Unfolding beyond the modest façade of a heritage-listed Victorian terrace, South Melbourne House’s lofty aspirations are articulated in the unexpected drama of its spaces.
As the home of Pandolfini Architects’ Dominic Pandolfini, the studio’s long-held interest in striking forms and the juxtaposition of materials celebrates the distinction between old and new, while balancing experimental details and nuanced gestures.
The quiet confidence embodied in this new addition belies the restrictions entailed by a tight site with a heritage listing.
With the concrete structure of the new addition fully exposed, a sense of enduring permanence is created, equal to that which the original terrace has developed over the passage of many years. Highlighting the possibilities that the project as Dominic’s own home presented, the quiet confidence embodied in this new addition belies the restrictions entailed by a tight site with a heritage listing. “Projects like these often serve as a test case, and not having a typical client allowed us to try some things we might have been otherwise tentative to do,” he explains. “We typically do really extensive documentation for our projects and labour over every detail. It was liberating not having to do this.”
Liberating, but not without its challenges. With Dominic and his family having owned the home for several years while it was in a run-down state, the brief was relatively uncomplicated – repair the original house, provide more space for the inhabitants, and use materials that could withstand life with three kids and dog while creating a sense of warmth, texture and permanence. However, the ensuing design process was less straight-forward. “It was certainly a bit different,” he recalls candidly. “I would prepare some drawings and images and take them home to discuss over dinner. My wife and I typically disagreed on every element and, unconstrained by the typical norms of a client architect relationship, we’d end up having a fight. I would then proceed without any input or oversight until someone from our office – on one occasion a student – would quietly take me aside and tell me where I was going wrong.”
The light tones of the structural concrete and polished plaster are balanced by the dark concrete slab in the new addition, adding depth.
Principally, the response to the brief was driven by expressing the contrast between old and new – sometimes directly, at others more abstractly. “Our office has done several additions to existing buildings and the interaction between old and new is always fertile ground. At the same time, our work often explores the relationship between strong heavy forms and delicate details, so this all comes together in a project like this,” reflects Dominic. This approach is apparent from the outset, as the exposed structural concrete immediately contrasts the addition with its older counterpart. The emphasis on concrete as a contrasting element is then carried throughout elements of the new, as well. “The concrete is quite rough and probably not as perfect as it could have been – if this had happened on a client project, I would have been pulling my hair out,” Dominic says. “[But] the final result is that the imperfections in the concrete have added to the overall feel of the house and given us confidence in using raw, imperfect materials.”
Against this robust materiality, more delicate elements such as the fine steel balustrade, emotive polished plaster, and even the stepped detail in the concrete ceiling that frames the space below, are highlighted. Similarly, the light tones of the structural concrete and polished plaster are balanced by the dark concrete slab in the new addition, adding depth. Hand-seeded white pebbles in the slab, which call to mind constellations in a night sky or pale leaves floating on the dark surface of a pond, are an experimental detail that Pandolfini Architects had been curious about for some time but never had the opportunity to pursue. “The concreters weren’t overly impressed with us walking through the freshly poured concrete, but as the owner and architect we could do it,” Dominic says.
If concrete is the primary physical means through which the expectation set by the heritage façade is disrupted, natural light and space are the intangible elements at play. “Double-height volumes and large skylights were employed to create a sense of space on an otherwise tight site,” says Dominic. With the narrow original hallway defining the experience upon entry, the transition into the new addition is marked not only by change in level and material underfoot but by a dramatic change in volume overhead – made all the more powerful by a theatrical circular skylight that admits natural light from above. A clear line of sight through to the back garden beyond emphasises the openness to natural light within the new addition, while the double-height space allows light to permeate from the upper level down into the living, dining and kitchen below.
As a semi-detached terrace, the new addition to South Melbourne House is predominantly experienced from within. But two key elevations offer different experiences of the home externally. Standing in the courtyard garden and looking back, the new is all that is visible – a clearly contemporary building with a rather timeless air. To the north, old and new sit side by side, the new addition nestled in between the original terrace and bluestone laneway. This is the only point at which the skewed oculus window is seen in its entirety; as it extends across the two levels of the home, only a portion is experienced in each space. Here, however, the full striking and over scaled form, inset into the concrete wall adjoining the red bricks of the original terrace, provides one of the only hints as to what lies within.
As a result, the home feels somehow unexpected – with its soaring spaces, contrast between rawness and refinement, and sculptural forms that emerge from behind its traditional façade – and simultaneously inevitable, due to the robustness of its patinated concrete construction and the way it is so clearly born of its site. Balancing and celebrating such tensions, South Melbourne House finds both curiosity and meaning within its modest proportions.