Constructing Common Ground

September 2021
First published in: Barbara 

Words by Aaron Peters

As a Brisbanite, one of the most memorable impressions of my time spent wandering historic neighbourhoods of European cities, those built upon repeated typological models like the terraced houses of London’s inner west, Barcelona’s Eixample district or Paris’ Haussmann era apartments, is the palpable and unifying presence of urban decorum. Structures gathered in compact assemblies where open space has been neatly claimed and marshalled into regular volumetric proportions. Even when order breaks down and ruptures appear, there seems to be a sense of what is absent, and with it, an understanding of how the urban condition might be made whole. In the midst of all of this we find the façade at its most potent: situating people, mediating relationships, managing climate, and proclaiming identity. This is urbanism as Western (and many Eastern) traditions have long understood it, a city wrought of brick and stone.

Our practice deals in sub-urbanism, one fashioned from weatherboard. In Brisbane’s historical inner suburbs, collective space pools loosely between inconstant, shifting frontages, leaks out in the margins beneath buildings and spills freely into driveways between unit blocks. Distant vistas slip in and out of view over pointy tin roofs and open up at street intersections where ridge roads fall away across undulating terrain. Open space is frequently unaccounted for, casually and habitually appropriated for informal social and industrious purposes. Collective architectural decorum yields easily to individualism. Each detached house gradually departing from the common rule until historical commonalities are barely legible beneath the sediment of successive modifications and demolitions. Likewise, more modern apartment buildings behave as autonomous entities; material, form and composition driven by a desire to maximise yield and promote saleable commodities in an open marketplace rather than emulating their ground-hugging, street forming counterparts in Europe.

Louis Kahn’s sketch of a street as ‘a room by agreement’ with walls composed of flanking buildings and a ceiling of sky could not have been modelled on a suburban Brisbane street. Our façades can be looked past, buildings viewed in the round. Our suburban condition operates with a different set of parameters, characterised by eclecticism, depth and layering. Urban detritus collects in the margins: front fences, wheelie bins, carports, and fruit trees. A city spread out over too large a canvas, composed of parts better suited to forming a big country town. We sit on the back steps, not the stoop.

Setting the terms for how the domestic life of Brisbane’s inner suburban domiciles will interact with the street feels more like an open negotiation between each suburban allotment and its context. When there’s more open space to address, where will the social life of the dwelling be situated? Will it be on the front balcony, the side verandah, in a rumpus room under the house, a patio on the roof or under a tree in the backyard? How can a new building draw upon the pre-existing character of the streetscape when formal legibility is contested before it has had a chance to emerge? In a suburban context, the ‘façade’ might be thought of less as a building elevation, and more as an ensemble of all the physical features located between the kerb and the front wall of the house. We might even expand this definition to include glimpses of spaces beyond, beside and beneath the buildings. Likewise, public open space is not confined to the street, the piazza or the bazaar – a good deal of the civic life of the city resides in the ‘private’ backyard.

As structural and formal coherence breaks down, the role of the façade as the as the principal device for mediating between the public life of the private dwelling and the public life of the street gives way to a different set of imperatives. Our approach as architects has been to spend less time composing façades and more time seeking to evoke particular spatial conditions and contrive new relationships between rooms and open spaces. Once we settle upon a specific strategy, we work backwards to discover the most suitable architectonic expression via material selection and construction detailing. We can’t always rely on neighbouring buildings of variable quality and preservation for guidance. More often, we are obliged to draw from fragments of inspiration found scattered across the city, represented in books or gleaned from references sourced from abroad.

To give an example, our alterations and additions at the Wilston Garden Room do little to the street elevation beyond a new coat of paint. Internally however, we flipped the living and sleeping arrangements to establish an enfilade of ‘public rooms’ on the north-eastern side of the house. The reconfiguration improved access to natural daylight, encouraged passive ventilation, and permitted enhanced visual, physical and auditory connections with the street, garden spaces, and the expansive suburban outlook at the rear of the site.

In developing an architectonic language for Wilston Garden Room, we sought to incorporate materials and forms that could amplify the underlying design intent. Our principal focus was the ‘garden room’ – a new volume aiming to occupy a liminal territory ‘between’ the house and the backyard. As such, we deliberately downplayed the exterior form of the building by making the entire rear elevation an outsized aperture that could be folded open. In doing so, we hoped to invite a reading of the internal walls as external surfaces. Like an over-scaled niche in a garden wall housing a sculptural figure, the ‘garden room’ book-ends the open space and presents a collection of potted plants, a dining table and a set of accompanying stools as kinetic ornaments to adorn the backyard.

The ‘garden room’ is lined in 235x19mm square dressed finger-jointed Radiata Pine boards, a product widely available from Bunnings Warehouse. Like the ‘VJ’ boards out of which the wall and ceiling linings of most traditional buildings in Brisbane are composed, these surfaces will expand and contract with seasonal variations, joints opening and closing. The boards are laid horizontally over a partially exposed stud frame intended to emulate the expressed structural aesthetic of the original timber house, profiled with decorative cut-outs that reveal their thickness, and folded out to serve as a display shelf and bench seat.

An encounter with Wilston’s ‘garden room’ is intended to elicit memories, recollections of other rooms, surfaces and atmospheric conditions belonging to the vernacular building traditions of the region and that are instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Queensland architecture. In our retelling, these traditions are refashioned with a contemporary sensibility and overlaid with allusions to Finnish architectural figuration and lessons gleaned from an Egyptian loggia. References that need not be explained, but that alert us to spatial and decorative possibilities and can be woven into the prevailing local narrative. This approach continues as we work through all components of the building: window fenestration, handrails, gutter profiles, cabinetry, etc. until there’s nothing left to resolve.

Like most architects, we’re seeking to establish decorum in the ways that are available to us, participating in a collective project to negotiate how we will choose to value, occupy and frame open space in the city. The architectural strategies and devices that we use to achieve this vary from project to project, circumstance to circumstance. As a result, the forms, figures and compositions that appear in our work are indebted to both local spatial patterns and borrowed international references that provide clues for how specific, circumstantial spatial problems can be resolved. We’re seeking an adaptable, loose kind of specificity, one that can account for the variable, shifting and delightful vagaries of the suburban condition.