Construction: The Bellevue Hill House


By Philip Drew


Brown’s city house is large, on four levels, it rises above the footpath at street level, on a sandstone base that anchors it to the ground and to the neighbours, from this rises in white cubes topped by a continuous transparent horizontal glass sill is crowned by a series of floating round-edge zinc roofs.  The house composition is organised around three east-west axes that stretch out parallel to each other, on the north side a short ceremonial axis aligns with the city in the distance and crosses the special Friday room for regular family gatherings, it is separated from the extended living/sleeping axis on the south side by the transparent, and largely empty central axis that draws air from the car garage at street level, upwards through to the roof exploiting the traditional Middle Eastern principle  ”bad-gir” or Malkaf wind scoop or scoop principle.


The floor-to-ceiling American Oak doors assist the capture of breezes, swinging out perpendicular to the façade and capable of being set at any angle to suit wind direction they capture the air and route it though the interior working in unison with the malkaf window in the upper storey.  The doors convert the rooms into open rooms or deep verandas that extend outwards to capture the outdoor space and bring it inside so it becomes a part of and is united with this interior space.


Interweaving through the controlling triple axes is the upward path leading from the garage to the sleeping spaces atop the house.  There are two ways to reach the main ground level, one, as mentioned leads from the right side of the garage up a Oak lined stair, past a gym then up to the ground level.  Alternatively from the street access, one climbs through sandstone walls to the front terrace facing west to the city, a Santoriniesque experience of stairs held between walls that climaxes in a vista of the city.


This focus on climbing through the house determines the quality of the spatial experience that has strong vernacular, even Mediterranean, overtones and forms the backbone of our experience of the house.  Rather like the Japanese stroll-garden one is tempted to describe it as a stroll-house so crucial is this planned movement sequence to the reading of the architecture.


A number of ideas emerge from this, there is a strong Wright aspect in the interplay of the roof planes which hover overhead rather like a massing of aircraft wings, silver, shiny, lightweight in appearance if not in fact; the horizontal dimension stressed by the firm line of the stone window sills, and the combined openness of the informal dining space in a garden tail that opens on two sides onto lawn.


Like Wright, the house digs into the hill and creates a platform that reaches out into the space beyond it.  And we sense that overriding the obvious formality and careful living details of the living spaces as though Nature rises up, Jōmon-style to give the house its form which is not to take away from the architect so much as to emphasise his in tune-ness with his site.


The choice of materials is indicative of the thoroughly organic character of the Bellevue Hill house: the character of the interiors is determined by the use of American Oak for the joinery and furniture, for floors and the stair screen.  Like Wright, who sought to integrate furniture with the house, though a close co-operation with partner Caroline Casey, the interiors amplify and develop the architectural thinking and apply it in the cabinets, specifically, in the stair screen ( it is not dissimilar in effect to the mushrabiyya interlaced wooden screen of Islamic tradition).  In the side dining cupboards, a woven textile theme is picked up not unlike the idea of Dutch leather strapwork for facades in the 16th century consisting of interlaced bands and forms similar to fretwork or cut leather used in screens and funerary monuments.


It introduction lends an element of whimsy, that adds a ritualistic dimension, a reading of life as formal, constrained that re-interprets the identity of the material.  It is at once surprising and intriguing.


This comes to a climax in formal dining space for regular family gatherings.  The space is dominated by a large rectangular American Oak dining table ( ?m x ?m x ? high) and …?..chairs.  The muted simplicity of the open-ended space skewered on its extended axis from rear garden to the city in the distance here assumes the austere simplicity of ritual, of repeated human ceremonies with the row of tiny suspended  ?…lights and the wall panel ? illuminated around its edge.  The printed stainless steel inserts at two corners take a pattern from Katsura Imperial villa, Kyoto, a high style Yayoi reference to aristocratic taste that tips the balance towards artifice.


Everywhere throughout the house there is a feeling of lightness; the space surges upwards around the central stair which is the flue of the natural air-ventilation system.  There are echoes of this spatial freedom in the master bedroom shower with its sliding glass roof that retracts to open the shower to the outside sky.  This act of liberating the interior to the outside, takes on a deeper symbolism as a device signalling a surrender of the architecture to Nature, inscribing in it the notion of ‘self-becoming*’ implicit in our surrender to the outside.


*  for a detailed discussion of the Jōmon and Yayoi opposition, see Isozaki, Arata, Japan-ness in Architecture, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006.


Philip Drew