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    Striking a chord: Peter Muller on Audette House and why architecture is like music

    Nathan Johnson

    Architect Peter Muller was a 24 year old post graduate who enjoyed classical music when he first put pencil to paper and began drafting the plans for the now iconic Audette House completed in 1952.

    He was commissioned to create an American Colonial style house for the Castlecrag, NSW site, but as he’d tell you, his intuitiveness and love of thematic music incapacitated him from doing this.

    “What I like about music, particularly Bach is that he takes a theme and plays on that theme, for me that’s what I do in architecture,” he explains in an interview for the Museum of Sydney.

    “[Architecture] is a question of finding a theme that is usually dictated by the site. You have to know the site—every little nuance—and in a sense your mind browses the site to pick up every detail.

    “When the mind absorbs all of the information required there is an intuitive emergence of an idea that’s basically three dimensional.

    “I spent a lot of time learning and discovering on that site, there was absolutely no way you could put an American cape cod on that site.”

    Then and now: recent renovations included painting and coating of the previously untreated Australian hardwood as well as new gardens by landscape architect, Jane Irwin. Images: Peter Muller and  Michael Wee.

    The concept Muller came up with was for a modern Australian home heavily influenced by the philosophies of Frank Lloyd Wright; delivered to his clients in his small Sydney apartment and approved within ten minutes.

    The house was designed along three axes: a longitudinal spine intersected by two traverse axes, and with very limited interior walls. The exterior walls consist of large panes, untreated Australian hardwood and a distinctive style of brickwork.

    Above: original plan as built.
    Below: original design model with sandstone external walls. Images: Peter Muller.

    The owner, Bob Audette, made only one change from the original design (above) which seemingly haunts Muller to this day.

    Muller had planned sandstone for all external walling for Audette House, only to have it substituted for used wire-cut bricks. In an attempt to bring his project back to life, Muller devised a technique in which the mortar oozed out the grout lines in between courses of the bricks. The technique is now known as ‘snotted brickwork’.

    Images: Michael Wee.

    Muller’s concept also directly challenged the 50’s residential design trends of small boxy rooms and segmented living spaces.

    “In the 50s most houses had entrance halls and you moved from there into the living rooms and dining rooms and so on,” he explains.

    “But in this house you just walked straight into the house; there was no hall; there was a little light staircase that took you upstairs; you turned right into the solid area of the kitchen.

    “You just entered straight into a room which was light and airy and became part of the view and landscape.”

     

    On opening the door to Audette House you are not greeted by an entrance hallway, like was tradition in the 50s. Instead the door opens into a large central living area with a truss-like column and beam ceiling and views to Middle Harbour. Images: Peter Muller and Michael Vee.

    Muller explains that like music, where a song can strike a chord with some but not others, architecture is also a subjective experience.

    “Like music, different people like different architecture,” he explains.

    “If there is any enduring interest with a building it’s because it has struck a chord with the observer.”

    So did the Audette House strike a chord with Muller himself?

    Muller explains that although the gross forms of the building which he originally designed are still intact, some of the details, which came in response to his connection with the site, have been lost.

    “As I said… playing on a theme involves some gross forms and some very delicate forms, that house had a lot of really delicate play on the theme.”

    “Today with the refurbishment of the house with different owners those delicate themes are gone, unfortunately.”

    Images: Peter Muller (black and white) and Michael Vee (colour).

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