The love of craft is seen in the hand-made objects and gizmos that feature strongly in Wardle’s buildings, and here too at Bass Coast House. The next Fin Magazine is out on August 19.
Bass Coast Farmhouse creator John Wardle is framed by the shutters that protect the home from often brutal winter weather and searing summer sun. Sean Fennessy
When John Wardle was accepted into his first year of architecture at RMIT, he was also offered a place in the school of industrial design. “I spent a few weeks of that summer agonising over which direction to take,” he recalls. “Eventually I chose architecture, but the love of industrial design has never left me.”
At Bass Coast Farmhouse, Wardle’s latest creation on the dunes behind a 12-kilometre stretch of pristine East Gippsland coast, a set of black wheels attached to worm drives sit near the windows. Turned by hand, they open the shutters that keep the dwelling secure when it’s uninhabited, on its 66-hectare patch of coastal heath.
“The human hand opens the whole thing up,” the architect says with a glow of wonder in his voice.
Wardle has designed a symphony in timber, which clads the walls, floors and ceilings of the house. Sean Fennessy
It’s a sensory experience – hand on steel and a bit of elbow grease – and a ritual of arrival; and, of course, a crafty solution to the problem of how to ensure the shutters protect the cosy, inward building from the belting winter wind and rain. “This is the coldest, windiest corner of Victoria,” Wardle offers as he walks around the house.
The clients are a couple of Wardle tragics. They own a Melbourne townhouse designed by him, as well as his Robin Boyd award-winning Fairhaven Beach House, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, with 180-degree Bass Strait views.
Long acquaintance has schooled them in the benefits of a “loose” brief that gives Wardle plenty of space to do his inimitable thing. This extends beyond the architecture to having the architect furnish the house for them, choose the artworks, even “helping out”, to use Wardle’s words, with the choice of ceramics.
The result is an Australian take on the Germanic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of domestic art.
Set among dunes in East Gippsland, Bass Coast Farmhouse has been shortlisted in this year’s World Architecture Festival. Sean Fennessy
At Bass Coast Farmhouse, Wardle designed not only the queen bed in the main bedroom but the cloth bedheads. The dining room table, too, is his work.
It’s been designed with a sliding serving board in the centre and legs that penetrate the tabletop, leaving a circle-touching-circle at the exposed joint. This pattern, says Wardle, is a riff on the windows at Phoenix gallery in Sydney, which he designed for philanthropist Judith Neilson.
Hanging on the wall near the dining table are paintings by Tiwi Islands artists Dino Wilson and Timothy Cook. “The practice has a very close relationship with the Tiwi Islands,” the architect explains.
Come dinner time, the Wardle-designed salt and pepper shakers get a workout. Everything but the toothpicks, it seems, is trapped by his controlling eye.
One of the owners, who asks that only her first name, Renee, be used, detects an “evolution” in Wardle’s work “in terms of the development of his design technique and the vision he has for it”.
She has come to expect surprises – “cupboards coloured yellow on the inside” and “a roof that many years later you’re still wondering how it was done”.
“It’s about hunkering down,” Wardle says of the building, which nestles around a courtyard. A concrete staircase beneath the cantilevered structure leads to an undercroft with an outdoor fireplace. Sean Fennessy
But the biggest surprise of all, when she saw the near-complete project for the first time, was the contrast between the spare simplicity of the exterior and the congenial intricacy of the interior. “It just took my breath away,” she says, having been unable to visit much during construction due to COVID-19 constraints.
“It has the most beautiful bunk beds I’ve ever seen,” she laughs. “Bunk beds! And they’re works of art. But then if anyone knows how to work with wood, it’s John. Everything in this house, every corner, every nook, bears the marks of his unique vision.”
The owner calls the home’s bunk beds “works of art”. Sean Fennessy
Bass Coast Farmhouse, seen here for the first time, has distant views of grey-green rollers and the boisterous strait. The dwelling seems to float like “a cartoon”, as the architect puts it, above the dune on which it sits. From other angles it nestles into the coastal heath, seeking protection from the lash of the westerlies and the unceasing roar of the surf.
The abstract effect comes from the blank geometric facade of the timber home, its doors and windows folded protectively into the timber walls. Wardle describes the building as “mute” when shuttered up from the elements.
Its low rectangular form is offset by a procession of rhythmic verticals – spotted gum cladding, the galvanised, corrugated iron roofing, and a single concrete chimney.
The 375-square-metre dwelling, perhaps the most poetic of Wardle’s entire body of work – in a minimalist haiku kind of way – sits for the most part firmly, emphatically, on the dunes a short walk from the beach.
At one corner, though, the dune drops away and the structure cantilevers over an undercroft containing a fireplace, and slender stairs that rise to the entry above – all of it cast from concrete. The floor is concrete where it sits on the dune; recycled timber in the cantilevered extension.
Pieces by Tiwi Islands artists Dino Wilson and Timothy Cook decorate the walls. Sean Fennessy
“It’s not about big panoramic views,” Wardle says of this building that wraps around a courtyard. “It’s about enjoying the landscape, hunkering down. The view is mostly turned inwards.”
The house is certainly a retreat, but not necessarily a place of solitude. There are five bedrooms, two of them with five bunk beds apiece, and space for large gatherings of friends and extended family.
It could sleep 16 guests at a stretch – a small jamboree.
When the owners are installed, with the corner dining room window released from its shutters to take in views of the grassland and the roos, the illusion of almost parodic abstraction will give way to the familiar signs of habitation.
The full-length windows of the rocky, somewhat Zen courtyard are also shuttered. When folded open, the inner core of the house is swept by cool light. An entire section of the gable roof has been cut out, dropping a wedge of light onto the corridor that follows the line of the courtyard.
The timber interior bears a close resemblance to Wardle’s famed Shearers Quarters, perched above the coast on the architect’s own Bruny Island sheep station. In the interiors of both dwellings, short timber slats are arrayed horizontally: old apple crates, in places, at Bruny; spotted gum at Bass Coast. The ceilings, too, are timber lined.
The clients asked for a swimming pool after the building was designed and Wardle confesses that his first thought was: “It will be awful.” So the architect, in effect, Wardled it. The result is a pool that resembles a piece of abstract aquatic art: “The perfect object in the landscape,” he says.
Geelong-born Wardle is without doubt one of Australia’s finest and most particular architects. He founded his practice in 1986 as a “small, family-run” business – it now employs more than 110 staff and works in Australia across several different architectural forms.
For many years, single residences – beautiful bijoux timber houses – were Wardle’s mainstay. He is now working, as often as not, on large educational and cultural institutions, and galleries. Three of his buildings – Bass Coast Farmhouse, Curtin University’s School of Design and the Built Environment, and Geelong College Junior School – are shortlisted in this year’s World Architecture Festival, the architecture world’s Oscars, to be judged in November.
“It’s not about big panoramic views,” Wardle says. “It’s about enjoying the landscape, hunkering down. The view is mostly turned inwards.” Sean Fennessy
The Farmhouse elaborates on ideas that thread through Wardle’s work: the small house in the big landscape, timber finishes, refined joinery, the romance of rural life. But the house also, in one important respect, marks a departure.
Before Wardle got to work, he visited the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo and saw in situ the works of Pritzker Prize winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and Italian-born Brazilian modernist Lina Bo Bardi. “I was blown away,” he confesses.
The latter’s famous Glass House is a platform raised above a set of stairs that enter the building from beneath. The concrete undercroft at Bass Coast Farmhouse feels, in parts, like a delicate act of homage to the more muscular use of raw concrete in Brazilian brutalism.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in a house that’s given me more joy than this,” the architect says, gesturing to the undercroft. “You can see here that we’re lifting off terra firma. The walls and roof, the shutter system – the house above – it all keeps going. They’re a constant. There’s this cute little stair, 60 centimetres wide, which I’m very happy with. It negotiates from the landscape up into the house.”
The entry through “a big mudroom where you take off your boots, hang up your coat and wash your hands as you should do in any farmhouse”, also riffs on a feature from the architect’s Bruny Island complex, in this case the renovated – and largely remade – Captain Kelly’s Cottage.
These buildings, he tells me, emerged out of a relationship he enjoys, as the property’s owner, with its history. But it’s his own personal history in ’60s Geelong that is key to his feeling for industry, fabrication, craft and labour.
His getaway at Bruny is larded with Bendigo Pottery. The throw over the couch is from Derw in Wales; the cushion covers are Portuguese; the tiles are from Japanese firm Inax (famous for working with Frank Lloyd Wright); the curtains from India; the lights from Milan.
Every year he takes staff to Bruny to learn about whittling, tiling, bricklaying, paving, from local artisans and tradies. They get away from their computers, get their hands dirty, and at night they talk about architecture and its challenges – which are in many respects the world’s – beneath a whorl of southern stars.
“It’s impossible not to feel a sense of melancholy about the loss of craft skills,” Wardle says. “But at the practice we’re trying to find a new generation of makers, and new forms of craft, and put them together in a digital workshop.”
It’s their work, quite as much as the furniture pieces, that surprised the owners of Bass Coast Farmhouse on their first visit. Asked if this is his most interesting project, Wardle mutters about his many loyal clients and how it’s impossible to choose between children.
“But I suppose that in its playful abstraction, the way the building seems almost self-absorbed, and then its unfolding and opening, where it becomes something else, it really does stand alone.
“Mind you,” Wardle adds after a brief pause, “there’s a terracotta place we’re doing down the road at Anglesea … ”
But then he stops himself. He’s well aware of the power of surprise.
The spring issue of Fin Magazine is out on Friday, August 19 inside The Australian Financial Review.
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