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Designer living

By Alex Brooks

They eke out a modest existence designing homes for their clients but what kind of houses do architects live in? And what do their partners think? Alex Brooks takes a peek inside.

If mechanics have the worst cars and doctors have the sickest children, what can be said of architects' houses? Surely an architect's home - more than those of any other profession - is a dream made real; a chance for the maestros of the building world to strut their designer stuff, free of the constraints of conservative clients, nagging neighbours and interference from the in-laws.



Not always.

It is an industry joke that architects rarely finish building their own houses. In North Bondi, architect Yvonne Haber is finalising the last of three stages of construction on the semi she bought in 1999. She shares the house with her bricklayer husband, Nic Carroll, five-year-old son, Leo, and two stepchildren, Lyle, 24, and Kassy, 21. "Don't bother wiping your feet," she says as we duck underneath the timber gantry that blocks the front door. "There's so much dirt that a bit more won't matter."

Haber, 42, says she has invited house guests to sit and chat in her bedroom as it's been the only room safe from the perils of construction. Her husband once resorted to phoning talkback radio to detail what he's put up with: "We didn't have a back wall for eight weeks and that was while we had an 18-month-old toddler," he says, shaking his head.

"I can't make decisions," admits Haber. "We've been here more than five years and we still don't have curtains. Every time I see those poor builders, I have to tell them I've changed my mind about something. I kept saying all construction should be finished by August - what I call finished. Maybe that's not what everyone else would call finished. I've got just one more wall to paint."

Not all architects have the opportunity to build their dream house. Trish Croaker, spokeswoman for the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, says the average salary for an experienced architect is between $50,000 and $60,000 a year - "hardly enough to build a mansion", especially in Sydney or Melbourne.

But most architects can't help but showcase their artistry and design skills in their own home. Melbourne architect Sean Godsell's dramatically austere house sits high on a hill in a suburban Kew street. Some say it's a metal and glass box; others have rudely compared it to Auschwitz.

Godsell's wife, Annemarie Kiely, has certainly had to adapt to her husband's chosen environment. She told the ABC-TV series In The Mind Of The Architect that she felt she lived in a fishbowl, forced to dress in the cupboards because there were no blinds on the windows. In the series, Godsell said his house "forces socialisation that we need to deal with as a society in Australia. It forces tolerance within the house." Er, right.

Living with an architect can certainly be trying. Take John Henry, 60, who has spent five years designing and building his home in Research, on the outskirts of Melbourne, with his partner of 10 years, Deb Ganderton, who works in media relations.

"Architects should just do what they want to do and call it what it is: fun," he says. Henry's whimsical home is a vast, cavernous industrial shed with an interior of white concrete platforms that has an 18- by 12-metre wall of windows overlooking a bush gully. The space is dotted with bright artwork and colourful modernist furniture. There is an indoor waterfall and several interior gardens. The entire project, including the land, cost less than $350,000.

For an architect who designs retirement homes and hospitals, Henry's own house couldn't be further from the stuff of his day job. "It's my own personal interest to create a space with a daredevil factor," he says. But this isn't a house for the faint-hearted: the stunning white steel steps throughout the house have no rails and hover over rocks and gardens - one foot wrong and you could end up in the fish pond.

How on earth does a man, who says he is only going to move out "in a box", intend to live in such a house if he ever gets as old and infirm as the people he designs hospitals for? "Deb's younger than me so I'll just get her to carry me up the stairs," he says, laughing. Ganderton goes along with her partner's jokes: "I'll buy one of those independent living units he designs and stick him in it out the back."

Ganderton believes that Henry designed the house with traps, gaps and trip-ups to stop her drinking wine. "I know that the fish pond near the front door is there to warn John when I've had too many chardies - if he hears a splash, he knows I've had a few," she says. "To be honest, this is a house you live in at your peak - it's not an inclusive, access-all-abilities home - in fact, it's probably a reaction to the things John does in his grown-up work."

Ganderton and Henry had many "debates and board meetings" during the building process; Ganderton insisted that walls and a door on the guest bathroom were "not negotiable". Henry baulked. He wanted the entire space to be open. Their ensuite bathroom is part of the bedroom and can be seen from the lounge platform.

"Guests don't need to be seen sitting on the toilet," says Ganderton. "Guests need to be able to relax - you don't want them to have to wait until they go home to wee. I like our open bathroom and showering in the bush but should I impose my bohemianism on the house guests? No."

"I was disappointed that Deb insisted on the laundry and guest toilet," says Henry, "but it's a practical consideration and architects have to be practical. Now I think it works well. It's a black box and it recedes. We hang the optic art on it - it all looks great."

David Luck, a 43-year-old Melbourne architect, understands what Ganderton means. Luck and his administrator partner of 20 years, Robynne Kinnane, have created two homes together and are working on the renovation of a home and office in inner-city Melbourne. "It's not easy being in a relationship when you design intimate spaces - there are fundamental disagreements," he explains as he sits in the black and red lounge room of the Mornington Peninsula retreat that took more than three years to complete.

The couple admit they have argued about their own ensuite bathrooms - she likes the idea of a dramatic, open ensuite but he is truly appalled at the thought, and sound, of such a thing. "It's like a dentist when the spouse has bad teeth or the horror stories about plastic surgeons and their wives. You're spending $500,000 and, actually, it's all about the toilet."

Luck also builds the houses he designs. "There is the house you dream about living in and then the house you actually live in," he says. "Architects' houses are a third thing: we want to live in them, we dream to live in them and then we have to live in them.

"Architects aren't the world's richest people, so our houses are like our superannuation; we shift around our capital to make them happen."

Sydney architect Dale Jones-Evans - who has designed award-winning houses, as well as nightclubs such as Sydney's Victoria Room, the Loft, Bungalow 8 and Melbourne's Metro - became a property developer when he built his two-bedroom warehouse apartment in Sydney's Surry Hills.

The former surfing champion, who quit school at 15 before returning to study, bought an old factory and created nine other apartments that he then on-sold when completed in 2000. "First and foremost I am an architect, not a developer," he says. "But clever architects value-add by creating good design."

Jones-Evans's apartment has 180 square metres of space over three levels. He wanted it to be a gallery for his art collection and pared back the original three-bedroom design to make two spacious bedrooms with sensual curved plaster walls that cost an extra $40,000.

Jones-Evans spends most of his time travelling, especially to outback Australia, where he paints. The 50-year-old insists his apartment is merely a space that he can easily come and go from: nothing spiritual, nothing sacrosanct.
Mind you, he looks wounded when the Sunday Life photographer says the precious bamboo-screened roof of his studio - where he used to create canvases until he realised what a paint-splattered mess he had created - might look like a fence in the photo. "A fence? It's about letting the light in. It's beautiful," he says, touching the sliding screens that took a builder six weeks to construct.

A comment on the dramatic black ceilings in the living space prompts Jones-Evans to pull a face and point out that the ceilings aren't, in fact, black but eight different shades mixed together. What colour would that be, then? "Difficult," he says.

Australia's revered godfather of minimalism, Ian Moore, formerly of the partnership Engelen Moore, dresses entirely in black, with groovy round black glasses and a neat Zero Halliburton silver briefcase.

Known for his love of white spaces, the 48-year-old designer of some of Sydney's most famous apartment buildings - such as Altair and the Grid - lives in one of his own buildings in Darlinghurst during the week. On weekends, the New Zealand-born Moore retreats to an unrenovated 1970s clinker brick house near Noosa in Queensland, where his artist wife, Catherine, and two children, Ada, 14, and Tane, 12, live permanently.

His 62-square-metre city apartment has grey floors, white walls, a wall of grey cupboards and startling fluorescent red paint on the bathroom "pod". Moore describes his Sydney apartment as "monastic", furnished with one Charles and Ray Eames chair and ottoman, a sleek Eames dining setting and a bed. Hundreds of architecture books are in the cupboards, along with two foam mattresses the kids sleep on when they come to Sydney. The only other items on display are a Dualit toaster, two silver pots and a kettle. Oh, and a pepper grinder.

"The house in Noosa is not at all like this," he sighs, looking around in pleasure at the tidy space. "My kids have been tortured by me over the years. Things needs to be put away. My daughter has had her moments of leaving things all over the floor but now she colour-orders her clothes in the wardrobe. There's hope for her yet."

The neat, ordered emptiness of Moore's apartment is in stark contrast to the higgledy-piggledy house of renowned restoration architect Clive Lucas, who has worked on Elizabeth Bay House and the Mint in Sydney and Tasmania's historic Port Arthur.

Lucas and his occupational therapist wife, Sarah, live in an 1887 weatherboard cottage in Sydney that they bought in 1975 and restored themselves. The arrival of three children - who have now left home - prompted extensions to the cottage and eventually the purchase of the 1905 brick house next door. Lucas designed latticed verandas to link the two properties, creating a five-bedroom, two-bathroom house with outdoor living rooms.

"It was fun in the early days," says Sarah. "We were painting with a nine-month-old crawling around. There was the old geezer gas heater in the bathroom. We used to sit outside on the veranda to dine. It's a tragedy that the modern house does not have a veranda."

Wearing a shirt, tie and navy-blue jumper with leather elbow patches, the bearded Lucas, 62, is delighted to show off his house with its vivid displays of antiques, paintings and endless shelves of books. "It's all rather confused, really," he says as we walk into yet another room, this one a second kitchen, used as a wine cellar and pantry.

His favourite room is the sitting room, which he created by knocking down the wall between two smaller rooms and installing the marble fireplace he'd carefully removed from a front bedroom. The wildly patterned Victorian-reproduction wallpaper and frieze on the walls are left over from Lucas's restoration of the InterContinental hotel in Sydney. Antique chairs are covered in a William Morris fabric that he and Sarah bought on their honeymoon in England in 1971.

"I am a great collector of colonial architecture. I like to live in a traditional setting. When I was a student, I was seen as quite eccentric. I would go to look at all the historic houses around Windsor and Parramatta but everyone else was going to look at a [modernist Harry] Seidler house," he says.

Lucas despises modern houses. "It's all very well to have large open-plan spaces if you have 100 people for a drinks party but there is nowhere to go when you are on your own. It might look good in a photo but..." He shivers at the thought of having to live there. "I think it's ill-mannered to have architecture that screams at you. I want my own house to be timeless. People wouldn't necessarily know when this room was done. It won't date because it was dated before I put it in."