Behind a tall, blank white wall in South Yarra, a house originally designed by Arts and Crafts architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear had been left in a state unbefitting its history. It was remodelled late last century but not well, and its sloping topography ran down, away from the street and away from the sun. Yes, it sat on a huge tract of land in a wonderful location. Yes, it had an enviable architectural heritage. But no, it wasn’t a nice home.
After more than three decades in practice, architect Allan Powell has faced a good many such challenges. His response here is a consummate reconciliation of existing building, new structure and site. The house as it now stands, wrapped around a naturalistic and verdant garden and Hollywood-esque pool, seems neither old nor new, despite the fact that it is both.
In a house this large, it’s difficult for both visitors and writers to know where to start, but the central outdoor space provides a fitting entree. The pool, the garden and a new rear wing represent a remarkable transformation of the cursed south-facing slope. Even Allan is lost for words to describe the site’s initial inadequacy. “I’ve been trying to come up with a word for this kind of thing for thirty years,” he says, “but I haven’t been able to. It’s just nothing.” And he’s right. The land ran away from the house and the sun – it was largely unusable and almost permanently mired in shaded gloom.
Interestingly, disorientation is an important factor inside as well. The original house is notable for its aversion to ninety-degree angles and consistent patterns of circulation. This begins at the threshold and continues throughout. Any sense of coordinates or compass bearings is abandoned in favour of a proliferation of surprising internal and external views: almost every room offers a different garden view, although not always of the garden that may have been expected. The amount of visual art on the walls heightens the effect, with reflections creating mock windows from framed and glazed paintings.
Whether or not this particular visual trickery is intentional, the client brief did demand careful accommodation of an extensive collection of art. In many ways, the front rooms of the house are as much art gallery as lounge or sitting room. The owners are avid collectors and active supporters of emerging artists, and their collection imbues the house with a particular personality.
The interior, by Allan Powell and Margie Bromilow (MBA Design), who had completed alterations and additions to the owners’ previous home, allows room for this personality to be seen and understood clearly. It is predominantly white and clear of any significant ornamental detail, and only one feature dares to compete with the works on display: a striking, asymmetrical marble fireplace that is surrounded by art but could certainly be thought of in the same way.