Saturday, December 24, 2016

The House that Jack Built

Inside the entry foyer of the Jack House, looking out to the front courtyard, and beyond into the kitchen window. Note that the house actually straddles a small stream, which passes underneath the house and into the garden in the back, down the steep slope. Photo ©Darren Bradley

OK, OK, I know. That title is a bit too obvious, considering the name of the architect who designed and built this house is Russell Jack. But I couldn't help myself; I couldn't think of anything else. 

Living room view. The dining room and entry are behind me. The den and studio office are past the fireplace. The fireplace was also designed by Russell Jack, and is made of steel and concrete. It's heavy. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Russell Jack is an esteemed modernist architect - one of Sydney's most important. This house that he built for himself and his family in 1957 (and lived in for more than 50 years) is an icon of modernist design that is well known throughout Australia. I discovered it first through one of Karen McCartney's books - 50/60/70, ICONIC AUSTRALIAN HOUSES. At the time, I'd never been to Australia and the houses this book featured showed a unique Australian take on modernist architecture that to me seemed exotic. I never guessed I'd one day see this house (or any of the others in Karen's book... As fate would have it, I've now seen 7 of the 15 homes featured in the book).  The architect initially worked at Rudder, Littlemore & Rudder, whose firm was also responsible for the design of my favorite office building in Sydney, Qantas House (although I understand that Jack doesn't like that project!). 

Qantas House
Qantas House on Chifley Square in central Sydney was designed by Felix Taverner of Rudder, Littlemore & Rudder around 1950. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Jack left the firm in 1956 to set up his own partnership with his friend from architecture school at Sydney Technical College (now UTS), John Allen. The next year, he designed and built his own home in the Sydney north shore suburb of Wahroonga (the north shore is where most of Sydney's architect-designed mid-century modernist homes are located, by the way). 

Main living area of the Jack House, looking toward entry foyer with bedroom wing visible through the windows. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Dining area to entry. Kitchen is on the right. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Dining area with that unique wallpaper representing arches, which is also a play on the two arches in the brick wall at the front of the house. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The house is actually only about a mile away from another famous Australian modernist architectural icon, the Rose Seidler House, which famed architect Harry Seidler designed for his parents as his first project in Australia. 

Rose Seidler Residence
Designed and built in 1950 for Harry Seidler's parents, the Rose Seidler House, became a symbol of Australian modernism in the post-war period. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But back to the Jack House, which is very different from the Rose Seidler House in many ways, despite sharing a modernist pedigree. Seidler's house appears to rest on a pedestal, as a monument apart from the surrounding landscape, Jack's own home is very much an organic expression of how architecture should blend with nature. In fact, it's difficult to take exterior photos of the Jack House, because of how tightly it is folded into the steep sloping site and the surrounding trees, straddling a stream. 

The Russell Jack House is closely woven into the surrounding landscape. Photo ©Darren Bradley.

Modernism in the 1950s was largely divided into two camps. The International Style Modernists (of which Seidler was firmly a part - at least early in his career) believed that there were certain universal truths to follow in Modernism (think Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus - Seidler studied under Gropius at Harvard), and that solutions in architecture were dictated more by rational norms based on human forms and needs than by landscape/terrain or emotions. Le Corbusier, whose own philosophies about Modernist architecture heavily influenced the Bauhaus, had his own manifesto (The Five Points), and even created a rational system of measurement based on the human form on which the scale and proportions of Modernist architecture should be measured. 

"Le Modulor" is Le Corbusier's attempt to reduce architectural proportions and scale down to a series of mathematical equations based largely on Fibonacci numbers and the proportions of an ideal man - Le Modulor. 

Gibbs & Gibbs Architects Building
The architecture offices of Gibbs & Gibbs in Long Beach, California are a classic example that embodies International Modernist principles. 

The other camp was led by Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed in building INTO nature, rather than on top of it. He embraced decorative forms and even curved lines more than the Internationalists, and was far less afraid to use wood and other organic materials. Ironically, both schools also took their cues and much inspiration from traditional Japanese architecture. 

Willoughby Incinerator
Walter Burley Griffin, an American architect who once worked closely with Frank Lloyd Wright, is most well known as the founding designer of Canberra, the capital of Australia. He had a very successful practice in Australia (more successful than his Canberra venture, to be honest), and designed many buildings in and around the same part of Sydney where the Jack House is located. The above building is a former trash incinerator he designed in Willoughby outside of Sydney. It perfectly embodies a Wrightian design language in its use of decorative elements, and how it is embedded in the hillside. Photo ©Darren Bradley. 

Russell Jack admired both camps, and you can see that clearly in the design of his own home, which has Wrightian, International Modernist, and Japanese influences, while also being distinctly a Russell Jack design. This hybrid design became a pre-cursor to the Sydney School of architecture, which reacted to the strict lines of International design with the use of rustic materials and designs that merged into the natural landscape. 

Care to play "find the influences" in this photo? Photo ©Darren Bradley

I'm completely in love with this house. I'm not alone, apparently. This house won New South Wales' top architecture honor in 1957 with the Sulman Award. 
While open in plan, this house caters to the human desire for small, intimate spaces to provide the feeling of warmth and security. This is the den off larger living area. The glass behind the Jacobsen Egg Chair can be completely opened if desired to create an almost outdoor feeling to the room. Photo ©Darren Bradley

One of the children's bedrooms in the private wing of the house, with seamless views out to the large deck that blur the lines between indoors and out. Note how the house is raised above the deck somewhat with a step, to help see over the railing of the balcony from inside. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The master bedroom is small and intimate, just as I prefer. I never saw the need for these ginormous master bedrooms people are building now. Do you really ever use that extra seating area you've designed into your cavernous master bedroom McMansion? Photo ©Darren Bradley 

But I won't spend a lot of time talking about the specifics of the house because there are others who are far more qualified to do so. That brings me to the topic of the house's current owner, Ms. Modernism herself, Annalisa Capurro. 


Annalisa is an interior designer and architectural historian in her own right, specializing in Modernist architecture design. She acquired the house through an unwitting interview process with Russell Jack, who was looking to sell his home, but would only do so if/when he found the right person who could understand and appreciate it. Russell and Annalisa were very lucky to find each other. Annalisa bought the home and lives there today with her daughter. She considers her role to be that of a caretaker, maintaining the integrity of Jack's designs. Annalisa has developed a close relationship with Russell, and has studied his work extensively. 

jack capurro
Annalisa and Russell at the dining table of the Jack House. Photo courtesy of Annalisa Capurro. 

I've known Annalisa for years from Palm Springs (where she is a frequent visitor), but I only recently had the opportunity to visit this house and spend a couple of hours on a summer afternoon. I hadn't planned to take any photos, so the shots I do have here are impromptu, but I do look forward to coming back later for a proper photo session, if I have the opportunity. 

Annalisa Capurro on the deck of her home. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Many thanks to Annalisa and her daughter, India, for their generous hospitality! 


Carlton said...

Very interesting story about Russell Jack. I was completely drawn in, because I knew nothing about the guy. The home my wife and I purchased some years back looks sort of similar to his style but it wasn't created by him. I didn't used to be, but I am now definitely drawn in and fascinated by modern architecture. Beautiful homes by the way!

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Unknown said...

A wonderful post to come across and it may be of interest that I grew up in the mirror house to the Jack house which Russell designed for my parents in 1957 at the same time of the Jack House build. Widely unknown outside of the Allan , Jack & Cottier firm of architecture , Tarlow House located in The central western town of Dubbo remains true to Russell Jack’s design ethos and is a pristine example of his mid century modernist style 64 years on. Very special to me . Thankyou for for sharing .

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