by Jerry ElengicalOct 05, 2021
Unlike any lightweight beach retreat in Australia (or anywhere, really), the Bellows House wows with its eggshell white concrete masonry skin that manages to effuse lightness to its solidity. The residential design sits anchored in sand and enveloped by nature in Flinders, South Australia, instantly conspicuous with its stepped pyramidal forms that house skillfully designed skylights, augmenting the spacious interiors with a breezy setting and enduring soft light. When asked to describe the dwelling’s essence in a line, Albert Mo, Director of Architects EAT, the Australian architecture firm that designed the project, delightfully answers – “a concrete sandcastle that evokes curiosity and engagement.”
STIR delves into the conception, creation and design challenges of the Bellows House with Mo, to discuss its characteristic concrete lightness, and what lends it its clean, casual yet purposeful statement. Excerpts from the interview:
Jincy Iype (JI): Architects EAT is an unusual name for a firm – tell us the story behind choosing it for yourselves, and what outlines your design philosophy?
Albert Mo (AM): EAT is the acronym derived from the first letters of the three founders' names when we established in 2000. We wanted a signature that was instantly memorable, punchy, and “digestible”. The practice has been running for more than a decade now by the remaining two – the A and E referring to the first letters of our name, Eid Goh and Albert Mo.
While no two projects of ours are the same, all EAT designs witness an underlying ethos of being grounded in phenomenological design principles and core personal values of integrity, passion, fun, honesty, and innovation. We maintain that our creative process is driven by these consistent philosophical and functional approaches, rather than a predetermined style. We take delight in the experience of inhabitation and our sensitive approach, attention to detail, and exploration of sensory elements imbue our designs with a tactile and alluring quality.
JI: What is the core concept for the Bellows House and how does its location influence it?
AM: Flinders is a seaside town in Victoria, approximately an hour and 25 minutes' drive (close to 100 kilometres) south of Melbourne in Australia. Located on the Mornington Peninsula, the urban village has excellent eateries, gourmet produce stores, boutique shops, galleries, antique outlets, a famous golf course as well as resplendent coastal walks.
I was so excited when the client told me they bought a site in Flinders - all I could picture in my head was this amazing clifftop location with views to the ocean until I googled the address. That’s when reality hit - the site is inland and resides as a corner block, 500m away from all the shops in the village, and bounded by a path that the locals use to get to the back beach. The access to the beach is totally cut off by the Flinders Golf Course, and this is the most direct way to get to the beach. Contrary to my dream clifftop location, the site seemed flat and cut off.
During my first site visit, what struck me was there did not exist a consistent architectural character in the area. It is also challenging to describe the site, as there aren't any structures or features or even house numbers, to tell you where you are. We were slightly flummoxed.
So, I set myself an “urban” design task to create something that was evocative of its location and established clear dialogue with the streets. However, the real challenge was to balance domestic privacy with how this dialogue would be set.
The attractive single row of mature poplar trees, alongside the unsealed road leading to the back beach became a starting point. I wanted to use them as a soft foreground to the Bellows House, allowing their silhouettes to dress the façade lightly, and animate the solidity of the surfaces. White concrete masonry blocks were chosen to accentuate these shadows. We played with the blocks to create screens and reliefs for further articulation.
The result is a long, eggshell white façade, with varying degrees of depths and see-through appeal that make unlikely friends with the unique shapes of the frustum roofs, evoking curious engagement from the street. People stop and examine the building, trying to peer in to see who lives there, pondering if this is a house or something else. The locals now affectionately call it the “Pyramids of Flinders”. These features pose a polemic to the lengthy façade which essentially is a defence mechanism to provide and suggest domestic privacy to the owners.
Architecture is about engagement, it generates discussion, whether you hate it or love it. – Albert Mo, Director, Architects EAT
JI: Can you elaborate on the client’s brief for the project?
AM: I have known the client for a while now, having designed their commercial projects as well as their inner-city house some seven years ago. They called me on a Wednesday afternoon and said that they found a piece of land in Flinders and are interested in building a holiday retreat. I told them I would do some research on the site and get back to them with ideas, but they called back less than a week later to tell me they had already acquired the plot!
Perhaps because this was their second home, the client lent us more latitude to experiment. They love what we do, and their site choice was a clear leap of faith. They also observed in real-time how I care about their projects as if they are my own. Their brief was starkly simple - a holiday home that they could escape from the city in, a space where they could invite and accommodate friends and families, a house in which their girls could grow up amid nature and a house that felt like home but carried obvious variations from their earlier abode.
JI: Why is it named so?
AM: Bellows refers to the concertinaed sides of a “bellows camera” - it is a tube that joins the camera’s body to the lens, allowing it to be moved for focusing. The name was suggested by the client, reminiscent of an antique camera that they once owned.
To capture light like a camera, the skylights at the end of the reverse stepped pyramids focus natural light deep into the house’s insides that comes alive in swathes of stormy grey, dusky brown, and warm wooden furniture paired with subtle colourful accents. The asymmetrical pyramids are also faintly skewed towards the north to channel in maximum sunlight. This light varies and lends dynamism to the plain colour of the concrete with changing days and seasons, rendering the interior design as a response to the passage of time.
JI: What inspired the internally stepped pyramidal ceilings, as well as the masonry pattern that is followed throughout the house?
AM: Over my last two trips to the Venice Architecture Biennale, I have visited many of my architectural idol Carlo Scarpa’s works, in particular, the Brion Cemetery in San Vito d'Altivole near Treviso that to some extent, inspired the aesthetic of the house.
However, the reversed stepped concrete pyramids that you see inside somewhat resemble the ones in Brion, but not entirely. The initial idea was to use the same white concrete blocks that are used on the walls to create the ceiling. To do so, concrete was needed as the supporting structure behind the blocks. To me, this defeated the purpose, and I would rather stay true to the material. So we decided to simply expose the concrete and make it the final ceiling surface inside. As a result, the heaviness of the concrete structure makes the external masonry look like geometric eggshells, with complex engineering and detailing lending it a more minimalist design aesthetic.
The connection to Scarpa’s work was made post this – the stepped detailing of the concrete architecture finds its way inside as well, in the kitchen bench and window shrouds. We even found someone in India to make door and joinery handles for us that resemble this element. The obsession extends into the blocks and pavers as well. We rotated the blocks in various ways to create screens, wall lights, and entry shelves, while the pavers that are used externally in the landscape design are brought into the house, to become walls, bathroom vanities, as well as the base for the kitchen island, joinery, and fireplace. We specifically retained the frogs (a depression in one bearing face of a moulded or pressed brick. The frog reduces the weight of the brick and makes it easier to remove from the forms) in the bricks, and expose them to become a decorative feature rather than shrouding them in mortar.
JI: What can you tell us about the fixation on geometric concrete?
AM: I am always fascinated by the possibility of concrete, its fluid nature that provides unparalleled structural strength. The making of the reverse step concrete pyramids required commitment from all parties involved – we had to convince our structural engineer first to make it work, especially in the cantilevering corner; the builder who would not allow anyone but himself to laser cut the formworks and set them out; the concreter who calculated the slump of the concrete and the sequence of pours. The team in the process began to call the house an “ode to geometry”.
Concrete also spells permanency. We asked ourselves how a beach house could withstand the environment and last for at least 100 years and the idea of a bunker sprang to mind, instead of a temporary beach shack. It is permanent and anchored in the sands and is able to create a contemplative dialogue with the street and passerby’s.
JI: Can you walk us through the residence?
AM: Dusty pink brick pavers become the entry sequence that leads into the native garden, a preamble to the residence. A gap between the stretched white façade and the garage fits two outdoor showers to wash off the beach, preceding the encompassing patio. The two frustum pyramids reveal themselves in their entirety once you step into the spacious living space, lending it extra personality. The hard interior of exposed blocked and concrete walls are given warmth by timber joinery and brick accents. This way, the cool interior instantly feels welcoming and comforting. A beachy, breezy lifestyle is created with the inclusion of the U-shaped south end that surrounds a homely courtyard.
JI: What was your favourite part of designing the Bellows House?
AM: We designed the wetsuit hanging rails and the firewood storage at the side of the garage, to epitomise the idea of a holiday house and celebrate the location as much as possible. Too often, these everyday objects are left unconsidered, or as last-minute add-ons, but when you design them in mind from the beginning, they become part of the overall experience and expression of the residential and interior design, further enhancing the quality of living.
JI: What is your dream commission?
AM: My dream commission is my next project. I am an eternal optimist, and I always think that it will be my best project yet. There is so much more that I want to do and learn, and I cannot wait.
JI: Is there an existing work of architecture that you wish you had designed?
AM: Of course, there are far too many to cite. Every day I see great works of architecture from all over the world that make my jaw drop, sending shivers up my spine, in the best possible way. I literally just saw amazing projects by a Paraguayan firm, Gabinete de Arquitectura. Beautiful intervention of natural materials in contemporary settings.
JI: What music or creative agency keeps you hooked to designing and creating?
AM: I keep going back to this TV show from about 10 years ago called The Mentalist, where Patrick Jane, the protagonist, uses his sharp skills of observation to help solve crimes and get into the mind of the perpetrators. I am greatly inspired by his character. Instead of deductive reasoning to solve crimes, I try to apply it to solve architecture. I believe I am a keen observer and profiler and use reasoning as my design methodology for all my projects.
JI: What can you tell us about your own home? Does it reflect a similar design language as your commissioned residential designs?
AM: I am in the process of renovating and extending my home. It was a modernist house built in the late 50s and designed by my local architectural hero, Peter McIntyre. While no two of our designs are the same, I suppose what is similar is that it is about the experience of inhabitation and our sensitive approach, attention to detail, and exploration of sensory elements.
JI: What makes an ideal residence?
AM: Whether it is a residence or a toaster, great design to me is functional as well as experiential. How do your footsteps sound on the marble flooring? How does the wooden slats smell when the fireplace comes to life? How does the sunlight streaming from the skylights feel on your skin? How does your bedroom window frame the view as you sip you first cup of coffee in the morning?
I care a lot about craftsmanship and how things are being put together, regardless of the typology. Some say I am obsessive and care too much. It bothers me a lot when I see buildings that clearly have no consideration of structure as if it is secondary to wallpapers or the wall hanging. Everything, from the tiniest switchboard to the furniture and the kitchen top need to be weighed carefully, and not just added for the sake of doing so or just to look pretty.
JI: What do you think is the future of residential architecture? What are some sustainable features that must become commonplace, regardless of location and budget?
AM: Firstly, I think it is the responsibility of all architects, students, aspiring ones and professionals, no matter which part of the world you are practicing in, to educate their clients about the importance of being sustainable. Twenty years ago, we did not talk about this much, and the world did not pay much attention. If we did, it wouldn’t be such a mess right now! It is not merely about “features”, it is more about the approach to design thinking and strategies. How can design minimise waste and energy? Are we specifying local materials and utilising local resources, instead of spending energy and money on acquiring fancy, new elements? Are we building things that last? What is the life cycle and embodied energy of everything? What is the social impact and how is your design improving the community?
Name: Bellows House
Location: Flinders, Victoria, south Australia
Year of completion: 2021
Architect: Architects EAT
Directors: Albert Mo and Eid Goh
Builder: Cannon Built
Landscape Architect: Jim Fogarty Landscape Design
Structural Engineer: R. Bliem & Associates
Art Consultant: Swee Design