Recently, the owners of an old and decrepit Victorian villa in Toorak, Melbourne, came to architect Matt Gibson and asked, “Should we demo the whole thing?” Though in a character area, this house wasn’t actually within a heritage zone. The house was cracking badly, the rear hadn’t been touched since the beginning of last century, and the state of the foundations compelled builders to advise them to take it down and build anew.
Yet, doing so would have meant losing a beautiful building with grand boom-style proportions so, while it seemed contrary, Gibson’s advice was to retain the character villa, but to add on to the rear creating a contemporary addition. What has resulted is a traditional heritage house in the front, complete with elaborate internal aspects, with a modern, light and spacious house in the back.
To emphasise the difference between the spaces, the rear addition is not just tacked on the back; but they are built as two almost entirely separate buildings connected by an outdoor courtyard. Deliberate attempts to differentiate the spaces include a change in materials as you step over the threshold from front to back from marble to timber. Other subtle traces link the two such as the now-outdoor fireplace in this connecting courtyard that used to be an internal living room fireplace before the back of the old building was removed.
Gibson explains that there were almost two separate briefs for the front and back. The old building locates the entry, master bedroom and guest bedroom within the controlled and regal Victorian language of the front, while the back adopts a more casual and flexible attitude. The expense to upgrade the uncertain foundations and structure of the old house was considerable, while the retention of the ornate capitals above doors, tall skirtings and skylights was important as they contribute to a grand experience in the front.
Due to the site’s orientation, the rear building was designed in an L shape and combined with the relaxed atmosphere of the house, the back takes on a sculptural, fluid quality. Gibson was inspired by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the use of the curve along the inside of the L shape, as well as the materiality and use of timber. As form and material choices developed, the vertical screen of timber slats became a dominate texture in the cladding and also lent to creating an undulating surface around this internal bend. From this main curve, subtle curved elements continue through the design. One of the house walls seamlessly becomes a fence and, in a way akin to paper tearing, this element takes on a soft curve.
While the new and old house sound as if they are almost two houses, the circulation cleverly runs in a straight line from entry through to the far end of the house, linking the two in an obvious way. Along this straight journey, the architect has choreographed how the house unfolds, framing scenes almost like a director rather than designer, with the hero shot the enticing view out through the lounge into the rippling pool. Old world meets new here in a way that looks fondly to the past, but with welcome excitement for modern living.