Two buildings companionably occupy a hillside at Waterview, a historic 540-hectare sheep farm on Tasmania’s Bruny Island. Though both were completed within the last decade – The Shearers Quarters in 2012 and Captain Kelly’s Cottage in 2016 – each is superimposed upon traces of what came before, some physically evident and others mere ghosts of memory. The much-lauded work of John Wardle Architects, the buildings embody the intersection of both the site’s layers of history and its contemporary evolution, as over the past 20 years it has been extensively revegetated and become something of a testing ground for the practice.
A short history of Waterview following colonisation begins in 1818, when Captain James Kelly was allotted the first grant of land on Lunawanna-alonnah, which came to be known as Bruny Island. A mariner, he captained whaling vessels and during the off season built the cottage at a vantage point overlooking the bay. Waterview became a sheep farm and, for some years, a commercial apple orchard. None of this was known to John Wardle, Founder and Partner of John Wardle Architects, and his wife Susan when they purchased the property in 2002. The land had been cleared and was degraded after decades of farming, while the cottage had accumulated layers of additions and modifications. “In many ways, it was an impulsive purchase,” John recalls. “We knew nothing about the history, the land or farming, and so it’s been a process of immense learning about the environmental aspects of this property and the appropriate custodianship of place, as well as the intricacies of its many strands of history.”
For the first decade of their ownership, John and Susan were focused on revegetation, planting nearly 10,000 trees and securing tracts of the remnant bushland as environmental sanctuaries. They had initially intended to restore the dilapidated cottage but embarked upon The Shearers Quarters first to provide somewhere for the family to stay during the works, as well as providing accommodation for shearers – like its name suggests – guests and staff of John Wardle Architects. Over the years, Waterview has become a place where groups of architects from the studio decamp for periods, during which participants learn first-hand the basics of traditional crafts. “Bruny is a real place of reflection,” John says. “In the displacement from an urban environment we’re actually able to think more clearly about the work that we do in cities.” Just as they have informed the practice of the architects who visit, these ‘Bruny making weekends’ have also left their mark on the rolling hills in the form of structures like Louis Hut, several bridges, a birdwatching platform, a bathhouse, a sundial, a stile and a kiln. These experimental structures, the long journey of repairing the damage to the land, and the process of discovering its history are indicative of the important relationship between practice, craft, and historical and ecological narratives of place that has come to permeate Waterview.
This relationship coalesces in The Shearers Quarters and Captain Kelly’s Cottage. At first sight, the two appear to be united not so much by a shared design language but by the familiar relationship they embody – main house, privileged of aspect and comfortably domestic of form, and shed, simple and agricultural, set differentially to one side behind the home. “The two houses have almost completely different agendas in the architectural program that was developed for them,” John explains. The Shearers Quarters was always intended to be the humbler of the two. “It needed to be more the rural shed than the farmhouse because Kelly’s Cottage was that. It was quite important to consider that status,” he says. This hierarchy binds them in a constant dialogue – for all their necessary differences, they share the same DNA. Indeed, in many ways, neither can be considered entirely antecedent to the other. Though the original Captain Kelly’s Cottage dates back to the 1840s, the structure’s new interventions were undertaken after The Shearers Quarters – which was constructed on the site of the original shearing shed that burnt to the ground in the 1980s – was completed. During the design of The Shearers Quarters, the run-down cottage stood as both a foreshadowing of what was to come and a representative of what had been. Then, when Captain Kelly’s Cottage was attended to, The Shearers Quarters embodied both a resurrection of the past and a signifier of the present.
The Shearers Quarters is a relatively new building, but many of its constituent parts, both material and ideological, are much older. The interior is lined in macrocarpa from apple crates, which John found while fossicking through orchard sheds in the Huon Valley for items to add to his collection of Tasmanian apple industry technology. The exterior is clad in galvanised corrugated iron – once the familiar signature of the farm shed now all but superseded by modern Zincalume. Both within and without, the building is couched in the tangible effects of its agricultural predecessors. Similarly, its now-iconic form – which stems primarily from the innovative combination of skillion and gable roofline, starting skillion to the east and gradually morphing to become gable to the west – is a hybrid of collected typologies that come together to form something new.
Fittingly, this geometry establishes a connection to the cottage beyond. The first impression on arrival is of a skillion shed, “then as you come upon it, you see this skillion converting along its length to become gable and only then realise it’s a place of inhabitation,” John describes. With the shed-like skillion at the end situated in the paddock, the more domestic gable is oriented facing Captain Kelly’s Cottage in recognition of its residential nature. The building’s alignment shifts too in a gesture towards the cottage. To one side, it is in alignment with the contours of the site, and then it shifts and slightly twists to become exactly perpendicular to the cottage beyond. Its embedded verandah also aligns precisely with the outer and inner alignment of the historic verandah of Captain Kelly’s Cottage. As if in reply, or as though “dipping its wings in approval” as John describes, the playfully raised angle of the new portion of the cottage motions back towards The Shearers Quarters. “So, there’s a series of elements that provide this strong relationship, that key the two buildings together,” he says.
The fabric of The Shearers Quarters may be humble but it is meticulously woven, achieving a level of cohesion that Captain Kelly’s Cottage does not aspire to. The cottage is undoubtedly even more detailed and complex than its companion, yet its endeavour is not one of continuity. Rather, it is concerned with overtly expressing both the layers of its history and its new interventions. Most of the cottage’s history was only discovered during the demolition of its many additions made over the years, which almost entirely shrouded the original structure. The project became about “a fascination with a history of the cottage and its making,” John says. “A friend of mine, John Matthews, who is a historian and archaeologist, came down while the builders started demolishing and a much more interesting picture [than what was already known] emerged of the making of the house.” It became evident that the cottage had been built by skilled carpenters, though not necessarily ones with experience building houses, leading to the conclusion it had been crafted by carpenters from Captain Kelly’s ships, assisted by a garrison of convicts. John tells how “we discovered these amazing modes of construction – mortise and tenon studs, adzed timber, and nogged brickwork, an ostensibly Elizabethan technique where the brick sits in a timber frame.”
As historical detail after fascinating historical detail was uncovered, the design could not help but be acutely influenced. This history is, after all, its raison d’être. Though John Wardle Architects had broadly documented the home prior to this process, it was substantively altered during construction to preserve these records of history, both as narrative and as catalogue. Even as the new interventions are significant, they are eminently responsive to the original. “There is a great interplay between moments of retained structure and the interpretive new insertions right throughout the whole house,” John reflects. In the kitchen, tens of layers of paint have been carefully scraped back to expose the unusual brickwork beneath. A discovery of a small patch of laths from a lath and plaster wall led to joinery being moved and a new window inserted to shed light on this specimen, “almost like illuminating an archaeological find.” The original timber floor in the living room was retained, where it still shows the marks of the kitchen, laundry and bathroom that previously occupied the location.
The Shearers Quarters is a relatively new building, but many of its constituent parts, both material and ideological, are much older.
The observation that the cottage was a combination of the “competing aspects of being absolutely of its place and from elsewhere,” John explains, is reflected in the new insertions that contain both the hyperlocal and the global. Much as the original timber was milled and the bricks fired at Waterview (the vestiges of the timber mill and brick kiln still remain on the site), the walls, floor, joinery, ceiling and built-in furniture are all constructed from a single pack of Tasmanian oak. The scarcity of nails and glass during the 1840s, meanwhile, meant that these items were sourced from England, and thus John gathered tiles from Tokoname in Japan, and textiles from Maku, a fashion designer in Kolkata, India, and Burel Factory in Serra da Estrela, Portugal, owned by friends of John and Susan’s. All these and countless more combine to create what John refers to as a building of “many moments”, in contrast to the more singular logic of The Shearers Quarters.
Though to varying degrees, both buildings are driven by the collector’s curiosity and executed with the architect’s rigour, resulting in a careful yet enthusiastic eclecticism that also informs the art, objects and furniture contained within. The Shearers Quarters is appropriately more restrained in this regard. “Something about the house suggests you don’t really adorn the walls or fill it with too much stuff,” John explains. An array of items mostly found within Waterview and around the region are displayed on a low shelf, and a colourful library occupies one wall. These are the only two real points where the spare space is embellished – alluding to the fact that the collections of primary significance are the ideas and materials that constitute the building.
Captain Kelly’s Cottage is another story entirely. “In Kelly’s Cottage I have enjoyed having it sort of as a place that exhibits many aspects of my interest in collecting things, a kind of archaeological representation,” John reflects. “Small paintings and etchings fill the walls here in themes of ‘ocean’ and ‘agriculture’, ‘portraiture’ and ‘elsewhere’. They cluster like a salon hang right through the house, quite playfully arranged.” The kitchen, he estimates, “boasts the world’s largest collection of Bendigo Pottery wine carafes, none worth more than about 20 dollars but they are beautiful and work well with the revealed brick walls.” This collection of ceramics speaks to the dinner service that Ben Richardson, a local ceramicist who also made the dishes at The Shearers Quarters, created for Captain Kelly’s Cottage. Where The Shearers Quarters set was produced with modern gas and electric kilns, the pieces for the cottage came from traditional woodfired kilns – with which John expresses a fascination. The dining table too is significant. It continues a circular motif that has been explored in tables designed by John Wardle Architects for many of the studio’s projects. While most of these are refined and contemporary designs, the table here combines an 1820s gateleg table made in Hobart and an 1850s pedestal table made in Sydney, where James Kelly was born, joined by a section of blackwood. “Separately, they contain their own story but combined make an eccentric new social setting,” John says.
In much the same way, from the plate on the table in Captain Kelly’s Cottage to the roof overhead at The Shearers Quarters, the buildings are two intensely concentrated sites of historic, personal, and architectural significance at Waterview. Taking a macro view of the property, though, and it is a little like looking at one of John’s collection shelves – the land is dotted with plentiful points of interest, some historic and others contemporary, some built and others natural. While many are clustered around the houses, some – like the Stone Outlook and the Birdwatching Platform – are farther flung. They have become small markers at which to appreciate the vast scale of Waterview and how, for all its layers of human venture, it is still in many ways a remote place ‘upside down at the bottom of the world’, as writer and poet D.H. Lawrence observed, and John is fond of wryly quoting.
At first sight, the two appear to be united not so much by a shared design language but by the familiar relationship they embody – main house, privileged of aspect and comfortably domestic of form, and shed, simple and agricultural, set differentially to one side behind the home.
After the main buildings, one of the most significant structures on the property is Louis Hut, which was undertaken around the same time as The Shearers Quarters. As a far more rudimentary shelter, the hut offers a different experience of place but illustrates the unique opportunities that Waterview has offered. Built over a period of four days by John, his son Louis, friends and colleagues from the studio, all with no formal building experience among them, “the idea was to build a small hut with no preconditions – no design, no drawings,” John recalls. With an appreciation for the inherent meaning held within materials alongside that for the creative potential in the process of construction, apart from the roofing and a purloined pack of timber studs from the building site up at The Shearers Quarters, Louis Hut was constructed entirely from reclaimed or recycled local materials, John explains. He and Louis assembled the stone wall from rocks that had been cleared by the original farming family who ran Waterview. The primary structure came from the old Kettering pier, while the distinctive exterior cladding is cupped King Billy pine, acquired with the assistance of friend and artist Ray Arnold, which once lined the aqueducts of the Mount Margaret power station in western Tasmania.
From the inventiveness and experimentation afforded by this most freewheeling of projects to the exacting detail and research that underpin both The Shearers Quarters and Captain Kelly’s Cottage, Waterview encompasses a rich diversity of endeavour for all of those who John assembled to join with him in the making of the projects. Here, place and practice converge to not only tell the stories of the past but to actively contribute to shaping the narratives of the future. Moving building to building, room to room, and traversing the undulating coastline, whether knowingly or unknowingly, one becomes a part of a continually unfolding history.