Burszyten House
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Burszyten House

Iwan Iwanoff
Tony Nathan

The (one and only) Total Iwanoff Tour compiled by Duncan Richards lists 39 houses designed by the J. I LC Bulgarian-born architect. Last year while visiting Perth I set out to visit several houses in the suburb of Dianella. Two on my itinerary had been identified by Iwanoff as significant works: they were the Bursztyn House (1969) designed for the architect's favoured electrical contractor, and the Kessell House (1975) designed for friends of a previous client. Iwanoff had been trained as an architect in Europe, arriving in Perth in 1950. In those early years, he found employment with Krantz and Sheldon before eventually establishing his own practice.

Iwanoff is primarily known for his concrete block houses although he designed a considerable number of high quality buildings (see MONUMENT Residential Special 2005) that did not use this material. Apart from their unusual external appearance the blockwork houses reworked many aspects of the ubiquitous suburban home.

Iwanoff saw architecture as an art form and this view certainly shaped the way he designed. His drawn records (archived in the WA State library) reveal an obsessive attitude towards detail and the crafting of buildings, where every component had its place. He had areputation for working long hours on site, evolving and refining details during the construction process.

Meeting the present owners of these houses was a revelation. They seemed to share a passion for their homes that would have pleased Iwanoff. Both families have recounted similar experiences of how they came to eventually own and live in an Iwanoff-designed house. The Shields, now owners of the Kessell House, discovered Iwanoff's work shortly after returning to Perth after several years in Finland where they visited buildings designed by Alvar Aalto. Back in Perth they discovered an Iwanoff house that seemed to resonate with their new found appreciation for Modern design. So they began to visit as many Iwanoff houses they could find, enquiring if the owners would like to sell: but none were prepared to do so. Eventually, when the Kessell House came onto the market they made sure it became their family home.

The Shield family is in the process of slowly restoring aspects of their home as some areas are in disrepair. There had also been alterations, undertaken by previous owners, notably an addition by Julius Elischer. However, much of the house remains in its original condition. The intricate street facade is a piece of classic Iwanoff detail design. We can see an echo of the classical tradition in architecture, through the use of the loggia masking its L-shaped plan. Similar ordering systems can be seen in the Iwanoff House and the Paganin House (both in Floreat Park). The Shields have a passion for Modern design from the post-war period and during their time in Finland collected furniture and glassware by Alvar Aalto, along with porcelain and cutlery. Much of their collection is housed in the extensive built-in cabinetwork designed by Iwanoff, and according to their neighbour - a close friend of Iwanoff - the original cabinetwork cost more than the building shell!

The Baxters purchased their house from the original owners. Apparently Morrie Bursztyn, the original owner, had given Iwanoff the room sizes and then "left him to it". The house has an elegant plan that is organised on a four-foot gridded module that orders the rooms and facades. The concrete blockwork has been painted and it is unclear if this was undertaken with the approval of Iwanoff. The Bursztyn House was one of the early concrete block houses and shows a restrained use of the material in comparison to the more ornamental surfaces of the Kessell House. The wedge-shaped volume of the house, defined by the long raking roof and stepped section is a form type that was explored in other earlier houses by the architect, such as the Golowin and Flauman houses (both in Coolbinia). Like the Shields, the Baxters have a fine collection of furniture and artworks dating from the post-war period, but they have chosen to collect works by Australian designers and artists.

The Kessell and Bursztyn houses share common features that were particular to Iwanoff-designed houses. His houses performed very well in the hot summer months due to the design of novel vents in the extensive window walls. This allowed excellent cross-ventilation once the sea breeze arrived. Eaves and screen walls were also used to create pockets of shade around the building perimeter, and sometimes sprinkler systems were installed in these zones to cool the passing air as it entered the interior. There is also a spatial character to the houses that is derived from the use of continuous flowing space to unify the living areas. This would then be modulated by screen partitions, built-in cabinet work and sometimes through the articulation of the ceiling and floor plane. So the living areas have a permeable quality where one is always aware of adjacent spaces and activities, avoiding the feeling of separation that would have resulted from traditional walled-in rooms.

Not surprisingly the Shields and Baxters have become friends, united by their common interest in Iwanoff and his architectural work. They have visited many Iwanoff houses, meeting other owners and have discussed the possibility of forming a network, pooling their shared knowledge of his buildings. Another desire is to see his work receive the appropriate recognition it deserves in a comprehensive study, exhibition and publication. They have also befriended George Kosturkov, a Bulgarian-born artist and close friend of Iwanoff. Both families have acquired sculptures by Kosturkov, proudly displaying them within their houses. Several years ago Mark Baxter was alerted to the imminent demolition of a hairdressing salon that he believes was an Iwanoff interior. He attended the demolition sale salvaging several castings that had been used as screens in the salon - but more importantly, these had been designed by Kosturkov. These are now re-assembled into a fish-shaped motif, hanging on a concrete block screen wall at the Bursztyn house - to the delight of Kosturkov.

When the Baxters were recounting their experience of moving in to their new home they explained that they did not see the acquisition of their house as "an asset, but an acceptance of the responsibility or duty of care for a piece of art". This sense of custodianship is also shared by the Shield family. Iwanoff could not have wished for more.

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