Your reporter was lucky enough to make a visit to Laurie and Mary Virr at their home Rivendell – designed and physically built by Laurie in 1975 in Kambah, which was then a very outer suburb of Canberra.
As well as showing me his house, English born Laurie also shared his own inspiring story, of growing up dirt poor, with a single mother who was raised in an orphanage and a father who though quite bright struggled in the rigid class system that was Britain before the First World War.
Laurie came to architecture through a circuitous route, having gone to a technical high school at age 13 – this was the Hammersmith School of Building and Arts and Crafts. Having topped his year it wasn’t hard for Laurie to then find a job in an engineering office, where the “tyrant” who ran the place taught him drafting and adhered strictly to the idea of precision being the underpinning of all successful design and construction.
As a scruffy 19 year old Laurie went up to London University where he persevered despite being made to feel an outsider, and developed a real skill for running. It was at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958 that he met Percy Cerutty and first formed the idea of emigrating – “as far away as possible” was his motto!
His first Australian job was for Buchan, Laird and Buchan, then in Park Street, South Yarra. Working there as an engineer, Laurie was determined to find a way to become an architect. RMIT required him to go back to school and matriculate again, so he skipped Australia and returned to Britain, studying there in Kingston-on-Thames, where he received marvellous training.
In 1963 bent on experiencing life in the US he wrote to every architecture firm whose work he admired and finally had an offer from the legendary Malcolm Wells – a pioneer of earth-sheltered architecture and a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright – in New Jersey. He met his match in “Mac” Wells and from then on they were like brothers.
His Australian wife wanted to return home so he appealed to Faculty legend Brian Lewis who was very kind and allowed him to enrol in the final 2 years of architecture to complete his degree. Having graduated in 1966 Laurie decided to head straight to Canberra, being fascinated by the idea of the opportunities in a fully planned city and the legacy of Walter and Marion Burley Griffin. Determined to work in private practice Laurie admits now he subjected his wife and son to unreasonable hardship, until 1969 when he got his “first decent job” designing houses in the new suburb of Aranda (note – now home to the National Arboretum).
Rivendell began to come to life in 1975 and has been a project for Laurie and a showcase for his ideas ever since.
Says Laurie of his house “The requirements were for an environmentally responsible house, having living, dining, kitchen, laundry/utility, 2 bedrooms, a single bathroom, a studio, and a carport capable of sheltering one small vehicle. The latter is all that can be justified by any environmentally responsible family. I determined to design a passive solar dwelling having an area no greater than that of the government financed housing being built at that time, but one that displayed in unambiguous terms what I considered to be Architecture: a solar house that did not look as tho it had been designed by a mechanical engineer. Consequently I sought a design that not only satisfied the requirements of the brief, within the tenets of the age old architectural theory of interpenetrating forms – where each space is expressed both in plan and elevation – but was also an expression of the environmental criteria.
I was aware that a number of architects had designed houses employing a hemicycle together with either circular or rectilinear plan elements, but to my knowledge nobody had attempted to combine a 60/30 module with the arcuated form. This was the challenge I embraced.”
Laurie and Mary’s house is warm and charming – a lovely place to visit. Says Laurie it is “dug into the hillside to sill height, thus exposing less of the southern walls to the cold winter winds. To the north the stationary glass and French doors encompass an arc, the center of which is at the apex of the walls defining the terrace. At this latitude, the useful sun during the winter months shines between 9.00 am and 3.00 pm, a quarter of the day, nominally 90˚…..
In terms of design, it is virtually one space, horizontally and vertically. The individual areas borrow from each other, whilst the curve of the window wall together with the placement of the masonry and board and batten partitions ensure that they are gradually revealed, and thus make it appear much larger than it actually is.
If we are to have a solar future, and it is to be hoped that we do, it is imperative that architects devise methods to employ the technology without having to suffer the hideous appearance of much of the equipment. Historically, real architects have been concerned to conceal the intestines, the plumbing and electrical sources, of a building. This aim has never been more relevant than now, for an environment, especially a skyscape that appears to be the result of a mechanical engineer’s efforts is not desirable…..”
Of the garden “Landscape planting is exclusively of local native species, long accustomed to the prolonged droughts that are a characteristic of the Australian climate. To the north of the building, hidden by the terrace wall, are a vegetable garden and fruit trees that predominantly cater for the needs of the household for 7 months of the year.”
Laurie and Mary told us that their house has been visited by more than 1800 people from around the world, whilst drawings and photographs formed part of the Australian exhibit at the 1983 Paris Biennale.
You can read more about this remarkable University alumnus and his work at www.laurievirrarchitect.com.