Architecture

The Garden House is a radical reappraisal of architecture as environmental healing. By Naomi Stead.

The Garden House

Louise Wright and I are sitting in Baracco and Wright’s Garden House – the architects’ own weekender, or “sometimes house”, or “sort-of house”, as they have variously described it – on the eastern edge of Western Port, an hour and a bit from Melbourne. It’s both warm and bright for autumn. An enormous dragonfly has entered through a large sliding opening and is zigzagging around, rising eventually to the ceiling where it sets up a great agitated clatter.

Garden House is a powerful demonstration of the philosophy of Wright and Mauro Baracco, who are partners in both life and work. It’s not a “new” project, given that the built elements were completed about 10 years ago. But it’s also not yet “finished”, given that so much of its spatial and architectural quality is provided by plants, which are constantly changing. After more than a decade of careful regeneration, the landscape around the house is coming along nicely. But there’s now also a landscape within the building: plants have pushed up through the earth floor, and wild tea-trees, banksias and she-oaks grow indoors, bringing creatures with them – skinks, a wombat scoping out a possible burrow under the floor, a ringtail possum nesting in an indoor climbing vine.

The vegetal aspects of the house are well captured in Rory Gardiner’s luminous photographs, in which it is difficult to tell inside from out. This is emblematic – it’s a house that redefines or maybe refuses those categories, along with distinctions between nature and culture, house and landscape, building and ground, human and more-than-human inhabitants.

In this sense the building is an experiment – not necessarily a prototype meant to be emulated, but more the exploration of a concept, or a question: namely, how can architecture be an instrument of reparative design, part of the process of ecological repair and regeneration of natural environments? Or more directly, in Wright’s words, “How do you make a building that supports life, rather than just… killing it?”

The architects explored these same ideas in Repair, their exhibition as creative directors with artist Linda Tegg for the Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. A living installation of plant species endemic to the highly endangered Victorian Western Plains grasslands plant community, it also featured the work of Australian designers engaging in environmental, cultural, and social repair – alongside Garden House itself.

In some ways the building’s title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s less a “garden” and more an enabling of spontaneous growth – a tending to and restoration of what was already there. It emerged from a process not of the linear kind, of designing a house to sit on a block, but more a holistic environmental regeneration of a delicate and degraded coastal site and, between the weeding and the seed propagation, thinking about how a house might sit within that, or even enable it. There is a curious gentleness in the whole thing, a radical hospitality; determined not only to live alongside plants and other living creatures, but also to privilege them. Wright describes how one young she-oak, growing indoors, eventually reached the ceiling, and how the two architects debated at length what to do about it. Eventually they agreed that a hole would need to be cut, to let the tree through and out, to the sky. One question, ponders Wright, is what would happen to architecture if “we just got out of the way of the plant?”

The architects regard the building as “just a little more than a tent”, and its main elements are simple. A transparent envelope is provided by a lightly modified off-the-self double-height galvo shed frame, clad in clear polycarbonate sheet. Within this, a smaller raised timber deck floats about one metre above the natural ground running beneath. In the leftover space between these two is a thin, moat-like, earth-floored perimeter strip, all the way around, inside the walls. The benefit of raising the floor is partly to stay above the minor flooding to which the site is subject. But more importantly, it allows the building to avoid cutting the site and smothering the soil, instead inviting all of its life inside.

Part greenhouse and part conservatory, the house has a shack-like informality. It has a dramatically open plan, aside from one tiny “room” housing the toilet. There is a long kitchen bench on one side, a long dining table on another, a wood-burning stove and the elevated raft of a sleeping mezzanine, beneath which a more compressed lounge space can be circled and secluded with a heavy curtain. The ablutions – a pod shower and separate freestanding bath – sit on the natural ground plane, beside and below the main living deck.

The building has no thermal mass at all, mediating weather and climate through only a single skin of plastic, and the shade of nearby trees. It’s not for everyone, Wright observes, but it’s comfortable for around three-quarters of the year: the rest of the time they go to the beach when it’s hot, rug up and go to bed early when it’s cold, or stay in Melbourne when it’s too extreme.

The construction is very direct, in places even crude – this is not meant to be a “pretty” house, even if it is beautiful. It’s enormously refreshing to find an architect with such a relaxed, non-fetishistic attitude towards the way things are put together. The shed frame is something that could be bought by anyone and installed anywhere, quickly and cheaply. Of course such a shed has a certain charm of its own: its lofty proportions and volume, its efficient structure – there’s nothing fussy here, nothing wasted or overwrought. But the envelope is not the point: the shed is an expedient means of shelter, allowing the more interesting spatial and environmental work to take place within and around it.

Being there feels quite remarkable. There is a sense of the building being surrounded by, but also pervaded with, teeming, irrepressible life. Maybe this feeling is exaggerated by the brightness inside, the way the polycarbonate skin catches and holds the light, which amps up the spatial experience to a high key. I was struck by how cinematic it all was, both languorous and intoxicating, in the way of a film by Terrence Malick, say, or Luca Guadagnino. Seemingly minor ambient effects – the fluttering of a trapped butterfly, the sway of late sunlight through leaves, a rustle in the undergrowth – are exaggerated to a sumptuous level of intensity. At times I wondered whether this was a building at all, or perhaps a floating world, all its own.

The extravagance of the experience is all the more surprising because the house itself is so deadpan. This is a strange kind of luxury – a luxuriation not in the building, but the place: the whole abundant gesamtkunstwerk of the natural world, doing its thing. It shows that a building need not cut you off from such vitality, but can embrace and amplify it.

Architecture is usually a major, intrusive intervention, wherever it takes place. And architects – with some celebrated exceptions – have not always been known for the delicacy with which their buildings touch the ground. They tend instead to scraping, filling, terracing and covering it in concrete, in a displacement that springs most often from simple obliviousness – the ground conceived not as soil but rather as dirt, a plane or surface upon which the real work takes place. But if you come to understand the true complexity of the ground – its profundity, and its entanglement in natural systems, symbiotic species relationships and ecological communities, as well as its long history of Aboriginal cultivation and tending – it’s sometimes hard to see how it’s possible to engage in architecture at all. There are those who say that architecture can never be reparative: it is always and inherently destructive.

Baracco and Wright do not accept this. They attempt to rethink such questions from first principles – both ontologically and ecologically. Veering close to the practice of landscape architecture, they conceive of site, and ground, and plants, and landscape, as complex and interrelated living entities, with a history and a structure and a latent biological potentiality, but also the seeds of a certain kind of architecture.

Some hours after departing Garden House, having made the long drive back to Melbourne, I received a text message from Wright. It’s okay, she says. The dragonfly found its way out. 

 

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LITERATURE Dialogues 2022

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Rewilding architecture".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and a professor at RMIT.

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