Power and Subtlety – Cremasco House by Paul Couch
Mt Towrong, VIC, Australia
Though Paul Couch has maintained a low profile throughout his long career, his work has been quietly revered over the years by those who have encountered it. Most of his buildings remain undescribed, but Cremasco House, completed in 2008, was photographed by Tom Ross for a forthcoming book on Paul’s work currently being written by architects Michael Roper and James Maguvin. A mixed-use building in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, Cremasco House is a prominent later project in the oeuvre of an architect whose work is only now beginning to be given deeper consideration.
Set within the five-hectare Mount Towrong Vineyard, Cremasco House is not just a house, as its name would suggest, but a building that contains spaces for the making and storage of wine, a distillery, cellar door, swimming pool and office, along with living quarters, a main forecourt and several smaller courtyards. Harnessing just a few materials, concrete chief among them, its walls do not so much delineate as embrace the building’s many functions, applying a single overarching scheme across what would ordinarily be treated as separate entities. In this approach, there is a quality that could equally be interpreted as direct or as enigmatic, perhaps befitting of an architect who has simultaneously made a significant contribution to Australian architecture while managing to remain relatively unsung.
There are several threads to the story of the Cremasco House and its coming to publication now, some 12 years after it was completed. There is that of the project itself. Then there is that of its architect, successful and highly respected by those who are aware of his work but who has not yet reached the wider public consciousness. And finally, there is that of the book that will represent the first time Paul’s work has been published in such a form (and indeed, one of the first times it has been published at all).
Over the course of more than 60 years, Paul has produced a substantial body of work and pioneered the use of concrete in Australian residential architecture. He began his career working closely with Robin Boyd throughout the 1960s up until Boyd’s death in 1971. During this time, he was responsible for documenting notable Boyd projects such as the Featherstone House in Ivanhoe and the Fletcher House in Brighton. He went on to be a partner in the firm Carter Couch from 1984 to1989 and since then has worked primarily on residential projects. Singularly focused on the practice of architecture and, at times, building, “he has spent precious little time actually photographing his work or writing about it; he’s just gotten on with the job of making it,” reflects Michael Roper.
As one not given to romanticising his work, when asked a leading question, Paul will simply return to the facts. Queried about what emotional response the building creates, he says that it provides shade from the sun and shelter from the elements. On a question about the ideas behind the project, he states the kind of building that the clients needed. There is a sense that the work should speak for itself – and so it does, assuredly and movingly. Such is its power that a lack of concern for promoting his work has not allowed it to entirely escape attention, capturing the interest of Professor Philip Goad, of Melbourne University, who alerted Tom Ross to Paul’s architecture. This led to Tom photographing Paul’s own home in Toolern Vale, a house he had constructed himself over a period of 20 years. Representing the first time that one of Paul’s buildings had been shot by an architectural photographer, this then set in motion the book that is currently underway.
“James Maguvin was working with Phillip at Melbourne Uni, and Phillip suggested that we go and see Toolern Vale [House],” Tom recalls. Coming off the back of the book that he and Michael had already published together, Among Buildings, the project of delving into Paul’s work and publishing it in a book for the first time unfolded. “Usually, when an architect’s at this stage in his career, you’d be looking at a comprehensive monograph but we’re conscious of not wanting to do that,” says Michael. While, he says, the work is deserving of such a treatment, and while Paul has certainly designed enough buildings for a comprehensive anthology, “in a way it’s too soon to be forming definitive notions of what the work is or where the work sits in the broader canon.” Instead, the book is conceived as starting a conversation. “Rather than wanting to present the world with the dictionary definition of who Paul Couch is, we’re wanting to pose some questions,” he explains.
Over the years, clients have found Paul by word of mouth and this was the case of the owners of the Cremasco House. “[They] were aware of several concrete houses I had built following the Ash Wednesday bushfires and operated a substantial precast concrete plant in Melbourne,” says Paul. This meant that “the choice of concrete as the construction material was unequivocal [and] allowed the use of many different concrete products such as hollow core floors, roof trusses, canopies etc. that until recently would not normally be used in residential work.” With strong connections to the Veneto area of Italy, the clients had planted a number of Italian grape varieties and “were wanting to establish an agricultural business, house and winery compatible with their own traditions and the character of Mount Macedon, where many small vineyards had come and gone over the past 150 years. Provision for a future gin distillery and restaurant was part of the brief.”
In terms of its program and shed-like qualities, it is easy enough to see how these requirements are present in the final building. The less tangible but meaningful matter of the clients’ Italian heritage is not so clear-cut but is felt in gestures such as the pre-cast concrete walls that have been used to construct bays in which citrus trees have been planted. It is also discernible in the overarching approach to bringing together areas for viticulture, production and living quarters in the manner of the farmhouse buildings predominant throughout Northern Italy up until the 19th century. Most evident of all is the architect’s and clients’shared affinity for concrete, which becomes more than just a material but an architectonic medium through which the entirety of the building – sum and parts – is expressed.
Though concrete by now has become almost derigueur for contemporary architecture, the Cremasco House still manages to push the material into unexpected and powerful directions. “It was clearly a pretty incredible opportunity for Paul to take his fascination with concrete to its logical conclusion by having access to someone who’s able to work with concrete at that scale,” says Michael. “Using concrete as structure, as building envelope, as ornamentation and detail, it seems like an opportunity Paul’s really embraced. And, as one of the pioneers of concrete in the Australian home, it’s great to see some decades later what someone with that sense of innovation for the material would do with it now.”
Concrete is key to the presence of the building on the site and to the experience of habitation, of scale and of light within its walls. “The site straddles a ridge forming a spur from the adjoining Mount Towrong. The Willimigongon Creek and gully borders the east site boundary,” Paul describes. “The buildings are intended to be fully enclosed by the vineyard, and, as the trellising is on steep land on both flanks of the ridge, we had a good excuse for a tower from where the whole of the vineyard can be overlooked.” On approach, the full length of the building is exposed in a defined silhouette, the concrete tower, as the highest point of the structure, recalling the peak of the mountain behind. The mass of the concrete tower and adjoining upper volume creates a sense of compression of the spaces below, which are read as a result of the glazing that spans the majority of the length of the ground level.
Set within the five-hectare Mount Towrong Vineyard, Cremasco House is not just a house, as its name would suggest, but a building that contains spaces for the making and storage of wine, a distillery, cellar door, swimming pool and office, along with living quarters, a main forecourt and several smaller courtyards.
This then plays out internally, where on the ground floor “an open plan allows a controlled view to the vineyard and eucalyptus forest surrounding the house as well as multiple views within the house itself and the courtyards, with a relatively low ceiling height giving a sense of enclosure to the whole level,” says Paul. The subtle rake of this ceiling culminates suddenly at a sliver of natural light overhead that appears almost to make its way down through the levels above via a crack, one of many instances in which light and concrete seem to have a symbiotic relationship. “Within the house, my approach was to have indirect lighting by means of narrow strip roof lights which separated the several elements of the building and allowed a play of light and shadow within the lower level of the living area,” Paul says. Then, “at bedroom level, the light from the windows can enter from both sides of each of the rooms,” washing the walls with light and, in the process, illuminating the form of the concrete trusses.
In all spaces, there is an overwhelming sense of scale that is proportionate to the building as a whole. In the upper level, ceilings are high, the concrete trusses are monumental, the materials uncompromising. At ground level, a lowered ceiling height only magnifies the sense of the breadth of the space, which is punctuated by immense concrete columns. And standing below the lofty western elevation of the tower at sunset, when the red sun fills the narrow strip of glass that runs down its centre with fire, one experiences a moment that is almost transcendent. It contributes to what Michael describes as the sense that Paul’s work is “architecture that will survive us all. That’s not just a material quality – there’s something about the scale of it. The spaces do not feel exactly human-scale. It is almost like these spaces were built for another purpose and we’re just coming in to occupy them for now. We will pass and the building will remain.”
Cremasco House is called upon to do far more than most buildings. Grapes are brought in from harvest, pressed and fermented. Wine is cellared, gin distilled, guests welcomed, and meals shared. Seasons pass, harsh summers giving way to the biting winters of the Ranges, and with them all the activity of daily life ebbs and flows. Throughout it all, a sense of the architecture’s quietude persists, embodying both the power and the subtlety that is to be discovered in Paul’s work.