Seacliff House by
Chris Elliott Architects

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Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

The walls of this house in Sydney by Australian studio Chris Elliott Architects feature curved openings that look like gills.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

The folds create additional windows on the first floor of the three-storey concrete house, where bedrooms and bathrooms are located.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Situated in the seaside suburb of Bronte, Seacliff House overlooks the ocean and has pools on two floors.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

The house is partly dug into the limestone, which has been left exposed on the cave-like basement walls.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

A study room is located on the roof and opens out onto a terrace, while the remaining rooftops are covered with plants and photovoltaic panels.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Other Australian houses we've featured recently include a residence with built-in graffiti and a weekend house with rusted walls.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

See more stories about houses in Australia »

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Photography is by Richard Glover, apart from where otherwise stated.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Above: photograph is by Chris Elliott

Here's a more detailed explanation from Chris Elliott:


Design Concept

A house for a family of four.

Everyday life occurs on a platform overlooking the sea. Beneath this the rock is carved out to form a grotto. Above the platform is a protective cocoon for sleeping.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Astride all this at roof level sits a belvedere accessible only via a narrow curved stair, as in a Martello tower.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Site

The site for this house is long and very narrow – a anomaly, a thin sliver of land that was left over from the original subdivision when the famous "Bronte Cutting" was created over a century ago. The rock of the headland was excavated in a large curved groove to allow for trams to climb to the top of the hill on a slight gradient.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

The site enjoys spectacular views over the ocean, the adjacent park and the sandstone cliffs and headland to the south. However, it is frequently buffeted by strong winds and violent storms.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

The property was occupied by a single story suburban house and overlooked by a number of neighbouring houses. Consequently, there were a number of difficult natural and planning issues and constraints to contend with.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Description

After numerous explorations and sketches it was decided to go with the peculiarities of the site rather than struggle against them. So, a long linear element sits above a row of columns, providing privacy and protection and the upper level whilst allowing the ground level to be open and very transparent.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Above: photograph is by Vladimir Sitta

Cantilevers at each end of the linear element allow for the requisite space at bedroom level while simultaneously freeing up space and providing cover for outdoor areas below.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Above: photograph is by Vladimir Sitta

Structurally, a long concrete box (the bedroom level) sits atop a series of concrete columns that run from the basement up through the living level. The walls at ground level are mainly glass – influenced but not controlled by the rigour of the structural system, rather, they are allowed to curve and weave in and out to respond to site constraints and opportunities at various points around the perimeter. A compact solid core provides stability and contains a stair, bathroom, fridge, cupboards and pantry whilst creating only a minimal visual obstruction.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

Above: photograph is by Vladimir Sitta

The ground floor is conceptually a transparent platform. Nature is welcomed in and not excluded. It is ordered by a series of columns and defined by solid walls only where necessary. Glass runs along, around and above the solid elements while large sliding and pivoting glass doors open to outside.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

The basement level is conceived as a grotto combining water, rock and light. The solid sandstone foundation stone is carved away to create space. Rather than remove all material as is often done, in various places it is left to invade the space thus connecting in an intimate way the house to the very essence of Sydney – its sandstone base. Water occurs at various levels – a pool, a shallow reflecting pool with bridge and an outdoor bath. At times strong shafts of light penetrate the spaces, as through rock fissures in a cave. At other times when light levels are low strong colours help to create warmth and atmosphere.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

The bedroom level, a long linear box is conceptually a protective cocoon, providing comfort and privacy with glimpses out through a variety of openings, with the option of one or two layers of curtains-the first opaque, and the second a translucent veil. On the outside the surface of the box is enlivened with series of curvilinear light scoops. These allow light in and offer selective views out, such as a view of the sky when lying in the bath.

Seacliff House by Chris Elliott Architects

At the roof level, conceived as a belvedere or lookout, a study opens onto a small deck. Here your journey ends with a panoramic outlook over the ocean. A private sundeck with built in timber seating and a fireplace provides a comfortable place to contemplate the ocean and the stars at night.

Seacliff-House-by-Chris-Elliott-Architects

ESD

Most of the roof is green planted with "pig-face". The remainder is covered with solar PV panels. All the roof water is collected in a tank below the garage floor. There is no air-conditioning; rather the house takes advantage of good sea breezes, thermal mass and the combination of a double layer of curtains to keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter. Wherever possible recycled timber has been used.

Seacliff-House-by-Chris-Elliott-Architects

Materials

Australian timbers – recycled spotted gum, and golden sassafras are used for flooring, stairs and joinery. Heavy recycled ironbark planks are used to span the ramp up from the garage and an underground courtyard on the eastern side, obviating the need for midspan support. Brass is used extensively and allowed to tarnish naturally. Some of the brass hardware was custom designed and made on site.

Seacliff-House-by-Chris-Elliott-Architects

  • jnuarch

    Great site, nice materials, but it's a big rambling mess of nothing in particular. I had gotten used to seeing much crisper Australian projects.

    • Ge Lin

      What is rambling about rectangular prisms? Every space and material on the site flows cleverly. The architect balances movement with hard rectilinear surfaces. The rooms are delightfully interesting living spaces with unexpected and thoughtfully composed views. The treatment of drainage and water is unique. The Sydney Opera House isn't rambling nor is Seacliff House.
      Ge Lin

      • jnuarch

        Your description (both in content and method) illustrates my point about this project. We are in agreement that the house has a number of well done moments. Just as the middle four sentences of your reply list successes of the project individually with no overarching contention, so does this house collect a number of 'nice features' without a clear, orderly parti.

        If you look at each of the individual shots, they're great. But notice that not a single one of them can be used to derive a governing logic for the entire project. A look at the plans/section also reveals this. It unfortunately becomes a 'mr. potato head' project, where disparate elements are stuck together at random.

        The Opera House (not what I was thinking of when mentioning Australian projects in general) has a fantastically clear concatenated parti, especially for its scale. It has nothing in common with the Seacliff House.

        • http://www.chriselliottarchitects.com Chris

          Hi jnuarch,
          (the architect here)

          You are obviously an accomplished critic and an amusing raconteur so I'm keen to debate the issues you've raised.

          It seems that you believe that it is necessary for a project to have a clear strong defining principle or concept at its core. If one's subscribes to your view then yes we have transgressed – there are in fact four concepts for the house – cave/grotto, open platform, protective cocoon and belevedere, each corresponding to a different level.

          The constraints, opportunities and requirements on each level are different, so why shouldn't the response change? A flexible approach allows an appropriate response to varying conditions. Why can't a house be like a city, comprising order and regularity with unexpected surprises?

          That said, the house is actually fairly consistent from the ground level up. It is only when we go below that things really change. Here we have an opportunity to tap into the unique qualities of an underground space – the natural texture of rock, strong shafts of light and the sound of dripping water – an exhilarating space for those who experience it. Strong colours help to add warmth when light levels are low.

          I'm sorry I can't show you around the house, the experience differs from a set of photos – you may even come to a different conclusion.

          • jnuarch

            Hi Chris,

            I think your rhetorical question 'Why can't a house be like a city, comprising order and regularity with unexpected surprises? ' gets to the core here. As you gathered I would say that it should not (a subjective opinion, yes).

            My argument against the house-as-city would be that a city and a house have entirely different responsibilities due to scale, method of movement, range of inhabitant diversity, activities, etc. I think that ideally a city is a city and a house is a house, and both act accordingly. Public life, complexities of localized response to site, and creating pleasant surprises in the fabric belong to the city, while private residences are much less burdened as they take care of fairly straightforward needs of a family. When you have a city that does all of the mentioned things, you don't need your own house to do any of that.

            I think many people would agree, however, that the majority of modern western cities do not 'do their job' in the way I've described. And here is where your house-as-city enters. If you can't rely on a city to be a city, who says you can't make up for it at home, right? I'd be interested to know what you think about that. Would this be merely a 'patch' solution, or is it the only way out of the dehumanizing modern urban/suburban condition?

            I appreciate your reply (as the architect) very much and admit that to see the house in person would certainly carry more weight than judging it based on a handful of photos.

          • http://www.chriselliottarchitects.com Chris

            Hi Jnuarch, You've raised some interesting issues and I think we could discuss this all night! – but it could become tedious for Dezeen readers…I hope not too much..

            I feel that there is a good argument for house as microcosm of city. Is this because of a failure of the modern city? Perhaps, but this would not be the main reason for allowing a range of experiences, including the unexpected, within a house. To my mind a house like a city should also allow us to wander a little, to ramble about, almost situationist style (dérive) through its domain – and should allow the inhabitants to occasionally have some distance rather than being all together all of the time. I also feel that a design (any design) should really respond in a nuanced way to its surroundings including what is above and below the site, where possible.

            Sometimes in a crowded city, and on a tight budget the site may offer little – this might only be a view of sky and clouds above, or across a ramshackle urban roofscape, or perhaps the shadow of leaves on a wall in a bleak and narrow laneway. Nevertheless these things may be unique and very rewarding in their own way. The response to a place could be a sensual one or perhaps an intellectual one. In a more natural setting, or in an interesting urban setting, and where the constraints allow it why not make a little more of the peculiarities of the site?

            There are many precedents – think of the roof of the Beistegui penthouse where Corb played a surrealist game (an intellectual exercise which also brought the Arc de Triomphe into the game), or the little platform below Falling Water where one could jump into the river (a sensual experience allowing a physical connection with the site). If the site doesn't offer many attractions then maybe an internal landscape (or landscape metaphor) can be invented. The site and the budget don't have to be large – look at what Barragan did in the Gilardi house with fairly modest means!

            If we jump back to the scale of the city and look at those who have tried to force a big defining idea (and resultant regimentation) on us then they are legion – Hilberseimer and Corb were the most extreme examples in the modern era. You can see from one shot (or rendering) what the entire city would be like. If Hilberseimer had his way we would all be forced to take cyanide or else die a slow death of boredom. Their ideas are potent but they need to clash with other ideas. Personally, I prefer the Collage city or the city imagined by the situationists to those other more dramatic modern paradigms.

            In my view an architect is not trying hard enough if he or she merely comes up with a central idea (often chosen very randomly) and then makes every space squeeze into the formula. There are many examples based on geometrical, topological, folded, blended, smooth, de-constructed etc space – you name it – they've all been tried in recent years. All too often rooms and spaces are squeeezed into the big concept leading to awkward, tight, and unpleasant spaces; and the end only rarely justifies the means. To me the acid test is: "what are the spaces like? would I want to spend some time in there? or just move through quickly?"

            So often with these projects there is an excessive focus on the thing itself – as though the thing in itself is more significant to those other things that are external to it. Fallingwater does a neat trick – being an extraordinary thing in itself but also extending and projecting itself out into the landscape, and below as well – it allows rock in also, so that in a sense it becomes intertwinned or enmeshed with the landscape, making the most of the extraordinary site and fulfilling it's latent promise. Another example – the roof of the Casa Malaparte where, with the use of a simple device – a curved wall sitting on a platform – it brings in, (and extends out to), the whole world….

            Not often do architects have an opportunity like those and usually the surroundings are much less inspiring. In such a case an internal landscape can sometimes be invented – as in the Gilardi house or in many of Corb's interiors. A fascinating internal landscape can also result from unusual situations – the lower level of Scarpa's Querini Stampalia (renewal), a case in point.

            Finally, why can't a house be a place for the mind and the spirit as well as satisfying the requirements of the body. The city can provide much, but the house is the ultimate place of refuge and relaxation – a place where the spirit can re-juvenate and the soul can retire, if only temporarily from the turmoil of the outside world.

            However, ultimately, a city home (a house, apartment or other) is really not separate from a city – it is merely a part of a continuum of spaces ranging from public, to semi-private, to private, which as a whole, houses, or accommodates a society. At the final stage; the dwelling place or home is the inner scanctum of a small group called a family, their relatives and their friends.

            We should never abstain from the effort to add wonder and beauty to a house, a home, a city, or to a landscape.

  • http://3dvizta.com 3dvizta

    I like how the architect incorporated the rocks into the design. The rock elements in the interior offer great contrast to the smooth concrete walls. I also find the window gill openings very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  • sultony

    Beautiful planning and some good detailing. A real designer at work here.

  • bif42

    I walked past this house in the summer and was intrigued by it. The sculptural white walls look beautiful against the sky and sea and the house is a clever use of a tiny site. Great to know more about it.

  • Martini-girl

    Hmmm. Not a fan.

    It's as if every room was designed by a different person. Not just in an interior design sense but in the way each space feels and connect.

    Those 'gills' are of course cute and save the house exterior design from ordinariness. Without them the house would be just ho-hum.

    But the real disappointment is to go to all that trouble to 'hero' the sandstone only to have it compete (without success) with other materials surrounding it and poor spatiality.

  • xtiaan

    Someone’s gonna end up in the gate pond after a few too many…

  • Salve Veritas

    Since when must be the house sterilized for one mood only? Do you feel the same every day?

    To Martini-girl: Have more martinis, the world will be more colorful then! If you feel sepulchral, you find your solitude there… For expansive mood, there is also a place. This is a personal house of the architect, tailor-made for his family.

    Style is boring! Vive la difference!

  • Simon c

    Chris,

    Beautiful work! I think living in the space and the differences between the different levels gives a sense of adventure and delivers us away from the bland and ho-hum that clients usually have us design. As an interior decorator I personally feel that that the interiors are a little sterile, but appreciate for photography etc that sometimes interiors are styled for the moment.

    The master bedroom with that wonderful view would be the place to be, watching whales migrate up the coast or an angry stormy sea! If ever they need somone to house sit….

    Simon C.

  • Kevin

    I actually tiled all the stone on this house and it works perfectly for me. I have a family of 4 and would love to snuggle in the winter and sunbathe in summer. All good.