Matt Gibson
With homes like these, built at the turn of the century, there’s more a sense of discovery and meandering,

This Federation home in Elsternwick has received a swag of awards, including a heritage award and also an award for alterations and additions in 2016 and more recently, the prestigious Marion Mahoney Award in 2017, also from the Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian Chapter). However, when architect Matt Gibson, director of Matt Gibson Architecture + Design (MGAD) first inspected the red brick pile, it was not only far from award-winning, but, importantly, lacked the creature comforts and natural light expected in homes today.

Renovated and extended in the 1980s, the Elsternwick house suffered from its poor orientation, abutting the northern boundary and leaving the south-facing garden without sufficient light; hence the name ‘Shadow House’. MGAD literally removed 40 per cent of the house, predominantly the 1980s brick wing that was trying to mimic the original Federation home with its distinctive art-nouveau influences.

Once the addition was removed, MGAD’s vision could be expressed. “Federation homes are not like Victorian homes, where there’s usually a shotgun corridor down the centre or side of a house. With homes like these, built at the turn of the century, there’s more a sense of discovery and meandering,” says Gibson.

The bedrooms, including the main bedroom, walk-in wardrobe and ensuite, remain under the original roof, as does the original formal living room. However, the latter has been opened up to a connecting study/library via the original decorative timber scrollwork found from the period. “We saw this place not as a salon, a place to gather and have drinks, but also a welcoming space, a sense of arrival,” says Gibson.

Unlike the previous 1980s addition, which tried to replicate the Federation home, the new wing, clad in black zinc, stands proud from the original red bricks. In fact, what were once exterior walls now feature as integral to the new living spaces, thoughtfully delineated by a skylight above. The architects also skewed the new family room to the north, allowing natural light to penetrate into the core of the new wing. “We were looking for a ‘soft’ connection between the past and present, rather than having that jarring feeling that often occurs when you walk into a new building,” says Gibson.

While the black zinc creates a recessive design, the old and new are further delineated by the angled roofline, described by Gibson as resembling ‘crushed paper’. The third component in the design, apart from the zinc and ceiling profile, is the timber-clad pod that forms the kitchen. Containing the laundry and a pantry, this ‘insert’ is seen as an object as much as a functional and utilitarian space.

To complement the blackbutt used for the kitchen pod, MGAD used polished concrete floors in the open plan wing. And to delineate the formal dining area from the kitchen and meals area, an off-formed concrete wall pierces this space. Treated in a ‘boney’ (distressed finish), as was the concrete island bench in the kitchen, there’s a wonderful play of textures, both natural and man-made. MGAD worked with Mim Design in selecting some of the furniture and materials, ensuring both comfort and a sense of practicality.

One of the memorable areas in the house is the trellised outdoor terrace that acts as a breezeway. The amount of coverage this terrace receives will depend on how the owners control the vines. “We saw this area as an interstitial space, one that forms the continuation of the formal dining area,” says Gibson, who refers to this feature like a contemporary window box, where the owners see guests arrive as they meander towards the front door.

For Gibson and his team the awards are obviously appreciated, but it’s the sense of reflecting on the past that resonates, both for his staff and for the owners. “It’s important to be able to read the history of a building and see clearly when changes were made. Architecture is about telling a story. It’s a narrative that’s told through materials rather than words,” he adds.

Words by Stephen Crafti. 


Matt Gibson Architecture + Design can be contacted on 9419 6677. Photography by Shannon McGrath.

Lifestyle & Design

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