A striking assemblage of crisp concrete boxes, Balmoral House by Clinton Murray and Polly Harbison acts as both an urban sculpture and a home for its residents.
Af Jennifer McMaster
Sitting in a beachside inlet just north of Sydney, the project was developed in close collaboration with its clients, who requested a home that could also hold their art collection. The result is a building that elegantly combines the pragmatism of a house with the drama and grace of a gallery.
Inspiration for this approach came from the work of Isamu Noguchi, whose artworks investigate solid and void, and the act of framing. Similarly, Balmoral House is formed by three elemental boxes, which are stacked and arrayed across their site. These volumes appear to balance effortlessly, floating in space despite their weight.
At an urban scale, Balmoral House is both commanding and surprisingly sensitive. On approach, the house lifts itself up to indicate entry and exposes its impressive concrete underbelly. Moving closer, however, the building drops down and pulls apart, framing a view to the ocean beyond. This void also acts as a sculpture courtyard, displaying artworks for the community to observe and enjoy.
The decision to share aspects of the site with the public was championed by the architects, Clinton Murray and Polly Harbison, who deliberately resisted the neighborhood’s tendency to privatize precious views. In contrast, the void left over by Balmoral House means that passers-by can enjoy prized waterfront views – and art – as they wander down to the beach.
Balmoral House reads as a sculpture that is bold, daring and architecturally pure. Yet, behind this deceptively simple diagram is a carefully crafted volumetric composition. Rather than being stacked randomly, each concrete form has been tweaked and tamed to respond to views, ensure privacy and capture the sun.
Moving inside, the cleverness of Balmoral House further reveals itself. The forms selectively block out the surrounding urban context and frame glimpses of the landscape. The initial building diagram, of solid and void, is ever-present, with deep concrete reveals maintaining a sense of the building’s mass.
The robust concrete exterior extends to the interior, where it is softened by touches of blackbutt, bronze, and brass. Occasionally, an element of playfulness makes its way into the design, such as with the ‘Yves Klein’ blue ceiling that caps the living room, and the cloud-like carpet that lines the bedroom floors.
In keeping with the brief, much of the interior has been designed around specific artworks. This is seen in the staircase, which connects the home’s three levels. Triangular wedges pull back to create sculpture niches and draw light in from above. The changing light quality in this space animates the experience of movement and enlivens the sculptural objects dotted throughout the stairwell.
In a celebration of Sydney’s climate, the house can be opened, shut, shaded and protected. Timber doors slide back, with neat flyscreens left behind. Blinds are recessed into the concrete mass, providing protection from heat and glare without cluttering the form with pelmets and mechanisms. In the kitchen, sliding doors peel back to frame water and bush views. The space is joyous and free, with an impossibly slender column supporting the entire structure above.
Ultimately, the success of Balmoral House comes from its ability to retain its initial concept in the built outcome. The diagram is supported through every detail with discipline and restraint. This quality makes Balmoral House an astonishing piece of architecture that is a delight to experience both inside and out.