Richardson House
photo: Max Dupain & Associates © Peter Muller

Site Overview

site name:
Richardson House “Kumale”
architect:
Peter Muller
date of commission:
1955
date of completion:
1956
address:
949 Barrenjoey Road, Palm Beach, Sydney NSW 2108
classification/typology:
Houses (RES)
protection status:
Pittwater Local Environmental Plan RAIA NSW Chapter – Register of 20th Century Buildings of Significance
current use:
House
editor fiche:
Jacqueline Urford in 2004

History of the Building

Original brief/purpose

Designed in 1955, the “Richardson House” is unlike any other Sydney house of the period. Inspired by the later works of Frank Lloyd Wright, “it remains today a splendid and isolated example, on the edge, as it were, of the organic movement” – Robert Irving & John Kinstler, “Fine Houses of Sydney” (Sydney 1982) p.160.

Peter Muller’s architectural concept for the Richardson house, as with all his designs, began with the site: a small precipitous slice of bushland between Barrenjoey Road and Pittwater with extensive views. In Muller’s words: “It was a completely bald, empty, rocky ledge that faced west straight into deep water”. The house was sited on the edge of the cliff face, some seven metres below the road and 15 metres above the water. “So it’s perched there like a crag on a rock” – Peter Muller. The elevator shaft was intended to link the main living area with the seaplane hanger on the waterfront. The circular geometry for the house was inspired by an existing and sizeable stone water tank on the site – which was retained as a support for the carport.

The Richardson house is an expression of ambiguous exterior/interior relationships. The house can be extensively opened- up to sunny terraces and cooling sea breezes through a series of full-height, bronze-framed curved, sliding glass panels that recess into hollow circular perimeter columns. The dichotomy of interior/exterior relationships is further strengthened by the circular swimming pool which extends from the terrace outside to become part of the internal living area under a glass-floored walkway.

dates: commission/completion
1955/1956

architectural designers
Peter Muller

significant alterations with dates current use current condition
The brickwork has been painted, the fibreglass dome covered with an opaque waterproof membrane and the surrounding pools drai

Description

The Richardson house is an expression of ambiguous exterior/interior relationships. The house can be extensively opened- up to sunny terraces and cooling sea breezes through a series of full-height, bronze-framed curved, sliding glass panels that recess into hollow circular perimeter columns. The dichotomy of interior/exterior relationships is further strengthened by the circular swimming pool which extends from the terrace outside to become part of the internal living area under a glass-floored walkway.

The dominant features of this totally crafted building are the cylindrical piers and the shallow transluscent dome that originally capped the foyer of the living area. The detailing of the dome was inspired by the image of “the inside of a sea urchin held to the eye and into the sun”. The dome was originally surrounded by a six-inch deep concrete dish full of water which reflected the sky and trees in order to blend with the distant view of Pittwater whilst providing thermal insulation.

The 2200mm (7’4”) high perimeter columns are made of specially manufactured concrete brick, originally left in their natural grey coloured state. It was intended that these columns frame the magnificent, panoramic harbour view, breaking it up into a series of “scrolls”. The interpenetrating volumes within the house allow the framed views of Pittwater to unfold gradually as one progresses from one space to the next, with the inhabitant experiencing a continual opening and closing of vistas and glimpses to the outside. Mitred glass corner windows are used in the bedrooms. Consequently, although the 2 bedroom house is not large in terms of floor area, the appearance of voluminous space seems real.

Floors: Reinforced concrete slabs. Walls: Double skin (cavity) brick walls.

Construction

Floors: Reinforced concrete slabs.

Walls: Double skin (cavity) brick walls.

Roofs: Constructed as for floors with bituminous membrane over the slab and asbestos cements tiles as protective paving on top of the membrane.

Windows and external doors: Bronze-framed windows and doors.

Evaluation

The building is of Technical Significance:
For the exceptional quality of the surviving original exterior and interior finishes and fittings; this quality is supported by the existence of a comprehensive collection of photographs by arguably, Australia’s foremost photographer, Max Dupain.

The building is of Aesthetic Significance:
– The Richardson house is a rare example of a highly esoteric organic building idiom which, although seemingly derivative, was at the same time powerful, delicate and extraordinarily appropriate for its Pittwater setting.

General assessment
The Richardson House is an important example of the influence of the late work of American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, on the work of Australian architects as well as being an excellent example of of a residence constructed on an extremely difficlut site, taking advatnage of that site as an essential part of the building’s aesthetic.

Documentation

Principal references:

Written Sources
“Kumale” in Irving, Kinstler & Dupain (1982), Fine Houses of Sydney,Sydney: Methuen

Photo archives
Max Dupain photos at Max Dupain & Assoc (Eric Sierins)

Rapporteur/date
Jacqueline Urford, September 2004

Richardson House Palm Beach, 1956, architect Peter Muller. Photographer Max Dupain

References:

Kumale House (original project and more images)