Anita Panov and Andrew Scott designed and built their own inner city sanctuary in Sydney, Australia. Rather than deny the ambience and clamour of the city, they planned their home to embrace it, modelling its spaces to deliver a mix of stimulation, social comfort and solitude. Photos Brett Boardman.
A few years ago, we designed and built a small house in the inner city of Sydney to be our home. We undertook this task with the help of many friends and family. Though the process was far from insular, the nature of the project meant we were in effect not only owner and architect but builder as well.
Here we’ve chosen to describe the project from the perspective of the owners and occupiers rather than simply the architect. This seems the best way to cover our multiple roles in the project. It also lets us concentrate on the particular manner of living that evolved from our time in the house.
The project was a renovation and extension of a small semi-detached cottage on a long narrow site. The cottage was located close to the street with an overgrown garden at the rear: a Jacaranda at its heart surrounded by a Bangalow Palm, a Norfolk Pine, an Ironbark and a Paperbark creating an eclectic silhouette to the sky.
Immediately below the adjacent ridge along which snakes the cacophonous King Street with its myriad pubs and restaurants, the local street network has been crafted to exclude vehicular traffic. This has the effect of encouraging a flourishing pedestrian community. Facing the street, the decaying Victorian era front façade was retained which preserved the period scale. Inside, the house was radically manipulated to increase natural light and air transference whilst minimising wasted space and energy consumption. The rear façade opens entirely onto the wonderful garden. This allows the landscaping to flood the interior spaces.
Both the retained characteristics of the house and those that we transformed combined in a very specific way to facilitate our life at that time. The house itself is a very beautiful object. However what we cherished most was this ‘enabled life’. By this, we mean the manner in which the home led us to enjoy our existence. This in our opinion embodies the real offering of an architect to those who commission their expertise.
Here are some of the key tenets that our humble house facilitated for our particular manner of living:
An urban life
In 1863, just as urban life began its discernible existence, the Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire said: it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.
150 years later, we know what he means. The city is where we enjoy the close circles of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who animate our existence. In the city, we find work and where the clients who sustain our practice find us. The location of the small house offered us immediate access to engage with these myriad opportunities and events.
A more diverse social life
Though our social networks are expansive, it is the indifference to difference that arises in the city that is so important in our lives. Sociologist Richard Sennet coined this phrase noting that “the ideal public realm has appeared – one in which people react to, learn from, people who are unlike himself or herself.”
This was a revelation for us. Implicit in dense modes of living are neighbours. More often than not, these are people who hold different values to our own. With a width of 4.5 metres, the house allowed us to coexist with the couples living on each of the shared boundaries. Though often difficult to manage, our large dinner gatherings, their chickens and bbq’s and all of our music was constantly negotiated and facilitated. By necessity, our city environment cultivated a tolerance that would not exist had we lived in an isolated dwelling.
Maintaining a private life
Within this neighbourly context not to mention the greater city beyond, it was vital that the house afforded us moments of solitude. We love the sentiment of Mexican architect Luis Barragan. He says that “Serenity is the great and true antidote against anguish and fear, and today, more than ever, it is the architect’s duty to make of it a permanent guest in the home, no matter how sumptuous or how humble.” Our house responded to this, treating us to an outlook over the contained garden. Whilst borrowing the long veiled view to the treetops in the distance, the same copse of trees provided us with a green cloak of privacy.
Our work life
Today we hear much debate about finding the right life and work balance. This carefully maintained demarcation makes less and less sense to us as mobile phones and emails simultaneously enhance and intrude within either realm. In this house, we consciously interwove the strands of work and life together. A large portion of the internal space was given to a studio that enabled us to work together with colleagues and clients. The work and conversations spilt into the living and dining areas. When not in use for our practice, our studio became a place of solitude and reflection. This intertwining of work and leisure reminded us of the ancient Marcus Tullius Cicero’s wonderful adage “If you have a garden and a library you have all you need.”
Upholding a traditional life
We think back to our childhoods in an attempt to remember how our grandparents lived so simply and well. In this, the house enabled us to consume less and reuse what could be reused. Conscious of the neighbourhood character, the street façade proudly shows its age. The large rear window to the garden shares the operation of its traditionally scaled counterpart on the street but utilises modern technologies to allow light and air to flood the interior. In this way, the changing external climatic conditions can be manipulated but still enter the house. The breeze across a garden cools whilst the sun warms the space. This echoes the same simple ways that our grandparents describing how their grandparents once lived.
Aspiring to an essential life
We love the words written at the top of the menu at a North Bondi restaurant – “Restraint is my favourite ingredient”. This represents the attempt to curtail the accumulation of possessions and when that inevitably fails, to engage in the active divestment of those items not considered essential to our chosen manner of living. We decided that once recycling regimes were spent, simply by incorporating extensive areas of storage in the house, spaces could remain relatively unadorned. This enabled our focus to alight on fewer objects that in turn accrued greater resonance.
Recognising the importance of an experimental life
The tyranny of comfort is a term coined by the great architect and teacher Richard Le Plastrier. To us, an experimental life eschews this apathy and actively seeks better modes of habitation. In our house, the deliberately cultivated generic character of the spaces enabled different uses to happily exist moment to moment. At times, the studio was the master bedroom, the master bedroom a meeting space, the living room a place for ping pong tournaments whilst the studio became a living space amongst the tree canopy. This experimental method extended beyond the immediate pragmatics of inhabiting the house and into most other aspects of our lives.
Relinquishing our role as owners and speaking now as architects, it is as a result of this experimentation and working with others in defining their own manners of living, that we have developed an understanding of the most wonderful patterns of habitation. It is this understanding that we develop and offer in our work, most often in the guise of a beautiful structure such as this house.