Acknowledging context unites many scales of design in Marramarra Shack

Geneva-based Leopold Banchini Architects has built Marramarra Shack as a small dwelling in an Australian community with a rich historical and geographical environment.

by Sohil SoniPublished on : Aug 04, 2022

The Marramarra National Park's undulating landscape of ridges and valleys is situated on the northern outskirts of Sydney, Australia. The folds of this terrain are intersected by the Hawkesbury River and smaller creeks that unite to create a protected delta before merging with the Pacific Ocean. These sheltered waters are where the Darug people, who had been living on the banks of the river and creeks, welcomed Captain Cook and his fleet in 1788. The Australian territory was later occupied by the British, who established roads and electrical networks everywhere on the continent and cultivated orange orchards, amongst other things, in this locality. The community was and still is, accessible only at high tide. Electricity never reached this community, and it remains off-grid even today.

  • Marramarra Shack negotiating with the slope of the land | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
    Marramarra Shack negotiating with the slope of the land Image: Leopold Banchini
  • Entrance to the dwelling | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
    Entrance to the dwelling Image: Leopold Banchini

The Marramarra shack, designed by Leopold Banchini Architects, is located on a slope that descends to the Marramarra Creek, which is to the south of the river. Camping grounds, walking trails, and kayaking routes in the mangrove waters surround this location, where the wing-tailed eagle glides through its skies. Rock engravings, cave art, and trees sacred to the original inhabitants of this land are found around the park. The architects, acknowledging this history, express, "Marramarra Shack is built on the land of the Darug People. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which the house is set, their rich cultural heritage and deep connection to the country, and pay our respects to their elders' past, present and future. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.”

  • Sections and Layout Plan of Marramarra Shack | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
    Sections and Layout Plan of Marramarra Shack Image: Leopold Banchini
  • Model of Marramarra Shack | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
    Model of Marramarra Shack Image: Leopold Banchini
  • A closer detail of the Marramarra Shack | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
    A closer detail of the Marramarra Shack Image: Leopold Banchini

Decisions made by the architects acknowledge this rich historical and geographical environment. Instead of using concrete, the foundations of the stepped house rest on the sandstone bedrock to reduce the negative impact of the structure and construction processes on the land. The building is lifted by timber posts emerging from the stone base. These ironbark hardwood posts are 200-years-old and are reclaimed from electrical posts after steel was used as a replacement. The beams are made of locally available spotted gum timber. Each fold in the floor slab held by this compact structure aligns with the gradient of the slope of the land below and accommodates the profile of the furniture above. The horizontal levels of platforms, seats, and beds match the folds such that they can be accessed from a lower fold. The internal timber wall panels match horizontally with these levels and also with the external fire-resistant fibre cement panels, which overlap–a detail for rainwater to run off efficiently. The furniture is repurposed from the turpentine timber of the jetty that used to overlook the creek.

  • Living space of the shack | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
    Living space of the shack Image: Leopold Banchini
  • Dining space of the shack | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
    Dining space of the shack Image: Leopold Banchini

Even though the floor descends, the roof is horizontal and common above all internal spaces. Sheltered by trees, it is used as a terrace and also to collect solar energy and water to make the house self-sustainable. Internally, this operative allows for the volume of the house to vertically expand towards the creek. The tallest facade is the north face of the structure, and the only edge with a window opening, allowing its inhabitants to connect with the trees and calm waters. Light and wind percolate through the dwelling when the large window is lifted with freely hanging counterweights. Programmatically, it is allotted to be the public space in the house—the living and dining spaces. We also enter the shack from this space, perpendicular to the primary axis of the house. The lower-height and more private bed and bath spaces are accessed by climbing up from here. The smaller rooms have access to a protected patio at the back. Full-height timber shutters mediate between the public and private spaces. The spaces can be merged, when required, to allow for views and let natural light into the bedrooms.

Furniture and details | Marramarra Shack | Leopold Banchini Architects | STIRworld
Furniture and details Image: Leopold Banchini

Often, buildings try to achieve many things, even small ones. This dwelling, in contrast, is an example of a small building with an intention that ties together many scales of design. The building is an attempt to align with the surroundings—land, water, light, and air. The mass of the house invokes a sense of place, as does the furniture. We see this in the logic of the placement of programs and it resonates through the choice of material and detail. The building identifies with its context, respects it, and emerges from it.

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