Dancing on the Edge


By Philip Drew


Bungan Beach house, Casey Brown Architecture, 2003.

Biology is predisposed to delicacy.  The closer you look at it, the more detail and intricacy is revealed.  Take an eyelid, the tip of a finger or toe for instance, notice the fine edge and rounded contour, the remarkable delicacy and detail.  How rarely do our buildings match nature.


Sited on the very edge of the continent, on the steep southern slope of Bungan Head just south of Newport on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Robert Brown has endeavoured to give the edge of his roof a similar fineness by ending it with an inverted steel angle.  The house is about living on the edge of Australia, about terminations and the vagaries of nature.


The house is comprised of three pavilions: one containing the living and dining area and guest bedroom, with laundry, a second enclosing the principal bedroom, ensuite and wardrobe, while a third office/studio is perched further up the hillside-pirouette around a stone terrace.  This open area between the pavilions is the fulcrum of the entire composition.


The Bungan Beach house was designed at the same time as the beach house at Great Markeral Beach: they share the same skewed geometry of closely spaced wedge-shaped floors on axes that rotate to catch wide sea vistas, both adopt gentle skillion roofs that lift towards the light, and both sets of pavilions are carefully adjusted to the irregularities of their sites.  They are black to melt into the landscape, not lightly coloured as the other houses around them, both follow the route of fission, breaking down the house into its parts so the house is less dominant and smaller in scale.  This makes for greater flexibility in adjusting to the vagaries of what, in both instances, were extremely difficult challenging sites. 


There are important differences however, the Mackeral Beach house is a steel construction, this is reflected in its precision, and importantly, it used corrugated copper sheet on the outside and roof, in contrast to the Bungan Beach house which sits on dry-packed sandstone walls and is clad in sawn eco-ply painted black with Spandek Hi-Ten 700 roof.  Although both are the result of fission, the Bungan Beach house is more exploded, the parts are more spread apart, thus, at Mackeral Beach the roofs of the two paired pavilions overlap, and the cleavage between the two transparent volumes are subject to spatial tension unlike Bungan Beach, where the distance between the living and adjoining main bedroom pavilions is considerably larger.  The Bungan pavilions define an irregular shaped communal space, which, rather like the houses on Santorini, establishes a singular village like group.


Such headland sites as Bungan Head suffer from endemic damp, caused by water seeping from the rock which results in houses that are cold and damp.  Robert Brown avoided this by lifting the house on dry-packed sandstone walls and mounting the three pavilions on the dry platforms that are the result.


Hence the house is a community of structures with the same Picturesque unexpected organic feeling as the white cube houses with their splendid white domes on the crater rim at Santorini where the architecture reads as a layer of white icing on a petrified layer cake of volcanic earth stratified with rock.  Santorini’s serendipity is also experienced in Robert Brown’s black pavilions which seem to dance to the silent music of the Bungan hillside.  This freedom of placement of each pavilion and their adjustment to the peculiarities of the site topography and geology makes the group seem such a truly natural addition.  It is a connection that is enhanced further by limiting the number of materials used.  The geometry is mostly rectangular, only in the living area has the architect adopted a wedge shape that widens as it extends to the edge,  the remaining shapes turn and face in different directions as dictated by the contingencies of the site and views.  They step lightly across the steep site, instead of ploughing their way through the rock. 


The courtyard between the pair of lower pavilions binds the group together; much like the crooked laneways, arched openings with their vistas, the Bungan courtyard has a similar irregular shapes and fluidity as the spaces left between the houses on Santorini’s rim.  At the heart of the house is a conundrum, the most important space is outside between the pavilions in the courtyard, they are subordinate to it.


Brown drew his pavilions to the edge then pushed them past it so they step out past the dry packed stone abutments.  This eliminates any foreground and thrusts the house into the view.  Each pavilion’s silhouette is juxtaposed against the sea and sky.  Visible through the wide windows the bedroom and living rooms face the soft curve of a swelling horizon that is not flat but runs across in a lovely moist curve from north to south.  The black painted sawn finished eco-ply retreats into the landscape. 


From a distance the house is nearly invisible, only the reflections of the glass betray its existence.  An inverted steel angle at the roof edge cuts the blue of the sky with the exactness of a Stanley knife blade.  At the wall toe copper in a fine folded drip delicately announces the termination of the copper heel.


Inside, all the walls are a warm plywood with blackbutt floors which together give the house a warm honey colour that is mellow in contrast to the black outside.  Not surprisingly, it was nicknamed the ‘Armani house’, in recognition of its elegant black exterior. 


Dividing up the living functions into three pavilions made the house less dominant, and helped make it appear smaller than it is at 150m2.  The state-of-the-art home-theatre is buried under the living room thereby making it invisible from the outside.  Lined with acoustic plywood panels, it has a Scandinavian functionality.  The non-rectangular wedge floor shape, inherited from the living space above assists the acoustics which are superb.                                                                                               


--Philip Drew is a Sydney based architectural historian and critic writing on international and Australian design.