The Floating House of Delights


By Philip Drew


Pacific House, Palm Beach.  Casey Brown architecture


‘He knew exactly what he was looking for.  It must be the genuine article.  It had to put the city at a respectable distance but be close enough for comfortable weekend commuting.  However the locale was only part of it.  Anyone of his generation would know what he wanted.  No transplanted bourgeois suburban brick-and-veneer tile villa would do.’

                                                Robert Drewe, The Bodysurfers, 1983, p. 110-111


The Outback has long been regarded as a key source of Australian identity.  The majority of Australians live within ten kilometers of the coast and are environed by the sea.  Few, at most 3%, live inland and are distant from beaches.  We are coast dwellers, you could say that from its earliest days, Australia was a veranda country with a littoral veranda culture closely connected to and shaped by the oceans that surround it.


A great many people grow up, live near and are shaped by their sea experience whether it is swimming, surfing, fishing, or regular holidays by the ocean.  Almost by coincidence, Harry Seidler’s new elevated house with the garage underneath of the 1950s spawned a new beach house typology that replaced the earlier ramshackle fibro beach shack beloved by Robert Drewe.


Palm Beach is a huge bony index finger wreathed in bush pointing north.  On one side is the ocean beach, alternately suspended from cliffs or fronting a long necked peninsula, with Pittwater on its opposite side, at its tip, Barrenjoey, with its lighthouse and cottages, at cross-purposes.  Pacific Road, with its spectacular ocean views, runs the length of this finger and commands the heights.


The client’s permanent address is an old Federation house in Randwick with an expansive veranda.  They grew up, she opposite Bondi Beach, he overlooking the Sydney Harbour—both are beach people—consequently the Palm Beach house represents the fulfillment of their Australian dream.


The brief was straightforward: “a beach house to be used as a weekender not as a permanent home which would work for the couple by themselves without feeling big or empty, but also work for gatherings of friends and the whole family—and for whatever the next fifty years might bring.


The site is above Pacific Road on a steeply sloping block.  The existing weatherboard cottage was well located but badly oriented and full of white ants.  Robert Brown’s task was to design a new casual beach house with the aim, quoting the client, which was “seriously cool”, meaning it would be different and unconventional to a degree, whilst simultaneously offering a different experience and a feeling of being up in the air much like a childhood tree-house.


This resulted in floating the house above an open car-port garage and entry at the end of the drive, on which was the upper main living/sleeping level which “floated out to the view”.  To reduce its bulk, the house form was broken down into three pavilions to ensure each room a view: the living room continued out as extended deck overlooking a borrowed garden next door, with the parent’s bedroom in its separate pavilion angled so it faced Barrenjoey.  The exterior pine cladding was burned to create a layer of char on the outside.  Based on traditional Japanese charred cedar shou-sugi-ban used to fireproof castle donjons at the beginning of the 17th century it can last 80 to 100 years and much longer if it is refinished with oil every 10 to 15 years.  The visual appearance of the treated timber varies depending on the thickness of the char: a light char treatment retains the wood pattern; the deep char used on this occasion results in a black segmented crocodile pattern.  Burning does much more than preserve the wood, it makes it significantly fire-resistant, termites and bugs hate it, but it has a further advantage, black is a recessive colour that makes the Pacific Road pavilions visually retreat into the bush.


The rust layer on the thin cor-ten steel, like the char treatment of the upper wood cladding, in essence is similar.  Like shou-sugi-ban, not only does it enhance the weathering property of the metal, it also creates a beautiful ochre patina that is strikingly painterly, each panel becoming a unique visual work.


Both the cor-ten and shou-sugi-ban point to a fascination with special materials to create a house, which, for all its seeming simplicity, is playful and surprising and rich in assorted tactile delights, whether it is the unconventional use of steel reinforcing rods to create fences to isolate the plunge pool, the brass handrails on the upper deck that are almost invisible, or the timber walls in the interior with their undifferentiated doors to reinforce the continuity of the wall plane.


One of the surprises is the mirror behind the island kitchen bench that, depending on where you happen to stand and face in the living room, catches and echoes the tree-top vista outside, bringing it inside by stealth.  Working behind the bench, one has the bush back and front.  It is delightful.


The outcome is a house full of delights, a house moreover that floats above the rising ground out front, as if suspended in the air.  Its two pavilions swivel to capture the views: the larger living pavilion towards the ocean; the main bedroom pavilion, towards Barrenjoey and morning.  Rob Brown’s design is similar to an earlier house on Mackerel Beach which also employed a similar arrangement of two diverging pavilions aimed at separate viewpoints.


Robert Drewe’s idea of a beach house was of a primitive shack that confronted you with elemental primal experiences and with the bush around it.  The Pacific Road house is nothing like his primitive shack; on the upper storey the material is cheap burnt pine, and under-storey of thin 1.5 mm thick sheet cor-ten steel.  The client’s Randwick house “lived within its boundaries”, in its stead the client requested a house that would release its interior and extend itself well beyond the property line and be an expansive extension of house to free and liberate the human spirit.  We live captive lives in the city, hemmed in and constrained by buildings.  At the beach, people release themselves in nature and rediscover a sensual side of their being and become more fully alive.  This is a house that does exactly that by its unusual choice of materials, by freeing its space, by suppressing walls and boundaries and fences, acts that in their combined effect, take us out of ourselves and offer a succession of unexpected delights and surprises.  Doors are hidden, steel reinforcing rods become fences, bathroom floors are raw concrete, hoods at door-head height release the up-tilted roof to the sky outside, black charred burnt wood timber s has the same rugged toughness of crocodile skin, the ochre patina of the cor-ten is a work of abstraction worth of hanging in an art gallery, springs directly from the sandstone.  The tile mosaic in the plunge pool below the outdoor deck extension of the living room, bring the water alive.


The novelty of the new house has yet to wear off, but it has already released fresh new ways of enjoying nature and bringing it close: “When we are there we like to walk the dogs around the top of the hill, there is a lovely secret park at the end of the cul-de-sac which overlooks the beach which is a favourite spot to stop.  We swim in the surf, walk along the beach, coffee at the boathouse and Pat has got his beach fishing rods at the ready again…we are happy to be in it, to spend time there,  It’s really a really calming beautiful place to be.”


Architecture can express a wide range of things, qualities that are often hidden or disguised in our natures are externalised—made permanent.  The house at Palm Beach is all about how people live in their leisure time, with finding ways to enlarge, deepen and enrich life and everyday with some new unexpected experiences that, in some way, connect us as lone beings with others and with nature.


Bringing it together required considerable skill and dedicated effort by architect and builder with support from an understanding and appreciative client.


                                                                                                            --Philip Drew