Black, Red, and Green All Over
A dramatic house in Australia drew its architectural inspiration from Mies van der Rohe but got its color from fresh tomato sauce.
A two-hour drive from the metropolis of Melbourne, Australia, diverts one from busy freeways to minor roads that lead deep into the Victorian hinterland. This is old country—diggings from the 1850s gold rush pockmark a landscape now devoted to beef cattle, olive trees, and grapevines. Several miles of dirt track running through the dense bush give way to a clearing, and there, against a striated backdrop of old messmate trees (an Australian timber similar to oak), a caravanlike dwelling appears to hover, its rich timber tones and black framework setting up a powerful graphic resonance in this heavily forested context of soft grays and greens.
Architect Jesse Judd designed this house as a weekend retreat for his family. On one level it’s a sleek, modern home, but on another it’s a utilitarian bush shack that celebrates the spirit of the Aussie holiday: Cricket is on television, the adults sit around chatting, and the children scoot around the deck on their bikes. Miesian echoes aside, this is a robust house built for family fun.
Given the remote location, Judd decided to keep construction as simple as possible. In order to minimize the workers needed onsite, for example, he had eight steel portal frames prefabricated—skillfully curved to the desired degree—then trucked through the bush to the clearing. Once these “bones” were erected, the builder filled in the gaps using plywood sheeting, metal decking, corrugated steel, and insulation. “A friend likened the building to a whale, with a rib cage of black steel and flesh of red plywood,” the architect adds, grinning.
The house is self-sufficient except for the power supply it shares with a scattering of farms and bush dwellings in the district. (When the house is unoccupied, the power is shut down altogether.) Rainwater is collected from the roof and stored in two of the largest tanks Judd could find. “We had 30 people here over Christmas and everyone had a shower,” he says with satisfaction, adding that solar power was deemed impractical for hot water, given that the house is either completely empty or teeming with people. The water tanks are raised so that gravity forces water to slosh continually through the covered gutters and downpipes, providing some protection against bush fires.
When planning the house, Judd dug deep into Australia’s cultural memory of lean-to tin sheds and verandas designed for lazy afternoons. With its slanted corrugated-steel roof and timber deck, the bedroom wing recalls the makeshift sleeping quarters of nearby farmhouses. Internally, the plan is very simple: bedrooms and bathroom in a line, linked to the passage via sliding panels. External glass doors slide away to merge the interior hall with the deck and invite cooling breezes. “People have trouble telling which is deck and which is hallway when the house is opened up,” says Judd. The roof continues beyond the extensive north- and west-facing glazing to provide a measure of shading from the sun.
Safety precautions also had a bearing on the design. This area is prone to bush fires—the blackened trunks of nearby trees are a constant reminder—and the forest undergrowth has its fair share of poisonous snakes and other creatures that bite. In response, the building is raised off the ground, hovering above a sea of blue metal gravel strewn around and under the house and along the driveway to act as a firebreak and to prevent the forest undergrowth from encroaching. The wide deck surrounding the house provides a safe, elevated space for the children to play when they’re not going on supervised rambles through the bush.
Refreshingly, Judd has departed from a prevailing school of thought that insists rural dwellings blend sympathetically with the Australian bush. Instead, he imagined his building as a bold insertion, rather than as a sly intruder that must be camouflaged. The glowing interior palette of bright pinks and reds is sharpened by jet-black steel frames, water tanks, and roofs, while black window frames and joinery bring out the red glow of the internal plywood lining. “I asked the people who mixed the red stain to imagine tomato sauce!” he says.
With its bold, hovering form and clean graphic lines, this is a no-nonsense house for a no-nonsense environment.