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Bringing the Past into the Future: inside an iconic Manuka home

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When a Canberra couple—experienced in the art of designing, building and selling homes—purchased a heritage cottage in Manuka, they had one aim.

To preserve where Canberra has been as a city, and to forecast where it should be going.

Over just 18 months, the couple (who prefer to remain nameless) transformed the tiny, 1927 cookie-cutter, three-bedroom cottage into an architectural statement which marks the entrance to what is arguably Canberra’s most photogenic street—Grant Crescent in Manuka.

The massive corner block, part of the city’s Blandfordia heritage precinct, was the site of a Federal Capital Commission box when the couple bought it on a whim, almost four years ago.

At the time they were living a massive self-built home in Yarralumla, following several other builds across the city. Yet they laughingly concede that the Yarralumla home was something of a McMansion.

“Architecturally, it was pretty standard,” the wife said.

“We call this our heritage challenge, it was the little bit missing in our development experience,” the husband added.

In an act of pure spontaneity, they bid for it at auction.

The location, one street from Manuka Village and surrounded by the genteel housing of some of Canberra’s earliest suburbanites, was also a huge drawcord. Once they had a moment to think about it, the couple formed a strong view about where this next project would lead them.

Unlike the most usual heritage transformations in Canberra—where great effort is placed in melding the original style of the heritage dwelling with new additions—this pair wanted to break new ground.

“We never wanted to disguise the cottage or change it in order to add to it, we wanted it to stand alone. And we didn’t care there would be a massive contrast between the old and new—in fact, we wanted the new additions to have their own voice,” she said.

“We wanted distinctive pods which created a delineation between the original structure and the new parts that was anything but subtle. Most people try and carry their heritage theme throughout an extension, but we wanted ours to be a harsh contrast.”

Their purchase of a corner block was also fortuitous in that the common practice of “hiding” a modern cube at the back of an old house was simply not an option. The modern add-ons were allowed to be visible from the front—their only restriction was a three-metre setback from the cottage frontage.

It meant the stars aligned in terms of Canberra’s strict planning regime, and they were able to move forward with a design which reveres the original 1927 cottage in classic white render, while welcoming two striking grey concrete pods to either side of the original facade.

Not that there weren’t a few early hiccups.

“When we first went in with a very early concept idea to Heritage, they said ‘forget it. Absolutely not’.

“But then they changed committees and those who made up the new committee clearly had different architectural perspectives and they could see where we wanted to take it. So we received approval.”

Indeed, the couple has travelled widely and taken many of their design cues from building transformations taking place in cities such as London and Amsterdam.

While the wife was delighted to maintain the character and charm of gables, chimneys, sash windows and rendered brick, the husband could not wait to experiment with the brutalist feel of raw and formed concrete. The couple settled on architectural firm Collins Caddaye—based on the firm’s experience in competently handling both approaches.

The aim was to maintain the focus on the cottage frontage, while extending on either side, and transforming the back end of the house to a modernist and open-plan space for family (there are four older children who come and go), which would lend itself to entertaining on a grand scale.

“The ultimate vision for the house, really, was to create something for empty-nesters that could still be used as a family home for children, or grandchildren even,” she said.

Must-haves included a pool, artist’s studio, pool room, and a polished concrete seven-car underground car-park that has to be seen to be believed.

“For me the James Bond-style carpark was important,” he said.

They also settled on four bedrooms, three bathrooms and two powder rooms—one of which is hidden behind dark wood panelling off the main entrance and is accessed by pushing on the wall, at which point a series of pendant lightbulbs come on automatically to illuminate the way.

In the process of designing the generous spaces, courtyards and two levels of amenity, the owners were able to add some extraordinary design features, including underwater downstairs windows that look straight into the turquoise ripples of pool water.

A suspended stairwell connects the gleaming showroom garage, pool and media rooms and the artist’s studio to the main level of living, but not before you pass a tantalising cellar built into one side of the massive wall.

Upstairs, the wife’s artistic bent comes to the fore with design features that celebrate the old and new in luxe and distinctive ways. Her pottery sculptures create an organic centrepiece in the living room while a giant tiled mosaic outside reflects the colour scheme of the bedroom.

The original front room is an elegant grand sitting room, complete with marble fireplace and bespoke botanical-themed wallpaper. An enormous velvet sofa from King Furniture and oversized armchairs from Bo Concept provide the perfect position from which to watch the Manuka street life while Fornasetti plates and a starburst mirror echo the room’s original age.

A Ben Grady original commissioned work Portal, signifies the move from old house to new, which is almost imperceptible until you move through into an expanse of open-plan living anchored by a huge curved concrete wall.

When asked what his favourite part of the house is, the husband eschews the garage, curved walls and pool room for this single architectural feat.

“Engineering-wise, it is pretty significant, it is a post-tension slab…It took five months to form the concrete and it is generally something you only see in commercial buildings.”

The fact that its massive weight balances atop the garage without a single pillar underneath to ruin the sleek lines of the automotive showroom speaks to the engineering and design that went into the build.

At night, the enormous curve—visible through vast glass floor-to-ceiling sliding doors—is lit very gently and provides a perfect backdrop to one of many dramatic steel sculptures placed artistically around the property.

For the wife, joy comes from her studio, a subterranean tiled space, the walls crowded with inspiration and art and tinged blue from her watery window.

A joint love is the pod dining room—an irregular-shaped room which focuses one window onto the original front room where the historic rough-cast finish of the render contrasts with the smooth concrete of the pod.

The terrazzo table was designed by the wife to match the shape of the room while the Italian Flow dining chairs are covered in black Mongolian sheepskins to bring warmth to the geometric space.

An Andy Staley artwork features pebbles which reflect the stone in the table, while the 25-metre pool stretches out the other window and tucks under the pod so that it feels suspended across the water.

Indeed, it is a room custom-made for the most memorable of dinner parties.

A less formal eating nook is located next to the vast kitchen, while an airy living space is made even more so by having glass walls open to courtyards and the pool area on either side.

A parents’ retreat, with its own bathroom and robe area is secluded up this end of the house, ensuring maximum peace and privacy.

Softening the dark colours in this area, the wife designed the bedhead wall to be covered in a luxurious and colourful fabric by Christian Lacroix for Designers Guild.

“I love waking up and seeing the join of this incredibly bright fabric wall with the concrete ceiling. It is such a contrast between harshness and softness and I find my eye is always drawn to it.”

As with every build, the couple do have one small regret—that is, the size of two smaller bedrooms down the other end of the house which are, on reflection, a tad too small.

This is not a problem for the very front bedroom, which is an original room and is decorated with the most delicate floral wallpaper by Ellie Cashman in something of an homage to the 1920s. Two cut-glass pendant globes set off the muted colours of the walls while a window seat gives a perfect view into Grant Crescent.

The couple paid tribute to their builder—Bloc—for ensuring a seamless transition between old and new, and anticipating every demand of the ambitious construction.

“This house could have been a disaster when you consider what we were trying to do—you have all sorts of joinery, you have different materials, but every time I asked a question, our project manager Chris McCormack already had the answers.”

And while most ambitious builds can leave even the most simpatico of marriages a little frayed around the edges, this couple came through the 18-month process unscathed.

The wife is amazed by her husband’s spatial skills and technical understanding. The husband appreciates his wife’s incredible eye.

“We had a lot of fun, and bounced off each other well,” she said. It is clear that their experience in the area leaves them fazed by little.

And just like in Grand Designs, we end the article by asking the couple how their budget went.

“I didn’t even know if we had a budget…Did we?” the wife asks.

“No, there wasn’t a fixed budget to be honest,” he responds with a smile.

“We got carried away in the architecture, in the whole dream of it, which is madness really. But it reflects the quality and the attention to detail and the passion we have had for the project. Now we are very happy to be here.”

That is, of course, until this creative couple move onto the next project.

PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Bean

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Time (AW2020), available to read free online.

Read it here.

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