Designing a beach house for three generations of the Ferguson family in rather traditional North Avoca, Australia (50 miles north of Sydney), architects Rachel Neeson and Nicholas Murcutt had big ambitions, staggering the three stories of their new commission up a rocky hillside to maximize views of the ocean. The challenge was proposed by design-savvy doctor Hannah Ferguson, who has been living with sleek modern architecture since she was a girl. Murcutt, son of legendary Aussie architect Glenn Murcutt, was only too happy to find a client with a design pedigree as burnished as his own. Ferguson gives us the tour.
My parents emigrated here from Czechoslovakia after World War II and bought a beach cottage in North Avoca in the late 1960s. It had three tiny bedrooms, and, as teenagers, my kids loved to come up here with all their friends. But when my elderly mother was ill, she and I started talking about building a replacement. Much earlier, my parents commissioned another Czech émigré, the architect Henry Rossler, to design them a home in the modernist idiom in Castle Crag on the northwest side of Sydney Harbor. It’s a bushland suburb where many architects have experimented, starting in the 1920s with the American Walter Burley Griffin. Sadly, my mother died, and we had to sell that house, but her belief in architecture gave me the confidence to tear down the old beach shack and start afresh.
I began by making the rounds of the "exhibition villages" in far western Sydney, looking at ready-made homes. I found them a little depressing and not suited to a site with a rocky hillside behind it. So after seeing Rachel and Nick’s much-praised Box House in the Sydney Morning Herald, I telephoned and told them how all of us, including my sometimes-reluctant husband, James, wanted a bigger weekend house, one that would help us remember a woman who had strong ideas about the importance of design. Even before they drew up any plans, I made sure they went out to visit the Castle Crag house.
With my family expanding—–I have three young grandchildren—–we couldn’t come down from four bedrooms, but the architects didn’t seem to mind squeezing them into the second floor. The guest rooms are small, but by adding sliding doors that open to individual balconies, they expanded the sense of space and allowed for the breeze to come in. In our bedroom in the front, when I roll up the windows, it’s the same. Even on the hottest days, the entire house is cool. We have no need for a big air-conditioning unit like they have next door.
Because Rachel and Nick built up the hill, there are a lot of stairs lurking behind our front door. A thin, running skylight lights the stairwell, making the climb much more pleasurable. Still, when I get older, the stairs may be a challenge. Being a doctor I like to plan ahead, so we added a small bathroom to the downstairs flat, so I can stay there, too.
The top floor reminds me so much of the Rossler house. Rachel and Nick placed the kitchen-dining area at the back with a few steps leading down into the living room. It opens up, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, to a big balcony just the way our living room did at Castle Crag. Its openness means we’re the last people on the street to turn on our lights.
The high-backed plywood banquette along one side of the large dining table is true genius. It helps to separate the two floors, and both it and a similar banquette in the living room provide the type of lolling around feel ideal for a beach holiday.
You’re always told to expect surprises of the monetary kind when you’re building a house. Ours came in the form of the spotted-gum siding, which pushed the total budget to nearly $545,000. But it was worth it to have the house feel as though it’s part of the original landscape. The spotted gum slats that cross the windows on the sides afford privacy but at the same time look like a continuation of the siding. As Nick often tells me, "Remember, they are not cutouts like most windows; rather they look more like a pocket on a shirt." I get to benefit from them—–not feeling like my neighbors are looking through my bathroom window—–but they’re also a smart idea. Like everything else in the house, they’re an expression of sensible, modern living in a place that’s rarely been treated to it. It would have made my mother proud.
David Hay, a New York-based playwright who once lived in a house designed by Richard Neutra has always been interested in how architects design homes that promote easy and comfortable social interaction. He fondly recalls sitting in Williams Massie's house late last summer, surrounded by people old and young, as the conversation got funnier and more outrageous by the minute–a tribute to a design that puts humans, with all their wonderful foibles, first.