A Sculptural Response – Glebe House by Chenchow Little
Glebe, NSW, Australia
Just as the sculptor’s hands push against the clay to give it form, the planning and spatial constraints of the distinctive wedge-shaped site in the Sydney suburb of Glebe became the formative pressure through which Chenchow Little Architects devised the Glebe House.
That such a sculptural work of architecture could emerge as a result of deeply pragmatic considerations is perhaps surprising, yet, as architect Tony Chenchow explains, a ‘top-down’ approach to spatial planning is applied in all Chenchow Little’s work. “We work to address the pragmatic part of the client’s brief and then we look at the site conditions. What’s really important is to find an overall spatial strategy which is able to cope with the constraints of the site and also deal with the client’s brief, so having that top-down spatial strategy in the beginning is very important in our work,” he says.
Initially, the client’s main concern was bringing enough light into the house as, in a suburb like Glebe with a narrow site and close neighbours, access to natural light can be a challenge. In an unusual configuration, the site is narrow toward the street, then splays out towards the rear. Also unusually, it was once a sandstone quarry, with a sandstone ledge still present at the back of the site. This sandstone cutting is elevated and, rarely for in an inner-city area, enjoys lovely views toward the city skyline that the client was keen to maximise. Furthermore, the clients have three young children, so the design “very much embodies how they want to live in the house as a family,” Tony says.
“We work to address the pragmatic part of the client’s brief and then we look at the site conditions.”
Taking all these factors into consideration, the form is a direct physical representation of the setbacks and the height control that the site is subject to. This is “very much a geometric response with the curved arches,” Tony reflects. “You’re dealing with the arch form on the ground floor and then a series of inverted arches on the top floor, so the spatial strategy is all consistent. Most important, however, is how we invert the arch and three-dimensionally cut out the arch form in plan so that it becomes a spatial experience once you’re in the house.” He explains that, in line with the top-down approach, once the spatial strategy was defined, the design process was then a matter of fine-tuning the placement of the arches.
The arches, which act as an abstracted reference to the Victorian arches that, on a much smaller scale, characterise the surrounding worker’s cottages, are also a mechanism by which the architects control light and a lens through which views are focused and edited. “The inverted arch on the top floor focuses the view up towards the sky, the treetops and the hedge along the boundary line – it focuses the view up rather than down or out across to the neighbouring houses, whereas the traditional arch on the ground floor focuses the views out toward the landscape,” explains Tony. In much the same way as the arches curate the experience of the view, the apertures both admit and control light, with the cutout internal voids aligning with the cutouts in elevation allowing light to infuse between levels. Light is also inherently linked to the sculptural identity of the building, with the combination of the arches and the strong vertical mullions casting patterns of light and shade that emphasise and refract the geometric forms within the space.
“This is very much a geometric response with the curved arches.”
The clients’ deep appreciation and understanding of the arts informed and enabled this sculptural outcome on several fronts. The interior spaces are constructed with the display of the clients’ personal art collection in mind, both in the wall space and in the scalloped corners of the joinery, which are devised to allow for the display of sculpture. Of more intrinsic influence on the building was their artistic sensibility more broadly, which not only gave the architects the freedom to move beyond a traditional residential typology but also meant that the clients could fully appreciate and understand the architectural integrity and artistic nature of the house. “Without wanting to sound too cheesy, they wanted to live in a three-dimensional sculpture,” Tony says. “While this wasn’t an initial aim of the brief it was something developed during the design process.”
This intent correlates with the primacy of spatial planning and volumetric exploration in Chenchow Little’s work. The staircase that extends sinuously from the living space upwards to the bedrooms forms a link between levels that highlights the shifts in volume throughout the home. And the aforementioned relationship between the internal voids and arched apertures is an expression of volume that emphasises how the space that exists between is as of as much importance as each element individually. This approach, in turn, is felt in the monochromatic material palette that allows the geometric form of the building to be highlighted. “It’s a very simple, pared-back palette of materials – in our work generally we don’t like to use more than three different types of materials as, if you use too many materials, you start distracting from the spatial strategy, which for us is the most important aspect of the design,” Tony says.
As a result, the material palette is limited to a light-painted vertical board that clads the exterior and lines internal walls, concrete flooring, and Tasmanian oak joinery, with plaster confined to the staircase and ceilings. Against the light interior, the richness of the Tasmanian oak is felt, while the tactile smoothness of the plaster is highlighted when juxtaposed with the texture of the lining boards that reinforce the similarly strong lines of the vertical mullions. Here again, the project gestures toward the heritage worker’s cottages that characterise the area, with the boards recalling the weatherboard construction of these cottages. Tony explains that “basically, it’s taking that material but detailing it, applying it vertically and reducing the width of the boarding compared to a traditional boarding so it becomes read and interpreted as a texture of the wall.”