Modernism alive & well in Elwood…

  When an enlightened client meets a good architect, the results can be special and have great influence and that's why architects still go to see the famous houses. Where would we be without Falling Water and the Villa Savoye, the Farnsworth and the Eames houses to inspire us?  The power of a great design to persist in the collective imagination is demonstrated by the recently revealed history of the Tugendhat House designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1929; see note(1)

 Houses could almost be called the crucible of architecture because it's where most architects start their careers in their own right and where new ideas are most likely to be tried out; they've always been a place for architects to experiment and each generation restarts the odyssey.

 I was therefore delighted to inspect a new house in Elwood recently where the client and the architect David Vernon are in essence the same person, with no little help from his partner of course!  An opportunity for the architect but it also requires courage to design your own house; there can be no excuses when it's for yourself!  

Marcus Hamilton of MARK ARCHITECTURAL BUILDERS showed me around. This young company has the aim of only working for good design architects and is a new breed of aesthetically sensitive builders; he clearly liked the design and kept pointing out details and vistas for my appreciation.

 Elwood Vernon

 Most journals don't reveal the addresses of houses for privacy reasons, which makes some sense I suppose for everyone else, but that clearly shouldn't apply to me!  I never intrude, but I do like walking or driving past new houses and other buildings being built in my area to get a sense of what's being done by the next generation. This house is on the SE corner of Robert Street and May Street in that area where a bend in the Elwood Canal has caused the street grid to be distorted.   

 This small house tackles the difficult design problem of a house on a small lot surrounded by older suburban houses and low-rise flats.  It replaced an older house in poor repair, and the lot is 450 square metres in area with a frontage to Robert Street of 13.4 metres.

However the site isn't like one of those beach houses on the Mornington Peninsular artfully photographed by John Gollings with no other houses in sight, it has a house close by on one side and a three storey block of flats at the rear.  It has the advantage however of being on a corner so two of the elevations are exposed to view, and because of the width of the streets the surrounding houses are therefore more distant than with a middle-of-the-street site.  The front of the house faces approximately north-west and the long side faces north-east which is pretty much the ideal orientation as far as the sun is concerned.  Every room in this two storey house will get the morning sun in winter.

 There are three bedrooms and one generous and elegant bath-room with a skylight upstairs.  A big tick for bathroom restraint; apart from the cost, I always wonder who cleans those three and a half bath-rooms I see advertised!  The upper floor is smaller than the ground floor and housed in a crisp, timber framed box clad with timber weatherboards painted white in the modern tradition.  The normal open plan living spaces are on the ground floor plus an office for David Vernon Architects at the rear of the house.  This floor is larger than the upper bedroom floor, so the kitchen and laundry on the street side, and office on the next door side project out from under the upper box.  The location of the office means that the two storey part of the house is set back more than the minimum distance from the sunny side of the adjoining house; a thoughtful and neighbourly decision.

 The opportunity has been taken to clad these projecting sections with different materials to articulate them visually from the upper floor.   The front entry door is located in the middle of the plan on the side between the house and the next door neighbour, so visitors to the office will not impinge on the domestic routine.  All large glazed areas have proper external provision for summer shading so all the rooms will either get the sun until the after-noon, or not at all, depending on the season and the weather. Sun protection on the glazed Robert Street elevation is protected from the sun by a large slatted timber screen that can be slid out of the way in winter or whenever this is desirable.

 The house ticks all the environmental boxes; summer shading of windows, double glazing, good insulation of walls and roof, an 22,500 litre underground tank for rainwater off the roof, solar hot water heater, plus ceiling fans and windows placed to encourage natural cross ventilation.  Wiring and provision has been left so photo-voltaic panels to generate some of the power required can be added when this can be afforded. Bravo, although there is something gravely amiss that I have to draw attention to all this.  If we are ever going to become more sustainable (and it's not if but when with the climate changing) these things must become so totally normal that they are taken for granted!

 What else might have been; is anything missing?  I am very keen on roof gardens, they should be mandatory in my opinion.  Sooner rather than later everyone will end up growing some of their own vegetables and there isn't much room at the rear of this house after providing play space for two children. Over the studio-office would be a natural place for a roof terrace and garden; it couldn't be afforded at this stage but could always be added later without much disruption on top of the metal deck roof.  With the climate warming up, being able to sleep outside on roof terraces the way they do in India will become more desirable, and the need for roof gardens is even more important for new houses being built on such small lots.

 This is an intelligent well-designed house in the modernist tradition that sits well in the suburban streetscape AND it was built to a budget.  Vernon has exercised self restraint and avoided that 'young architect syndrome' where their auntie's beach house morphs into an opera house trying to incorporate every good idea they've ever had. It's a straightforward house with good bones, avoids any post modernist touches and is true to itself. That is, it's not a featurist design to use Robin Boyd's terminology, it doesn't try and show off in the street, the designer has simply attempted to find the most elegant way of fitting a certain number of rooms on a particular site and sun orientation.  Harry Seidler put it well when he said,

 'Architecture is not an inspirational business, it's a rational procedure to do sensible and hopefully beautiful things; that's all.

 The appearance of the house has not been predetermined by some aesthetic fancy, it's simply the logical consequence of the planning decisions that have been made, with enough finesse that the house is also a good neighbour to boot!  It's the architectural equivalent of the way mathematicians talk of an 'elegant' solution, solving a problem with fewer equations and more wit!  Bravo, what more can we ask from a modest suburban house?   Our suburbs would be all the better if this unassuming, problem solving modernist approach had taken greater hold, and I look forward to seeing more of David Vernon's work in the future.

Don Gazzard
March 2013

 Note 1:  Readers maybe interested in a recent novel, 'The Glass Room'  written by Simon Mawer; it was one of the contenders for the 2009 Booker Prize.  It 's the thinly veiled story of one of the great European houses of the early Thirties, the Tugendhat House near Brno in Czechoslovakia designed by Mies van der Rohe.  The Jewish owners fled from the Nazis at the start of the war and the house was badly treated by the German army and then neglected by the post war Czech government. It was finally reclaimed by the daughter of the original owners and has recently been restored after 60 years of neglect.  It's a good read about the power of the design of one house on the collective imagination.