SPACE FLEXES, FLOWS AND EBBS IN REX ADDISON’S LATEST PROJECT, A SMALL HOUSE TUCKED INTO THE DENSE FABRIC OF INNER SYDNEY.
REVIEW MICHAEL TAWA PHOTOGRAPHY PATRICK BINGHAM-HALL
IN THE SAME KEY. Rex Addison’s work is remarkable for a consistent reworking
and elaboration of traditional and local house forms, geared to adapting new kinds of
inhabitation which are tightly calibrated to place. The Balmain house, for Patrick and
Katrina Bingham-Hall and family, extends these concerns – this time in the unfamiliar
context of inner city Sydney. Beyond stylistic concerns and formal consistency, the work
prompts important reflections on space, place and pedagogy.
Detail of the north elevation, with studio below and living area above.
Looking north-east over Balmain backyards to the city, framed by the broad brim of the roof in the upper level main bedroom.
West street elevation.
Oblique view of the north elevation, with the upper level projecting over the lower two, seen from the courtyard.
Looking towards the new verandah, designed by Bruce Eeles and Associates, with the existing cottage beyond.
Sculpture by Tom Bass – rescued from the AGC Building, Phillip Street, Sydney – in the north-west corner of the courtyard.
Looking across the dining area into the living areas.
Dining and kitchen seen from the living area, with the entry verandah seen through the windows to the right.
The dining and living areas framed from the kitchen.
The north-east corner of the living room, wrapped with frameless windows.
Looking across the living and dining areas, and through to the hall of the existing cottage.
The plywood skin of the stair.
The new bedrooms housed in the roof space. Looking from the
main bedroom along the hall to the chidren’s bedroom.
The view down the stairs into the living area, with its mixed hardwood floor.
The Bingham-Hall project is a modest, yet fairly complex little building, carefully
built by Craig Lester on a tight budget. Addison has managed to increase threefold the
area of the original timber cottage – largely due to a sloping site and steep pyramidal
roof that allowed spaces to be tucked in below and above the main floor level, and,
naturally, by judicious and very skilfully controlled design.
The extension is on three levels – a mid level extending the original cottage floor to
a raised living space on the east; a recessed basement level with studio and darkroom;
and an upper floor of bedrooms projecting beyond the lower floors. The cross section is
typical of Addison’s work – playing frame against wall and screen, through bays
receding from and projecting beyond the beams and columns of a trabeated structure.
The front screen, side deck and wraparound verandah had already been designed
by Eeles Trelease Architects, but were built together with the Addison project. These
elements have turned the northern wall of the existing cottage into a series of pillars – the internal floor continues beyond the wall to form a sheltered useable space adjoining
the bedrooms. This verandah leads around to a relocated eastern entry. Here, kitchen,
dining and raised living areas form a continuous space edged by bays and alcoves.
Closed and contained on the south, this space open and expands to the north-east
through sashless windows wrapped around the corner. The splayed overhanging eastern
wall of the bedroom above concatenates this diagonal tension, while the raised living
area closes and holds the space back. Addison quietly modulates flow, containment and
release by carefully scaling, stepping, closing and opening vistas. He also brings light in
from above, washing the corner walls on the south-east, and the overhanging walls of
the bedroom above. The whole appears to be a community or familial continuity of
places. A sort of luminous clearing at the edge of a small sandstone scarp, with broad
raised or tilted ledges for sitting, and a prospect that takes in fore, mid and background
without losing any sense of proportion.
The new is anchored in the old and emerges from it, but not in the sense of an alien
presence or prosthesis. It is mostly all roof – turned down on the south as a back to
Darling Street, ridged and stepping out on the north and north-east. The new spaces are
pocketed into the old roof in a kind of involution that also turns the cottage away from the
street, towards the harbour. New is not inserted into old, or attached to it. Rather, it grows
from inside out to elaborate intrinsic opportunities. The project’s inventiveness is not in
formal concoction, but in the decoction or condensation of propensities always-alreadythere.
In Addison’s words, the cottage is not “monstered” by a hi-tech cube, as it might
have been by the “Carbuncle School of Design”. Instead of asserting its individuality, the
new works “in the same chord as the original” by “tuning into the same key”.
IMPERATIVE OF THE ORIGINAL. Quiet modulation. Careful scaling. It seems to
be a matter of discipline – of knowing and respecting the rules well enough to play
around with them, interpret them, and put them to the test. The skill comes with a
working knowledge of the formal potential and tectonic patterns of gable, hip and valley
roof geometries. In Addison’s buildings, volumetric complexities are developed entirely
within a structural, constructional and geometrical logic, which he nevertheless tempers
according to specific circumstances and local conditions. Above all, he is interested in
the sheltering power of roof forms – the roof as cloak, instrument and gear – and in the
play of spaces which advance and retreat, horizontally and vertically, within the volumes
such roof forms envelop.
The pedagogical value of his work is that in it there is both discipline and
improvisational freedom. The discipline is to accept and work with both the natural
resistance and the propensities of this geometry – what Addison calls the “imperative of
the original”. The given, the always-already-there, is both limit and opportunity. Design
is not a premeditated imposition, but a going along with whatever presents itself within
the logical possibilities of the given. It is also a question of maintaining a kind of
counter-resistance, so that the circumstantial might weigh on the given, and prompt it to
yield to other, surprising opportunities.
This rhythm of keeping to and departing from a system is playful – it is precisely
design as play. But it is neither self-conscious nor a priori intentionality. Rather, practice
as play and the playfulness of the outcome both arrive, as with musical improvisation,
together with the performance. They are neither predicted nor predictable. Likewise, if
the detailing is refined, it isn’t in the sense of having long been aestheticised as a
formulaic practice also sought in advance of the work, but in and as the work itself, in a
process of interminable reworking and refinement. In this sense the work escapes
becoming a parody of itself, a cliché, a predictable style, a repeatable pattern. As with all
mature work, each project is radically different and new, in the sense that it reworks and
recasts the old through interminable variation and adaptation. And yet there is formal
and stylistic continuity – like there is grain in a voice, or like Miles Davis might be
unmistakable whether he is playing Doo-Bop or Kind of Blue. This unmistakability means
a restricted palette – but one that is indefinitely deployed and deployable. As the
Chinese have it, “to recall old things is better than to invent new ones; and to recut an
ancient text is better than to engrave a modern”.1
THE SPACE OF FORESTS. With this project – largely because of site constraints
that called for tight and predominantly vertical scale – Addison has managed to extend
the spatial opportunities that have been available to him so far. Rather than horizontally
layered sequences or rhythms of pitched beams and columns extending beyond walls
into lush gardens, spaces here twist, turn, infiltrate and hover in and around solid
volumes. There is a move from slatted battened screens and dappled light in Taringa, to
roof and wall becoming ambiguous and folded into each other in Balmain. From forests
where all is floor, column and canopy, to the inner surfaces of caverns. From trabeated
frames to angled walls, smooth panelled coffered ceilings and the inside of boat hulls.
The interior is predominantly a taut silky skin, although there is also recurrent play
between skin and bone, surface and line, cladding and frame. The gutter is separated
from roof plane just enough allow us to see the sky skin the building, peeling it apart,
exposing bone and brim. I saw it first in Asplund’s Woodland Crematorium Chapel, but
here it seems to analogize the play of light through branches and foliage in rainforests.
Upstairs, the rooms are the roof, which is neither an erased nor lost space (as with
skillion roofs) nor a space of dust and insulation but a place in its own right, places in
their own right. From these places you look down – because the roof presses steeply to
furrowed brow in some parts (the western bedroom), and opens up to broad brim in
others (the eastern bedroom). Looking down and away through angled frames, or across
lower skillions, is like looking down on one’s shoulders, or onto the edges of billowing
coat tails, or like being perched high on Sclerophyll. The back of beyond is the backs of
shops, yards and yards of bleached walls, rusted tin and clay tiles, vines gone wild and
droopy gums, patched down the northern slope of the Darling Street spur. This is a real
roofscape, gleaned from an inside that lends a glow to what it sees.
There are clearly metaphorical aspect to Addison’s work – nautical in the Endeavour
Gallery of the James Cook Museum (2001); arboreal in Addison’s own house and studio
(1998-9). There are clearly many possible interpretations, and many tales to tell. The
more inventive the narrative, the better the set up. For me, Addison’s work – particularly
this house – implies a concern for responding to more complex and non-Euclidean
understandings of space – spaces of torsion, of multiple and simultaneous viewpoints,
of ambiguous boundaries. Space is experienced in moving about, not surveyed from a
static point.Working with the language of traditional roofs – but also meddling with it to
peel it back at the edges, to undo its seams, to tilt or fold wall into roof – allows Addison
to organize faceted spaces of volumetric intricacy and dynamic potential. And not only
internal space, but also the way the outside is framed. A simple example is the angled
heads and sloping sills of the bedrooms on the first floor. These break any sense of
perspectival survey or picturesque depiction of the outside, all of which come with the
territory of plumb and level rectilinear frames, of monstrous cubes and carbuncles. The
sense of space here is entirely other. I can’t help thinking of the painter William
Robinson’s work – multiple points of view, multiple vanishing points, multiple time
frames, space that flexes, ebbs and flows. In that sense, rainforest and Sydney
topography are alike. Both resist the linear and the rectilinear. Addison’s work is no
Corbusian poem to the right angle. Rather, it says something significant about the
experience of dwelling amid folded terrain and the space of forests.
1. Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, trans D. Hawkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), p. 328.
MICHAEL TAWA TEACHES ARCHITECTURE IN THE FACULTY OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT, UNIVERSITY OF NSW.
BINGHAM-HALL HOUSE, BALMAIN
Architect—design and documentation Rex Addison,
Addison Associates; contract administration James
Stockwell; deck Eeles Trelease Architects. Structural
engineer Salmon McKeague Partnership—Mani Salmon.
Builder Customised Building Co—Craig Lester. Client
Patrick and Katrina Bingham-Hall.