Place of Escape – Bass Coast Farmhouse by Wardle

Words by Brad Scahill
Architecture by Wardle
Photography by Sharyn Cairns
Landscape by Jo Henry Landscape Design
Structural and Civil Engineering by OPS Engineers

On approach, Bass Coast Farmhouse presents a simple and unfussy form reminiscent of traditional Australian farm buildings. Crafted by Wardle, the enigmatic house exists as a composition of pure elements distilled to deceptively simple forms – roof, walls and chimney – collected and structured around an open courtyard and suspended lightly on a natural rise in the landscape. Here is an introspective place of escape, formed as a tactile enclosure capable of protecting its occupants from the often-adverse conditions of the coastal site.

Perhaps the defining quality of this stretch of Victoria’s Bass Coast is the undulating nature of its rolling dunes and rocky rises. The placement of a family home in this landscape carries an intimidating responsibility to integrate sensitively within the context of coastal reserves and ocean beachfront. John Wardle has embraced this responsibility with a dexterity recognisable in many projects delivered by his eponymous practice. He describes the occupation of the land as an exploration of “building on terra firma”. The solid ground, uncluttered and almost arid in its openness, is addressed with an ambition to maintain and celebrate that for which it is most widely recognised. “It was important for the house to nestle into its surroundings with minimal impact on the land itself,” he says.

Cooler materials such as concrete, steel and ceramic tiles complement and contrast the swathes of timber panels applied across walls and ceilings.

The culmination of this design strategy is evident in the built outcome of Bass Coast Farmhouse in more ways than one. The house is sensitive in its scale, appearing from afar as a single storey, notwithstanding the second level, an undercroft discreetly concealed by a natural fold in the land. The volume is conscientiously wrapped in muted natural materials that bear a tonal relation to the landscape – silvered timber screens and a galvanised steel roof. The architectural ambition is complemented by a planting strategy to repair and remediate the site with the re-introduction of native flora following construction.

Beyond site-specific constraints, the form of Bass Coast Farmhouse is influenced by a typical Wardle design strategy, present in so much of the practice’s rural residential work, ascertained by engaging with several design principles, or “rules” as John describes. The narrative plays on the traditional Australian farmhouse, and as such, “it was to be a farmhouse, pure and simple,” comments John. This unwavering confidence in the aesthetic resolution of the project influenced the decision-making process to define the form, occupation and materiality of the house from the outset.

The atmospheric interior is imbued with a sense of warmth and a stillness, as carefully controlled natural light interacts with its raw materiality.

The brief for the project was loose and unprescribed, an intentional outcome of the trust held by long-time clients familiar with Wardle’s process of making architecture fit for purpose. The primary request was for space enough to accommodate 14 occupants – a coastal escape for friends and family – in both sleeping quarters and leisure spaces. The program of the building was subsequently informed by this guest number and defined the allocation of spaces fanning out around a central axis – a light-filled internal courtyard at the heart of the farmhouse. This courtyard exists as a response to the need for enclosure; the building creates a protective perimeter and a shelter from the often-adverse coastal conditions of strong ocean winds and heavy winter rains.

Despite the loose brief, John emphasises the importance of maintaining the design narrative throughout the process. “A farmhouse by its nature must be hardworking and functional,” capable of balancing utility and beauty. The success of this narrative is evident; the exterior manifests as hardworking and robust – a necessary response to the climate – whilst the interior has the luxury of being warm, comfortable and elegantly composed for the enjoyment of living within its spaces. John speaks with passion about design inspiration for the undercroft of the farmhouse following a visit to Brazil and the lasting impact of the modernist work of Lina Bo Bardi and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. These influences manifest in the use of concrete and the articulation of the undercroft spaces, a defining moment of the building. “It’s not often the opportunity to include such an element in a project comes about, a sign of a long, trusting client relationship.”

Moving around the building is to move around the landscape; one is never disconnected from the interior courtyard, the landscape below or the landscape beyond the home.

The ritual of arrival is an imperative part of experiencing Bass Coast Farmhouse, embedded within the fabric of the building. The simple silhouette of the home is achieved with a skin of timber shutters wrapping the façade, closing the building to the outside world when not in use. Arriving is a process in and of itself. “There’s an element of unpacking and unfolding required which imbues the house and the occupants with a sense of arrival,” says John. Unpacking the building requires guests to engage with actuators – manual mechanisms that open and close the shutters. This process marks a threshold of sorts, “the deliberate and contemplative action somehow matching the intention of a break away from the city.” The analogue nature of the house serves a purpose beyond this psychological delineation too, providing privacy when occupied and security when uninhabited. In the same way that the building is unlocked upon arrival, so too is this system engaged for ‘locking down’ the house when leaving.

From the interior of the entry – appropriately reminiscent of a farmhouse mud room – one is presented with the first view into the interior courtyard around which the house is arranged. Here it is possible to better understand the elegance of the house in the landscape; the concrete plane of the floor cantilevers over the topography as it falls away to give the sense of a lightweight element hovering elegantly above the rise in the land. Below is the undercroft, functional in its occupation and beautiful in its composition, containing utility spaces and outdoor cooking and dining, and peppered with considered concrete objects. All areas of the main level – devoted to spaces for sleeping and socialising – are connected to the interior courtyard by a shuttered ‘colonnade’ that compiles the primary circulation between spaces. Although the circulation is extensive for a home with spaces so efficiently composed, it is celebrated as an important part of the occupation in its own right. Moving around the building is to move around the landscape; one is never disconnected from the interior courtyard, the landscape below or the landscape beyond the home. The culmination of all these moments of connectivity to land injects drama into the act of moving between spaces and is an invitation to linger and embrace slowness.

The warmth and pace of the interior is achieved through a conscientious selection of raw, natural materials – timber mostly – and is consistent with the exterior palette faithful to the typical structures of rural farmhouses. Concrete, steel and ceramic tiles complement the swathes of timber panels applied across walls and ceilings and used with considered execution for solid joinery elements. John’s touch extends beyond the architecture into other parts of the building too; his design sensibilities are evident in the 12-seater dining table and a selection of curated moments for solitude – seating cradled within timber-lined window boxes. Additional input into the furnishing and minutiae of the family home makes this project an unapologetic immersion in the work Wardle has cultivated in the extensive catalogue of beautifully crafted rural homes. The final moment of the project, as it falls across the landscape, is a circular swimming pool – an element of minimalism and abstraction equal to that of the farmhouse.

Pure form-making and elegant detail resolutions are usually hard fought. Bass Coast Farmhouse is no exception. John speaks with pride of the small but dedicated consultant team that “brought this house to life” and delivered a successful project under the infamous and challenging circumstances of building within pandemic restrictions. The clients had been unable to visit under these circumstances during most of the construction program, though they were involved in all the decision making. The impact of their first visit as the home was nearing completion – and perhaps the impact of the quality of the craftsmanship, the exterior simplicity and interior detail – is embodied in John’s modest final word on the project. “Their experience of it was something else altogether. It was a moment that defined something close to success for the project team.”

The warmth and pace of the interior is achieved through a conscientious selection of raw, natural materials – timber mostly – and is consistent with the exterior palette faithful to the typical structures of rural farmhouses.