A husband-and-wife team brings design out of the brush and into Australia’s suburbs, where the great majority of the nation’s population lives.
Tony Chenchow and Stephanie Little belong to a crowded field of husband-and-wife architectural practices in Australia. Like their better-known counterparts Lindsay and Kerry Clare or the infrequent collaborators Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin, the two have distinguished themselves with a collection of residential projects that sensitively respond to the Australian climate and architectural and social traditions. But unlike Murcutt or the Clares, Chenchow and Little have established a critical practice that directly engages the overwhelmingly suburban status of the population.
“I think the perception of Australian residential architecture is that it’s all in a bush setting,” Chenchow says, using the local term for “rural.” “In reality, it’s quite different, with more than 75 percent of homes in suburban locations.” Chenchow and Little met when they were both studying at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He’s from western Sydney, and she grew up in the country in New South Wales. Once they both had graduated, in 1994, they worked together occasionally but often practiced separately in contract to larger firms before finally establishing their own practice in 2004 in Sydney. “I dislike suburbia, so it’s something we try to question, to strategically look at the traditional model and create alternatives,” says Chenchow.
Like all architects in Sydney, Chenchow and Little often must contend with councils that wield significant, if uninformed, power over the massing and aesthetics of new buildings. With their Pitched Roof House (2009), the architects viewed this interference as an opportunity, taking the council’s desire for sloped roofs at face value. But they inverted the traditional pitch and echoed the forms with a hyperarticulated steel-frame structure. The Pitched Roof House shares much of the same design vocabulary that marks the firm’s other work, such as formal gestures dictated by zoning allowances, elegantly precise detailing, a muted palette fixed in materials such as timber, zinc, and glass, a reliance on screens and louvers to modulate solar loads and avoid installing air-conditioning, and, above all, a tendency to orient houses around a central courtyard that dissolves the plan in fluid space. The two architects like to layer space from outside to in — courtyards epitomizing this approach — to create interstitial spaces that can manage the extremes of the Australian climate. “In the Freshwater House, we pulled the line of the glazing back from the louvers along the perimeter of the house,” says Little, “ending up with something that works a lot like a traditional Australian veranda.” Except it’s not traditional.
Little says she and Chenchow would like to expand their practice into commercial buildings but find it difficult to compete in this market given the dominance of large firms and risk-averse developers. Currently, the firm has 10 houses in design or construction. In 2009, the Freshwater House won the prestigious Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture from the Australian Institute of Architects, which should propel the two architects into the upper ranks of the country’s design-oriented firms. The pair feel emboldened now to start looking overseas to expand their practice. “It would be great to interact with a foreign culture and look at their regulations as a constraint to generate ideas,” Chenchow says, laughingly adding that it is Little who does most of the research into planning and zoning requirements.
Russell Fortmeyer is a Sydney-based journalist and engineer and a former editor at Architectural Record.
Chenchow Little Architects
LOCATION: Sydney, Australia
DESIGN STAFF: 5
PRINCIPALS: Stephanie Little, Tony Chenchow
EDUCATION: Little — University of New South Wales, B.Arch., 1994. Chenchow — University of New South Wales, B.Arch., 1993
WORK HISTORY: Little — Partnership with Tony Chenchow, Sydney, 1994–2003; Owen Haviland, Sydney, 1989–90. Chenchow — Partnership with Stephanie Little, Sydney, 1994–2003; Campbell Luscombe, Sydney, 1992–93; Lewin Tzannes, Sydney, 1990–91; Travis Partners, Sydney, 1989–90
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Pitched Roof House, Sydney, 2009; Freshwater House, Sydney, 2008; Ang House, Sydney, 2008; Semi-Detached House, Sydney, 2007; Szirtes House, Sydney, 2005
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Skylight House, Sydney, 2010; Mosman Row Houses, Sydney, 2011; Palm Beach House, Sydney, 2011; Byron Bay House, Byron Bay, Australia, 2012; Coogee House, Sydney, 2012;
Dover Heights House, Sydney, 2012; Victoria House, Sydney, 2012
WEB SITE: www.chenchowlittle.com