In Praise of Hardwood: The Jamberoo House


By Philip Drew


‘By ingenious gradation from light to dark the space is given plasticity.’

Alvar Aalto.


We are conditioned to follow light and shun the dark.  Electric illumination freed humanity from darkness.  Modern architecture promoted white as the accepted colour—in 1937 outside and especially inside.  Le Corbusier proclaimed it, When the Cathedrals were White, in 1937.


The Jamberoo house is about darkness, dark hardwood, not a blond look.  Australian hardwood has a dark shadowy character and a mellow richness that retreats from the camera lens.  Hardwood is used throughout, the outside is clad in 128mm wide vertical blackbutt with cover battens left in its natural state which repeats the construction of the nearby 19th century barn.  We are accustomed to high tones for floors, illuminated by large areas of glass, as essential to our contemporary lifestyle image of the good life.  It requires a writer of great subtlety such as Jun’ichiro Tanizaki to encapsulate this different essence: ‘the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else.’[1]


Australia supplies a quite different palette of materials, our hardwoods are dark, mellow, richly so, their textures, dense heaviness, possess a very different character to northern European and Scandinavian or American timbers.  It is time architects took note, and adjusted their visual approach to reflect this.  A new house at Jamberoo does just that.  Its tonal range is set by the roasted blackbutt internal lining and floor, a process which darkens with age, coated in a natural oil.  The result is darkly somber, almost Japanese in the darkness of the timber and hence the manner in which indirect light and layering of shadow lend a special charm to the interior all its own.


The shift of architectural key to the dark side is so unexpected it creates difficulties for the photographer’s camera which lives for light and struggles to capture the new language of layered shadow.  The resultant aesthetic is the opposite of Greek marble sculpted for sunlight.  It takes on a hidden dimension.  One is reminded instead of the great Indonesian Buddhist temple of Borodbudur, impossible to photograph because of its black volcanic stone.


The house completes a varied collection of farm buildings comprising a simple slab barn behind the house, planting shed, existing covered dairy and conservatory with pool, and two existing 19th century cottages.  Three linked pavilions on the north corner frame the group around an ancient Morton Bay fig.  A curved stone retaining wall edge unites the three pavilions at the site’s steepest, thereby leaving the main living space to make the most of distant views to rolling verdant hillsides and the distant Tasman Sea.  The landscape is typical of the Illawarra escarpment with its scatterings of ancient cabbage palms--an old landscape now in terms of settlement, pacific with its wildness tamed and softened by more than a century of human intervention. 


Though occupied by a couple it also serves as a focus of random family get togethers.  On such occasions, it teems with relatives and friends and becomes a social gathering and meeting place with a warm convivial atmosphere, indoors and outdoors.  The living room with its encircling veranda is one large space not unlike a medieval tithe barn with the kitchen and pantry inserted as elegant isolated boxes.  The space extends into an open covered barbecue area that is climaxed by a round Portuguese pizza oven.


This main pavilion is attached by a gallery to two smaller pavilions.  The gaps between each pavilion create visual escapes, interludes along the way, that reveal glimpses of distant scenery.  The second and smallest pavilion contains a bed room overlooking the inner court which is dominated by a spreading Morton bay fig, an aged giant, with a matching study/library.  The bath room in the third pavilion is illuminated by a periscope like window with mirror set at 45° to preserve privacy.  It is a charming device that highlights what it is that is so pervasive and intrinsic to Casey Brown architecture, a resounding focus on detail perfection serving a larger vision of domestic comfort and ease of living attuned to an Australian style.


The pitched corrugated galvanized iron roofs are lined inside with roasted blackbuttFrom side light is reflected from the shaded veranda, the living room spins upwards and merges into a graded darkness.  Auxiliary struts that stiffen and support the roof thrust into this enveloping shadowy void.  You could be looking up inside the underside the hull of an upturned boat the impression is much the same.  A Gyrofocus firehood is suspended above the dark timber floor and casts its reflection; above it are air fans  by Boffi (Designer Giulio Gianturo) gently push the air. 


The landscape dominates--as it should.  Stone walls, in keeping with the curving stone bridge approach across a small creek, supply a firm base, push up from the verdant hillside.  The material palette is restrained: rust red stone walls, thick grey blackbutt board-and-battens outside and inside and for the timber floor.  The internal doors are roasted Cambian Oak with blackbutt for the external doors.  This is the formal keynote of the architecture, restrained simplicity, an aesthetic that accepts and celebrates the character of Australian hardwood as a space definer that at first glance might appear primitive, yet is enduring and durable.  Light grips such materials and reveals a surprising richness and depth, above all, its peculiar texture and tactile feel, its dense heaviness and toughness and warmth found nowhere else.




[1] Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. In Praise of Shadows. Trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker. Charles E. Tuttle Co, Tokyo, 1977, p. 18.