Simon and Freda Thornton ARCHITECTS
The Prairie House Extension BRIGHTON
One method of approaching the design of extensions, which has been developed by Simon, is to consider the ideas which shaped the original house and the values and beliefs of the original architects and owners all those years ago, then revisit those ideas from the point of view of our culture now.
The street view of this 1920’s house in Brighton south of Melbourne shows that it was designed in Californian Bungalow style. This was an Australian amalgam of multiple influences, mainly drawn from American sources. The horizontality of the verandah refers to the Prairie Style of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers, who responded to the wide open spaces and treeless landscapes of this type of natural topography.
How do we perceive the American prairies now? Their history has been one of massive destruction, with ecologies of over 200 grasses reduced to monocultures over more than ninety percent of their area. The vast herds of buffalo have largely been eradicated and the first nations of indigenous Americans have been marginalized.
In this extension the theme of the prairie is taken up in a cultural rather than topographical way, by referring to the shape of the interior of a winter ‘earth lodge’ dwelling of the Mandan people in the design of the rear Family room. Coloured posts replicate the poles found in these dwellings, and refer to celestial points. Patterns and colours of external walls are influenced by general tendencies in the weaving and decoration of American first nations, while the tiling patterns in the house are enlarged representations of parts of a beadwork design ‘sampled’ from the dress of a young bride. Generally the colour scheme incorporates natural tones found in clothing and artefacts,
The design demonstrates the strategy of integrating the extension with the original house by enlarging the main roof shape and continuing the line of the existing side walls. The old concrete tiles were replaced with terra cotta tiles.
The development of this design presented an ethical question: Is it acceptable to copy bead patterns from an indigenous design? To answer this Simon consulted Lightning Bear, a Cherokee medicine man, who responded that it was all a matter of respect. If the patterns were copied with care for the indigenous culture then it is a positive gesture and quite permissible.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of life on the prairies was human sacrifice, which ceased early last century. The Pawnee would capture a girl from another nation and, after a long period of preparation, sacrifice her as part of religious ritual. Our dilemma is reconciling our wish to respect other cultures (and not superimpose our values) with our abhorrence at the practice. This dilemma is not resolved, but is referred to in the arrangement of the horizontal battens on the outside of the main skylight, which represent the rack onto which the maiden was strapped, and by the arrow motifs on the front gate.