Paul Morgan – Cape Shanck House

Jacqui Alexander, Sarah Bridges and Kate Milligan speak with Paul Morgan — the architect, client and resident of his house at Cape Shanck – to discuss the house’s semiotics, its design process and construction, and the experience of living in such a space.

October 1, 2007

The land was bought at the end of 2002, tucked behind the rugged cliffs of Cape Schanck. Nestled among the pigface and tea trees, the house appears as a compressed, flat object, sitting snugly at the bottom of the site. Its expressive form is open to misinterpretation; it resembles a caravan, a tram, a spaceship.

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Paul introduces us to the basic premise for the design of the house.

PAUL: The influence for the design of the house is the environment; the idea of a performance shell, both expressively and practically, which comes about as a result of the very specific and quite strong environmental conditions down here. The winds often channel from the south-east, so that has influenced the form of the house as well as the phototropism of the tea tree which gives it very particular forms.

POST: How did you translate these ideas into a formal architectural outcome?

PAUL: We did a lot of drawings. We made models; cardboard models and CAD models. It’s a highly iterative process. You work on the design and you test it out and you go back and test it again. There are two elements; the living unit and the bedroom unit, which have been merged through the application of materials. These two units are legible as one, because of the enveloping continuous skin. Plywood has been used for the bedroom wing, and for the timber stained battens around the entry. There was also an interest in reinterpreting the verandah so that the awning became a deck and the shadows became the seating. All were treated similarly with stained battens to give the impression of skin that’s had some sort of turbulence applied to it.

As Paul speaks about his design methodology, it seems that he is as much of an inventor, as he is an architect. Paul has designed a series of ‘wind scoops’ to trap the wind for ventilation and provide screening from the sun in summer. Expressively, the wind scoops crank with the form of the house. The water tank in the living room – incidentally the most published part of the house –was the initial concept for project.

PAUL: For something like the water tank, it is unlikely that a client would take a risk there … because it’s experimental and I didn’t know whether it would succeed or not.

POST: It seems that you’ve got an interest in ‘architecture as art’ on one hand, and sustainability on the other. Where is the relationship between art and sustainability?

PAUL: Well the sustainability thing is something we’ve all got to take on as architects. In the past, a lot of architecture or sustainable architecture has been quite ‘worthy’; a little bit ‘high-minded’ about the mud-brick house or solar panels, and so there exists this split between innovative design and ‘sustainable’ design.

POST: Can you tell us about the exhibition that occurred down here at Cape Schanck?

PAUL: The idea for the exhibition was to bring together a lot of my own interests: architecture, art and the landscape. It’s a challenging agenda because it’s obviously anything but a white cube. The challenge was to do installation works in the house. There were ten artists and the exhibition ran for about 4 weeks at the end of last year. We got 150 people visiting the house.

POST: Did you find that the art allowed you to reinterpret your own work in way?

PAUL: Jo (referring to his partner) did a wall piece in the bedroom that has since become a permanent fixture. Is it art or decoration, or is it wallpaper? Is it part of the architecture? In the end I don’t think it matters how you categorize it, but that sort of integrated approach to design is very interesting.

POST: The POST agenda is about architecture as it evolves over time. We are interested in post-occupancy rather than the process leading up to construction, which is where most commercial architectural journals are focused. In light of this, were there any unforeseen aspects of the design that have cropped up since you have been living here?

PAUL: There are things that you discover about the house because it is quite a complex form — views and shadows and so on. In the living room there are prismatic reflections on the water tank and the walls because of the vertical sashless sliding windows, which was sort of an accident. But I sometimes I’ll be out the back looking at the house and Jo will say, ‘Paul, you have been staring at your house haven’t you?’

POST: So do you want to do more to it when you are staring at it? Do you want to change anything, or is it complete?

PAUL: It’s very resolved. It was pretty obsessive. There are 25 A1 working drawings.

POST: Can it evolve over time, with changes in the family per-se?

PAUL: The house is shared with my sister she lives in London for the moment. She will come back in a couple of years with her partner and a baby. We’ve got our own little family so I don’t exactly know how it is going to evolve. For this reason there is no master bedroom as such. There is no hierarchy, because we didn’t want to have fights about who gets the best bedroom. The idea was that the house could be zoned.

POST: Do you typically work quite closely with a builder?

PAUL: This was sort of like a community project. When we bought the land, we started talking to the guy out the back and he said he could build it. And he did. He’d get up in the morning, go for a surf, have breakfast, walk onto the site and start building. The landscape architect lives across the road her name is Sally Prideaux, she is a very talented graduate of the RMIT Landscape course.

POST: Would you say that there is a lot of specialized fabrication that went into this house?

PAUL: Yes and no, because there are no highly mechanized elements and they are all traditional trades — concrete pavers requiring little fabricating and so on. And so I’d say they are conventional trades but the materials are often used in unusual ways.

POST: So, Paul, in your words, what’s this house all about?

PAUL: Ian McDougall thought that this house was partly about the vernacular, which is something that I haven’t really seen in it, but that’s one of his interests anyway.

POST: Was he referring to the beach house vernacular, or the ‘sustainable’ vernacular?

PAUL: Well the caravan. A lot of contemporary work is not about program but about meaning, so the question in regard to this house is where it falls. Personally I have never designed any part of the house to signify anything specifically. It was never about looking like a caravan or a space ship. It’s the same for the water tank. People say it resembles a light bulb or a teardrop, or an urn or a bong, and a lot of people are certain they know what it means. Again, for me it was simply the appropriate shape, size and proportion for the living room. The water tank is one of those ideas where we didn’t exactly know how it would turn out; you are acting on a hunch really. And it works beautifully in summer — it’s less successful during the cooler months but it’s something you only really know once you build it. We’ve actually designed a jacket for it as well with a friend of mine who is a fashion designer. The jacket is leather, enhancing insulation during the winter.

POST: Do you see yourself as working within a particular architecture discourse? Where do you situate yourself as an architect?

PAUL: I don’t really self-consciously put myself in a particular stream or dialogue. I’ve been taught by Peter Corrigan, Ian McDougall and Howard Raggat. I’d say my work is pretty expressive, it’s not that minimalist stuff that most architects are doing these days, because it’s safe andtasteful.

POST: Would you design your own house again, Paul? Is this going to be some sort of ongoing quest?

PAUL: Definitely. But for the moment we are going to relax and enjoy it for a while. It’s such a rewarding process on so many levels I definitely want to do it again. It is an opportunity to do a prototype, and it’s seldom with clients that you can do that. I’ve been thinking that I would love to do another house [for myself] soon. I did this house as an owner-builder because the builder was not a registered building practitioner.

POST: Hypothetically, if you couldn’t design your next house, who would you get to do it?

PAUL: Locally? McBride Charles Ryan. I think it’s probably hard to find better residential architects. Larger firms that I admire like ARM and Lyons do virtually no residential work. But I wouldn’t mind Howard Raggat designing a house for me.

POST: If I might make an assertion, I think that your house engages more with notions of beauty than the work of your mentors such as firms like ARM and Lyons, who have a post-modern theoretical agenda. I think there is an aesthetic sensibility that is really refined in this house that is less present in their work.

PAUL: Corrigan has influenced my work, Venturi and Scott Brown, the Ugly and the Ordinary. Ian McDougall and Howard Raggat have also influenced but to a lesser extent. Certainly Carey Lyon is an influence; I think he actually worked in Venturi’s office so there is a lineage there. But beauty is something that you don’t really talk about much as an architect. Let me just say I think it is a very perceptive observation on your part.

POST: And Internationally? Who would you employ to design your house?

PAUL: I don’t really have any architectural heroes, although there are a lot of architects that I admire. OK, probably John Lautner. He’s a Los Angeles architect that practiced from the 40’s to the 80’s. And his houses were modernist but at the same time quite tactile and rather organic, with a very strong sense of materiality.

Paul affirms his opinion of the Cape Schanck house as a mélange of precedents:

PAUL: We’ve got a bit of vernacular, a bit of glamour, a little bit of sci-fi. And certainly in projects from our office –– particularly the fit-outs of RMIT — there is this influence of production design and science fiction films, in particular 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s something of that early 70’s sort of aesthetic as well in the living room, but back then it wouldn’t have a water tank, so it’s not simply some sort of nostalgia for a period of modernism or even lifestyle, it’s updated with contemporary concerns.

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