Sculpture By the Sea: A Sydney Harbour home

A Sydney Harbour home with the romance and mystery of a Mediterranean villa hugs the cliff with its Italian stone, curved walls and cave-like secrets.

Close your eyes and you could be on a rocky outcrop in the Mediterranean. Lapping waves, brilliant sunlight filtered through bougainvillea, urns spilling scarlet geraniums, vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, cool stone underfoot and stuccoed walls… But this is Sydney and, against all logic, this seemingly medieval, cave-like architecture on the foreshore of the harbour feels as though it belongs here, and has been here for ever.

Inspiration for the home originated in another equally loved harbour on the other side of the world. Visiting Porto Cervo, Sardinia, many years ago, the owner found a certain peace and harmony in the enveloping free-form buildings of celebrated local architect Savin Couëlle. More sculpture than architecture, the organic shapes and rough-hewn materials struck a chord. When she later acquired land on Sydney’s waterfront, she could see that Couëlle’s architecture would work in the contemporary setting. Couëlle, it happened, was also captivated by the challenge. The self-described “gypsy architect” has built houses all around the world – in New Zealand, Dubai, the Caribbean and Europe. “I have a team of craftspeople whom I have trained over the years. They follow me around the world like corsairs,” he says. “It’s as easy as an orchestra which can play anywhere.”

Building in Australia with a foreign architect, a team of Italian tradesmen who spoke no English, and a wary local council proved to be a demanding, at times hilarious, often exasperating, but ultimately triumphant journey. Couëlle’s hand-picked team worked alongside local builders A W Edwards, and the architect himself was regularly on site. Construction began in 2003 and took more than three years to complete.

The house hugs the cliff as it steps down to the water’s edge. “For me, buildings only work if they fit so naturally into the landscape that they become almost invisible,” says Couëlle. “A house is like a person, laying his body on the ground, using the mind and opening his heart and eyes. I am a very instinctive architect. I make plans, but I change things as I go. I work with my hands, moulding the walls and the spaces like a sculptor.”

Set below the street entrance, the house descends the cliff over four levels. The upper two each contain two bedrooms, all with a generous ensuite bathroom. A spiral stone staircase with hand-forged stainless steel railings winds through the levels, drawing light down into the interior via an overhead skylight. On the third level is the kitchen and dining area with a split level leading to a full-width living room, which in turn opens to the deck through massive sliding glass doors that vanish into room reveals. From the pergola-shaded deck, the harbour, framed in bougainvillea, is enchanting.

Stone steps, internal and external, lead from this level to the pool and open-sided grotto below; an informal entertaining area with outdoor kitchen, table and wrap-around banquette seating. From here, the steps wind down through a rampant tropical garden to the rocky harbour foreshore.

The house is constructed of natural stone, timber and render. Dolomite stone quarried in Sardinia was pre-cut and honed in Italy before arriving in containers – more than 40 by job’s end. “Stone is the universal symbol of architecture,” says Couëlle. “I used the same stone that was used to build Venice and the cathedrals of old Europe. The materials of the walls are brought to life by shadow and light, and give life to the construction.”

The render used for the rough-textured exterior and interior walls, between 50 and 60 millimetres thick, was also pre-coloured in Italy. The handmade feeling is accentuated by curves, vaulted ceilings, twisted timber beams and peculiar niches providing mystery and light. The elaborate detailing is the work of Couëlle’s team of artisans: doors, light fittings, balustrades and wrought-iron furniture – even ‘temporary’ pierced metal wall-light covers, each with a different pattern, that were knocked out in a matter of days. The house is organic, but the consistent thread of the handmade holds it together.

“I love its serendipity. Nothing lines up exactly and yet it works,” says interior designer Meryl Hare, who was called to the project several years after its completion. “It was very formal, very grand, quite stiff and full of antiques. The owner wanted it to feel more relaxed.” Hare admits it was quite a challenge. “How do you tackle a building like this? None of the walls or windows are straight – everything is a little crooked – so getting accurate measurements and doing a floor plan was interesting!”

She spent a weekend bolt-holed in her office, researching Couëlle and his organic architecture, pouring over his grotto-like interiors. “A building this strong needs simplicity; you don’t fight it,” says Hare. “We opted for a neutral palette of pared-back fabrics, loose covers, stone-washed raw linen, rugs and cushions, textured layers to add warmth and comfort.” It also became obvious that the original kitchen was not working in a way that suited the open Australian style of cooking and entertaining. Dark and separate, it was shut off from the dining room save for a serving hatch, and there was nowhere to sit and eat. Removing the wall between the formal dining room and kitchen allowed views to the water from a newly created informal eating area. Glazing the rear wall of the room and opening it directly to the cliff face let in further light and air.

Existing marble tiles and the architect-designed rangehood were reused. Hare sourced recycled timber for the cabinets and floorboards and honed stone benchtops to give a rustic feel and strength in keeping with the architecture. It’s now an inviting contemporary kitchen as well as a gathering point for the family.

It is the bathrooms, however, that are most exemplary of the building’s unique qualities. “They remind me of the hammam of Morocco,” says Hare. “The stone, the quality of light – they are sanctuaries. Simple, tactile, of generous proportions, with clerestory windows giving indirect light and no need for blinds or window treatments.”

While inner sanctums provide personal refuge, the entire house is a retreat; solid, sheltering, cosy. Attention to artistic detail gives it unique character. The cave-like sculptural spaces are curiously intimate. Above all, a home for a family, for children, grandchildren and dogs, it embraces the Sydney lifestyle. The terrain, the view and the light, and its organic nature sit very comfortably on the land. “It’s apt for the way we live in this city,” says Hare. “It doesn’t feel foreign. It feels as though it belongs in the rocky heart of Sydney.”

This story was first published in Vogue Living Mar/April 2012.


Producer/text: Helen Redmond
Photographer: Mikkel Vang

4 Responses to “Sculpture By the Sea: A Sydney Harbour home”
  1. malakretova says:

    Absolutely beautiful. Love it.

  2. kyrani99 says:

    Very unusual and with delightful surprises. Lovely house. Mine is wholly wooden but I live in the tropics so it suits. However if I lived in Sydney again, I would certainly look for something unusual and made of stone too. Great house.

  3. Annie Bowen says:

    I remember seeing this house in Vogue Living, the kitchen is a stunner. love it!

  4. liz wells molino says:

    such a beautiful property – photographs transport you to another time another place – must try to catch up with the photos of kitchen

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