Enduring Architectural Encounters – The Fisher House by Alistair Knox and Adriana Hanna
As it stands today, The Fisher House is the work of several creative minds spanning half a century. Originally designed and built by Alistair Knox in 1969, it is now home to creative couple Sean Fennessy, photographer, and art director Jess Lillico. Together with architect Adriana Hanna, Sean and Jess have amplified the experience of this modernist home, creating a mindful place with an enduring authenticity, guided by the original architectural intent.
Having outgrown their apartment in Melbourne’s Brunswick, Sean and Jess widened their search for a family home, eventually discovering The Fisher House in Warrandyte. As two creatively driven people with an appetite for modernism, Sean and Jess were clear on their intentions for the home, enlisting Adriana to oversee the scope of work. As a firm believer in the architectural and cultural value of modernist homes, Adriana’s approach was gentle and deeply informed by the home’s historical context. “I felt that my personal responsibility as an architect was to restore and preserve the heritage.” She adds that, “so often these homes are made to be contemporary, which is at odds and incoherent with the aspirations of the era.” Fortunately, the home was relatively unchanged and retained much of its mid-century charm, however, it required considerable work to increase amenity and create better flow between the spaces. Each design decision reflects the building’s original fabric, resulting in a home that expresses its authentic modernist bones with vigour
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Knox was not formally trained as an architect. He moved between the disciplines of building, architecture and landscape design, employing “a thoughtful and coherent approach to his residential work, synthesising a connection to landscape and the surrounding environment,” Adriana explains. Further, he was one of very few architects of the era to practice sustainable design, without labelling it as such, working with robust local building materials and using passive design principles. “I think Alistair Knox is underrated in terms of that era,” Sean says. “Even though he wasn’t a trained architect, there are architectural elements in the way he designed houses, as well as all those classic modernist touchpoints like clerestory windows and straight lines.”
The Fisher House’s original materials include red brick floors, expressed Hawthorn brick internal walls, cedar, blackbutt and terracotta. While much of this palette has been retained, both the architect and clients sought to create visual relief from the muted interior. “In order to minimise the impact to the existing building fabric, we chose to simply render all the internal Hawthorn brick so as to appear much like Knox’s better-known mud-brick homes,” Adriana says. The extensive use of timber and rich materiality is balanced by the large windows and pared back form. “Those straight lines and the fundamental simplicity of the design is a nice relief to the textures,” Sean adds.
“I think Alistair Knox is underrated in terms of that era,” owner Sean Fennessy says. “Even though he wasn’t a trained architect, there are architectural elements in the way he designed houses, as well as all those classic modernist touchpoints like clerestory windows and straight lines.”
Originally designed as a one-bedroom house, two additional bedrooms were later added to the northern wing. While this increased the floor plan, it resulted in “poor zoning between the private and shared zones,” explains Adriana. Addressing this lack of fluidity between the spaces formed a large part of the brief, alongside the addition of a second bathroom. The central living space is open and connected, but smaller volumes have been carved out, creating gently defined rooms. An open fireplace sits between the living and dining areas; it is a natural gravitational point and a spot to pause. To the left, a large spotted gum joinery unit and in-built lounge – both designed by Adriana – define the living area, creating an intimate yet connected pocket. These forms suggest rather than command, and a sense of ease is enhanced by generous views to the surrounding landscape. Jess notes “the outlook to nature on all sides” as key to the internal experience. Not only does this give the effect of more space but, true to Knox’s virtuosity, it strengthens the link between built form and landscape. “It almost feels like you’re outside even when you’re inside,” Sean says. “The simplicity of the floor plan probably makes up for that as well – you can stand at the front door and see out the back, which is a really nice feeling.”
This living space is flanked on either side by bedrooms; the master suite at one end, with kids and guest bedrooms at the other. In the new bathroom, a natural timber palette with terracotta floors and white glazed tiles creates consistency with the rest of the home. Similar materiality continues in the kitchen, where spotted gum joinery and brick flooring take precedence; it is a seamless continuation of the rest of the interiority. The kitchen utilises the original footprint and is therefore modest in size, however, surrounded by windows and with ample connection to the living room, it feels open. Working with Fisher & Paykel to select both integrated and minimal appliances for the kitchen proved essential in the seamless aesthetic required for this modernist home.
Owner Jess Lillico notes “the outlook to nature on all sides” as key to the internal experience. Not only does this give the effect of more space but, true to Knox’s virtuosity, it strengthens the link between built form and landscape.
“The Fisher & Paykel team has been amazing,” Sean states. “They were really keen to do something different, and the ability to integrate all their appliances behind our chosen timber was really important in achieving the right look.” Considering the textural quality of the home, Sean and Jess wanted to keep the design of the kitchen as streamlined as possible, so as not to detract from the clean, modernist lines. “One of the first things I said to Adriana was that we didn’t want to see busy, unnecessary elements,” he says. “So being able to achieve that was very satisfying.”
Harnessing a “less is more” mindset, Sean and Jess opted for a small selection of highly effective and quality pieces to cater to their lifestyle, including a dishwasher, insert rangehood and refrigerator – all integrated into cabinetry – as well as an electric cooktop and an oven from the Contemporary Range. They enjoy the Fisher & Paykel washer dryer in the laundry as well. This is the first time the couple has been able to invest in “really beautiful appliances”, with Sean saying it is comforting to finally select high quality, reliable products with intentions for long-term use.
While minimal and streamlined in its design, this house is robust at its very core – something that appeals greatly to Sean and Jess. “It’s really great knowing the kids can run amuck in here,” Sean says. “It’s quite forgiving and can soak up a bit of living, because it’s not all white walls and carpet.” Yet this sturdy nature does not do away with warmth; it is a home that feels snug and welcoming. The bricks are easily warmed by the sun, there is an abundance of natural light and sightlines offer constant connection to nature. With an undoubtedly restful presence and a soothing familiarity, it is a wonderful backdrop to the sometimes slow and often bustling hum of family life.
Living in an architecturally-designed home never felt like an inevitability to Sean and Jess; having settled into this modernist gem over the past year, they express a touching incredulity in calling The Fisher House their home. They have succeeded in creating a place that carries Knox’s architectural intent, celebrating it through their daily happenings and playing a part in its legacy.