Their new primary home (and HQ for their practice, Bellemo & Cat) in Melbourne is a funky, split-level cube wrapped in an extraordinary printed facade. Macleod describes the making of an eccentric, multifunctional, personal sanctuary.
We definitely didn’t want to renovate something. We wanted to start from scratch so it’s all totally personalized. When we found the land, we actually liked the grungy nature of it in the back of a laneway. It was small, affordable, and instantly an architectural challenge. And we loved the fact that it was north-facing, with nothing north of us that would block our view. There are lots of artists and it’s a busy working place, so we thought we could also run a business from here.
We had to work quickly because it’s a big mortgage. We were the builders as well. Michael physically built the Cocoon house at Wye River; having never built a house before, he took on a building that was completely round, on a cliff, and two-and-a-half hours from anywhere. Totally mad. And it took us a long time, three or four years.
That house is so sculptural you could virtually say it is a sculpture in the bush, whereas this house is much more pragmatic. It’s a big rectangle with a print on it. And with all the green, it’s very peaceful in here. It’s a bit tropical, like being in an artificial garden in some ways.
As sculptors, we actually build quite big things that don’t have to be signed off as buildings, so we get to play around with form, and that’s great because we feed that information back into our practice.
We had a lot to put in the house: Our office, two kids, offsite parking, and we had to get a balcony or some sort of outdoors area. But it never feels like you’re in a box because of all the level changes. We’ve got a garage between the office space and the home, and we’ve got two separate doors. It’s like Get Smart. You go through one door, close it, then you go through the other door, and then you’re in the office. Just having the garage in between gives you a buffer, from an acoustic point of view and the physical distance.
Instead of putting the living areas on the ground floor we put them on the upper floors so you get the light and the view and the sense of removal from the immediate environment.
We wanted the kids in our living space but not in our face, not under our feet. We were in a terrace house before, and the lounge room was covered in children’s toys. The kids are four and six, and here they’re within eyeshot. Their room is a little bit of a den, and they have their own deck out there. We were going to have them sleeping in some sort of pod, then we realized it was a bit too close. The little people’s bedroom downstairs is tiny, but they’re tiny people. And they’re happy there. When they grow, we’ll probably go up to the next level. Our older child, who is 19, lives around the corner, but she stays here sometimes. She takes over the garage and makes costumes; she’s into performance.
As architects we often design split-levels, but we haven’t done stairs that are also seats like here. They’ve become an important transition space from the grown-up zone. The kids are always here reading, doing puzzles. Yesterday, I sat here with our youngest one, Flora, and we polished our fingernails.
One of the advantages of being the owner-builder and also the way that we work is that we allowed ourselves a reasonable amount of flexibility. But there are only three materials in the whole house—–the Laminex is the same, the tiles are the same, and the exterior cladding comes inside through the walls. And there are three paint colors—– white, turquoise, and apple green. It is so much clearer when you’ve just got the one exterior material.
Using Astroturf outside on the deck was a cost issue. Also, there’s too much traffic for what would be a small strip of grass. Our kids are running up there all the time, and Michael plays bocce.
We’ve arranged the house just how we like it, and it’s the warmest, lightest house I’ve ever lived in. You know, we could have bought an amazing painting, but we chose to make our own artwork of the whole building instead.
Karen Pakula is a staff writer at the Sydney Morning Herald. After 15 years of her own home renovations—on one old terrace, with one old husband, a builder—she headed to Melbourne, Australia, for a tutorial in pragmatic, economical modernism from ultra-creative couple Cat Macleod and Michael Bellemo. Pakula returned with a valuable lesson she plans to pass down to her children: The smartest way to build a dream home is to start from scratch.