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Inner calm: Cloister House, Perth, Australia, by MORQ Architecture

AR House awards 2019 commended: A delicate play of light and shadow permeates the spaces embracing the innermost sanctuary of this house in suburban Perth

Summer in Perth is brutal, the sunlight white and searing. Robert Drewe, a revered local author, has written extensively of our city’s existence on the sand, in the heat, and under the immensity of our sky and its nausea-inducing light. In late autumn, however, the days are cool, the air crisp and the light a yellower, more forgiving hue. The season is kinder. Having visited Cloister House in both conditions, the sense of transportation from one world (the suburb) to another (the house) is equally palpable – in summer from searing light to cool, with extremes of dark and light; and in autumn to warmth and, strangely, to a brighter, more balanced internal luminance.

‘The ensemble cultivates deeply primitive resonances in the imagination binding matter, room, sequence, garden and sky’

This transportation from car-laden suburban street to dense quietude happens without veranda, loggia or anteroom. The introductory space is merely 400mm deep – the thickness of the outer wall. So immediate and profoundly shifted are your perceptions of it, it almost makes you gasp. With twin layers of sliding doors left behind, sealing off the outer world, it takes time for your eyes to adjust; the interior’s subdued nature is the result of the client’s distaste for bright spaces and the architect eliminating direct sunlight, allowing only reflected light to be ushered in. The architect explains the principal idea of making a ‘meditative, secluded oasis’ centred on a tall courtyard orchestrating internalised vistas on the diagonal. The clients, a couple in their early 60s, are mindful of retirement and in search of a house that gives a sense of refuge.

This is a house of sequences of rooms divided by moments of compression under thick room-dividing beams, luring you to openings placed on the diagonal, around corners, and offering orchestrated glimpses into the courtyard. Along this sequence of encounters, moments of suburban life are objectified by the presence of soft light in shadowy settings. The architect talks of his love of chiaroscuro paintings and the need to make architecture that recedes, reminiscent of Zumthor’s idea of ‘architectural environments surrounding objects’.

Axo and site plan

Axo and site plan

Click to download

All rooms wind inward around a courtyard garden, with broad windows terminating just above head height, making ‘pictures’ of the lush planting beyond. A tall, narrow dining room opens onto a chamber of the grandest scale – the principal living room – divided from each other by a low, thick beam. Moving around a compressed righthand turn into the long kitchen (a southfacing veranda-like room) provides total exposure to the courtyard for the first time. This linear space feels like an undercut cliff that is softly flooded with indirect natural light (this light is entirely reflected off an externalised beam intentionally designed for this purpose). Time feels to have stretched dramatically in the mere 10 or 12 metres that have slowly been trodden since leaving the suburban street.

At the house’s centre, as if emerging from the chambers in a system of caves, the kitchen opens up to the courtyard, where the planting consumes the mass of surfaces and is rapidly developing a sense of pre-history. This outdoor ‘room’, used as an external dining space, is a luscious, cool, green moment and a counterpoint to the house’s interior mass, which encases the courtyard as it addresses the sky.

Three materials persist throughout: generic cement paving slabs, which are amplified well beyond their humble origins, providing density and scale to the floor (with thresholds between rooms marked with timber inserts); ‘dry rammed-concrete’ walls with a red oxide mix, the colour of chocolate and the consistency of earthen strata; and a variety of timbers – mainly used for the ceilings, windows and cabinets – stained and oiled to achieve a rich red-brown. The roughly compacted rammed concrete of each 700mm-high ‘strata’ is a material that a handful of local practices have used over the last decade, but none quite so relentlessly or with the ‘chocolate’ oxide coloration. In the harsh light of Perth, this reacts better than the standard grey mix, which can appear washed out. MORQ is the first practice of which I am aware to detail these walls with square corners rather than 25mm chamfers, adding to the sense of clear, uncompromising mass. The ensemble cultivates deeply primitive resonances in the imagination binding matter, room, sequence, garden and sky. The client wanted a house that feels 1,000 years old.

Floor plan

Floor plan

Click to download

Much local discussion has focused on the house’s external condition and the question of contextualism. I disagree with the criticisms, focusing instead on the matter of scale. The house’s monolithic presence, its lack of suburban reference is entirely acceptable and, in the context of the street, it is actually surprisingly small – especially by Perth’s current standards. From the street, the house lacks a medium scale. Earlier revisions of the drawings indicate the presence of a narrow, low, finely detailed timber veranda. This was removed on the basis that it ‘compromised the project’s clarity of idea’. Had this been executed, it would have amplified the mass of the whole through its fragility and scaled the house to the street. The ‘bodily shudder’ (the feeling of transportation) of the entry sequence would have remained undiminished had it been realised. Sitting here, out of the sun, looking into the beautifully designed and maintained endemic garden ‘outside’ the walls of this fortress-in-miniature, may have added to the project’s deep, romantic roots and superbly orchestrated tensions.

‘What would possess you to allow direct light to enter a house in a place as hot and bright as Perth? Why would you think making white, bright rooms in this city is an act of good design?’

The client tells of her four-year search for an architect and the palpable satisfaction derived from that decision. The client-architect relationship was central to the realised building, and with her cultivated interest in architecture and design, set extraordinary expectations by asking: ‘What would possess you to allow direct light to enter a house in a place as hot and bright as Perth?’, ‘Why would you think making white, bright rooms in this city is an act of good design?’, ‘Surely it makes sense to build a house that feels as if it has always stood and ensure it will do so in perpetuity?’. The force of this latest project has been brewing for some time, most notably via locally realised projects including MORQ’s Karri Loop House (2013). Both employ spatial compressions and orchestrated sequences around central gardens that address the sky, using the courtyard as the principal spatial grammar. But for Cloister House, what could have taken an additional decade to accomplish has been condensed into a single project through this fortuitous alignment of client, architect and an attuned practice-based research agenda.

MORQ is continuing to explore this theme of ‘enclosed houses’ through a series of domestic projects that ‘protect and conceal’ their inner worlds, often punctured with courtyards behind a robust outer skin. Developing ideas first exercised in Cloister House, Enclosed House II, under construction in a nearby suburb, takes the ‘outdoor room’ of the courtyard a step further, blurring the distinction between indoor and outdoor spaces within an impenetrable shell; Villa O in Calabria, Italy, meanwhile hides an open veranda at the heart of its apparently solid volume, keeping ‘a continuity with the outdoors’.

MORQ has been on a clear trajectory during its 15 years of practice from Perth and Rome but it is here, on a busy street, on a site with no particular virtue, in a pleasant suburb, that it has produced its most significant built project to date. While the practice has maintained its natural course here, through this ‘suburban cave’ as a working medium, the client has served to catalyse and galvanise its progression.

Architect MORQ
Project team Matteo Monteduro, Emiliano Roia, Andrea Quagliola, Mark Jecks, Elliot Lind
Structural engineer HERA Engineering
Photographs Givlio Aristide

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today 


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