nostalgically of the convent where I lodged in Rome as a student).

Finishing on this alien masterpiece put the familiar concerns of Local House and House 3 in context. It highlighted how important place, culture and shared experiences are in shaping our regional language. It also reminded me that there are many other ways to execute a building, and much more to domestic architecture than what we make here.

Coy Yiontis, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Swimming pool, Melbourne, House
House 3 by Coy Yiontis Architects

There is a second taxonomy that groups Local House and House 3 together on one hand and Mexican Contemporary House on the other. As the title of this article indicates, it is the way in which compromise influences an architectural outcome.

Irrespective of whether a client has a few hundred thousand or a few million to spend on her house, it is a universal truth that she inevitably wants more than she can afford. I’ve discussed the tense relationship between budget and brief before, but what it boils down to is that somewhere during the design process the two need to be reconciled. Sometimes (rarely) this means swelling the budget until it matches the brief, sometimes (just as rarely) it means cutting the brief until it matches the budget. Most commonly, the two meet somewhere in the middle.

Such a compromise does not necessarily infer an undesirable outcome, quite the opposite. Managing this process is one of the things that architects do best. Compromise is just another way of saying balance, a quality to which every project should aspire. How can the design solution maximise the most variables? How far can the budget be stretched? Which goals should be prioritised and which sacrificed?

Visiting another architect’s project is a unique opportunity to analyse how she achieves this balance. I imagine my experience in this regard is much like a director watching someone else’s film. Instead of an action-packed chase sequence, she sees the number of stuntmen involved, the cars that were destroyed, the technical requirements of camera angles. Likewise, because I understand how architecture is conceived and executed, I am able to see some of the machinery that lies beneath the skin.

Make Architecture are particularly savvy in understanding how to spend money well, to strategically sacrifice parts of a building in order to spend up big in others. I don’t mean to say that they employ Boyd’s hated featurism here, rather that a modest building can punch above its weight when focussed parts of it have more going on.

Local House has done this through a very clever juxtaposition of expensive materials (the off-form concrete fireplace and benches, the elaborate timber screen) and humble ones (inexpensive bricks, routed MDF cupboards in the wardrobe, site painted cupboards in the kitchen). It is also much smaller, and its rooms more sparsely furnished, than I had expected. There is commendable economy here: tucked behind the kitchen, where you might normally find a generous butler’s pantry, there is not just a pantry, but a laundry and a study nook also. The payoff is the grandness of the double height space, the intimacy of the fireplace and concrete surrounds, the beauty of the timber screen.

With House 3, Coy Yiontis had a different challenge to address: how to fit a family with four teenage children on a tight Balaclava block. Space is the primary commodity here. Providing generous bedrooms would have inevitably compromised the living areas, so the reverse compromise has been made instead. All five bedrooms are crammed in upstairs, much smaller than is typical, with the entire ground floor left for living.

The planning of this living environment is intriguing, with the front door pushed back into the centre of the block. Sandwiched between new and old is a courtyard and swimming pool that are the house’s welcome mat, a source of light, and the centre of communal living. Ranged around the courtyard are the living rooms, each with its own character: a sunken family room, cool meals area, plush carpeted library (an adult space recently appropriated by the children, as evidenced by the games console poking out from under the television), and my favourite, a corridor that counter-intuitively doubles as day bed and retreat.

I appreciate the decision making here, and the clear order of priorities: 1) courtyard 2) living 3) sleeping. Coy Yiontis would have had to work hard to make sense of these priorities, negotiating the strict planning limitations of suburban building. The house is consequently a triumphant expression of its design process.

Andrés Casillas, Evolva Architects, Architecture, Design, Concrete, Melbourne, House, Luis Barragan
Mexican Contemporary House by Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects

In stark contrast, Mexican Contemporary House is entirely uncompromised, and the result of an unwaveringly singular vision. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it possesses such a powerfully monolithic form, austere material palette and reductive detailing. It is an epic manipulation of form, space and light with direct lineage back to Le Corbusier. A 2.1m high entry corridor opens onto a triple height living room; corridors and staircases are barely shoulder-width and loop over and around each other to create continuous circulation routes through the house; every detail is stripped back to its most minimal form.

Digging below the surface, I discovered that everything about this project seems unlikely, or as Walt Disney liked to put it, plausibly impossible.

Its design architect is an 80 year old protégé of one of the great 20th Century architects, perhaps one of the last living connections to that golden era of hope. Its design was undertaken entirely in Mexico, without Casillas ever visiting site or even setting foot in Australia. Its construction techniques and detailing are fastidiously monolithic. Its unapologetic design demanded a nationwide search for an agreeable energy rating consultant. It is located in an unremarkable suburban street on a flat plot whose main quality is a land area large enough to render issues of neighbourhood character moot.

It was a truly mesmerising building to visit, the be-socked crowd of architecture lovers hushed and in utter awe of its majesty. But it is also completely alien to the local demands of Melbourne architecture.

If Local House and House 3 are superb examples of contemporary Australia art, then Mexican Contemporary House is a Caravaggio. The former are rich, engaging, intelligent and accessible. The latter is stark, powerful and unquantifiable. In retrospect, I’m glad I visited it last because the reverse order would have unjustly diminished the others. Life is generally such a negotiated experience that when true freedom comes along, it comes as a surprise. I suppose this is the nature of compromise: its absence exerts a reality distortion field on everything around it.

Robin Williams, Architecture, Cantilever, Water, Swimming pool, Melbourne
Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect

Such freedom in architecture is rare, occasionally witnessed in projects like Mexican Contemporary House when a client evolves into a patron, or more commonly when architects design houses for themselves. Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect is such a project, a multi-level house entirely without stairs. In their place is a continuous ramp that zigzags back and forth from the front door to the rooftop. The entire floor of the house is sloped, including everything from bedroom and bathroom to kitchen and swimming pool. From what I’ve seen in photos, it’s a truly bizarre building and a forceful experiment in the fuzziness of field architecture.

Happily, the Robin Boyd Foundation winter open day extends to include a visit to Villa Marittima in early November, along with Sawmill House by Archier a few weeks later. The Villa Marittima visit will coincide with an Australian Architecture Association event, At Home with the Architect. Williams will be in attendance late in the afternoon, providing what I’m sure will be engrossing insight into the thought processes that underpin his project.

Stay tuned for further discussion.


Image sources

  1. Local House, Make Architecture. Photography by Peter Bennetts
  2. House 3, Coy and Yiontis. Photography by Peter Clarke
  3. Mexican Contemporary House, Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects. Photography by John Gollings
  4. Villa Marittima, Robin Williams Architect. Photography by Dean Bradley

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