November 25, 2022

Architectural poetry: House in the hills


It’s the the elegance of nature which even creates the appearance of simplicity. – Marilynne Robinson1

What Sean Godsell Architects did in House in the Hills is of the utmost importance. Its physical and phenomenal clarity makes it architectural poetry, while providing the kind of stability and rejuvenation so much needed today – in architecture and beyond. In today’s world of practice, this coherence of effort and leadership with architecture is both constructive and communal.

The appearance of simplicity is created mainly by the parasol structure: a completely rectilinear grid steel structure of three bays facing north-south and four bays facing east-west, with north and south overhangs and panels. opening. This parasol, which is completely covered with a layer of equidistant wooden shade slats, is the first visual and structural reference against which the “house” parts take their place and offer their potential – and their protection – to the landscape and to the environment. nature. residents. It has a qualitative presence, delicate and penetrated with light. It is a repeating, geometric and proportionate architectural order against a classic hilly Australian landscape. On the entrance side, it is almost low enough to climb, while on the living room side, it embodies the parallel planes of the ground and the shade.

The independence of the parasol from the “house” elements gives the building grandeur, scale, purity and an extraordinary softness. You are still under the umbrella in this house. And wherever you are under the umbrella, the points of its structural columns, the lines of its beams and slats, and the plans of its escape walls guide and keep you smoothly, inside and out. Walls guide you through the order, allowing you to only go where the order dictates. This stability and clarity is good where the landscape is this large.

A layer of north-south oriented wooden slats forms a 30 by 30 meter parasol above the house, punctuated by a series of movable panels.

Image: Earl Carter

The rectilinearity of Sean Godsell Architects is neither pragmatic nor simply functional. Briefs are never as neat – or as proportioned – as these works require, as any job demands. This commission requires an architect to perceive the true nature and potential of architecture. This order, this prescriptive regularity, concerns life, place, society and the environment. It is demonstrative of the possibilities of our correspondence with these things. It’s not so much about fencing or even space – space will always be difficult in a place as large and ancient as Australia – it’s more than walls and windows coming together, and you end up in relation to this gathering. When you go “outside” it’s just that there is only one plane (wall) in play and the lines (beams) and points (columns) make up the order. Being “inside” just means there are enough walls to go around.

This house has been entirely “architectural”. All the architectural tools have been studied, referenced and cross-referenced in the building: Proportion, Order, Structure, Space, Light, Materials and Character. All of these are clearly in evidence and their presence makes it a total work of architecture in a way that many current works are not. Their operational inclusion means you feel this house knows what it wants to do and why it is doing it. He doesn’t just collect currency, although he surely knows the way of his time. The best architecture responds purely to each place and memory, and also illuminates its potential. But this building is not offered as an answer. This house is truly propositional, as all architecture should be. Straight-line limits and opportunities are displayed; curves and diagonals are to be considered. Respect and prejudices for a limited material palette are felt; lavishness is another way of being. The purity and exclusivity of a limited and repeated order is experienced as if you were one of the members of the house. It invites you to give your opinion and your contribution. Here your awareness and sensitivities are addressed – rewarded or challenged – not denied.

The umbrella helps deflect the prevailing wind while providing varying degrees of shade and direct sunlight, depending on the time of day and year.

The umbrella helps deflect the prevailing wind while providing varying degrees of shade and direct sunlight, depending on the time of day and year.

Image: Earl Carter

This building could be qualified as severe; however, his calm and direct manner really deserves a more positive adjective. You can be sure that it is “made” and not part of the native landscape, although it does take time for the site to grow and reach its own life, for a fullness to emerge. Its correspondence with the landscape is one of the western references, and the site has also been “made”. I am not sure that this strictly rectilinear geometry can differentiate an indigenous landscape, and this rectilinearity joins it to Western / colonial interventions. Significantly, the house is not about form. It is certainly light and shadow – it is crucial that the parasol slats face north-south – and as such our experience of the house is made up of pattern and position. This purity and this poetic deliverance are worthy, and essential, in the manner of the house and of our correspondence with it. If we want to achieve such an architectural reality, it must be well constructed. This project is well built, a lamentable rarity today for architects and builders alike. And kudos to the customers too, who shouldn’t have to be, or feel, so brave. This house has dedication and conviction, knowledge and ability, intention and respect.

The coherence of the structure, its unshakeable geometric order and the subordinate simplicity of the material choices are based solely on the great expanse of the roots of the architecture. They free the house from simple function or personal interest and elevate the architecture to a poetic elegance, experienced as a rich and hierarchical simplicity. The points, lines and planes come together in a way that allows us to feel both our singular identity and our place in the world around us. Of course, they literally build a house, but a house that is one with the larger landscape rather than a house that locks you in. The house reminds me of a quote from Marilynne Robinson:

What we experience as physical reality is profoundly atypical of physical reality. Human experience is the central factor here. We can know that we are an integral part of the universe as a whole, this great storm of energy… Einstein said that time is man’s most enduring illusion. With all due respect, I would say that our great illusion is actually stasis, solidity. Time goes one way, gravity is much weaker than it should be – existence as we know it depends entirely on these anomalies… We watch galaxy collisions and are amazed. We should be more astonished that our cities are rising, that our bodies go through maturity and aging, that we are rooted and derived from a past that cannot be eluded and that cannot be found.2

Works like this have the ability to make us aware of the stasis and change around us, the time we find ourselves in and the future we cannot avoid.

House in the Hills is built on the lands of the Wathaurong people of the Kulin Nation.