A Unique Choreography – Lavender Bay House by Durbach Block Jaggers

Words by Anna Tonkin
Architecture by Durbach Block Jaggers
Photography by Derek Swalwell
Build by GNC Quality
Landscape Architecture by Sue Barnsley Design
Interior Styling by Sibella Court
Editorial Styling by Room on Fire

In Lavender Bay House, Durbach Block Jaggers has choreographed a series of unique moments and spatial experiences. With smooth connections between interior rooms and verdant gardens, there is a complexity belied by the house’s deceptively effortless resolution. Responding to the iconic view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which looms large to the east, the building offers both drama and quietude in the tension between its rectilinear exterior and the more organic spaces and forms within.

Sydney Harbour has been imaged many times. David Moore’s aerial photographs, Margaret Preston’s prints and Ken Done’s colourful paintings all capture the harbour from various viewpoints and moments in time. From Lavender Bay, a suburb that hugs the north of the harbour, the deep blue hues of the water with a flurry of activity bouncing above were most notably depicted in Brett Whiteley’s balcony paintings. These images come to mind when sitting in the living room of Lavender Bay House. From here, another iconic Sydney view has been constructed. The 15-metre-wide room opens entirely to the outside, immersing occupants within the harbour. Overhead sit the sculpted white curves of the ceiling, which at once echo the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and speak to the sails of the Opera House. Anchored by tall stone walls, the living room crowns the house. The concept, explains Neil Durbach, architect and Co-Director of Durbach Block Jaggers, stemmed from the idea that “there could be this living room sitting on top of this stone cube and over that this kind of curving, floating, cloud-like ceiling.”

Moving up through the interior of the stone cube, openings are formed and shades of blue and green weave in and out of sight.

Beyond the tableau of the harbour, Durbach Block Jaggers has crafted a home that is the sum of myriad experiences. Neil remarks that “the cube almost appears incredibly straight from outside, but we always […] wanted it to feel like it had been carved away and eroded over time, and there had been this cave-like curvy-wurvy sort of space within the block.” The house is organised vertically, with the bedrooms, bathrooms and other services within the ‘stone cube’ occupying the first levels of the house, and the living room and kitchen located on the open platform of the top floor. Project architect Anne Kristin Risnes comments that previously, the bedrooms were located on the top floor and, often when the owners had guests over, they would end up congregating in the bedrooms to enjoy the view. Like many moments throughout the design, the decision to invert the previous organisation of the house felt only natural; there is an ease to how the building is experienced and comes together.

Upon entering the home from the ground level and through a monumental keyhole-shaped doorway, the scale of the entry foyer and the presence of the sculpted concrete spiral stair set a dramatic tone. Moving up through the interior of the stone cube, openings are formed and shades of blue and green weave in and out of sight. The bedrooms open to their own harbour views framed by the lush garden courtyards, designed by Sue Barnsley Design. Meandering across these first two floors, there is a noticeable cocoon-like closeness and warmth in these more private spaces. The rooms feel as though they are meant as places to retreat to and somewhere that you can truly unwind. Neil explains that it was important for them that “the house had this really rich interior life, and the details are meant to be curious and loveable and strange.”

From the gesture to the detail, each element of the design comes together in a way that feels at once purposeful and as if it were always that way.

Lavender Bay House By Durbach Block Jaggers Issue 10 Feature The Local Project Image (10)

Light has been carefully controlled throughout the collection of rooms within the stone cube. This is particularly evident on the second floor, where a carved-out sculptural form in the concrete stair creates a soft light well that falls onto a white-painted steel soffit and marks the entrance to the master bedroom suite. Entering this room, the material of the floor shifts from stone pavers to an oak timber. The soft palette throughout the house is heightened in this space, creating a calm and soulful retreat. This bedroom is long in plan, cutting through the depth of the house, ending with a brightly lit study that opens to a north-oriented courtyard.

The material quality of the house adds a richness to the variety of spaces throughout. Anne Kristin explains that “in terms of materiality, a lot of the finishes in this house are finishes that we’ve never used elsewhere before. It was quite exciting to be working with materials that to us were sort of foreign but also belonged to the site in some way.” Externally, the stone walls were inspired by both the existing garden walls of the previous house and a wall the architects had seen somewhere in Switzerland that looked like “all render with stones occasionally popped in.” Working with three stonemasons, Durbach Block Jaggers undertook a rigorous process to achieve the final outcome. Likewise, internally, within the master ensuite, the bathroom tiles echo the hand cut glass tiles in Carlo Scarpa’s Olivetti Showroom. The placement of the tiles with a large amount of grout between them subtly animates the floor.

Moving up the stairs and back to the open plan living room and kitchen at the top level of the house, the view is revealed in its totality. The various openings throughout the stone cube and the connections with the gardens build a level of suspense that is released once entering the living room. Neil remarks, “I think that’s an interesting thing – that you don’t show your hand until the last possible moment.” Mirroring the dynamism of the harbour is the green and blue marble kitchen bench that is aligned parallel to the glass doors on the other side of the room. Cladding the sides of the bench, the marble has been halved and mirrored to great effect. Neil compares the marble to that used by Mies van der Rohe in the Barcelona Pavilion. As in that project, here it introduces colour and another texture to the space.

Compared to the secluded spaces below, the living room feels almost entirely open. Opposite the eastern harbour-facing façade, a wide semicircular aperture opens to the back garden and external living space. On all sides, the house has been inset from the boundary so that the building sits within a garden nest-like setting. Neil comments that “to be able to see all the way through the house from the back garden was sort of surprising – we didn’t expect it to work as effortlessly.”

From the gesture to the detail, each element of the design comes together in a way that feels at once purposeful and as if it were always that way. A studied casualness permeates throughout the entire house. Many of the details result from years of refined study and application in a variety of settings. Nevertheless, there is a richness in the multitude of spaces within that is refreshing to encounter. It is a home to inhabit over time. Like the harbour it opens out to, the house is both a constant and consistently provides new viewpoints and moments to experience.