Garden House . Westernport

Baracco+Wright . Garden House . Westernport Rory Gardiner  afasia (1)

Baracco+Wright Architects . photos: © Rory Gardiner . + domusweb

This experimental and ‘sometimes’ house on Boon Wurrung land was conceived through the inclusion of it in the repair of the site’s ecosystem. Its architecture is one of relationships that revisit the project of a theory of space, this time in the terms of its physical place and the life supported there.


It is made with a mix of industrialized elements (the steel frame) and handmade (timber frame) without concern with itself and modes of making. The thinnest of physical boundaries (perhaps fabric is thinner), polycarbonate sheet, maintains transparency otherwise displaced by a building for the sustaining of life, rather than architecture’s own terms of material theory of transparency. Spatial boundaries are not achieved in usual architectural terms (walls, windows, and rooms, ceiling and floor) but made by the vegetation on either side of the polycarbonate layer, not perhaps quite a wall – but together with the vegetation an ill-defined wall is made that starts on the inside with the moat-like horizontal boundary achieved through the way the raised floor stops short of the polycarbonate. The raised deck is another expanded threshold this time with the ground – allowing the unsealed ground and its floodwaters to carry through. The window that frames an interior’s relationship with nature is absent. The ontology is almost flat – nature is neither confined to containers or brought inside. This quality of space is evident in Rory Gardiner’s photographic technique where frames are often replaced by images that fill the view without edges so that it is sometimes unclear if you are looking inside or outside.

The tent has often been a reference for Baracco+Wright and this building could be thought as a little more than a tent: a deck and raised platform, covered by a transparent ‘shed’, the interior perimeter ‘verandah’ is garden (and spontaneous vegetation) space and living areas are dynamic yet subtly spatially defined; up, down, under, above. The soil and natural ground line are maintained and carried through. In the temperate south eastern Australian climate, one is a little cold and a little hot sometimes but mostly comfortable.
The ability to hear the outside is something surprising in this house. Nature is noisy. To hear enables one to locate themselves in space outside your own body.
The story of the natural history of the site drove the decision making. The site is part of a leftover heavily vegetated corridor in between cleared grazing land. A historical anomaly, it gives a glimpse into what used to be there, although it too now is mostly altered through domestic gardens, human and (non native) animal activity. Small patches of the endemic vegetation remain, mainly tea-tree heath, among mown grass, introduced species and plants considered invasive weeds.

The site connects to its neighbouring vegetation and Westernport – a large tidal bay. The road now occupies the position of an ephemeral creek, and being downhill, the area can be seasonally wet and dry, and can flood. It acts as a compromised wildlife corridor for animals travelling from nearby Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve to the coast, and perhaps most successfully supports birds.
On this site the existence of endemic terrestrial orchids indicated that the soil had not been altered, and that, embedded in the soil and under the introduced grass were the bones of a plant community that once grew there. With an aim to support the strength of the remnant indigenous vegetation present on the site, weeding was carried out using the Bradley method – which works from ‘good’ outward, so that slowly the vegetation can re-establish. What occurred is a new type of balance. Isolated from the overall web of relationships and natural systems, it is difficult to know if this ongoing activity is strengthening a plant community or if it will now always depend on human care. The presence of Greenhood Orchids (Pterostylis Nutans) are evidence of the presence of Mycorrhiza (required at the germination stage) and often a symbiotic relationship with certain trees. Mycorrhiza fungi is a crucial foundation for healthy soils and have recently been credited with the network used by trees to communicate with each other. Continued mowing and fertilisation of the (non native) grass on the site when it was bought, a hasty positioning of the house on their location, potential changes to the hydrology of the site such as water penetration/overland flow/microclimate, and symbiotic tree removal among others would have meant these orchids would have disappeared in the near future.

By observing and supporting the expansion of small remnant patches of endemic vegetation, a shape of the site emerged that revealed an area where no regeneration was occurring, and as it turned out had been the site of imported fill, effectively smothering the seed stock and altering the soil.
The house was situated on this ‘clearing’, raised above the ground to allow for overland flow and so as not to ‘cut’ the site. Apart from a small utilities area, no ground is sealed. This supports the expansion of the vegetation inside the house. Now part of this ecosystem, this house supports life. The disturbance generated by the construction was quite minimal, but nonetheless enough to generate the expansion of tea trees (which respond to disturbance). Tea trees now regularly grow inside.
Louise Wright