Balmain Point is one of Sydney’s suburbs that is largely coastline. It is a wide peninsula severed from the landmass of the city by Victoria Road, an arterial stretch of dusty tarmac that otherwise connects the central business district with the west. Balmain is densely populated with terrace housing, small cottages, and industrial waterfront buildings; it is the kind of area whose working-class roots and bohemian characters make it ripe for gentrification. Indeed, over the last few years, the Balmain peninsula has seen a great deal of development. Much of its industrial heritage has disappeared, and the lean, economically planned housing stock has grown fat with multiple renovations.
However, the southern edge of the area has held its own much more gracefully than the north. In the north, Balmain Power Station once rivaled the south’s White Bay Power Station for sheer awesomeness, with Constructivist conveyer belts spanning hundreds of meters at just the right angle to suggest that this, sir, would be the perfect venue for a major museum of contemporary art—but Balmain’s station was instead knocked down to build apartments and townhouses of insulting banality.
Starting at the still-standing remnants of White Bay Station (its majesty prompting every citizen to hold an opinion on its proper reuse: It ought to be a school, a maritime museum, a fish market), past the open concrete apron that greets and unloads large freighters full of automobiles assembled in South Africa, and on to the water-police headquarters, the industrial fringe of Balmain finishes at a small public reserve. Overlooking this reserve is a small stone building, originally a gunpowder store and now the residence of architect Brian Zulaikha and artist Janet Laurence.
The store sits at the end of an extremely narrow pathway. Not only did this make construction difficult, it rules out having the newspaper delivered, and it also necessitates an approach to the house on foot—a slow and measured arrival that sets the tone for the house itself.
“I’ve actually lived on this street for 30 years, in three different houses,” says Zulaikha. “It’s charming and often used as a film set. I originally lived on a hill in a place that I subdivided, so I always knew this was here. Of course, there was no park here then, and it was used as a rubbish tip for the maritime services, but we used to climb through a hole in the fence and take the dog for walks around the area. When it came up for sale—it was owned by a chap in Los Angeles, incidentally—I knew it had potential.”
Zulaikha and Laurence bought the property, built a kitchen, and camped downstairs for two years before undertaking any major work on the house. During this time, they planned their impending extensions. “I was determined that as much of it would be as open as possible,” Zulaikha states, something they achieved through a series of sliding glazed doors that allow the outdoor rooms to be open, closed, and all variations in between.
The original masonry building establishes a general arrangement for the rest of the house, with kitchen and dining areas downstairs, living and bedroom above. A timber veranda is wrapped around two sides of this stone core, where an internal stair also doubles as a library, complete with built-in sofa and custom artwork. Poking its head out to the side, with a scrubby mop of greenery for a wig, there is a small bathhouse.
When I arrive, it is from up a series of staggered steps under the veranda, each step a separate concrete plinth, individually cast, they explain, with great difficulty. At the top is a space that seems to characterize much of this small house: open-air, covered overhead, and with external operable walls that might be closed for protection against the southerly winds while still maintaining a sense of being outside. “This sort of thing happens all the time,” says Zulaikha. “Are you inside or are you outside? Well, on a cold day, you know you are outside!”
Although the house faces south—this being the southern hemisphere, where the sun strikes from the north—Zulaikha was not perturbed. “We lived in two houses while we built this one, and both of them had courtyards that faced north. We couldn’t stand the heat. There were no screens, and the dog was out there sweltering because there was no shade to protect it. So I got to hate that direction a little bit! We did open the roof to catch some of the northern sun, though.”
Zulaikha gestures to the window at the rear of the deep kitchen bench, looking west to the ANZAC Bridge, when he points out that the house is also now the venue for a fortnightly film club. Local film-industry friends bring around prerelease copies of movies. “We do a lot of entertaining, actually,” Zulaikha says, “so the kitchen is a real focal point, and it opens out to this great view.”
The house is also full of art. “There’s nothing terribly directed about it, really, just things we have accumulated over the years,” Zulaikha tries to explain—but he is somewhat unconvincing, given the wide array on display. Artwork by Jonathan Jones, in particular—purchased by the square meter and composed of lightbulbs and electrical cabling woven through the wall—dominates the stair landing while a cabinet at the top of the stairs holds a thousand wonders. After all, Janet Laurence herself is an artist, her work concerned with transparency, biology, memory, and the ephemeral.
While the house embodies the principles of her art practice in the thinness of its edges, changing surface qualities, and ability to capture the memory of its occupants through the accumulation of marks on its internal surfaces, like a rudimentary computer, Laurence has contributed to the house directly in at least two instances.
First is a set of painted sliding doors that leads to the upstairs living area. In contrast to the solid timber detailing, which has resonance with the home’s sturdy industrial context, these glazed doors are washed with a light, milky paint—creating shadows suggestive of the ever-changing light off the harbor or of a guest sleeping on the veranda.
The second is a single piece of glass that marks the end of a wall in the downstairs bathroom, a far less obvious mark to leave and much more delightful as a result. As Zulaikha explains, the small brick wall leading into the bathroom was the only new masonry wall in the house; wanting an entirely glass bathhouse, Laurence was not supportive of the crudeness of a painted brick wall. In the end, the wall stayed, but a thin piece of clear glass was propped in place at the end of it. The glass is separated from the brick face by only an inch, suggestive of a glitch or a stray CAD line that was not deleted, describing an alternative endpoint for the wall.
The vertical timber elements on the veranda, while certainly an effective visual filter, are equally important in embedding the house within its context of harborside industrial infrastructure.
The steady march of the wharf pilings on the opposite side of the harbor, as seen through these screens, knits the house into its context. “Janet and I wake up every morning, look out over our feet, and take note of the changing color of the harbor,” says Zulaikha. “It is remarkable that it can change from day to day, from lilac to blue to green to pink.”
This might be a house of movable walls and ever-changing screens, but it is this constant relationship with its site that binds the house to its city—and its owners, in turn, to it.