Elm & Willow House
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Elm & Willow House

Architects EAT
Earl Carter

When Albert Mo of architectural practice Architects Eat declares that these clients came to him becasue he doesn't do curves and crazy angles, he unwittingly alings himself with one of two factions that fight it out for architectural supremacy on the Melbourne skyline.

He belongs to the Right-angle Rationalists, who hand-draw their details into straight-backed structures made from few materials, unlike the Geometric Expressionists who fold, facet and bend-it-like-Beckham in the colour-bright forms cooked up on the computer.

But Mo, an arch diplomat who steps over any discussion of differences, picks up a model of this house for which he received the 2010 Royal Australian Institute of Architects Victorian chapter award for residential alternations and additions, and says: "See all these strict lines."

Rotating the 1:50 scale model of a freestanding house in Canterbury, Victoria, he lifts the lid on the cardboard construction to show the exact point at which the hip-roofed Edwardian building merges into the flat-topped, rectilinear pavilion of his addition.

"Simple is hard," he says, referring to how much time went into the design of a 'counterpointing' glass and steel structure, the U-shaped plan of which was determined by existing landscape.

"The site was already home to two mature trees that identified the project in the office as the 'elm and willow' house," he says. While the decision was made for a floating pavilion to protect root systems, Mo recalls the owners' concern over the loss of a backyard.

"They came around becasue they had all that space around the trees and a transparent, peel-back perimeter that created an 'inside is outside is inside' environment."

 Yes, he concedes, the addition begs comparsion to the Mies van der Rohe icon that, designed in 1951, still hovers in an Illinois meadow.

"We were really conscious of the similarity to the Farnsworth House but we had our reason for doing it," he says. "Where Mies had the issue of flooding on the site, our platform raising was about protecting tree roots." He cites the coutyard houses of Australian modernist team McGlashan Everist as having seeped into this scheme. "Living in the landscape' is a phase that [David McGlashan and Neil Everist] always used in reference to their projects; I suppose it's subconsciously there in this."

Typifying the owners as a young alternative-living and very design-informed couple - "she is an industrial designer who works in tolerances of millimetres, he is trained in the law" - Coombe says that, as hackneyed as the concept of 'sanctuary'  has become, the owners hoped for its evocation in clutter-free spaces bereft of television and the trappings of status.

"They are less about rooms for entertaining others and more about experimential space. They didn't ask for the usual ensuite to every bedroom," he adds, of the Edwardian front-of-house that was given a hallway extension.

"rather, they were happy with one dark, disconnected, elemental bathroom - situated in the new pavilion's utility wing - where stone, old wharf timber, no windows and one pronounced pool of skylight conspire to bring you back down on earth."

Green was not just the determinant of interior decoration; in its sustainability guise, it was cause for a cross-ventilation system of louvred windows, rainwater harvesting, grid-connect solar panelling, double-glazing and slab insulation. "And for all the carry-on about five-star ratings, whattechnology beats the canopy of deciduous trees that give summer shade and winter light?" asks Mo.

"The concrete structure provides thermal mass to the house. You know, we prototyped all of those." He looks skyward to a ceiling of form-worked concrete panels, the timber texture and alignment of which is so precise that the contractor deserves billing as an artisan. The inflexibility of the ceiling's material required a lot of forethought about fixtures, but the pain was worth it, for the above-head simulation of vitrified timber and the trunk-like march of blackened columns down the site conjure such a feeling of forest immersion that the Mies brand of modernism seems hermetic.

"So much of this project was about the clients' willingness to listen and understand," says Mo. "I don't like throwing around the word 'spiritual', but they are in touch with themselves and the natural world." All of which gives metaphysical meaning to Mo's final comment that he and Coombe were simply floating the idea of an outer landscape becoming an inner one - architecture as salve to the soul.

Extracted from Vogue Living November/December 2010

Words composed by Annemarie Kiely

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