Simon and Freda Thornton ARCHITECTS
The Aqueduct and Tent House NORTHCOTE
In 2007 Pauline Heslop bought a vacant block of land next to her daughter Lesley and her family, in Northcote. The intention was to build a house for herself, and link her courtyard and new pool with the backyard next door. About this design Simon says the following:
'In designing this house for someone who has spent most of her life running a die-casting factory with her late husband, I wanted to engage with engineering culture. It is hard to imagine a better example of the mind-set of the engineer than the construction of a Roman aqueduct. Their approach seems to have been to connect the water source and destination by a straight line, at a slight descending angle, and not worrying about valleys and hills; they just ploughed right through them! Since the house site is very long and thin, I realised that the form of an aqueduct would fit well on the block, and if skewed to true north, would run from corner to corner. Hollowed out, it would serve as a passage, allowing rooms and external spaces of various sizes to be located alongside it. In the tradition of 'carpenter gothic' architecture, the 'aqueduct' is constructed of wood, but the exposed radially-sawn hardwood weatherboads will turn a stony grey, giving the impression of weight.
'Thinking about this weightiness I was reminded of the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, where two ideas of existence are contrasted: Is a person's action of no consequence and disappears into oblivion? Or should we act as if every action repeats heavily for all eternity, as Nietzsche argued? This juxtaposition of lightness and heaviness suggested an architectural representation. As the aqueduct seemed to stand for repetition and heaviness, by contrast the rooms of the house could be in the form of tents - the lightest form of architecture. To refine the formal language of the house, I visited websites of contemporary Medieval pageants, and adopted the language style of the striped tents. As I was not personally convinced by either the heavy or the light concepts of existence, I have introduced some tile patterns taken from fifteenth-century icon paintings of the vestments of Russian saints, allowing the inclusion of systems of thought which include both heaviness and lightness, through the transformative concept of forgiveness, or expressed in modern psychological terms, one's own forgiveness of self and others.'
The 'aqueduct' is a sun collection device oriented to the solar system, rather than the surveyors' grid which is based on magnetic north. The arches echo the march of days and years, and the passage from the front porch at the east end to the bedroom at the west has connotations of the passing of life from conception to death. The tent-like spaces may be seen as the ephemeral 'rooms' where our imaginings create the real substance of our existence.