When architect Drew Heath returned to Sydney after visiting Angkor, he mulled over how he could remodel his grandiose home. The house he created recently won the 2013 National Award for Residential Architecture. Cecelia Marshall heard how he did it.
The temples at Angkor have inspired travellers from all corners of the globe for generations – from the first explorers to modern-day poets, artists, and musicians. But few decide to try to recreate them at home. Drew Heath, an Australian architect, first visited Cambodia five years ago as a tourist and came away from the ancient structures with an unusual plan. Last month, his $9 million Angkor-inspired home in Sydney won the 2013 National Award for Residential Architecture House.
At home, the 44 year-old runs the Drew Heath Architects firm, mostly doing residential home designs with illustrious gardens. But his schedule regularly takes him abroad to visit some of the world’s greatest architectural wonders: the mountaintop Greek Acropolis is one of his favourites.
With each trip, he takes away a different idea, he said in a Skype interview. But Angkor Wat was different. The sight of the once-forgotten temples overtaken by jungle – an image of man cohabiting with nature – offered an “aha” moment for Heath.
When he returned from Cambodia, he set to work on a new and personal project: one that would bring the “outside” into his own home.
The project, which he alone conceived and designed, took three years and involved four builders. His wife and four kids aged between two and 14 lived inside the incomplete house while construction took place. It didn’t matter, he said, since the theme of the house was incompletion. “This is the first time I fully embraced the landscape,” he said. “It’s almost like living outdoors.”
Various rooms of the home are on different levels of space. There isn’t a basic ground floor, first and second. Climb a couple of steps, and you’re in the living room where a giant window opens up to the outside and you can see the kitchen down the hallway. This type of layering is borrowed from the temples and offers privacy and enclosure but also openness and a certain vulnerability to the outside elements.
The name of the house, Tir na nÓg, comes from his wife’s Irish background. In an ancient Gaelic children’s tale, Tír na nÓg means “other worldly place”. With this in mind, Heath wanted to create an “otherworldly place of eternal youth and timeless jungle against timeless ruin”, he said.
When people enter his home, they are often dumbfounded, he continued. They stand in the middle of the house, unable to move, and circulate their stare from one room to the next, incapable of distinguishing the inside from the outside.
Not everyone appreciates it, Heath admitted. Some of his colleagues and friends “think the house is too literal of the ‘inside outside’ concept”, he said – especially those from cold climates. “They try to close the doors when they enter or exit a room and I just open the doors right afterwards.”
Over the past couple of years since he and his family have moved into his home, he has had to make a couple of adjustments to the design. “It just had too much outdoor space and too much ruin.”
The Australian Institute of Architecture represents over 12,000 members of professional architects, including Heath. Judges drawn from the AIA and on the panel for the Residential Homes category said in a statement that Heath’s house “is inspiring and invigorating – brimming with verve, inventiveness and intelligence”.
The inventiveness they mention comes from the layers of floors and rooms and the unexpected shifts that are made from interior to exterior.
“It is full of intriguing details, solving problems and revealing opportunities, which add to its character as a house able to be subtly tuned and controlled. With the new structure and the working parts exposed, it is incredibly rich, playful and resourceful in detail . . . both highly serious and also casually irreverent,” the judges said.
Khmer architects have designed separate building elements to come together and relate to the whole structure (“working parts”) for hundreds of years in Cambodia.
One such architect is Tang Sochet Vitou, who was aware of Heath’s house. Vitou, a member of the Cambodian Society of Architects, studied for 10 years at the University of Hawaii and now teaches and manages his own architecture firm, Architecture Design Intelligence, in Sangkat Phsa Doeum Tkov.
Vitou said he is proud that Heath was inspired by Angkor Wat, the spacing, layout and “inside-outside” concept of the temple. This concept has been around for many years, as seen in the designs of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But Heath modified it to his own preferences, Vitou said.
“He did this design successfully and I am impressed the way he translated different architecture to shape it uniquely to a human being living environment.
“When the architect does it in this correct manner, they can influence the same feeling they encompass.”
Since winning the award, Heath has finished a home called The Garden House in Sydney. He said that while his firm has increased in popularity and public interest since Heath won the award, he is still building homes that incorporate the outdoors and illicit the same emotion from his time spent in Angkor.