The Morning House: Stanwell Park Beach House


By Philip Drew


What colour should a house be in the bush?


Glenn Murcutt once argued in court that since flannel flowers are white, it is a colour is a ‘in harmony’ with the Australian bush.  Just what the connection was between the two was never expounded, and it is a weird argument at the very least.  White includes all the colours of the spectrum.  Black, in contrast, is a non-colour from which all colour is absent.  We see it only because it is a black hole in our vision!


From across the creek, Rob Brown’s latest house at Stanwell Park, it is the absence of colour that is most striking.  Where the surrounding houses vulgarly project themselves, Brown’s design sinks into the hill.


The first example of his all-black palette, or should I say, non-colour approach was the James-Roberson Great Mackerel Beach house.  With its black steel frame, it too retreats into the steep hillside bushland surrrounding it.  The Stanwell Park house continues the same impulse and introduces a number of other important ideas, in timber this time (copper roof, granite stone walls from Bombo near Kiama, spotted gum frame, blackbutt flooring, yellow box cladding, Merbau windows) instead of steel.  This change from steel to timber helps differentiate the more recent house, for one thing, the beam spans are less, making the space less transparent to the outside and the frame heavier.


Timber changes the architectural character.  Stanwell Park is more organic in feeling, and consequently, less Miesian by comparison.  It is also more complex, being for a family of three children instead of for a couple.  But whereas, Mackerel Beach was split in two into a separate upper sleeping and a lower daytime living pavilion, the two functions coalesce in a stepped flying duck composition across the hill.


In Mackerel Beach, the two main pavilions were separate and their axes diverge slightly to give the composition a Picturesque tension, at Stanwell Park, the three pavilions are rhythmically staggered in a way that matches the composition of the Katsura pavilions in the famous 17th century garden at Kyoto.  The interplay of the pavilions, especially theirroofs has an impact somewhat like the flying planes of a pagoda soaring overhead.  The effect is strengthened by the continuous sun hoods at door head height which underline the rhythm of the twisted main roof.  The twisting shape is produced by reducing the width of the roof towards the back, but keeping the height the same.


The space expands diagonally, catching the flow of the contours on plan, though this is less obvious in reality, due to changes in level which disrupt the interconnections between each pavilion but which gives the axis a vertical dimension through the stepped flow.


I have forgotten to mention the entry: this is striking brought about by the difficult access to the house which is at the end of an extremely steep descent (which caused no end of problems for the builder and deliveries) and road that terminates abruptly with no allowance for vehicles to turn.  Rob Brown dealt with this and, in the process, screened out the ugliness of the neighbouring development.  Black granite walls -- an upper thick splayed wall next to the entry ramp access, and lower, below it, a curved wall leads vehicles into the understorey parking area, which had to be wide to allow cars to turn around effectively -- screen out neighbours properties.


The visitor reaches the entry along a raised blackbutt ramp, on the right, a granite stone wall screens the inside living/sitting room, reaching the door, the view in reverse is carefully framed, the roof stretches out overhead and is separated from the black granite under it by a long skewed slot of glass so it seems to float above the vista of headland and ocean.  Once through, the view explodes to include the beach, Stanwell Tops and the sea.


The house is as much about what it shuts out as it is about what it dramatically reveals!   Stanwell Park is a massacre of nature.


Excluded are the upper neighbour, the rear (Brown persuaded the client to plant mature palms behind the outside barbecue/dining deck) and using horizontal yellow box louvres on the north façade, lower views to the north, so only the surrounding bush clad cliffs are visible above the concertina folding doors.


The beach house weekender is such a cliché these days it is a challenge to add anything new to the genre, yet Rob Brown does manage to do so in a variety of ways that respect the beach!


The top level is a spreading wedge that opens itself towards the ocean in front, along its north wall, swinging horizontal yellow box louvres slice the view into thin slivers of colour, above them looms the daunting craggy outline of the Escarpment.  In the morning, since this is an east facing house for summer mornings, the seductive curve of the beach below the balcony is covered in Zen patterned lines of raked sand like some giant open Kyoto garden.


The dining room is three areas in one: a telescoped space that projects the deck into the morning, backed by an enclosed dining space, behind which is a further deck extension is outdoor dining.  The front doors of the dining area can be closed in the afternoon to block the wind if it becomes to strong for comfort.  All this is on a lower level to the kitchen.


The bedrooms are accommodated in a third rear pavilion.  There are views both to the east and sea, and at the rear, up towards the escarpment edge.


As one has come to expect, the details give the house its character and identity.  The timber frame establishes the module and rhythm, white walls infill where they are required and, like Mackerel Beach, there are sun hoods at door head height all round, with glass infill to the underside of the north-pitched corrugated copper roofs that float above the floor decks as separate semi-autonomous gestures.  These slouch roofs are repeated, the eaves being formed by black stained timber slats, to assist ventilation of the roof space.  Consequently, the roofs and hoods become a sonata of black-on-black against the intense blue of sky and the distant misty gleam of sea.


The Illawarra Escarpment breaks from the coast at Stanwell Park and angles inland as it moves south.  There is really no coastal edge here so steep and close is the Escarpment as it plunges into the Tasman.  Consequently, the light is lost very early in the afternoon.  The best time of day is the early morning when the air is still jaw breakingly clear and not yet burning hot.  This is the hour to enjoy the full openness of the house, the intricate meshing of its staggered spaces, as they slip past the eye. 


It is at the hour of golden morning everything exudes a soul clarifying purity and the sea washes its salty breath over the land, and sea swells roll in and dash themselves against the rocks ledges and boulders in sky exploding eruptions of sea spray.  The human pageant seems inconsequential, so small in the company of the sea, so lost in the immensity of space and time, we are humbled.  Architecture acquires a semi-religious dimension in the beach house, that, for all its materialism, its expected genuflections, to hedonism, has become a pantheistic temple.


Robert Brown has designed many such houses on the Pacific edge, you could say that it is his specialty, almost, but not quite, a routine, yet each house reveals an unexpected side to us, something new, as if the possibilities are inexhaustible.  In Australia we are discovering a new way to live, with transparency and openness, a more centrifugal type of space, that reaches out to the universe and so captures some of its wonder.


                                                                                                                    --Philip Drew