Hidden within every suburban house is a great work of architecture. Look beneath shallow eaves and brick veneer, behind ornate porticos, skirting boards, cornices, and drywall, and you’ll find Modernism’s most successful and longest-running project. Invented and industrialised in 19th Century Chicago, balloon-frame timber construction made individual housing simple, fast and widely accessible. Basic variants of this system remain in use around the world. Seen silhouetted against the sky, before cladding is applied and fences erected, the naked timber frame is a thing of elemental beauty, a lacework diagram of infinite potential. Simply put, the frame is architecture.
While Australian architecture is associated with bespoke pavilions in idyllic wilderness settings, mass-produced suburban housing is the norm. Australians have the largest average home sizes and living space of any nationality. 24 million people occupy an area larger than the continental US, which has 13 times the population. Australia is both one of the world’s most urbanized nations and among the least dense. The country’s interior is sparsely populated, and fewer than 10% of Australians live in close proximity to a city center—most inhabit the suburban in-between.
Suburbia is not just home for most Australians: it is the primary domain of social exchange, cultural relations and political discourse. In his influential 1960 book Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd equated the brick-veneer suburban house with the nation’s racist White Australia policy. More recently, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt claimed that suburban houses are “not architecture.” But if the language of the McMansion is merely a veneer, shouldn’t Australian architects see right through it?
Offset House aims to reveal the beauty and utility of the frame, peeling away layers of anachronistic construction, poor planning, and illogical furnishings. By reclaiming the frame for architecture, we hope to reframe our relationship to the suburbs. The project proposes the adaptive reuse of houses in Sydney’s Kellyville. Typical of suburban Australia, these cheaply built dwellings fill almost all of their plots. The architectural strategy involves literally “offsetting” each house’s structure. A new layer of structure is nested within the volume of the original; the line of external cladding removed and transferred to the inner frame.
The zone between the two frames becomes a verandah, providing shading, privacy, ventilation, and spatial flexibility. Reducing enclosed dwelling space enables downsizing without relocation, with tangible energy and resource savings. Surrounded by a permeable outer skin, the house no longer requires fences. Vestigial space between houses is consolidated into a shared commons, providing space for gardening, recreation and play, and reorienting the block away from the road. The cyclical renewal of suburban houses promises to reinvigorate moribund outer suburbs, allowing for generational and cultural change.
Developed specifically for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Offset House takes the form of detailed architectural models and is installed in the Chicago Cultural Center, in close proximity to projects by MOS Architects, Sou Fujimoto, Vo Trong Nghia, WORKac/Ant Farm and Tatiana Bilbao. Flanking the doorway to the Cultural Center’s Exhibition Hall, our suburban house models are positioned on matching plinths, like the iconic lions that guard the neoclassical entrance of the nearby Art Institute of Chicago. We are planning to re-exhibit the project in Australia when the Biennial concludes.