Robin Boyd is one of Australia’s most admired architects. So, says Stephen Crafti, architects Lovell Chen found it quite a challenge converting a 1960s Boyd apartment to suit the needs of a modern extended family.
Getting into Robin Boyd’s mind preoccupied architect, Kai Chen as he re-worked Boyd’s Farfor flats in Portsea, Melbourne. Overlooking Port Phillip Bay, in one of the Victorian Peninsula’s most idyllic settings, Chen continually asked himself what the legendary post-War architect would have done if he were re-designing these apartments more than forty years later. “I read that when he first inspected the site his response was that only a primeval tent was required,” says Chen.
The four Farfor flats are more akin to townhouses than walk-up style flats and were built in the 1960s when Boyd was spending much of his time writing about architecture and design. Originally designed for Portsea identity, Imogen Farfor, in 1967, three of the four flats were sold before she passed away a few years ago. This one, owned by Robert and Barbara McClure, is one of two that were recently re-modelled by Lovell Chen.
Given the esteem in which Boyd is held, Chen found re-modelling two of the Farfor Flats a challenge.
The adjacent townhouse had been extensively re-modelled a number of years ago and the McClure’s flat had deteriorated over time. The McClure’s wanted a place where they could have the extended family stay, but in the flat’s existing configuration this would not be possible.
“It was fairly basic when we bought the house six years ago. But we knew it was quite magical when Robert and I first walked in,” says Barbara. Knowing it was a Robin Boyd building informed their decision to use conservation architects, Lovell Chen.
“We lived in the original house for a couple of years. But it was particularly cold in winter,” says Barbara. “My daughter was always comparing her stay to camping.”
While Boyd may have played down the idea of a tent, the original design actually wasn’t that far off the mark. Accessed through a breezeway with fly-wire screens, this home originally featured a loose pebbled floor. “It was quite a Zen-like approach,” says Chen, who tried to convince his clients that this feature should be retained.
“Barbara and Robert were happy for us to create a sense of the breezeway, but they were concerned about the uneven floor and the temptation of grandchildren to throw pebbles,” says Chen.
One of Boyd’s signature statements, Oregon trusses, supporting the living room ceiling and a 30º external awning, were retained in the renovation.
Boyd’s fixed, upturned awning was a perfect solution to increase both northern light and extend the water views. Builder, Brian Freiberg recalls the original configuration of spaces: “There was a large fireplace in the centre of the living room, which made things fairly tight. The bedrooms leading from the breezeway were miniscule, each only 12m2 ” says Freiberg.
Chen’s initial “discussion with Boyd” centred on creating a second level to the two adjoining homes. Chen created a Rheinzinc-clad first floor addition, partially concealed by Cedar timber battens.
“Eventually the Cedar will weather to a silvery grey,” says Chen, mindful of emphasising a clear division between past and present. A band of Rheinzinc framing the first floor is exposed to create a ‘shadow line’ between the original and new.
Boyd’s rendered brick façade has been maintained, along with a timber-slatted front door, now sealed rather than vented. And the breezeway, now fully enclosed, features limestone flooring. The flywire has also disappeared, with translucent glass windows and doors opening to an internal courtyard to create a sense of the outdoors.
Past the threshold, the living areas have been beautifully re-worked.
Large picture windows and doors still embrace the magical vista, and to intensify the panorama, Chen uses black glass on most of the kitchen and living room surfaces. There’s even a black-tiled plunge pool to magnify the diorama of Port Philip Bay. From the kitchen to the living areas, the lapping bay is always present. “I don’t think I’ve ever used this much black glass,” says Chen. “It intensifies this setting.”
The fireplace in the living area has been removed, and the main bedroom (originally located in the present kitchen) is now upstairs. Black glass joinery, which doubles as a credenza in the dining area, delineates where the bedroom wall once stood. “Originally the kitchen overlooked the courtyard. It turned its back on the water,” says Chen. And while Boyd’s finishes were appropriate for a tent-like structure, Barbara and Robert wanted a more permanent abode. “We also wanted a swimming pool, but not at the expense of spoiling the vista,” says Barbara.
In adding a first floor (which contains three bedrooms, including the main and en suite), one of the main issues was addressing the view of the angled steel awning from the main bedroom.
“The steel created an enormous amount of glare, not to mention heat,” says Chen, who re-clad the top of the awning with Cedar timber battens. And while the main bedroom, which stretches across the entire width of the house, is clearly new, the configuration of spaces incorporating the en suite and dressing areas has a distinctly late 1960s feel.
“We always intended to add a first floor. But we still wanted to respect Boyd’s vision,” says Barbara, who like Robert, loves the water views, with yachts bobbing up and down. Chen compares this view to Portofino in Italy. Well, it could be in Europe, but it is actually a little piece of paradise down under.
Kai Chen (Design Architect), Peter Lovell (Heritage Consultant), Milica Tumbas (Project Architect), Beng Hin Lim