Two Parallel Buildings Above Sydney Harbour – Redwood by Chenchow Little
Redwood encompasses two primary buildings that occupy the site in Balmain, above Sydney Harbour. One, a 19th-century sandstone cottage, is the clients’ family home. The other, a lithe yet structured new contemporary addition, is dedicated to hosting formal gatherings. Though deliberately separate, the two share a rapport that creates a full and rounded experience of the site, the architecture, and the view.
The distinction between a private realm and a public space for entertaining was the focus of the clients’ brief. “They have two young children, so they needed a family home, but they are also great supporters of the arts and host many formal events,” explains Tony Chenchow, co-founder of Chenchow Little. In response to these two equally significant yet separate functions, the project was conceived in two parts, with the new addition and the original cottage designed as parallel structures.
The existing house was sympathetically renovated to restore the integrity of the original colonial architecture, which had been lost due to an ill-fitting extension in the 1980s. The removal of this extension opened up the site to the south and exposed its significant depth. Following the steep topography of the land, which falls the equivalent of five storeys from the street to the water’s edge below, the new addition was inserted along the side of the cottage. As a result, a new entry sequence was created that lightly touches the edge of the family home as it descends to the formal dining and lounge.
The distinction between a private realm and a public space for entertaining was the focus of the clients’ brief.
Set behind a high sandstone wall, Redwood gives very little away from the street. Yet this discrete public face is revealing in its own way, exemplifying the degree to which the experience is stage-managed from the outset. Like a theatre curtain, the blank wall and narrow doorway build anticipation by withholding what lies beyond. Stepping through the doorway into the entry forecourt, which is protected by a sculptural concrete canopy, a line of sight is immediately offered to the harbour and city skyline. This moment of revelation is deliberately curtailed, however,
by the geometry of the architecture that demands one turn away from this glimpse of view to delve deeper and descend into the building via an internal stairway.
The steep fall of the site means that both the living level of the family home and the new formal gathering spaces are significantly below the height of the street, so “the challenge was in moving people down two levels in a memorable and poetic way,” says Tony. The entry sequence is funnelled downwards through the stairway that curves to one side, accentuating a feeling of compression. As a result, the transition is marked by a sense of the theatrical, delaying the view and elongating the perspective by denying any visual indication of the destination.
Set behind a high sandstone wall, Redwood gives very little away from the street.
“How the space unfolded as you move down and through the site and how the view is gradually revealed as you move through the space were important,” Tony says. By holding back the entirety of the view of the harbor, “the experience is carefully choreographed and framed so you only get glimpses until it culminates at the formal living room, where the view is finally revealed.” From this approach, a more complete experience of the site is created – it is not only about the view, but also about the journey down the slope of the land on which the building rests.
This transitory space takes on an almost subterranean quality. Skylights puncture the ceiling at the top and bottom of the stairs, like holes in the roof of a cave, pulling one inward towards the light. At other points, which correspond with the landings and position of doors that open onto the stairway from the family home, the walls are peeled back to allow in shafts of light from above. A consistent concrete datum, meanwhile, grounds the space and is echoed by the detail of the brass handrail that is conceived as a continuous ribbon, emphasising the sense that one is treading a defined path.
“How the space unfolded as you move down and through the site and how the view is gradually revealed as you move through the space were important.”
On arrival at the dining and lounge space, the curvature of the wall splays outwards and the ceiling billows upwards. In this moment of release, the view of the harbour is finally revealed. Tony explains that the approach was to frame and edit the view, with the scale of the apertures referencing the framed artwork that is hung on the walls. “The artwork and the framed view all read in a similar manner and a similar scale,” he says. “That was important because we knew that the client had large pieces of artwork that would be displayed, so you get this interesting dialogue by looking at a painting and then at the view, which is similarly framed.”
Two of the three windows in the space are dedicated to the view; the third is positioned at the highest point, washing the ceiling with light. The result is a subtle rounding-out of the experience. One is not simply pulled outward into the view, but the eye is drawn persistently back by the presence of the light above and awareness is brought to the undulating ceiling plane.
In counterpoint to the voluminous, cloud-like ceiling, the concrete horizontal datum continues out of the stairway and becomes a concrete ledge that wraps the space. The intent was to “balance something that was very ephemeral [the ceiling] with something that was very grounded [the concrete ledge],” says Tony. The ledge helps to anchor the eye and define the consistency of the horizontal plane in a space that is otherwise determined to subvert expected geometry.
While the dining and lounge are technically one space, split-level yet open, the plan is determined by a series of curves. Correspondingly, the curves in the ceiling define the area of the lounge that steps down below the dining table, which, in turn, is set at a diagonal, oriented towards the window to the north. “So even though it is open-plan, the dining and the living spaces are under two separate roof forms,” Tony reflects. “And, though it is very much a longitudinal space, by placing the dining table at an angle it creates a very different orientation within that space.”
The curved nature of the new addition is a considered juxtaposition to the rectilinear plan of the original cottage, he explains, that allows the structure to run parallel to the existing building while also embracing it. Where the two meet, the curved wall creates an interstitial space, emphasising not only the space between the old and new but between the interior and the exterior. At one such meeting point, the new wall curves back towards the cottage to create a semi-enclosed space accessed via a glazed door, which is itself angled inwards. As a result, an experience of the exterior architecture is created internally, and the sense of the dialogue between the materiality of the sandstone original cottage and the roughcast render of the new addition is amplified.
The renovation of the cottage sought to restore its original details and character while also creating a functional and contemporary family home. In the main living level, the sandstone walls were uncovered and traditional detailing incorporated into the glazed doors and highlight windows. Elements of the original footings that were discovered during construction are expressed through the period-appropriate timber chevron flooring. The most obviously new aspect of the interior, the kitchen, reads more like furniture than typical in-built kitchen joinery. “The kitchen was seen as an insertion that stands clear of the existing walls,” Tony says, explaining that it was designed to be able to be removed with minimal impact to the original sandstone walls, should it need to be replaced in future.
The approach of editing views was carried from the new addition into the existing house, with the addition itself becoming a part of the view from the cottage. In the living space, three French doors frame three different views encompassing Goat Island on the left, Sydney Harbour and city skyline in the centre, and, finally, the wall of the new addition whose curve enfolds the edge of the cottage to the right. From the bedrooms on the upper level, meanwhile, the roof garden atop the addition offers a green view; the deliberately loose and natural landscape design evoking the vegetation of the islands in the harbour beyond.
While the cottage and the new addition were conceived as two inherently distinct parts, this level of separation, in fact, allows more nuanced connections and relationships to form. The choreographed approach to the experience of the view is one such example, another can be found in the joinery in the master bedroom. Lining the walls, the joinery echoes not only the deep reveals traditionally seen in colonial architecture but also, on a smaller scale, captures the play on compression and release within the new addition.
Perhaps the most abstract illustration is in how both buildings, in different ways, subtly recall aspects of one of Sydney’s most iconic structures, the Harbour Bridge. The curvilinear form of the new addition cannot help but draw comparison with the bridge’s famous arch. Meanwhile, the noggings and floor joists of the upper floor, which were deliberately exposed in the renovation to create a rhythmic ceiling in the living space, evoke the steel trusses that make up the structure of the bridge.
While none of these examples are in any way overt or artificial, stemming as they do from inherent and necessary qualities of the design rather than a desire to create a reference for its own sake, they highlight the natural congruence that is found between these otherwise very different buildings. The two may be separate, and deliberately so, yet each responds palpably to the other’s presence.
From the moment one steps through the arched door in the high sandstone wall, one becomes a participant in a choreography in which both buildings take part. Through both its public and private spaces, Redwood not only responds to the site but shapes a new, more powerful and particular experience.