Lake House by Casey Brown Architecture


By Philip Drew


Set on the western edge of a placid lake facing east towards the coast, and a line of extinct volcanic cones that serve as ocean sentinels, Robert Brown’s Lake House is a purely summer dwelling. While the locale suggests a lifestyle more like that found in the USA or Canada, or perhaps Finland, than your typical Australian beach, its six small pavilions feel like an African safari encampment. Hoisted on top of its rugged wharf-like platform and set back from the water, it is an amphibian structure, a house on land designed to survive a flooded landscape.


At once rustic and refined the wharf repeats the materials and basic construction of a jetty using recycled turpentine piles recovered from Sydney Harbour. The same recycled piles have been driven into the mud with beams cut roughly into the pile-heads and capped, and thick 75 mm hardwood deck planks form the platform out of reach of the tide. On the deck, Brown has placed extremely beautiful open pavilions consisting of dining/living, master bedroom, bath, kid’s bedroom, kitchen, and guest pavilion beside the entry ramp; grouped around a common area with a seventh shed for the boat by itself to the north of the main group.


The inspiration for this little village was, Brown says, “a bar surrounded by rammed-earth walls, poles and hessian roof (made from jute)” on the upper Niger River in West Africa. The client requested the house for occasional use in summer so it was designed to maximise the holiday experience and to be as different as possible from a normal suburban house with all its mod-cons and conveniences. The notion of the floating roof and walls was the “first kick-off” Brown explains. The roof and poles are missing from the central space but the idea of an informal village of six timber pavilions sheltered under flying roofs survived.


But the “dead-flat site” is subject to inundation, so Brown’s solution was to construct a wharf-like platform that allows the lake to flood the site at high tide. In this respect it is reminiscent of the famous Japanese Itsukushima Shrine built over an inlet on Miyajima, south of Hiroshima, which alternately floods or is stranded in mud flats depending on the tide and, like the shrine, consists of two parts, the corridors and decks, with the shrine pavilions mounted on top.


The intention, Brown says, was to create “pavilions with an open-out feel that would invite the bush around them in. They would completely lack a domestic character and go back to the basic thing.” Brown recalls the 1950s and ‘60s beach shacks: “What stuck with me was the simplified accommodation – the one- or two-rooms. It was much more about being outside, and left a strong memory of the place in my head even now, years later.”


The pavilions blend in with and are hidden by the grey surrounding bush of ancient paper barks and mature trees rising from a carpet of green grass kept down by the kangaroos. The large piles and wharf timbers, possess the same character as the ferry wharf at Great Mackeral Beach where Brown lives, even down to the simple shed at the end for shelter against rain.


“Mackeral Beach is part of a national park north of Sydney and the occasional access is via boat. I suppose part of the design for the Lake House is a subconscious assimilation, through continual arrival and departure, of these robust, beautiful structures that are prevalent in every cove of Sydney harbour. And we architects are fortunate that the government regularly pulls up these pylons, well before their time, providing a constant supply of seasoned timber.


“But the footprint itself was all about the little village – little hilltop villages and the left over spaces between the houses that allow the sun in and provide views across the landscape to the outside. A little building is more like a town – an enforced engagement with nature.”


An in-situ concrete fireplace is bent away from the prevailing sea wind like the many coastal trees. Planted outside the dining/living pavilion but reaching inside, it anchors the pavilion to the floating village and an adjoining external sitting area in the central space. Two ramps, one leading up from the landward approach, the other, on the east side, leading down to the water are offset around a large stone which doubles as a seat in front of the fireplace, their offset axes miss each other which causes the vista to skip sideways as it rushes past to the water.


The mood of simplicity and raw, elemental construction established by the recycled government wharf piles and thick, wharf planks is reinforced by the industrial metal louvres and metal siding around the buildings. Against this rugged, almost aggressive, response to the site, the Danish oiled spotted-gum flooring, glass louvres, and elegant timber details inside, create a pineapple-like contrast between the outside skin and the interior flesh of the architecture. At night the roof itself appears to float as a translucent gap between the walls and roof is illuminated from inside like a glowing, light filled collar.


Australians are fixated on the beach; the country appears to live on or near it. Rob Brown’s Lake House is a refreshing riposte to all that. It offers an alternative idyll, with its inviting gesture of lake retreat and solitude quite separate from the world of beach exhibitionism.


Philip Drew has just completed The New Tent for Thames & Hudson.