Enduring Splendour – Gottlieb House by Wood Marsh Architecture

Words by Rose Onans
Photography by Derek Swalwell
Custom Furniture Wood Marsh Architecture

On an unassuming residential street in Caulfield, in Melbourne’s east, stands a vast concrete and glass sculpture, a foreign object in a suburban setting. With a stainless-steel door set into its side the only indication as to its nature, Gottlieb House is as intriguing today as it was 30 years ago when Wood Marsh designed the building.

Much can be made of the way that the design eschews every convention of residential architecture, challenging all expectations of what a house should be. But the fact that the Gottlieb family, who commissioned the project in 1989, is still living happily in the house today, having changed no aspect of the building nor even the furniture that Wood Marsh also designed for them, means that such discussions are perhaps moot. Having stood the test of decades, it may not look like any other house of its time (nor too many others since). But it is demonstrably not only an effective family home, which has seen the raising of three boys and hosted numerous parties with hundreds of guests, it is one that has remained dynamic, continuing to delight and surprise its inhabitants to this day.

In this regard, looking at the house now, some 30 years later, emphasises what Randal Marsh and Roger Wood were doing all along: not setting out to provoke shock and awe, Randal explains, but pursuing their own architectural and artistic interests and ambitions, encouraged by their enthusiastic clients. “It’s not for us to predict or even attempt to trigger,” he says. “Everyone comes to any building, like they come to any work of art, with their own interests and backgrounds and thoughts and we all have different responses to those things, so that’s not something we would predict or even think to.” After all, shock value inevitably wanes – Gottlieb House, on the other hand, remains an enduring testament to ideas about architecture that Wood Marsh’s work has been exploring ever since.

Much can be made of the way that the design eschews every convention of residential architecture, challenging all expectations of what a house should be.

Instead of focusing on conforming to or subverting expectations about residential buildings, the architects were occupied with examining the relationship between form, materiality, light and space. And more particularly, they were concerned with “carving positive space out of negative spaces” within the confines of a typical rectilinear Melbourne suburban site, Randal says. “It’s not a house that has a front yard and back yard, which is the traditional housing type, in this, we’ve cut out spaces immediately either side as positive spaces, so the hierarchy is quite unusual on the site.” In response to these considerations and informed by their interest in the work of sculptors Donald Judd and Richard Serra, with rigour and tenacity, Wood Marsh crafted a building that evidences the single-minded approach to its design.

The clients had commissioned Wood Marsh after seeing the building Randal and Roger had designed for the Macrae & Way film studio in South Melbourne. As one of the young practice’s first significant commissions, endowed with the utmost trust of the clients and entered into at a time when Australia was at the height of a recession, the project represented an unparalleled opportunity for Wood Marsh, and the architects embraced this to its fullest. Their brief was straightforward – a family home that did not give anything away from the street, with four bedrooms and the ability to hold up to 300 guests for their sons’ bar mitzvahs. “The rest was left to us,” Randal says. “The only adjustment to the design was they kept asking for it to be bigger; we designed a much smaller house and that was the only real design variation.”

Gottlieb House is as intriguing today as it was 30 years ago when Wood Marsh designed the building.

Though the house is uninterested in traditional conceptions of domesticity, the form and plan stem from a reasonably pragmatic response to the brief. The almost aggressive simplicity implies a level of abstraction, yet the home is in fact a rationally arranged series of intentional interconnected volumes, defined by their intended use and linked by a central spine. “We took the volumes as per the brief,” says Randal, “so we articulated the entry volume as one thing with a floating bedroom and then separated that from the next section, being the living room, so it was a series of components and the components were expressed both internally and externally.” With this approach as a strong foundation for the design, it is the resulting relationship between the volumes that is key to the modulation of experience within what externally appears initially as a singular, uniform entity.

Moving inside, one’s vision is curtailed by the presence of the large steel box-like structure that from the outside sits protruding from the curved concrete walls. On entering through the front door, it is revealed that this volume (which contains the bathroom) also intersects with the atrium, seeming to hover overhead. Stepping clear of this structure, the full sense of space is experienced, enhanced by a circular skylight above that washes the concrete walls and the skeletal steel and concrete staircase with light. Ascending the stairs to the upper level, one finds darker, lower spaces, their cave-like qualities confounding their elevated position. And at ground level, just as the steel bathroom volume juts into the atrium, the volumes containing the bedrooms appear to be set into the living space below, each massive concrete form defined by fine blades of glass on either side that juxtapose the weight of the volume with the natural light that streams in from outside. Furthermore, at this ground level, glass external walls create a sense of delicacy that contrasts with these weighty volumes above and with the substantial internal walls and concrete colonnade that supports the overhanging upper level.­

While the robust, limited number of materials is one of the notable aspects to Gottlieb House, light has arguably just as significant a role to play and can almost be considered a part of the material palette. Randal describes the solid forms that make up the building as being either stitched together or, alternatively, broken by light, and whether light is conceived as a cohesive or a fracturing force, it has a crucial power in creating a building that is as dynamic as it is strong. There is an uncomplicated quality to the materiality and lack of ornamentation; while the house is, in many ways, guarded, it is also a case that what you see is what you get when it comes to the materials. The monochromatic palette is the same inside and out, and the walls are solid concrete and cement render, with no delineation between materiality internally or externally – the building does not have a skin but is rather a solid mass from which spaces have been carved out.

Into this rather emphatic equation, then, comes light. The robust nature of the materiality could be credited with the house’s longevity.“We always perceived that the building would patina, particularly the entry form because there are no gutters, so water just runs down the face of it,” says Randal. “The client was aware of this and liked the idea but oddly it hasn’t patinaed as much as I thought [it would], and it still looks pretty new to me.” But though this can explain the buildings physical timelessness, the interplay between these materials and the dynamic qualities of light is arguably just as integral to the less tangible question of its continuing relevance over 30 years. The house’s characteristics shift and change with the light – on a bright day, some spaces seem awash with light and then take on a more subtle quality when it dims. The thin slivers of light that seem to intersect the concrete masses both emphasise their strength and the way, at times, they seem to hover, as though weightless. And the drama of the skylight in the atrium enhances the sense of its vast volume and stresses the contrasting enclosure of the upper level. In all these things and more, light brings the building alive in ways that are intuitive, bold, and, above all, intriguing.

It is clear that, though Wood Marsh was not concerned with triggering or prescribing superficial reactions, Gottlieb House takes the act of piquing a genuine emotional response seriously and finds immense satisfaction in creating moments of drama. “We’re quite interested in the emotional journey that you experience when you walk into a building,” Randal reflects. “When you approach a building, you have one interpretation of what you might expect, and then you are drawn in with a different sense when you enter.” While the presence of the house externally is consciously monolithic, entering the space reveals more controlled, nuanced and affecting qualities. The sense of compression experienced upon entry, the contrast with the expansive volume one then moves into, the theatrical approach to light that enters from above or vertically interrupts the solid mass of a wall through a sliver of glass, the tactile materiality of concrete and steel – for all its monumental scale, the house is profoundly intimate in the way it is experienced.

After all these years, perhaps it is this quality that has held the key to the home’s success. Technical prowess and stylistic innovation alone do not tend to be the best predictors of which buildings will stand the test of time. Much like the sculptures that inspired its design, Gottlieb House’s enduring power lies in the emotion that inhabits the work.