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Living on the edge; Walters & Cohen's house: a threshold between suburbia and the South Pacific.

Sydney's Bondi Beach is, rightly, one of the world's more famous crescents of sand, but its natural beauty is not matched by the architecture fronting it and sprawling over its cliff-top flanks. No single carbuncle but a plague of minor boils; a rash of postwar brick and clay-tile houses that owe everything to the worst of English suburbia and nothing to the might of the South Pacific Ocean.

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Contemporary architects are gradually making inroads with more climatically responsive houses that are replacing the tacky brick boxes. London-based Walters & Cohen has replaced one such bungalow on the very edge of the sandstone cliffs to the north with a house made up of a pair of pavilions in white render and glass that cling vertiginously 80m above the surf. Porous Sydney sandstone does not readily last as an exposed building material in such a weather-beaten location but geo-technical surveys indicate that it provides a solid footing to the concrete structure--along this section of the cliffs at least. A walled entrance court deliberately conceals the spectacular views, which are only revealed to the casual visitor after reaching the L-shaped first-floor living area wrapped on two sides with glazing. Views outwards allow whale watching, views downwards can reveal shoals of fish 80m below, and those upwards give advance warning of any approaching electrical storms that can buffet the house.

In an exercise in deferred gratification, you enter through a solid timber door set in a blade of masonry some 7.5m high and flanked by equally tall etched glass panels 250mm wide. The double-height hall beyond is an atrium between seaward and landward pavilions of the building. Its wedge shape culminates in a deep internal lightwell fronted by a 4.5m X 2.5m frameless glass panel. Uplights are set into the polished concrete floors to avoid the need for lights within the soffit high above; none of the first floor's ceilings are interrupted by light fixings.

A flight of timber treads is cantilevered off the wall, supported by an internal edge beam of welded steel angles, some of which return vertically to form the framework for the glass balustrade. Upstairs, the panorama awaits.

Concealed at entrance level on the seaward side is a suite of rooms with ocean views, two bedrooms and a woodworking studio for the client. Steel-framed sliding doors and windows allow uninterrupted views, even from the bathrooms that have bluestone-clad (from neighbouring Victoria) baths pushed against the glass. Handles are everywhere minimized or absent. Full-height doors at this level pivot shut to 10mm-wide aluminium returns set in the wall. This minimal detailing prescribed by Walters & Cohen and a neatnik client has been clarified and executed throughout by local practice Collins and Turner (both former Foster and Partners employees).

All the timber used, including the matchstick screens of the garage and the double-height oriel above, is recycled jarrah--a tough Australian hardwood--some of it sourced from an old wharf from the port of Fremantle in Western Australia.

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The oriel serves another double-height space on the landward side reached from a half-landing and incorporating a mezzanine bedspace--itself accessed by a beautifully built formed-concrete staircase. A small square window gives glimpses back west across the peninsula and Sydney Harbour to the distant Central Business District.

This room, like the whole of the upper floor in both pavilions, is surmounted by a clerestory set above two steel channels back-to-back to conceal perimeter lighting. The steels act as a ring-beam for each pavilion and steel uprights carry the steel roof with its deep-shading eaves. An air-conditioning zone has been created between the floors but the combination of under-floor heating for the winter months and the cooling breezes pushing over the lip of the cliff suggests that mechanical climate control will not be necessary.

Although some blinds may need to be installed against strong morning light, the rest of the cantilevered upper floor, kitchen, living, dining, study and TV areas, make the most of the uninterrupted gull's back views. Most of the glass doors open, with only a glass cliff-edge balustrade (on a curve with a setting-out point some 200m out to sea) between you and the drop, but opposite the dining area incorporation of structure into a masonry panel creates a framed view. This living area is backed by a waist-high insertion of jarrah shelves and cupboards that runs 7m from the return of the staircase balustrade, then folds around the study zone and makes a backdrop to a sunken TV area. Here the glazing forms a frameless box reflecting the sea and the cliffs by day and the moon by night. The nose of this box, seen from the entrance courtyard, is a subtle indicator of the axis of splendour to come.

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:AR House
Author:Bevan, Robert
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:805
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