John Mainwaring's architecture is best known for its muscularity, tropical livability and lively aesthetic. With this ambitious project - the extension and refurbishment of a tum-of-the-century homestead and a series of partly derelict farm buildings - he elevates intellectual rigor and architectural vision to uncompromising heights. Part of the challenge came from his clients, a German baron and his Australian-bom wife, whose sophisticated taste and request for dynamic, contemporary Australian architecture made him "question every move", says Mainwaring.
The brief was based around the old timber homestead, built in 1890 by the pioneering Pickering family, and one of the first in the Kenilworth area of the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Mainwaring saw his responsibilities as twofold: as the consultant architect to fulfil his clients' vision, and as the representative of the local branch of the National Trust to honour the property's history. Indications were that, despite evidence of previous termite activity, the homestead the decision was later "to clout us in the back of the head", he recalls. The clients required an extension of the living spaces for their personal use, plus additional accommodation on the property for family and friends - all the high level of personal comfort to which they were accustomed, but without the imposition of a European aesthetic. Marrying the informality of the traditional Australian farm structure with the husband's familiarity with European classical form, Mainwaring developed the notion of the 'rural colonnade' - buildings, old and new, linked physically or visually to form a wide, crescent shape. "In a historical sense, the Australian farmhouse was the starting point and the rest of the structures were 'outbuildings' connected by spaces, fences, trellises and utilities," he explains.
The situation of the old Pickering homestead, on a ridge surrounded by bunya pines, lent itself to the idea and Mainwaring's interpretation of the traditional spirit. The new structures are essentially single-room pavilions with verandas, connected to the old buildings but allowing the visual integrity of the homestead's exterior to be retained. Timber walkways link the guest pavilion (accommodation for family and friends some distance away), the old house and the new extension, and contained within the colonnade's semicircular arc is an informal courtyard surrounding a lagoon-style swimming pool that was constructed by previous owners of the property.
Like much of Mainwaring's work, the buildings touch the ground lightly and landscaping is minimal. Paving is "just a shard, an incision into the grass, but that's about all", he comments. The old house remains the focal point of both the architecture and the ethos of the rural colonnade. It retains a central role in the living spaces, with the extension providing a spacious overflow for its narrow confines. Cues were taken from a gabled 1940s addition to the old house, and Mainwaring adopted this rhythm for the extension, creating a long, low structure that ends in a tower. A covered breezeway, enclosed with insect screening, connects the extension to the earlier addition.
The new section, which has a gently curving south wall echoing the crescent theme, has two levels. On the upper level, the breezeway leads to a light and airy, curvilinear kitchen, which opens to a deck. Downstairs are utility areas - an indoor/outdoor room, laundry,. spa and a fireproof concrete box used as storage for vehicles and fire-fighting equipment. Upstairs in the end tower is a spacious main bedroom and ensuite. The curving wall of the extension adds a protective landscape-like element to the new building and offers a contrast to the rigid geometry of the old homestead.
On completion of the extension, the old house was tackled and, when work began, the damage was found to be worse than anticipated, with the structure proving almost completely suspect. Mainwaring's solution was to install an internal steel support frame. "So, from outside it looks like it always did, but from the inside it's remarkably different," he says. "As the old walls came away, a beautiful transparency started to take place." The old low, flat ceilings were replaced with hoop pine that follows the angled roofline.
The small rooms which made up the square plan of the house have been almost completely removed, with the exception of two bedrooms to one side which were retained and refurbished as studies for the owners. The space remaining has become a light-filled, open-plan living and dining area, divided by sliding screens made from refilled bunya pine recycled from the old house's wall linings. A bar and a small bathroom have been installed on what was originally the back veranda.
Building materials are rustically simple but sophisticated - stainless steel, Mini-Orb and slatted timber - while furniture was also selected for its solidly Australian qualities. The client's commitment to the contemporary Australian aesthetic, so evident in the resolution of his house and his belief in getting the best out of the region he is in, means it is unlikely that he will bring in furniture from his extensive travels.
Mainwaring says: "The extension is an abstraction of utility outbuildings. It relates more to the 'chook-shed ruin' than to the old rural homestead, which was built on an introverted concept and to protect against the elements, marauding tribes and bushrangers. In contrast, the new architectural work is extroverted, airy, and opens up new vistas." This rambling house is at turns climatically and physically comfortable, intellectually challenging and architecturally satisfying. It represents, perhaps, a high point in Australia's timber-and-tin evolution, which is both contained in, and extended by, its legacy.