Architecture

John Ellway’s striking homes play on the traditional Queenslander design, bringing the garden into the home. By Naomi Stead.

Architect John Ellway’s green thumb

Terrarium House reworks an existing cottage.
Credit: Toby Scott

Frank Lloyd Wright once famously quipped that the difference between doctors and architects is “the physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines”. If you’re looking for camouflage, vines will do the trick: they’ll conceal errors in composition or construction, enough to make them invisible from outside.

But what if your focus was not on the exterior, but rather on the interior life of the building, concerned with what it’s like for people to be inside, their need for privacy and a connection with other living things, including plants? In that case, vines may be a virtue – as we see in a series of recent houses by Brisbane-based architect John Ellway.

Ellway’s work has garnered a lot of interest in a short period – having been in sole practice only since 2017, he earlier worked for seven years with stalwart Brisbane architect James Russell. The interest is partly because his houses, while modest in size and budget, pursue a larger agenda: the design of housing that offers flexibility and adaptability over time, as well as densifying the suburbs, at relatively low cost. Although more expensive than a volume-built, off-the-rack brick veneer in the far outer suburbs, these houses still cost far less per square metre than most bespoke architectural designs. Importantly, they also show a lively reinterpretation of local Brisbane housing traditions, particularly in the relationship between house and garden.

We can see this dual agenda in several of Ellway’s recent houses. The Three House in Brisbane’s Paddington, for example, explores multigenerational living through an adaptable plan comprising three pavilions that can be connected or separated in various configurations as needed.

Meanwhile, the Hopscotch House, his most recently completed project, has a long, linear plan, with five distinct courtyards offset on either side – lending the hopscotch shape – each a distinct outdoor room that uses a specific tree or plant for highly architectural effect. Thus a stand of tropical birches forms a neighbourhood garden and sitting area at the street edge, a flowering crepe myrtle marks the entry, a mature olive manages western sun in another courtyard, and so on. In explaining this approach, Ellway reflects on the Japanese tradition of artifice in garden design, with highly controlled landscapes set in courtyards viewed through a carefully framed interior.

Another notable response can be seen in the Twin Houses, a kind of built mini-manifesto contribution to contemporary debates about infill development. Like many progressive Australian architects, Ellway looks to how we can densify the so-called “missing middle” suburbs – a necessity if we are to house a growing population while containing sprawl.

It makes sense to do this in the established middle suburbs because they already have access to transport, schools, shops and other amenities often missing from subdivisions at the outer reaches. Larger lot sizes often also mean there is the space for infill additions without swallowing up all the yard or overly encroaching on the house and neighbours. The principle is that sensitive, well-designed architectural insertions can offer flexibility: embracing and going beyond the fabled granny in her flat.

In this context, the Twin Houses project is a small-scale “mum and dad” development, taking a site in middle-ring Tarragindi and splitting the block lengthwise, creating an economy of scale by building two virtually identical houses side by side. Following the Brisbane tradition of elevating houses on columns to deal with hilly topography, it creates a lush undercroft garden beneath and between the two houses. But most strikingly, in an unusual act of architectural self-effacement, the fronts of both buildings are completely enveloped in vines. Ellway is pragmatic about this move – the planting offers a living privacy screen to the bedrooms and bathrooms at the front of the house, he says, while also offering greenery back to the neighbourhood. But there’s definitely something noteworthy going on here, in the relationship between building, streetscape and landscape, and the striking use of vegetation as an architectural material.

The vines got me interested in Ellway’s work in the first place, through his earlier Terrarium House, completed in 2017. A major reworking of an existing 100-year-old cottage, this project joins the long tradition of architects using their own houses as testing grounds and showcases for design ideas, and it too has a street facade entirely veiled by plants. Once again, this was practical: screening a new semi-open stairway and lower-level living space from the street, the flourishing passionfruit vines retain privacy, offering secluded glimpses out, and letting filtered light in. But downstairs at the Terrarium House is the space that gives it its name and which is, for me, the most compelling aspect.

It’s either a cliché or a tenet, depending on your perspective, that Queensland architecture should be understood in relation to the natural environment. Despite the fact the raised “timber and tin” dwellings known as Queenslanders became common in Brisbane only in the 1860s, they have come to be seen as an authentic vernacular. Emerging from (or rotting into) jungly gardens – their occupants padding about with bare feet as fans turn lazily overhead – here place identity and environmental determinism are inextricably entangled, tied together with romanticism.

Perhaps what these beguiling mythologies really reveal is our hunger for an architecture that offers a distinct idiomatic expression – a style of our own. It also springs from literary origins, with David Malouf’s lyrical accounts of life in Brisbane taking a central place. In his essay “A First Place: The Mapping of a World”, for example, Malouf describes Brisbane’s dramatic topography (“all gullies and sudden vistas”), the disorienting effects of its winding river and the “almost vulgarly picturesque” ambient effects of light and cloud. Malouf is most graceful in his description of the Brisbane timber house, “raised on tree-stumps to leaf level and still having about it some quality of the tree”: a nest of rooms surrounded by creaking verandahs where enclosure is not a matter of solid walls and sealed rooms but instead of delicate unwritten rules governing layers of sanctity, privacy and access.

If in Malouf’s account the inside and outsideness of the timber house are blurred, so are the upstairs and the down – the upper platform is the house proper, with its social constraints and proprieties, while the dim and mysterious underhouse is its shadowy counterpart, bare-earthed and wrapped in lattice, a place of secrets and hanging clothes. As a potentially sinister but also liberating space of danger and discovery, Malouf finds this “in many ways the most interesting place of all”.

This kind of underhouse space is itself now endangered. Brisbane’s lightweight houses have always been highly malleable, and their history of constant change (jacked up, closed in, built under, extended behind) means that the traditional underhouse, like many of the spaces Malouf describes, is close to being a thing of the past. Which is a shame: it had qualities that really were special – its dimness a respite from the relentless subtropical sun, its flickering edges shading off into the garden, its sense of repose and out-of-timeness, being screened from yet connected to the world.

This is where the Terrarium House shines. Ellway describes his first visit to an unpromising high-set timber cottage for sale, rotting into semi-dereliction on a block sloping steeply down from the street in Highgate Hill. Everyone else saw the asbestos, the dust, and the mountains of junk beneath, and ran for the hills. But Ellway says he knew immediately he could work with the house and especially the steep wedge of space underneath.

The result is the opposite of what bricking-in has done to so many Brisbane houses, leaving them with a dank and pokey understorey with no relationship to the garden. Instead the Terrarium House creates an enchanted undercroft landscape. Both the north and south walls slide away entirely to reveal a space that is both house and garden: a tranquil, shaded retreat settled into the hillside, backed by the fernery on the street edge, the vine-covered screen above, and the earth bank retained, strikingly, with those stacked concrete blocks usually used infrastructurally at the side of freeways. The dappled shade and view of vegetation through obscure glass preserve – even amplify – the qualities of the underhouse that Malouf describes so lovingly and negotiate an alluring new relationship between the built and vegetal, house and landscape, in the Brisbane context.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "Dappled privacy".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and professor of architecture at Monash University.