Australian Picturesque: A Catenation of Pavilions
By Philip Drew
The Mackeral Beach House by Robert Brown
“How much house is really necessary?” is a prodigious question for Australian architects. Robert Brown’s Great Mackeral Beach house on the western shore of Pittwater gives an instructive answer: it is pared back to a bare minimum, to the point of denial and extent that the architecture barely intrudes.
The beach house is three pavilions – two paired pavilions with a larger pavilion higher up the steep 45˚ slope at the back – constructed of a lightweight prefabricated steel frame surmounted by irregularly tilted and twisted corrugated copper roofs that swing around in the sky to trap the early morning sun. Although distant from it, this open skeleton exploits the older English Picturesque idea of a house or landscape which looks as if it had come out of a picture. It arose from English connoisseurs travelling in Italy. On their return to England, they built their houses and gardens to resemble the scenes depicted in their collections of Italian landscape paintings – architecture like a painting.
Brown’s house at Mackeral Beach is not out of Claude Gellée or Gaspar Poussin, it is if anything closer to a woodblock print by Andō Hiroshige with its bobbing boats arrayed across a blue Pittwater like stepping stones leading to the humped profile of Barrenjoey Head.
Being a point of view and not a style, Picturesque lends itself to conversion into a modern version as Australian Picturesque. Because it begins with a point of view, nature, not style, is the starting point and source of inspiration for a particularized approach in architecture.
At a glance, Brown’s house seems quite remote from the rustic cottages of John Nash with their thick thatch roofs and prim verandas. It seems much more Japanese, more shoin like than English in its attitude of taut simplicity, its quiet deference to the magnificence of its surroundings and the absence of intrusive egotism and refined precision.
The English viewpoint should not surprise; Robert Brown spent six years in England conserving historic English country houses and learning about building craft and materials. What interested him most was not the showy eclecticism of the house fronts, but what could be found at the back of house, where the English genius for improvising and accidental effects was more evident, where he could glimpse the real roots of English Picturesque sensibility – the ”flowers in crannied walls” beloved by Lord Tennyson and the scenes of rural simplicity preferred by Constable. Brown unconsciously absorbed and transmuted the English preference for the natural, natural meaning a lack of artifice, which seemed so different in spirit and opposed to Classical European formality and symmetry.
Thatch has been replaced by deep red corrugated copper, wattle and daub by black steel and glass sliding doors. In a sombre dusty landscape of olive casuarinas and angophoras, of yellow sandstone, bushfire cindered trees, his choice of red ochre and charcoal black blend perfectly. For all the apparent differences of time and place, the irregularity and contention displayed in the plan and roofs has added an unexpected liveliness to the pavilion ensemble. What Brown absorbed during his English stay he has unconsciously replayed in a deceptively simple, Australian variation of Picturesque.
Australian architects constantly need to reconsider how their buildings react chemically to the bush. Nothing can be assumed or taken for granted!
The colour black is a case in point: it sucks the sunlight in, holds it, and does not throw it back to the eye as do lighter colours. Black blends with the other blacks and greys in the landscape, the deep umbers, and the blackened trunks left by passing bush fires. People complain about the dull monotony of eucalypt foliage. The bush absorbs light, it does not throw it back, unlike nature in the northern hemisphere which is alternately bright and solid in summer opacity, or dissolves into an infinite array of subtle layers of grey in winter. Dullness, a loose permeability and recession, are the keys in Australia, with a kind of borrowed Japanese lightness of touch and simplicity that has been fire hardened.
Such things as the simple shower heads, glass louvres that slice the landscape outside into green-edged stanzas, the black louvred and screened pantry that recalls an outback meat safe, all contain allusions to an earlier era when people lived alongside close to nature – not apart from it. They give the house its Australian personality, the sense of a house without obstructions, without anything between us and the open air.
Conversely, it pulls the house back into the drab olive bush. Its black steel frame, like the strong outlines in a Georges Roault painting, stained-glass, or the bright colours worn by African women, isolates and heightens the colours, makes them seem more vivid and intense.
Whilst the idea is English originally, the result is undeniably Australian. It may vaguely recall John Nash’s Blaise Hamlet near Bristol, it may be informed by similar qualities of irregularity and asymmetry, it may display the same emphasis on height in the main living and dining spaces of the lower pavilion, but the result is distinct and particular to Pittwater. It is no historical essay but an uncompromising and modern in concept and execution.
You arrive at Great Mackeral Beach village by a slow ferry from Palm Beach. Sticking out into the water on round hardwood legs is a timber jetty which serves as the town square and a common meeting place in this small isolated community. Behind it like a line of infantry are 1950’s beach houses with projecting decks out front, shaded from the afternoon sun, further back, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, puts its arm around the houses protectively.
The large recent houses crowd the narrow south end of the beach. Removed from and overlooking the water, they project forward assertively. Their light colours stand out offensively against the bush. Brown is alone in choosing black to make his house retreat into the bush. The pale sandy thigh of Great Mackeral Beach swings in a gentle arc, growing wider with distance till it hits the shadow of a high rocky promontory. Perpendicular, 5 kilometres north-east away across Pittwater, rises Barrenjoey Head, a giant humped back whale shaped rock from which spouts the Barrenjoey Lighthouse. In front are the two residences so admired by Jørn Utzon.
The house clings to the steep boulder strewn sandstone, the site dominated by an ancient fig tree at the edge of Ku-ring-gai National Park. It was so difficult and inaccessible all the major heavy items had to be lifted in by helicopter.
The house is designed for a couple and consists of two distinct structures, a lower common dwelling with living, cooking, dining and day spaces over a work room, bathroom and guest bedroom, with an upper pavilion containing the master bedroom, ensuite and robe with a laundry at the front underneath. The two parts are connected by a steep zigzag path leading up from the narrow track at the bottom. There is also an inclinator connection. The lower pavilion rises from a deep terrace behind a massive sandstone retaining wall excavated from the site which was built to stabilise the slope.
The lower residence is anchored by the rectangular volume of the living room, to its right, separated from it by a generous breezeway that is also the main entry (the house is approached from the rear around the foot of the cliff) is a second attenuated trapezoidal shaped pavilion that expands and widens towards the water. A louvred pantry and ensuite are enclosed at the back, with the kitchen/dining exposed to the front water view. The dining area axis rotates around the living room to its left side so the axes of the two paired pavilions converge somewhere in space beyond the deck. The effect of this manoeuvre is to turn the dining so it captures a view of the nearby beach. Caroline Casey specially designed the 4m long curved dining table to reinforce this movement. Sitting at the table, the diners are gently turned in toward the counter-curve of Mackeral Beach.
An Aboriginal fish trap, suspended above the table, is a lesson in native economy. Only as much material has been used in making it as was necessary. The traps permeability is an organic admonition to the house, as Henry Thoreau might have said by way of admonition: only as much house as is truly needed. Not that the Mackeral Beach house is about the meanness of life, rather the contrary, it shows just how voluptuous life can feel when lived in simplicity. As Thoreau might have said, Brown has done something remarkable “to affect the quality of the day.” It is a house to reawaken us – it keeps us awake.
The living room roof slopes uphill in opposition to the dining/kitchen roof which lifts and twists; the effect is a drama of crossed contending diagonal red copper roof blades. The catention of the two roof planes is reiterated and heightened by the clash below of the black cleaning hoods at the level of the sliding doors. These are much stronger visually than the roofs.
Gradually, as you spend time in the house it becomes clearer that it is not architecture at all in the sense that is about enclosure and openings, but is more a crystallization around the individual, a house so lightly clad you need not go out of doors to take the air, louvres open, the sliding doors slide back, and the atmosphere within loses none of its freshness. In so far as it leaves the dweller unencumbered, in the open as it were, it can be compared to a tent.
The living room looks directly across to Barrenjoey Head, whose irregular silhouette subtends the vista. Swivelling around 180 ˚, the living room confronts a wall of weathered sandstone and the straggly roots of a fig trailing over rough red and yellow stone. The room is heated by a floating fireplace and radiant heating coils in the ceilings. Above the fireplace, the television and sound system is housed within a stone and stainless steel mesh unit.
Being so open, so transparent, the minimal enclosure and protection is provided naturally. Since the micro-climate is so benign with the temperature never varying much beyond 10 to15˚ in winter, and set back some distance from the Pacific Ocean, the room can be left open much of the time or closed as necessary during blows. Wide steel overhanging hoods not only screen the sun and provide access to the high windows for cleaning the glass, they also protect door heads from driving rain, enclose the lights and mechanical blinds.
There is a great distance between the Mackeral Beach house and Philip Johnson’s 1949 classic at New Canaan. Johnson’s New Canaan glass pavilion is a horizontal explosion of transparency, whereas, the Mackeral Beach house has been teased upwards by the hill so that its interior spaces drift upwards and strike the tilted planes of the white ceiling soffits; the house does not hover above an ideal green landscape in a man made Eden as the Johnson house does, it is notched and anchored into the rock in a wild South Pacific landscape, with a steep hill at its back, that constrains the space inside and pushes it forward out across the water.
The upper pavilion is more simply rectangular than the lower paired pavilions and looks down on their roofs from the open front of the master bedroom. Enclosed by glass louvres and protected by a single up-tilted copper skillion, the master bedroom is encased by the ‘L’ shaped robe space which continues into the ensuite and wraps around the corner along the end. This is unscreened and open. The shower has a water view. A single unit terrazzo vanity complements the stainless steel toilet in simplicity. There are no doors, each space running naturally into its neighbour.
In keeping with its Australian background, the bathrooms are simple almost to the point of 19th century pioneering austerity, but there is an added unfamiliar touch of Zen about it, in eliminating all that is inessential while remaining simultaneously highly refined.
A special further contribution to the house is the co-operation – perhaps fusion is closer to the mark – between the furniture and the architecture. This is unusual in Australia. Caroline Casey is an internationally renowned furniture designer who has worked in New York and London and her furniture is represented in prestigious overseas and Australian museum collections. The kitchen table was designed specially; outside, on the deck her ‘Zella’ daybed is a reminder of the sea. Casey trained originally in textile design. The bed is an extension of her woven wall storage system and continues the woven theme used throughout the house.
The Mackeral Beach house is outstanding in every respect: conceptually, in terms of its innovations, its obsessive refinement, its integrity and simplicity, its response to climate, to its magnificent position, in every way one cares to measure ‘house’. To be in the Mackeral Beach house is to feel more keenly alive, richer, privileged. Like the best architecture, it expands and heightens one’s experiences and existence, the pleasure of breathing, being alive. It awakens us.
Philip Drew is a Sydney based architectural historian and critic