Architecture should make you smile

Zinta Jurjans, Belle Design & Decoration

It is unexpected, says Victoria Hamer, the interruption to sophisticated sleekness that delights the eye and makes design memorable. Her own house is full of such ploys.

Architect Victoria Hamer wears short white socks with her business clothes. They look great on her: it is dressing with a sharp, modern wit. She is an energetic, modern woman. Not surprisingly, the house she has just renovated for herself has the same impact, full of surprises and lateral twists.

Victoria learned to love architectural drama in New York, where she worked for Hardy Holzman Pfieffer. “They’re a zany firm,” Victoria says. “And progressive – New York is 10 years ahead of us here – and they are in the top six New York practices. They create the unexpected in many ways. It might be using the materials differently, such as corrugated iron in office interiors (that was in ’82), or a very ordinary kitchen pub carpet in an area of high-tech elegance.”

New York turned out to be a formative experience for Victoria, and from it she bought back to Melbourne a strong sense of architectural style. 

“Architecture should make you smile. My house is trying to be sophisticated,” she says, “and when people come across the unexpected, a little detail that is not so sophisticated, it makes them smile. I like to get a reaction to my building.”

In her own house, Victoria uses two major design strategies to achieve her aims, involving space and detail. Space is a passion. “I love the big, open plan living spaces of New York, all those magnificent Soho warehouses. I love spaces so big that the furniture is dwarfed. Coming back, my own cottage on the edge of the central business district in Melbourne felt small and tight; it just wasn’t what I wanted any more.”

But finding a warehouse in Melbourne is next to impossible, she says, so she decided on renovation. 

From the outside, the cottage has new visitors fumbling to check the address…old brown paintwork and mid-sixties heavily bluestoned garden. But once inside the front door confusion dissipates and the surprises start. It is all here. Beautifully crisp, modern architecture.

The narrow Victorian corridor has gone and in it’s place is a generous hall, a surprisingly large hall with a sweeping, concave wall. “There is no sense of entry when confronted with a narrow corridor,” Victoria says. “It leads to ‘Hello, follow me.’ After a dinner, everyone has to troop out Indian-file when, in fact, people are feeling good and want to meander and talk on the way out.”

Victoria has emphasised the hall’s dramatic effect with a curved bulkhead, a sensational piece of design. Interestingly slicing into the three rooms off the hall has scarcely reduced their space or proportion because in each room you only see a section of the curved wall.

“It is not an open-plan house,” Victoria explains. “The space is more controlled.”  In the main living area the ceiling height and floor levels are varied to produce spaces within a space. “I can actually see the space as I design it. I like spaces that have a feel about them, that can be contained in some way.” She does it by visual treats, which is where the detail comes in. The tiling – oh! The tiling.

She has treated the floors with great respect, changing pattern and colour frequently. The direction of the tiling also alters through the house to re-emphasise the different spaces. She has recognised how much we walk around with our eyes on the ground, and made the most of it. 

“On the plan, everything looked symmetrical, and on top of that all the tiling is square. I wanted to counter the rigidity,” says Victoria. “I love curves, so there are curved tile steps, such as in the hall. You can see from the workmanship that Victoria is demanding of tradesmen.

The square grid of the tiling is balanced by other curves in the house, on bathroom mirrors, kitchen bench and fire-place. The spiral is another lovely curve utilised by Victoria. 

The fine detail gives the house visual depth. “Because it is my own house I could explore the detailing until it was spot-on. On other projects, the time is usually not there to put into detail because of budget restraints. It is unfortunate that detailing is not seen as important as getting a building built.” Victoria observes that it is often the detail that stands the test of time and that carries the personality imprint. “Art Nouveau buildings are an example: it is the detail that we value. Minimalist detail in the end leaves you with nothing.”

Architraves have been eliminated on doors, so the plastering had to be knife-sharp. “I love crispness,” Victoria says. 

The fine detail of the ceilings gives the space-within-a-space sense. Although, like the walls, they’re white, the level changes give graduations of whiteness. 

Victoria values space efficiency as well as space for effect and says, “I’m a neat freak. I like things to be meticulous and at my fingertips.” Kitchen underbench storage is large, deep drawers. “It is the best form of storage and use of space. Even canisters can be put into them, and labelled on the lids for quick identification.” But she cautions the drawers need a very solid base to enable them to carry heavy saucepans and stacks of plates.

“This house is a statement of what I am about and what my needs are in a house,” says Victoria. “The work I do for clients might be quite different. The most important thing is to listen to needs, to be sympathetic, to get onto what each client finds important.”

Architecture, she says, should be a happy experience, and she takes great care to see that it happens that way. “I want the client to feel happy. I have even cleared up after builders and put flowers in a house for clients when they’re moving in, because I want it to be a good experience for them.”