Twice as Nice
My partner and I were originally looking for a house to renovate, but when we found this block of land, we saw it as an opportunity to make our home here. We purchased it in 1999, and began construction four years later. Initially construction was quite rapid, and we were able to move in fairly quickly. However, completing the project—–putting in all the finishing touches—–took a little longer than we thought, and it was finally done at the end of 2006.
Before moving to Australia in 1990, I was project architect on Norman Foster’s own house, his penthouse in London. It was an ongoing project that seemed to be in a constant state of redesign—–as they say, a shoemaker’s children never own their own shoes—–so I had a particular desire for my own house to be a complete project. In a way I saw this house as an opportunity to set out my architectural principles.
On the outside, we used muted grays of corrugated-steel cladding, but arranged them in various patterns to give some decorative detail as a response to the urban character of the laneway. As a contrast, we wanted the house to feel like something of an oasis inside, and so we used a lot of rich materials like timber and steel, as well as color, to give the interior space a sense of warmth.
The house is very intimate, and there are little things that I think work quite successfully to help this. For instance, the way in which the doors that open into the ground floor living space are made of the same veneer as the wall makes them disappear when closed, and the mirrors in the cabinetry and over the kitchen double the space. We used splashes of color throughout the house to highlight various elements, like joinery units and structural beams, and the primary colored paint we used was mixed precisely to Le Corbusier’s specifications by Katrin Trautwein, a color specialist in Zurich, Switzerland.
Given the incredibly small footprint of the house, I was concerned from the beginning about how to make the living space seem bigger than it really is. It is one of the problems of small houses that the underside of the stairs are often visible, and that that space is rarely very usable. One of the first decisions we made was to move the stairs over the garage, giving it a cave-like feel.
I converted the garage to an office from which I run my architecture practice. I find I am far more productive away from the distractions of an office full of people, so this arrangement suits me very well.
There is a double-height space with windows high above the dining area and a large glass door to the garden, so the space gets a lot of light all day long. We put in glass louvers over the glass sliding door and at the front of the house; the whole space is very well ventilated, which is an important consideration in Sydney’s warm, temperate climate.
Helping this, the rear courtyard, although small, acts like a lung to the house. We decided not to put a wall up between the two duplexes, partly as a sign of neighborly goodwill and also as a way of making the rear courtyard feel bigger. There is a large glass sliding door to the courtyard, and on special occasions we can open up the whole space to the outside. The engineering of the door ended up being more complex than I first anticipated; In the end there are some details that I would change, but overall I am very happy with how it functions.
We chose the furniture specifically for the home. The armchair acts as 0a kind of baseball glove, catching the space and confining it. Originally the Le Corbusier sofa was upholstered in a beige fabric, but it seemed too weak for the space, so we reupholstered it in yellow, and then it seemed to make sense for the rest of the furniture to follow suit in matching primaries. We had the armrest custom-made for the sofa from American walnut.
In a way, the cabinetry and the kitchen are like buildings in the space and people moving through it are like traffic, so I made this wine rack that is like the Arc de Triomphe. It directs the traffic around the space. The model sitting on top of it is of my final design submission at the Royal College of Art, which is where I studied architecture. It was my first serious attempt at a building, and I keep it in the house as a reminder of where this little career of mine began.