d + a – Belimbing Avenue

d + a Issue 081.2014
Weaving Light Gaps

Sited on a modest plot in Belimbing Avenue, this house by HYLA consists of two different sized, seemingly displaced ‘boxes’ that are detached from the party walls, giving way to open residual spaces that make for a bright airy home.

The Japanese have an establish history of living in tight, cramped and sometimes convoluted spaces often described as ‘rabbit hutches’. If recent publications on these ‘micro-homes’ (or Kyosho Jutaku, as they are known to the Japanese) are anything to go by, there almost seems to be an unspoken competition to construct an interesting living space on the smallest plot possible. In comparison, the plot at HYLA Architect’s recently completed house at Belimbing Avenue is relatively large, though it is comparatively small for an intermediate terrace, measuring a modest 6.2m x 30.5m.

Principal Architect Han Loke Kwang and his team were approached by the client in late 2012 to rebuild their existing house that would accommodate the family of three and the owner’s father. Bucking the trend of homeowners who are becoming increasingly specific in their needs and aesthetic aspirations for their houses, the client’s only request was for light and ventilation – leaving the rest of the design to the architect.

Conceptually, two different sized ‘boxes’ appear to be displaced both horizontally and vertically, each of them detached from the party walls, thus giving way to residual spaces that consist of voids, rooms and circulation routes. These two boxes are linked by a courtyard and bridges on the second and roof levels. Expressed as a suspended volume, the rear box finished in reinforced concrete can be easily mistaken to be a separate building altogether. As the staircase occupies the whole length of the party wall, it effectively ‘peels’ the front section away from it, creating a gap between the wall and the house.

Through these somewhat counter-intuitive moves that further compartmentalised the already small plot, the team managed this by creating many opportunities for light and ventilation. The courtyard and stairwell, the attic and the roof terrace all have independent roofs ending at different levels, allowing light and air to enter from the sides. As such, where the boxes are detached from the walls, the lofty double-volume void spaces also achieve an ‘open to sky’ effect while providing protection from the elements.

Han describes that this assembly of components are a result of his interest in exploring ‘interstitial spaces between two buildings and how they can work with each other’, which the team felt would complement the client’s request for a bright and airy house. Han elaborates on how he also attempts to give physical expression to his interest in creating dynamic spaces. Where staggered layouts are usually expressed only on the plan, the team went one step further to incorporate this in section as well. As a result, the adroit interplay between the intimate and the larger areas in accordance to the different functions forms a complex composition of spaces, strongly reminiscent of Tadao Ando’s tight but masterfully weaved galleria spaces in Osaka.

Being one of HYLA’s first few ‘fully concrete’ houses, Han recounts that the team was mindful to incorporate elements that would soften the look of the material. To mitigate the rigid appearance of conventional screens that are usually fitted through with straight rods, the timber screens at the roof were ‘strung’ on tension cables, giving it a gentle parabolic shape. The staircase, built using individual timber planks that link the party wall and the building, allow maximum visibility from the bottom, giving rise to a light and airy void space. Further to this, a stepped water feature underneath the staircase that flows towards the courtyard completes the physical break between the first section of the house and the party wall. This controlled balance of tenuous elements and the solid concrete forms keeps the house from looking too monumental.

Han share that he often tells his colleagues not to ‘build the model’ and lose sight of the smaller building components, and that he strives to encourage himself and his team to develop their ‘knowledge and understanding of how things are put together, as well as expressing the materials for what they are’. Besides the curved timber screens which was a first for the office, their screen doors also reflect this focus on approaching their projects from a craftsmanship standpoint, using timber spaces in lieu of nails to hold the horizontal timber members in place. Dexterously shifting between large and small components, like the bridges connecting the front and rear of the three floors, are also given due attention. To enhance the staggered three-dimensional massing, these bridges are positioned diagonally, starting from the centre of the courtyard. This orchestrated perspective also creates the impression of a larger space, besides providing an arresting frame for the expanse of suspended timber screens above.

Achieving a harmonious balance between the different volumes and their resulting voids, the team has created a space with a highly blurred relationship between interior and exterior while managing to keep out the elements. Complete with the soft trickle of water in the background, the owner’s father, whose second floor ‘wing’ overlooks the courtyard, has remarked on how it feels like a ‘permanent holiday bungalow’. In response to what his ‘perennial values’ are, Han shares that he believes in ‘making the forms still, and the spaces dynamic’. Without much need to add more to that, this house is most certainly a distillation of that intent.

Writer: Joanne Goh
Photographer: Derek Swalwell