An Ambitious Vision – La Scala by Richards & Spence
Brisbane, QLD, Australia
La Scala tells the story of an ambitious vision for a small site tucked into an inner-city pocket of Brisbane. The home of architects Ingrid Richards and Adrian Spence, it is a building that challenges assumptions about residential architecture, subtropical design and the use of urban sites to craft a more adaptable, enduring and exciting response.
With its arches, colonnades and terraces that seem to emerge from beneath vegetation, the architects’ description of La Scala as a “future ruin” is apt, capturing the sense that the building is not just contemporary but innovative and forward-thinking on the one hand, while somehow feeling almost ancient on the other. But embodying seemingly conflicting dualities is something the project does with ease. Its expansive spaces, spare and elegant in their pared-back palette of concrete and masonry, could be mistaken for an art gallery or some other civic building. And, perhaps unsurprisingly given that one of Richards & Spence’s most well-known projects is Brisbane’s recent but already-iconic Calile Hotel, the central landscaped courtyard and pool onto which these spaces converge call to mind a luxury resort.
With its arches, colonnades and terraces that seem to emerge from beneath vegetation, the architects’ description of La Scala as a “future ruin” is apt, capturing the sense that the building is not just contemporary but innovative and forward-thinking on the one hand, while somehow feeling almost ancient on the other.
Tempting though it is to get caught up exclaiming about the way the design transports one to any number of glamorous destinations, from Palm Springs to Marrakech, or marvelling at the details that effortlessly reference everything from Scarpa to Barragan, the true distinction of La Scala is not in its comprising parts but in how the design takes its responsibility to the site seriously. To misappropriate a turn of phrase, the architecture asks not what the site can do for it, but what it can do for its site.
The small, sloping block is set in a city-fringe location surrounded by commercial neighbours and apartments, with a remnant hill of detached houses all that remains of its traditional residential character. As a studio, Richards & Spence has been involved in a range of civic projects throughout Brisbane, and the architects are staunchly committed to contributing positively to the city that has evolved over the past 50 years from what they describe as “a big country town” to become Australia’s third-largest city. They were keenly aware, therefore, that the Character Residential Precinct planning covenant that the site was subject to did not reflect its current context.
Rather than being guided by outdated expectations, they sought to respond to the site such as it is. “The need for densification to accommodate population growth has long been at odds with the perception of Brisbane as a subtropical place dominated by single, detached, lightweight character housing (notably, the Queenslander),” explains Ingrid. “Central to this conundrum is the design of buildings which address issues of permanence and adaptability.”
Ingrid and Adrian’s personal brief for a small permanent residence and a venue for larger groups to celebrate special occasions was, therefore, couched by the need reconcile with this more future-focused approach. “The design contemplates the evolution of the site beyond the current brief through spatial flexibility anticipating future programs beyond a residence,” says Adrian. “Buildings designed for a long life with flexibility to accommodate various tenures is a type of passive sustainability which is difficult to quantify and seldom discussed in environmental forums.”
Though resolving this ambition was, in some ways, an immensely complex challenge, the architects distilled the task down to a single aim: to create “a place for one or for many.” This informed all the project’s important design decisions and is felt in everything from the arrangement of the plan to the proportions of the spaces and the materiality of the building.
Simply put, La Scala takes form as two dwellings arranged around the central courtyard. The larger, primary residence is situated to the south, facing the city, while the smaller is to the north, addressing the street. Inverting the typical ‘house and granny flat’ arrangement (much to the council’s chagrin), it offers the site a more full and exciting use. And crucially, it offers a high degree of flexibility, extending beyond the domestic to encompass any number of future uses. Indeed, this adaptability was proven almost immediately, with the Richards & Spence studio currently occupying the north building while Ingrid and Adrian inhabit the home to the south.
What this summary does not capture, however, is the way this arrangement of a pair of buildings around a central courtyard plays out architecturally and experientially. As a place that can respond as comfortably to a single inhabitant as to a large party, “of primary concern is a curation of the spatial sequence,” explains Adrian. “Contrasts of low and high, light and dark, rough and smooth are magnified by a limited material palette.” Even in the largest of spaces, one is anchored by these points of reference, and, though the architecture seems to refuse any distinction between indoor and outdoor spaces, a sense of interiority is not sacrificed.
This is, in part, a result of the way the building does not so much respond to the lie of the land as become indistinguishable from it. One moves through the spaces much as one might explore an archaeological site if given the freedom of full access – clambering up onto a vantage point or descending to gain a closer look at a remnant sunken within the landscape. The plan is organised“ in section”, says Ingrid, and extends beyond the built edge “resolving a dramatic southern escarpment to create a central raised courtyard with direct access to living spaces.”
But embodying seemingly conflicting dualities is something the project does with ease.
The courtyard itself becomes a kind of outdoor room, elevated yet protected by the buildings at each end whose perimeter walls meet to enclose the space between them. The effect is such that, while the courtyard is in fact elevated above the natural ground level, it is experienced as something of an amphitheatre due to its stepped landscaping, ha-ha wall that replaces a traditional pool fence, and twin roof terraces that rise several metres above the courtyard.
None of this would be possible without the enduring qualities of concrete and masonry. Permeated with all the strength and security that such materials bring, Ingrid describes the building “triggering an intuitive response of safe refuge on top of the hill,” invoking an older type of occupation that was not restricted to standalone dwellings but that encompassed residence, industry and agriculture within a solid protective outer wall.
Though brick, stone and concrete are all prevalent throughout Richards & Spence’s work, they are unusual in the context of Queensland, which has historically favoured timber and tin construction. “The idiosyncratic location amidst bland multi-residential [buildings] on the edge of industry demanded scrutiny of the traditional lightweight vernacular,” says Ingrid. If the typical Queenslander represents Brisbane’s past, this more lasting and robust materiality speaks to the architects’ optimistic vision for the city at large that the project exemplifies.
Permanent yet dynamic, the architecture is not only made to endure – it actively shapes the future. A big role for a building on a small site but one La Scala plays with aplomb.