An Inimitable Experience of Place – Koonya Pavilion by Room11
No architecture can make a landscape as soul-stirringly beautiful as the coastline of the Tasman Peninsula more powerful, but the right building can distil and heighten the experience of inhabiting such a place. Setting out to capture the elemental qualities of this experience, Room11 took a reductive approach to the design until all that remained of the building were four glass walls and two parallel planes of equal area that offer shelter overhead and support underfoot. The resulting glass pavilion sits as an object in the landscape, its exposed nature intensifying awareness of the site’s nuances.
The pavilion is intended as a place separate from the main house, which was also designed by Room11, dedicated to creative practice, where the client can retreat to find inspiration and solace in nature. It was the kind of project, therefore, that required an especially strong rapport between architect and client – its success dependent less on the response to a typical brief and more on an alignment of intellectual and artistic interests and, above all, a shared affinity with the landscape. From the outset, the project was “an intuitive meeting of likeminded people,” explains Thomas Bailey, architect and director of Room11. It began serendipitously when the client contacted Room11 the day after Thomas had stopped while cycling to admire the remote piece of land that, as it transpired, the client had just purchased. “I’d spent a lot of my youth quite nearby, holidaying in a shack owned by some family friends, and I’d recently finished a project further down the road, so I knew the area well,” he says. “I looked at the site and thought ‘whoever buys this and gets to spend time here is really blessed’!”
It quickly became clear that this initial synchronous appreciation for the site extended to a shared artistic and architectural discernment. While the minimalist art of Donald Judd and modernist architectural masterpieces such as Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House offer Koonya Pavilion’s clearest precedents, Thomas’s personal connection to the area was an equally significant point of reference. Indeed, the design owes as much to the shack where he spent time in his youth as it does to Judd’s ‘specific objects’ and these seminal American buildings. Uniting these two seemingly disparate sources of inspiration, the pavilion’s originality lies its distinctly regional and highly personal interpretation of an iconic typology.
The typically lightweight construction of Tasmania’s traditional holiday shacks in which, Thomas describes, “you always to some extent feel like you’re outside,” and the verandah as a well-used interstitial space, where one can carry on activities sheltered from the sun or rain without needing to venture indoors, informed the decision to create a single glazed box set beneath a larger roof form. The experience of inhabiting a flimsy shack is elemental – “a very simple, direct life where your actions directly impinge on your comfort,” Thomas explains. It was this very particular experience of place that the pavilion needed to facilitate, and this meant that he was not afraid of the thermal issues associated with a fully glazed structure. While these are mitigated to some extent by substantial thermal mass, ceiling insulation and the deep eaves that protect the glazed walls, along with the fact that the microclimate of the Tasman Peninsula means it does not become unbearably cold, precise temperature control is antithetical to the intention behind the pavilion.
Rather, it seeks to create a direct physical and psychological, even empathic, connection to the natural environment. Thomas observes that “it was meant to be a building that gave you that extraordinary moment where you realise that you’re in a particular place having a particular experience – watching a wedgetail eagle or looking at the light across the floor, all those beautiful transcendent moments.” Taking glazing to the extreme is not, therefore, merely a stylistic flourish, but integral to the experience that the architecture delivers. Glass offers the purest means of breaking down the barrier between inside and out, and it is engineered and detailed such that the construction of the building does not interfere with the perception of openness. Further pushing this idea to its limits, these glazed walls are also operable, capable of being slid back to create what amounts to a single vast verandah.
With the walls becoming openings, the traditional relationship between architecture, occupant and environment is shifted. For one thing, the building itself becomes an aperture, the parallel lines of the floorplate and ceiling plane framing panoramas. “I typically create quite thin buildings. This is a much deeper section that means the size of the aperture changes as you move forward toward the glass or retreat to the centre of the space,” Thomas says. And, open on every side with only the solid bathroom core enclosed, it falls to the landscape to contribute a sense of shelter. The natural human anxiety that stems from total exposure is harnessed to draw attention to the topography of the land. Where a typical building of solid walls would provide the necessary protection, without it, one needs to cast one’s awareness more widely to find an alternate natural landmark that can fulfil this psychological need. Thomas recalls walking with the client over the land early on in the project and “talking to him about reading the landscape and where the good lie for a building could be, how a hill could protect a very open building.”
Both this exceptional degree of openness and the resulting consciousness of the surrounding landscape also help the building to fulfil its purpose as a place separate from the house that provides the conditions for channelling artistic inspiration. To create this experience, it is necessary to shake off some of the comforts andamenities of home to connect more fully with a creative impulse. “It is absolutely meant to not be the same as your day-to-day life,” Thomas says.
“It is about the exultant moments. The building is a vehicle for vitality and light and a particular relationship with place.” As such, even the bathroom is deliberately composed in service of this intent. Entirely enclosed in dark tiles to create a singular experience of interiority, “you’re supposed to wake up, shower in this very enclosed internal space, then go out into this totally open space and be utterly inspired.”
The austerity of such an approach also heightens one’s perception of the comforts that are provided, increasing the importance of not only the architecture but the furniture and, in particular, the fireplace. Just as the absence of solid walls forces one to find shelter elsewhere, the deliberate withholding of all the luxuries that contemporary life has to offer enforces the poignancy and power of something as simple as the enjoyment of a sheltered place to sit, the feel of the breeze on the skin, a ray of sun momentarily illuminating a particular spot, or warmth of the fire at night. Fire was especially important, and the decision was made to heat the pavilion with a wood fire specifically for the physical and sensory engagement that it necessitates. Wood must be gathered and the fire prepared if one desires the comfort it provides. The smell permeates the air and the circle of light cast by the fire comes to define one’s environment in an otherwise dark landscape – the flames not so bright as to mask the light of the stars. The building draws out the relationship between the most exultant moments and the most basic, fundamental of activities and, in doing so, has the capacity to awaken some creative, vital spark.
Seen from afar, the pavilion reads as two parallel lines set against the gently undulating landscape. It is a defined architectural object that makes no pretensions to naturalness – but its every design gesture is imminently decipherable and logical, grounded in and given meaning by the experience it seeks to create. It does not take on the form of a glass pavilion simply to play with creating one of architecture’s most daring typologies, nor adopt minimalism as a purely aesthetic sensibility. Koonya Pavilion lays itself bare to the landscape because it is the most straightforward route to achieving an authentic, inimitable experience of place.