Londoner Dave Clayden has gradually adjusted to life in the subtropics, where, as he puts it, “toweling yourself down after a shower is enough to make you start sweating again.” He no longer mistakes steam rising from a road’s surface after a heavy rain for smoke, and he knows that when designing a house “you want to keep the light out and get the air in.”
Yet certain local customs still confound him. “Is sex a no-go area in Queensland?” he asks, a reasonable question, given the oblique inquiries about his glass-walled bedroom and transparent bathroom from neighbors, the builder, the plumber, and the man who sold him a wide, low-backed sofa with the promise it would be the perfect place to enjoy some “sleep.”
A two-story modernist bachelor pad in a big city with a conservative past is always going to test conventions. Brisbane, population 1.6 million, is booming, thanks to an influx of real-estate refugees from expensive Sydney to the south, and the boom has “introduced the idea of living a lot closer to the city—and each other—than people are used to,” Clayden says. Unsurprisingly, the rise of generic residential developments in shades of mushroom and teal has brought about tough heritage regulations.
None of this unnerves the English property developer; after all, the Sunshine State (Queensland to Aussies) has shined on him before. Two weeks into his first visit to Australia eight years ago, he found a parcel of rain forest in the hinterland north of Brisbane and commissioned a three-pavilion kit home by early prefab exponent Gabriel Poole, the only Australian architect Clayden had heard of. When it came time to move to the city in 2004, he penciled in a day to look around. By lunchtime, his work was done—he’d signed a contract and hired an architect. “My life has always been a case of making the most of opportunities when they come up,” says Clayden.
Now he has a plot of subdivided land a scant five minutes’ drive from the center of Brisbane, in a hidden lane befitting a quiet country town: a few new homes interspersed with dilapidated lodgings, unkempt lawns, lean-to sheds, and empty clotheslines. “I did my normal thing,” he recalls, “which is to look at a block of land and think about how it’s going to work…and then I want an architect to give me what I don’t know I want.”
Cue Gerard Lynch, a director of Brisbane firm Kevin Hayes Architects, who arrived at the recommendation of the property’s selling agent. Lynch, also a Londoner, has lived in Brisbane for 17 years, and his job often has him acting as a translator between homeowners and town planners. Clayden was thinking “minimalist Austin Powers”; the council, however, wanted a traditional worker’s cottage that duplicated the houses on the other side of the subdivision. “We argued that because of the mixed bag of housing in the lane, we should be allowed to create new urban forms to suit the way we live here today rather than 100 years ago,’’ Lynch says.
To seal the deal, they reinterpreted historical building elements. The wall cladding made of Australian Colorbond relates to typical corrugated-iron roofing, while the concept of a modernist box was softened by balancing a large second story on top of a smaller ground floor to create an overhang, echoing traditional styles designed to withstand the extreme climate.
Inside, the pair unleashed their fantasies. In Britain, Clayden did tour publicity and management for a promoter working with punk musicians such as Iggy Pop and the Sex Pistols, and his interest in music borders on mania. “Where everyone else would put a TV, Dave has a box that produces music, [along with] plugs and heavy-duty wiring so essentially he can sit in the lounge room and get blasted,” Lynch says.
Upstairs is a large, open, 970-square-foot room with adeck at one end, a bedroom at the other, and a circular, 2001: A Space Odyssey–style bathroom in the middle, which serves to break the space “rather than having it read as a series of boxlike rooms,” as Lynch says. The bathroom’s other, by no means secondary, purpose is to enhance the room’s acoustics—“reducing any tendency for echoing,” notes Clayden. Standing guard are two slim speakers as tall as bridge pylons.
Behind the curve, the orange-on-orange bathroom shares a glass wall with the bedroom. With a bank of windows on the external wall, only two rows of fabric stand between Clayden and, well, the whole neighborhood. “I guess if you lie on the bed, you can see the toes of someone on the toilet. People thought, You can’t shower here,” says Clayden. “We just close the blinds!”
The glass also serves to make the bedroom feel larger than it is. A housing code requires homes of 4500 square feet or fewer to be set back from neighboring boundaries by five feet at the sides and about 20 feet at the back, so Lynch used the full permitted width of the house to avoid compromising space.
Downstairs are signposts of the single man: a garage for one, a pond where there is easily space for a small pool, a gingham-free kitchen that’s roomy but more like a transit lounge in which to grab a drink before heading upstairs. “There is just no way this is a family house,” says Clayden. “I’m single, I have no children, I have no wife. I’m coming up on 55 and I’m looking at what I want to do for the rest of my life. This house is meant to be relaxed.”
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.
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