An ‘Otherworld’ is the meaning of Tír na nÓg. This “ jungle” house is inspired by the overgrown outlying ancient temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Designed by Drew Heath, this house in McMahons Point, an old harbour-side suburb in Sydney, has just won the NSW Wilkinson Award for Residential Architecture and was informed by a trip to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.
The garden and summer pavilion are covered with plants that create the ‘jungle’ and the property is protected in parts by a dense bamboo fence. The house seems to disappear into the greenery. The NSW AIA jury chair, Sam Crawford, in summing up the jury decision, said: ‘[Drew] was so inspired [by Cambodia], he attempted to create the sublime in his own home, layering building and landscape in a tight urban setting. He set out to achieve something very ambitious, and we think he’s succeeded.’
You enter the house from a tiny street in Sydney’s McMahon’s Point, an inner north-shore harbour suburb. The late 1900s worker’s cottage is now a pavilion of bedrooms and sleeping spaces. From this old house you then walk through to the central garden to the new open-plan summer pavilion, once the old cottage’s back yard, but now a beautiful building housing the large kitchen and reading room. The long central table in the kitchen extends into the central garden, and seats 20.
A glass wall, the full height and width of the kitchen wall, is able to be opened, as one would a large garage door, completely transforming the kitchen into a larger living room/garden space. I asked Mr Heath to give us his comments on the house and the inspiration behind its peculiar, breathtaking design:
‘It’s a community house in that it presents greenery to the suburb, but I also wanted to remove myself from the suburb. I want to live within the suburb in the little village, but I don’t necessarily want to see the things that go on outside it. I don’t mind hearing it and you hear the hum of the city and the traffic going by, but I actually wanted to live in a place where I felt I had complete control of the aesthetic and the materials and so I have used the landscape around us, be it as fencing or a green back-drop, so I see no other architecture.’
‘A lot of the things I do have no definition, so when we presented this roof garden/terrace deck to council, I just claimed it as outdoor landscape space, whether it is on the ground or not, and push it through as that so the building is a simple form. I have tried to make it almost terrace-like from the exterior, [but] it’s a building that’s not walled in, that appears as a green landscaped building where the back façade is completely covered in vine. There is no architectural façade there, there’s no grand architectural statement, there is just a gift of things growing, which is probably better than an architectural façade. We have young twins [nearly two years old] and the children develop their own barriers very quickly. The bamboo that surrounds the house is a fast growing screen and wall, it becomes so dense it just becomes the fence and the barrier, so over time bamboo is impenetrable. Why make a fence when you can grow a fence.’
‘My major architectural challenge was not the summer pavilion, but renovating the old worker’s cottage. I liked the idea of having a contrast between the old and new. It obviously made sense for us to sleep back in the house, in a series of rooms, so there are various little nooks and crannies throughout the building. The whole house is designed to sleep 10–12 people. There’s a winter bathroom [in the old house] and a summer bathroom [in the central garden], which is an outdoor bathroom, really a bath house. It’s open on two sides to the bamboo and the landscape and the shower is underneath an open skylight. This whole area is a hose-out area, so it doesn’t matter how wet it gets, how intense the rain is.’
‘When it gets cold we use the winter bathroom, which is really just a little room on the side of the old house. It’s only 800mm wide, and about 4 metres long. Sometimes I have referred to it as a metre box attached to the side of the house. It was the minimum size I thought we could do. Things like the basin are recessed back into the old chimney, so everything is tucked into whatever space it can be. [Yes] the window in the bathroom looks from the shower over the neighbour’s garden, but there is no privacy issue here, the window steams up and that becomes the curtain. No-one believed it would work, but it does perfectly.