We’ve all seen one: a building that seems completely out of place in its surroundings. Maybe it’s that mock Tudor mansion with English garden squeezed onto a tiny block in a semi-arid Australian country town. It could be a Balinese-style garden struggling to survive the southern Tasmanian winter or a Tuscan-style villa in Darwin.
There’s something unsettling about the simplistic transposition of styles from one location to another -“ something obtuse about taking an idea or technique which developed as a result of specific climatic conditions or availability of local materials and plonking it in the Australian landscape. Project home builders are the biggest offenders, shamelessly promoting their latest Mediterranean or Victorian mansion for use in Australia’s overcrowded suburbs.
Early settlers in Australia learnt the hard way that the only way to build a comfortable home for Australian conditions was to leave northern hemisphere building traditions behind and come up with innovative ways of surviving the new conditions. The verandah is one example of a design innovation which emerged early in Australia’s architectural history as a means of shading walls and providing a sheltered outdoor spot to catch evening breezes.
Contextual design takes into account the immediate surroundings. The definition of context can range from weather conditions to social and financial considerations and the result is a building or design that seems entirely appropriate in its setting. But there are other advantages too.
A garden that is planned with the immediate environment in mind will require less maintenance, provide much needed shade as well as a home for local wildlife. Local councils can usually provide lists of species indigenous to your local area as well as advice on energy-saving measures you can take. A home that is planned with local context in mind will respond to topography, breezes and temperatures as well as being sited with the movement of the sun in mind. Materials which respond to local context, both built and natural, will help the building look like it belongs.
Sometimes there is an argument for working outside these parameters. Maybe you want to differentiate your house from its neighbours. Landmark city buildings are often designed with this in mind, but council planning departments can be quite tough on those who wish to stand out from the crowd. Especially in long-established areas with significant local heritage items, it may be very difficult to get radical ideas through.
The important thing to realise is that contextual design does not necessarily mean boring design. In fact some of Australia’s most successful and exciting architects base their work almost entirely on contextuality. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt and Troppo are two architects who have made their names through designing buildings which suit specific climatic conditions. Who could imagine anything more appropriate in a warm climate than beautiful timber and steel structures that sit lightly in the bush and allow breezes to pass through?
The choice of materials, style and landscaping are all crucial when planning a new home. A little consideration of context will make the difference between a building that sits clumsily on its site, and one that truly touches the earth lightly, an Aboriginal proverb often quoted by Murcutt.