March 2020

Arts & Letters

Plans never imagined: Architect Timothy Hill

By David Neustein

Longhouse, Daylesford, Victoria. Photograph by Rory Gardiner

The ‘Longhouse’ and the ‘Multihouse’ confirm the director of Partners Hill as the country’s most important and influential architect of the past 30 years

Many years ago, a Brisbane businessman hired a pair of young and unknown architects to design his house. The brief was simultaneously straightforward and unusual. Having grown up in a family home that was repeatedly altered, updated and remodelled in response to his parents’ changing needs and tastes, the businessman asked for a house that would never require renovation. “What I want to do is spend all the money that I’m ever going to need to spend on the house at the start,” he told the architects. Despite being a bachelor, the client asked the architects not to base their plans on his current circumstances, but instead to envisage all the possible details and practicalities of his future life. Accordingly, the architects designed a rambling family pile with spaces for gatherings and celebrations, rooms for adults and children, cooking spaces, guest lodgings, a home office and a nursery. But they didn’t stop there. If the house was to remain unchanged, they speculated, then it would eventually capitulate to the ravages of time. They imagined the house’s materials wearing and ageing, the garden gradually growing wild and overtaking the walls, the structure revealing itself as a magnificent ruin.

Time passed: nearly eight years in total. The commission for the businessman’s house was the catalyst for the architects forming a partnership, and their office grew into a small team as the project progressed. The task of creating the dwelling began in reverse, commencing with its future ruins. After two years of design and two more of construction, the house eventually began to emerge from its steep site in a cascading array of pale and striated sandstone and concrete walls, stairs, ledges and platforms, like the remnants of an old Italian hill town. Another three and a half years were spent transforming this archaic structure into an extraordinary abode, replete with projecting timber balconies and huge bay windows, panoramic views and cosy niches, glass vitrines and water features, an outdoor fireplace and a sunken lawn. Finally, not long after it was finished and almost a decade after hiring the architects, the businessman met his future wife. On their third date he took her to visit the house. The couple remain living in it today, along with their two sons, amid weathered concrete walls and wooden trellises overgrown with vines and creepers.

The “C House”, as its designers named it, occupies a mythical place in Australian architecture, providing an appropriately epic origin story for Brian Donovan and Timothy Hill’s practice, Donovan Hill. Alongside the poetically spartan North Stradbroke Island beach house built by Donovan and Hill’s former lecturers at the University of Queensland, Brit Andresen and Peter O’Gorman, the C House did much to alter perceptions of Queensland architecture. Together these two houses, both completed at the end of the millennium, ushered in a local lexicon of openness and operability, belvederes and double-height outdoor rooms, latticed timber screens and intricate built-in furnishings. 

What was truly imaginative about the C House was the way in which it upended the expectations and aspirations of Australian architecture. Rather than a response to our colonial, rural or suburban traditions, the house was an amalgam of styles and references, bringing together fragments of imperial Japanese villas, 19th-century German classicism, early-20th-century English Arts and Crafts homesteads, subtropical modernism, late-modern Venetian motifs and peak Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, the architects did not set out to design a conventional house at all, but rather a miniature city with its own public square and great hall, labyrinthine routes and passageways, terraces and fortifications. “There are few public spaces in Australian life,” Timothy Hill explains to me, “so I think we need to create them, in our cities and even in our homes.”

Hill was in his late twenties when work began on the C House, and is now in his mid fifties. He has never owned a house and claims to have no desire to create his own home in the future, preferring to rent, share with others and periodically move on. An intensely thoughtful and occasionally introspective figure, he currently divides his time between offices in Hobart, Brisbane and Melbourne, where much of his ongoing work is based. Hill’s laser-sharp insights into domestic architecture’s possibilities and limitations seem to stem from his own experiences as an eternal outsider, social animal and housing sceptic. He compares the claustrophobic floorplan of a standard suburban house to a memorable beach shack he once stayed in, where the bedrooms were placed in the corners, facilitating both privacy and togetherness. Hill’s ideal dwelling is a flexible space that generously caters to the separate itineraries of residents, guests and even visiting workers. “Only a quarter of Australian houses are actually occupied by families,” he says, “but few houses have been designed to adapt to different household types.” According to Hill, the associated regimes of the nuclear family and corporate hierarchy tend to reinforce repressive and outdated distinctions between life and work, culture and commerce. Among his many gifts is an uncanny knack for seeing through norms and subverting orthodoxies.

In the two decades that followed completion of the C House, Donovan Hill evolved from a fledgling partnership into one of Australia’s most awarded architectural offices, with four directors and as many as 50 staff. The practice became a training ground for the next generation of Brisbane architects, with former employees going on to found Hogg & Lamb, Richards & Spence, Vokes and Peters, and a host of other successful firms. What has made Donovan Hill’s work so influential is that it did not just challenge expectations of Queensland architecture, it revealed Queensland architecture’s untapped potential. The heat and humidity of the region’s subtropical climate necessitates shade and shelter, but also demands exposure to the elements, with cooling breezes a source of comfort and relief. Balancing enclosure and openness, Donovan Hill seized on the opportunity to create rooms that are neither inside nor outside but somewhere in-between, dematerialising the expected boundaries between public and private realms. 

This spatial ambiguity is compellingly demonstrated by the D House, one of Donovan Hill’s smallest but most significant projects. A two-bedroom, single-storey dwelling, the D House occupies the rear portion of a subdivided lot on an unremarkable street in Brisbane’s inner north, and so provides a widely applicable model for suburban infill development. Between the house’s boundary walls and its modest interior is a pebbled garden that seems to slip under glass panes and infiltrate the living room. A large timber screen retracts to reveal a panoramic slice of domestic life to the street beyond. By bringing the garden and the outside world into the house, the design makes an otherwise constrained space feel limitless, almost weightless. 

Joyful confusion of what lies within and without is a key aspect of all Donovan Hill projects, whether small or large, domestic or civic. You can be inside a Donovan Hill building before you’ve even crossed the threshold, but on reaching the interior might still find yourself outdoors. Working alongside Peddle Thorp Architects, the firm did not so much renovate and extend the State Library of Queensland as turn the entire building inside out. The library’s monolithic late-’80s exterior is punctured by asymmetrical additions that bring the building to the river, with terraced walkways that skim the water and a suspended auditorium that frames a cinematically blinkered view of ripples and reflections. A public thoroughfare bisects the ground floor, providing access to a covered lobby that remains continually open to passers-by and the outside air, minimising the extent of air-conditioned and secure spaces. The fluidity and openness of the architecture is mirrored in the digital realm, with the library one of Australia’s first institutions to offer free wireless internet access, luring students and backpackers to its glowing passageways by night. Completed in 2006, the building’s transformation garnered the highest national awards for both public architecture and interiors, a feat Donovan Hill managed to repeat seven years later through its collaboration with Wilson Architects on the Translational Research Institute (TRI).

Looking back, the C House could be summarised as the first of many Donovan Hill experiments in imbuing private houses with public and civic qualities. Two decades later this experiment came full circle with TRI, a major public building that harbours unexpectedly intimate and domestic spaces. Located within the Princess Alexandra Hospital campus in Brisbane, TRI brings together four medical institutions under one colossal roof, with laboratories, and teaching and administrative facilities. The C House’s double-storey outdoor room takes on heroic proportions at TRI, with an ornately paved circular courtyard and lush garden sheltered within a towering seven-storey central atrium. With its dappled light, gurgling fountain, timber arbours and giant decorative lanterns, the atrium is a vertical oasis of greenery and calm within the hospital campus’s utilitarian landscape. The building doesn’t just bring researchers together, it brings them into collective view, with layers of tinted and fritted glass allowing greater degrees of transparency into laboratory spaces, across floorplates and through public gathering spaces than would usually be considered possible in a building of this type. Workspaces have welcoming colour schemes and lighting, plush seating and city views. “These buildings are normally like hospitals,” Hill says, referring to sterility and security controls that typically result in drab and artificially lit spaces. “I don’t know why hospitals can’t normally be like this.” 

The TRI building marked both the zenith of Donovan Hill’s success and the end of the road. The building’s public opening in 2012 coincided with the announcement of Donovan Hill’s impending merger with BVN, one of Australia’s largest architectural practices. After 20 years of shared success and accolades, Brian Donovan and Timothy Hill would part ways. Donovan joined the newly merged company, while Hill departed for London on an indefinite “sabbatical”. However, it soon became apparent that Hill had not been idle – he had been churning out hundreds of hand-drawn plans and construction details for new residential projects in Daylesford, Victoria, and Mermaid Beach, Queensland. He returned to Australia after four years, enlisting a few members of his former team and establishing Partners Hill. 

“Reports of my retirement were much exaggerated,” he now wryly observes. In November 2019, Hill won the Australian Institute of Architects’ highest national awards for the Daylesford and Mermaid Beach projects. It was the first time that an architectural practice had claimed the year’s top prize in both the single and multiple housing categories.

Winning the multiple housing award, and designed in collaboration with Hogg & Lamb, the Mermaid Beach “Multihouse” comprises a pair of adjoining houses that appear from the street as a single residence on a normal suburban lot. Commissioned by a mother and her adult son, the project balances consideration of the occupants’ autonomy and privacy with the benefits of a shared site and split development costs. Either side of the party-wall that divides the dwellings is a double-storey, open-air breezeway beneath a vaulted, sky-lit ceiling. Enclosed at either end by enormous, giraffe-height gates, the breezeway redefines what would otherwise be a constrained and windowless corridor, bringing light, air and garden views deep into the heart of the plan. Multihouse enables multi-generational, side-by-side living in idyllic proximity, without compromising amenity or independence. 

Similarly, the Daylesford “Longhouse” is a diagram of necessity reimagined as a picturesque utopian fantasy. The building’s immense, 1050-square-metre roof harvests sufficient rainwater to fill a 340,000-litre tank, which in turn sustains residents, animals and a produce garden within a small working farm on an exposed and remote site. Hill found that the most economical way to generate the required roof area was to build a 110-metre-long shed, and then park all of the facilities and accommodation within it. This approach enabled a division of the building works into two separate packages, with the internal fit-out commissioned separately and subsequent to the construction of the shed, allowing for strategic deployment of architectural elements, costlier finishes and ornamentation. Clad in glass-reinforced polyester sheeting, the shed produces an environment that is somewhat milder than the outside climate, keeps birds and insects out and shields the interior from the weather. The vast, ark-like volume within the shed provides abundant room between the Longhouse’s different areas, resolving potential tensions between farm operations, a hospitality business, residential staff and guests. Like a small town beneath a single roof, everything has its own space and address within a garden that grows towards an artificial sky.

“No one’s going to ask me to do this again,” says Hill of the Longhouse design. “But a hundred other architects will be asked to do something similar, and I’m happy to undertake these projects in order to produce the IP for others to use.” 

Part of what made Donovan Hill’s work so special was a determination to devote equal and unyielding energy to anything that was not explicitly excluded from the architect’s scope, be that buildings, landscapes, fixtures or even furnishings. Each new project would come equipped with a dazzling array of custom-designed elements, from sunshades to bollards and lamps, which ranged in execution from ingenious and elegant to outright quirky. It was therefore possible to miss the C-House’s brilliant planning amid a range of individually crafted door handles, or to fixate on the thousands of slotted dowels that line TRI’s walls while failing to observe the building’s operational efficiencies. Much of what was written about Donovan Hill focused on the craft and not the concept, missing the forest for the trees. But the recent work of Partners Hill is more audacious and direct. These projects do not rely on intricacy and layered references, but instead consist of off-the-shelf components and readily deployed strategies for suburban densification or rural habitation.

The most important and influential Australian architect of the past 30 years, Hill reveals unseen spatial and social potential within the familiar and mundane, compelling others to rethink their most basic assumptions. No other figure can equal his awards and accomplishments, match his impact on the culture and development of a city, or claim to have fostered as many firms, practitioners and academics. His impact on the architecture of Brisbane is profound and incalculable. But Hill is adamant that much of his best work is still ahead of him. While experts in other disciplines and professions become increasingly specialised, he believes that architects develop more generalised and expanded capabilities over time. “The better you are, the more widely you can operate,” Hill says. As he enters the next phase of an extraordinary career, the only given is that his work will challenge expectations. “The things that I know that people have really liked about the buildings I’ve made so far,” he says, “are things that they never asked for or never imagined.”

 

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

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