Australia’s Rising Architects Make Their Mark
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Australia’s Rising Architects Make Their Mark

Stephanie Little, Simon Anderson and Toby Breakspear set the bar for creativity.

By Michelle Singer
Mon, Jul 26, 2021 1:01pmGrey Clock 6 min

Sydney’s architectural scene can be summed up as cutting edge, creative and diverse.

As part of our special five-part global architectural series we preview three dynamic practices, whose founders are making waves globally due to their respective styles and dedication to their craft.

Photo: Chenchow Little / Peter Bennetts

Stephanie Little, Chenchow Little

Known for high-quality design and attention to detail, Chenchow Little has been providing architectural services since 1994, when fellow University of New South Wales students Tony Chenchow and Stephanie Little graduated.

Ms. Little said the practice doesn’t have a specific “house style,” instead  taking a consistent approach that is then applied to each client’s particular site and brief.

“We work across many scales and locations and each of these requires a unique solution,” she said.

“We like to tease out the character of both the place and the client, and express this in the building. For us, a house on the beach for a gardening enthusiast, or a dwelling in the inner city for an art collector will result in very different outcomes. We take the process of creating our buildings quite seriously, but the end result is quite light and playful.”

Central to the practice is a passion and enthusiasm for design excellence. This also means embracing diversity and identifying what is unique to a place or brief.

“Diversity extends to the people we employ and the projects we take on,” she said.

“We also place a great emphasis on the technical aspects of a project. A great building comes out of a thorough understanding of construction and how a building is put together,” she added.

Chenchow Little’s breakthrough year was 2008, when their coastal project on Sydney’s northern beaches, Freshwater House, won the coveted Institute of Architects National Robin Boyd award.

Photo: Chenchow Little

“At the time a lot of architects were doing white minimalist houses, but we were concerned that on this particular site you would need to wear sunglasses inside given the glare off the water,” Ms. Little said.

“So, we added a black ceiling, which absorbed the glare and fine battened shutters around the house to provide the interiors with a beautiful diffuse light,” she said.

Recent winners of a City of Sydney Design Excellence competition, Chenchow Little is working on a large affordable housing project, utilizing the lessons they’ve learnt from designing high-end houses.

“The design focuses on traffic noise attenuation, a short construction time frame, and the site’s industrial past to create a unique outcome, which we hope will improve the quality of life of the inhabitants,” she said.

“We have incorporated a beautiful new public park in the middle of the site to encourage social interaction between residents and give the building a dignified frontage to the street. The client was seeking a design which didn’t look like affordable housing, so they are really happy with the result. No matter the building type we love to work on projects that positively impact people’s lives.”


Simon Anderson

Photo: Anderson Architecture / Nick Bowers

A year spent living in Stockholm inspired Simon Anderson’s commitment to sustainability and how low-impact principals can be incorporated into modern residential homes.

“We think of ourselves as providing ‘contemporary sustainable design,’ or in other words homes that look and feel like cutting edge design, but have sustainable principals at their core, designed in seamlessly,” Mr. Anderson said.

Having established his firm, Anderson Architecture, in 2002, Mr. Anderson said the sustainable principles relate to carbon footprint and material selection, extending to the landscape the building is inserted into.

“Thermally stable design is a core value, when temperatures outside are too high or too low, the home moderates these, meaning the homes are really comfortable to live in and don’t need vast amounts of energy to regulate the temperature,” he said.

“Our design approach is born through a balance between science and art, to use the scientific feedback we gain using in-depth computer thermal modeling, that’s then balanced by the artistic desire for beauty,” he said.

Closely aligned with passivhaus, also known as passive house principles, Mr. Anderson and his team promote these to clients and allow them to decide how far they want to take the features.

“From a design perspective, tactile natural materials are important to us, there is an emphasis on the use of locally grown hardwood timber for instance, to give the rooms a warmth,” he said.

“Indoor air quality is also important to us, whether it be low VOC [volatile organic compounds] materials and finishes through to ventilation systems, [which] provide fresh air and keep warm or cool air in the home while venting stale air from kitchen and bathrooms using an HRV [heat recovery ventilation] unit.”

It could be a double-height space, a void or a strategically placed, window-framed view that adds that sense of calm or spark of joy, Mr. Anderson said. “But these design ideas are hard to describe how they come about, except for saying many years of experience informs small decisions during the design process.”

Waverley House, a new residential property in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, has become a legacy design for the studio, after the clients placed full trust in the architectural team, which allowed them the freedom to push the boundaries of what contemporary sustainable design could look like.

“This was the first house with a ‘brain’ that could think for itself,” Mr. Anderson said.

“When temperature sensors inside the house thought a room was overheating, the brain could open windows if the weather sensor outside said that was a good idea. The home was also a great example of passive solar design,” Mr. Anderson explained. “The large living space is designed to gain winter sun over the top of the double-story home to the north and allow well-insulated thermal mass inside the house to heat up, and radiate heat during the night.”

Photo: Tom Ferguson

Toby Breakspear, Breakspear Architects

Breakspear Architects director Toby Breakspear runs a busy, ideas-driven practice, working across architecture, interiors, landscape, urban design and masterplanning.

Breakspear’s projects explore the “reciprocal relationships that emerge when architectural fundamentals are attuned to the surroundings in a rich ecology of life.”

Focused on closing the gap between architecture and nature in both residential and commercial contexts, Mr. Breakspear is most interested in emphasizing Australia’s iconic “bush” heritage within the confines of an increasingly urbanized and scale-driven society.

“In Australia we often romanticise the image of a rugged, outdoors society in tune with our spectacular landscapes,” he said.

“Exquisite lone pavilions in picturesque locations are our most celebrated form of architecture. These iconic projects propagate the myth of ‘the bush’ as the soul of Australian architecture,” he said. “The reality is that 90% of our population live in cities and historically not a great deal of thought has been given to applying this notion of ‘bush’ to our highly urbanized society.”

Compelled by architecture that is sustainable, the first two projects by Breakspear Architects, Courted House and OneA, both in Sydney’s inner west, are examples of this design approach.

Although different in scale, one is a single house and the other a large apartment complex, both projects use a courtyard version of “landscape” to offer a sense of calm within the gritty urban surroundings.

Courted House condenses and urbanizes the classic Australian wrap-around veranda by inverting the model, with a courtyard providing a sense of ‘bush’ positioned at its center.

The concept is explored again on a larger scale within the award-winning OneA apartment building where 175 dwellings are arranged around a lush communal garden allowing architecture and landscape to entwine.

“Around the central garden are outdoor lobbies, open breezeway corridors, voids to the sky, reflecting ponds and raw surface finishes that bring residents together in the constant presence of nature,” Mr. Breakspear said of the project, which picked up a City of Sydney Design Excellence Award in 2015.

“The apartment planning allows for outdoor dwelling along the building’s leafy edges. By overlapping architecture, interiors and gardens, a sense of neighbourliness is encouraged that is transforming the daily patterns of high-density living,” he said.

Mr. Breakspear has also designed the new Echo Point Visitor Information Centre, in Sydney’s Blue Mountains. Not yet constructed, the slimline structure follows the curvature of the landscape and acts as both a reference point for the region and a gateway between the visitor and ecological experience.

Reprinted by permission of Mansion Global. Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: June 24, 2021


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But as house prices increase across the country, the conversation has started to shift from size for the sake of it towards more flexible, well-designed spaces better suited to contemporary living.

For the owners of this 1920s weatherboard workers’ cottage in Fremantle, the emphasis was less on having an abundance of room and more about creating cohesive environments that could still maintain their own distinct moods. Key to achieving this was manipulating the floorplan in such a way that it could draw in light, giving the impression at least of a larger footprint. 

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Positioned on a site that fell three metres from street level, the humble four-room residence had been added to over the years. First order of business for local architect Philip Stejskal was to strip the house back to its original state.

“In this case, they were not quality additions,” Stejskal says. “Sometimes it is important to make sure later additions are not lean-tos.”

The decision to demolish was not taken lightly. 

“Sometimes they can be as historically significant as the original building and need to be considered — I wouldn’t want people to demolish our addition in 50 years’ time.”

Northern light hits the site diagonally, so the design solution was to open up the side of the house via a spacious courtyard to maximise opportunities to draw natural light in. However, this had a knock-on effect.

A central courtyard captures northern light. Image: Bo Wong

“We had to make space in the middle of the site to get light in,” Stejskal says. “That was one of the first moves, but that created another issue because we would be looking onto the back of the neighbouring building at less appealing things, like their aircon unit.”

To draw attention away from the undesirable view, Stejskal designed a modern-day ‘folly’.

“It’s a chimney and lookout and it was created to give us something nice to look at in the living space and in the kitchen,” Stejskal says. 

“With a growing family, the idea was to create a space where people could find a bit of solitude. It does have views to the wider locality but you can also see the port and you can connect to the street as well.”

A garden tap has also been installed to allow for a herb garden at the top of the steps.

“That’s the plan anyway,”  he says. 

A modern day ‘folly’ provides an unexpected breakout space with room for a rooftop herb garden. Image: Bo Wong

Conjuring up space has been at the core of this project, from the basement-style garaging to the use of the central courtyard to create a pavilion-like addition.

The original cottage now consists of two bedrooms, with a central hallway leading onto a spacious reception and living area. Here, the large kitchen and dining spaces wrap around the courtyard, offering easy access to outdoor spaces via large sliding doors.

Moments of solitude and privacy have been secreted throughout the floorplan, with clever placement of built-in window seats and the crow’s nest lookout on the roof, ideal for morning coffee and sunset drinks.

The house has three bedrooms, including a spacious master suite with walk-in robe and ensuite overlooking the back garden. Adjustable blades on the bedroom windows allow for the control of light, as well as privacy. Although the house was designed pre COVID, it offers the sensibility so many sought through that time — sanctuary, comfort and retreat.

Adjustable blades allow the owners to control light on the upper floor. Image: Bo Wong

“When the clients came to us, they wanted a house that was flexible enough to cater for the unknown and changes in the family into the future,” Stejskal says. “We gave the owners a series of spaces and a certain variety or moods, regardless of the occasion. We wanted it to be a space that would support that.”

Mood has also been manipulated through the choice of materials. Stejskal has used common materials such as timber and brick, but in unexpected ways to create spaces that are at once sumptuous but also in keeping with the origins of the existing building.

Externally, the brickwork has been finished in beaded pointing, a style of bricklaying that has a softening effect on the varied colours of bricks. For the flooring, crazy paving in the courtyard contrasts with the controlled lines of tiles laid in a stack bond pattern. Close attention has also been paid to the use of veneer on select joinery in the house, championing the beauty of Australian timbers with a lustrous finish. 

“The joinery is finished in spotted gum veneer that has been rotary cut,” says Stejskal. “It is peeled off the log like you peel an apple to give you this different grain.”

Rotary cut timber reveals the beauty of the natural grain in the kitchen joinery. Image: Bo Wong

Even the laundry has been carefully considered.

“The laundry is like a zen space with bare stone,” he says. “We wanted these different moods and the landscape of rooms. We wanted to create a rich tapestry in this house.”

The owners now each experience the house differently, highlighting separate aspects of the building as their favourite parts. It’s quite an achievement when the site is not enormous. Maybe it’s not size that matters so much after all.


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