Small Spaces/Big Ideas

WAN would like to introduce you to our new Sydney Metroblogger is Dr Anuradha Chatterjee, a Sydney-based architect, academic, and writer/critic. Anu has taught at University of New South Wales, University of Tasmania, University of Technology Sydney and University of South Australia, where she has contributed to theory courses and design studios at BArch and MArch Levels. Some of her key research interests include theoretical and cultural history of vision, architectural surface, and its design implications; emergent practices in Australia and Asia; and dress, body, textiles, and architecture. Below is her first post for WAN.

On 28 April 2012, a quiet Saturday afternoon in the Surry Hills Library, inner city Sydney, is vitalized by the talk ‘Small Spaces/Big Ideas’, delivered by architects Christopher Polly and Sam Crawford, organized by the City of Sydney and presented with the Australian Institute of Architects (represented by Andrew Burns). The premise of the talk as noted by the City of Sydney is: “In a period of diminishing land availability, living small becomes a necessary and logical way of life”. The talk is also pertinent for other reasons/trends such as the shift towards designing and delivering compact cities in Australia; reducing the ecological footprint; domestic downsizing by empty-nester Australians; and the demand for affordable (and rental) housing for a wider demographic in Sydney.

Sam Crawford noted that Australia has largest house size in the world (243 sq m, a figure sourced from Simon Johanson’s article in Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Australian homes still the World’s biggest’, August 22, 2011). Crawford mentioned examples of people experimenting with reducing house sizes in the US, Denmark and Japan, to foreground the key distinction between expectation and need. Using examples of his own projects, he demonstrated that more space could be achieved on small lots and within older existing houses, like his own house built within the existing shell of a Queen Anne house.


Elliott Ripper House/ Haines House, Christopher Polly Architect. Photos: Brett Boardman

The key design principles of this approach were identified as spilt levels to create different spaces creating the feeling of more space; the use of different materials to create the effect of spaciousness; designing multi-functional spaces like the staircase landing at ground level that is extended into a seating space, or the low window sill of a large south facing window used as a kids play area, or the integration of bookshelves and storage spaces along staircase walls. It was also noted that the smallness of the house demands a careful consideration of acoustical buffers.

Christopher Polly discussed Elliott Ripper House (161 sq m), Haines House (115 sq m), and Darling Point Penthouse (100 sq m) – all small dwellings, which explore design strategies like the use of elements stretching across one space to another; creating adaptable spaces, through the use of internal building elements such as folding metal panels that can be folded back or folded out to increase or decrease room sizes. Central to creating the impression of space was light, both artificial and natural. Polly noted that this was achieved through a choreographed arrangement of strip windows on the exterior wall and on the internal walls to allow light to flow between rooms – an experience further augmented through the use of reflective white surfaces.

A short and an interesting talk, Small Spaces/Big Ideas was attended by built environment enthusiasts, most of them not even architects, and complemented by the presenters’ enthusiasm in responding to ‘lay’ queries as well as more searching, discipline specific questions. This, I think, was a very positive outcome of the profession’s recent consciousness of communicating ethical and urban concerns informing practice to seek and sustain legitimacy and meaningfulness of architectural practice against the needs and expectations of multiple stakeholders in the built environment.

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