Relentless Logic and Incomprehensible Objects – Daylesford Longhouse by Partners Hill
As a farm, household, cooking school, event site and guesthouse built on the unceded lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung people of the Kulin nation, the verdant gardens and varied program contained within Daylesford Longhouse’s diaphanous yet resilient super structure is driven by protective manoeuvres, deductive reasoning and disciplinary knowledge. The project exists at the intersection of a series of systematic processes, each rigorously pushed to breaking point in order to produce a scheme that is somehow both unflinchingly direct and enigmatically exuberant.
“We have to be assured, of course, that it’s not original and there’s no creativity, right? I watch myself very carefully to make sure that I’m never creative.” Timothy Hill, architect-dramaturgist and Founder of Partners Hill, describes the Longhouse as many things: a bar graph, a buffer zone, a route, an inner territory, a participatory encounter with plant life and a mannered shed. Noticeably absent from this list are terms that frame the building as a fundamentally new object, or a formalist interpretation of its physical context. Timothy clarifies, “what I mean is, there’s nothing to do with inspirations and breakthroughs or any of these other things. It was actually designing the conditions to make it seem like it was inevitable or that nothing had happened.”
For Partners Hill, working closely with clients Trace and Ronnen, such an approach demanded a sustained commitment to a thoroughly demystified architectural process. “The clients accepted that if they kept following the relentless logic of being rational, then that was our pathway to being poetic,” Timothy explains. The site’s exposure to intense winds and weather was apparent from the first visit, underlining the need to provide a generous amount of protected space.
The question for Partners Hill was how to achieve this without necessarily resorting to an expressly defensive architectural intervention. The first layer of their response was an inherently quantitative, meticulous assessment of resources required to sustain the amount of garden required by the brief. “The clients need to be congratulated, in a sense, because they agreed to a bar graph,” Timothy says, noting that, “it’s the amount of water harvesting based on the predicted garden that therefore suggests the scenario for the buffering container. [We asked] ‘what is the suite of thoughts that enables conditions where the wind is not part of your life and that means that the animals on site don’t attack anything that grows?”
Drawn as a framework more than a hard boundary, the shed collects within it a series of much more pronounced envelopes.
Influenced by recent historical accounts written by Bill Gammage and others that outline some of the complex land management systems developed and maintained by Indigenous communities across the history of the continent, Partners Hill has become increasingly interested in expressions of territory and prioritising the “ground” of the figure ground plan. At the Longhouse, “every effort at both strategic and detail levels leads towards establishing realms by being a sill, a paddock wall, a garden, away from being a shed, barn or an expansive cottage,” Timothy says.
A preliminary sketch plan for the project site points to the status of the overarching 110-metre-long shed structure as something between territory and architectural element. Drawn as a framework more than a hard boundary, the shed collects within it a series of much more pronounced envelopes. As such, a range of buildings are ordered within the shed as it works to define a protected area on the site. Referring to this early representation of the project, Timothy observes that opening the design process with questions of territory through the plan has emerged as a key aspect of the Partners Hill approach. “We’re very into this reverse figure ground thing and the way that it can almost reverse itself, so that the container at Longhouse, which makes the territory, then has within it things that are seemingly just objects – but you’ll notice that you can’t comprehend any of them in the round.”
Tracing a path through the rational toward the poetic, there are moments when the building status afforded to the collected structures of the inner territory results in unexpected and intriguing details.
This attitude also plays out in the way that pieces of the program are described and detailed as individual buildings rather than rooms across the project. They are encountered as distinct volumes but are never completely comprehensible. There is just one entrance to the project, through a large hall space that separates the animal enclosure on the west from the vestibule and ancillary spaces of the stableman’s, or “pink building”, to the east. Passing through the vestibule and into the protected gardens of the inner territory, the cooking school’s kitchen volume with mezzanine condenses circulation along the northern edge of the shed, before opening back up into garden space again, revealing a bathhouse with sauna and upper-level lounge. Finally, the “blue building” of the guesthouse establishes the project’s eastern gable.
Tracing a path through the rational toward the poetic, there are moments when the building status afforded to the collected structures of the inner territory results in unexpected and intriguing details. For example, the timber-framed window and screen used in the spaces of the blue building appears in an almost ornamental capacity within an internal elevation of the open cypress-framed dining structure. A testament to the conceptual clarity of the scheme and, more specifically, the sense of quiet inevitability that Partners Hill understands so well, these gestures do not go unnoticed, but nor do they call attention to themselves as self-conscious acts of whimsy.
Immersed in the considered language of the Longhouse, it is relatively easy to overlook the efficiency of the structure and its carefully researched and embedded technologies. From the Passivhaus status of the guesthouse to the use of large operable agricultural screens along the northern and southern edges of the building, alongside numerous specifications of the shed’s external cladding that respond to orientation, technical materials and systems are treated as part of the experiential dimensions of the project. As Timothy observes, “passive houses can be so busy being passive that they’re often not extremely stylish. So, this is extremely stylish because – having researched it and tested it – I accord with the theory that the imagination is exercised or invited to be active through making acts of comparison. Large with small, luminous with bright, rough with smooth, archaic with contemporary, because then each thing is set off by the other.”
Alongside the investigation of territory, technology and comparison, the Longhouse is motivated by yet another systematic process through the rigorous attribution of architectural ideas within the history of the discipline. Through this act of citation, Timothy is deliberate about making explicit the ways in which the project participates in the reinterpretation and reconfiguration of existing architectural knowledge. “I’m very reassured that the work is extremely referential. I mean, it’s part Schinkel, part Asplund […] and it’s very Lutyens-y in the plan management. He did those extraordinary gestures about organising the landscape and those amazing houses that were blank when you came in on the entry side. They were just so strident.” Falling somewhere between an architectural element and a defined territory, the 110-metre-long shed structure contains a series of spaces and functions.
With these reference points, it is possible to hold the immediate contextual response to site alongside an equally astute understanding of the planning strategies that resist presenting the building as an object, as in the houses of Erik Gunnar Asplund and Edwin Lutyens. Paraphrasing and reimagining these ideas, the placement of doors at the Longhouse – particularly within the entry sequence and vestibule – plays with the hierarchical arrangement of multiple openings as part of the route along the inner territory of the shed. “What’s clever [about Asplund and Lutyens’s work] is that, by putting all the openings in the one plane, you never end up perceiving the building as an object, because you never go around the back,” Timothy explains. “Everything is different when you can’t comprehend the building as an object. It’s a big part of trying to transfer your experience into one of experience in place.”
Further hints of Lutyens and Asplund’s sculpted interiors register later in the plan sequence through the slight kicks and shifts in angle across plan and section that begin to appear towards the bathhouse and blue building at the eastern edge of the project. The embellishment of interiors has also been further accentuated by the surprising use of skirting and cornice profiles to add further depth and complexity to door pulls and handrails. According to Timothy, there are also nods to Le Corbusier in elements such as the top lighting of walls, and connections to Alvar Aalto through the ornamentation of the pink building’s skylight. He also points out further links to Lutyens in window details, where the inversion of scotia has been used to underline the flatness of the sill.
Recognising the layers of systematic thought at work in Daylesford Longhouse is revealing, mainly because of the way in which it demonstrates the limitations of each reading when attempting to describe the project. Partners Hill holds a more specific interest in the breaking points constructed by the intersections, tensions and overlaps between these approaches. As Timothy points out, “everything we do is deeply systematic, and we’re positive about the fact that we’re likely to come across some moment when it will fail. And then that’s the thing that gives us the hint about how to reconcile the failure, not pretend it didn’t happen.”