A Sky Ground Connection — Cabbage Tree House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Emerging from the hillside, Cabbage Tree House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture is a built manifestation of place, whose purpose is to heighten the understanding and emotional experience of the land that informs the architecture.
The house is the outcome of time the architects and clients spent with the land, learning its qualities and spatial topography. Through coming to understand the landscape’s character, a sense for how a building might behave with the site was developed. From this process, a triad of three elements, in a geographical sequence of sorts – a flat plateau above a steep slope with a creek below – was established, from which the nature of the building as an element of connection became clear.
On such a steep landscape, flat land is at a premium, explains Peter Stutchbury, who designed the house along with architects Emma Trask and Belinda Koopman. A flat plateau offers space that can be used for recreation, whether in the form of vegetable gardens, somewhere to sit outdoors in the sun, a backyard cricket pitch, or a place to gather with friends and family. In order to devote the flat area of the land to recreation, it was consequential to site the building into the hill itself, acting as stairs between the plateau and the creek. “The creek is incredibly beautiful,” says Peter. “The noise, the smell and the coolness that comes from it are a real asset to the site. What’s very typical of our work is the connection with land and a respect of land and we felt that if we could construct a building that bridged from the plateau down to the creek, we could initiate this connection.”
The house is the outcome of time the architects and clients spent with the land, learning its qualities and spatial topography.
With the extruded masonry structure acting as an extension of the hillside, Cabbage Tree House engages fundamentally with the land of which it is now a part. And through the fusion of the built form and the earth, the building becomes a connecting force between the land and its inhabitants. Peter describes the building as a “sky-ground connection”. One approaches the building from the elevated plateau at the top of the hill, and then descends down the hillside through the house, with the building acting as a conduit within the landscape.
The kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are all located on the level, “then, you descend to a second living level and as you descend things become more basic until it is just a bath and a fire, so it feels like you are bathing in the creek,” Peter says. This progression draws one down to reconnect with some of the most primal of human imperatives. And, in its cave-like nature, the house is elemental, serving to amplify the experience of the land. In doing so, the project offers a challenge to the relevance of contemporary housing that facilitates screen-focused experience.
One approaches the building from the elevated plateau at the top of the hill, and then descends down the hillside through the house, with the building acting as a conduit within the landscape.
Instead, throughout the design the architects questioned how the building may enable the revisiting of ancient values of shared care, sociability, awareness and consciousness by emphasising both the most essential experiences of life and the narrative of the site. “Your experience of the site and the story of the site changes on a daily basis – the climate changes, people change – so if you develop that capacity in the building it is never a static building,” Peter says. “If you look at the buildings that are most seductive, they have a very strong connection to the site and an appreciation for what the natural systems can add to the qualities that inform a house or a building.”
In the materiality of masonry and concrete, and the form anchored into the site, Cabbage Tree House strongly emphasises the architecture’s relationship with the earth. Yet, the other three elements of nature, wind, fire and water, are also actively engaged in the design. The house is a “protective armature, that sits with its back into the hill and opens its arms to the north,” Peter says. This northern orientation serves to enhance the relationship between the elements – the sun warms the interior spaces, with the building’s substantial thermal mass storing the warmth from both the sun and the wood fire in winter. In summer, thermal mass, air and water work in concert to passively cool the house, with cross-flow ventilation drawing breezes across the creek below and the pool adjacent to the living space.
“Then, you descend to a second living level and as you descend things become more basic until it is just a bath and a fire, so it feels like you are bathing in the creek.”
While the building is cave-like, it is not cavernous. The architects’ sensitivity to scale and emphasis on the quality of the light within the spaces of the home results in a building that devotes itself to habitation with care. When viewed from below, the scale of the architecture appears grand yet, in reality, Cabbage Tree House is not large. Each space is modest and restrained, reflecting the architects’ and clients’ intent to pare back the house to only that which is essential. “When you design a house, you must consider the human, and once you consider the human, you’ve got to consider the scale and what level of scale is comfortable in any situation,” says Peter. “The scale of the forest, the valley, the sky is very big. We were working from those scales, and we were also working with the temperament of scale – what it brings to one’s behavioural temperament.”
On this basis, the ceiling in the bedroom is slightly lower than in the living room. Through this compression of space, the bedroom promotes a greater sense of protection appropriate to its function. Meanwhile, the primal human imperative to seek shelter is balanced with the equally fundamental pull towards sunlight. Because the house is sited with its back to the hill, it was necessary to introduce light deeper into the home. The architects sought to create “pools of sun”, Peter explains, which are not generated by the typical placement of glazing along walls. A circular skylight penetrates the concrete ceiling, the shaft bringing a generous puddle of sunlight directly into the depths of the space. The skylight too, references scale, with the glimpse of the sky and the trees above a small reminder of the enormity of the natural world outside, making the sheltered space within feel all the more poignant.
Drawing on a deep respect for the land, Cabbage Tree House is an exploration of how the built environment and the natural world each impact upon the other. Above all, it is a representation of how – consciously, deliberately and with reverence – architecture can form a relationship between human beings and the landscape in which they live.