Rooftop living in Sydney, with native landscape by Will Dangar and Lost Tourist by sculptor Frank Van Reenen, Photography by Felix Forest.

Rooftop living in Sydney, with native landscape by Will Dangar and Lost Tourist by sculptor Frank Van Reenen, Photography by Felix Forest.

Rising above the gritty, urban heart of Sydney, Cleveland Rooftop balances equal parts architecture and landscape and is a living case study for how cities could and should develop – while demonstrating first-hand how embracing nature shapes a happier life.

Designed by Adam Haddow, Architecture Director of SJB in Sydney, Cleveland Rooftop is a project that has struck a cord around the world too, winning the INSIDE World Festival of Interiors category for Residential projects announced in Berlin last month. The award celebrates the project as an example of "how architecture and landscape can work harmoniously to enhance biodiversity and serve as a welcome respite from the pressures of city life”.

On the tail-end of a year-long sabbatical, Adam chats with more space about the importance of retaining the grit and texture in the adaption of heritage buildings, engaging nature in architecture, collecting furniture and art, his vision for a more vibrant and connected way of living in cities, and never underestimating the power of a tree. 
 

MS: Tell us a little about the history of the Demco Machinery building, what was it originally designed for?

AH: There are two buildings that make up the original Demco Machinery Company site. The first building was completed in 1889 and was originally built as a tobacco warehouse. Not long after it was completed it was acquired by the Demco Machinery Company for use as a warehouse and showroom for their agriculture machinery business. During the war Demco made machinery for the Australian Defence Force and as a consequence grew as a company. The second building, the International Style building, was completed in 1937 by Demco specifically as a showroom for their equipment, including tractors. The building was designed with large strips of glazing to allow natural light into the display floors and at the rear of the building there was a goods lift which allowed some of the tractors to be lifted to the roof-top where you could test drive them! Crazy hey!  

 The apartment's birds-eye view over Sydney to the Blue Mountains. Photography Felix Forest. 

The apartment's birds-eye view over Sydney to the Blue Mountains. Photography Felix Forest. 

How important was it for you to retain some of the texture and history of the building, and what were your key design moves?

The adaption of the warehouses to residential apartments was a process of bringing the buildings up to code, for fire and earthquake for example, and at the same time ensuring that we didn’t lose any of the texture that made them interesting in the first place. Some of the most interesting original building elements are the columns and windows. The 1889 building columns are made from wrought iron with detailed capitals, while the windows are timber framed within the brick openings. In the 1937 building, the columns are massive and concrete, and hexagonal in plan, with beautifully geometric capitals that connect them to the floor slabs above. In this building the windows are steel framed and sit as a continuous ribbon wrapping around the façade. Both buildings, while celebrating different times, valued the external wall and the internal structure – they were warehouses. Our principle aim was to retain and celebrate these values.  Once this understanding was established everything we pursued aimed to follow this intent while celebrating the original volumes and pieces of leftover machinery.

 The rooftop;s urban meadow designed in collaboration with landscape architect Will Dangar. Photography Felix Forest. 

The rooftop;s urban meadow designed in collaboration with landscape architect Will Dangar. Photography Felix Forest. 

The garden is the most sublime rooftop meadow and in some ways makes me think of Stefano Boeri’s vertical gardens at the Bosco Verticale in Milan. Tell me about the importance of introducing nature (so meaningfully) to the project and the process of designing the garden with Will Dangar? 

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My husband and I had quite different objectives when we were looking for somewhere to live. I wanted a garden and Mike wanted to be off the ground – kind of difficult to resolve in a single house! When this project was sitting on my desk I was like "this is it", the best of both worlds, a garden in the sky. The benefit of the project is that the original building was over-engineered to deal with driving tractors around on the roof, so we were able to put heavy things up there. That allowed Will and I to dream big with the garden. 

Honestly, Mike and I were much more interested in spending money on the garden than on anything else in the house. I am a big believer in the power of landscape and the bush. I grew up in a remote part of Victoria and I understand the qualities that trees and grass and birds bring to your life. So in the end, that was the brief. Let’s make a bit of bush! As a consequence most of the garden is native to attract birds and insects, and Will has done an awesome job of orchestrating spaces that are both structured and wild – we completely love it. I always enjoy working with Will and over the years we have developed designer’s shorthand. We both know what each other will love or loathe which is fantastic. It’s like finishing each others sentences with drawings. 

How important do you feel it is to develop cities that have a more vibrant, connected way of living directly with nature within the urban context – and how can we achieve this more holistically across cities?

This is everything! We need to get back to a place where life is more direct, where we engage more fully in the landscape and environment. We need to think about the landscape first and the buildings second in my opinion! My Dad always says,”If you’re cold put a jumper on”. He has a very dim view of heaters! We need to turn off the air-conditioning and adjust ourselves, rather than trying to shoehorn our environment to suit us. Our buildings need to respond to the climate rather than fight it and we need to reemploy tried and tested principles of creating shadow in the summer and letting light in in the winter. We need to capture breezes so that we can live in naturally ventilated spaces and we need to invest in communal spaces within buildings; gardens, libraries, and lounges. In addition, I think that we need to leverage the landscape we do have. Perhaps we simply need to put the ‘nature’ back into the nature strip. 

We need to get back to a place where life is more direct, where we engage more fully in the landscape and environment. We need to think about the landscape first and the buildings second in my opinion!
— Adam Haddow, Architecture Director Sydney, SJB
 The interplay between landscape and architecture – outside and in – is a key focus of the project. Photography by Felix Forest. 

The interplay between landscape and architecture – outside and in – is a key focus of the project. Photography by Felix Forest. 

I think that the City of Sydney is really a world leader when it comes to this. The amount of effort they have gone to during Clover Moore’s Mayoral rein is remarkable. Bike paths, urban water gardens, public art, regeneration of public parks and facilities, it’s mind blowing really. I am a massive Clover fan! And as architects and residents we need to ask ourselves what we can do to contribute. Understanding that not every project can save the world but we can always find small things that will make our neighbourhoods more liveable. Some of these things are physical and others are social, for example connecting more often with your neighbours. 

Are there other projects you are working on that are engaging nature in this way?

We are trying to do this on every project. Taking this approach with my own house was a way o test some of the ideas, the details, materials and plants, to show that it can work, it can be affordable and that it really does make a difference to your life. I am a massive supporter of the planning controls we have in NSW for apartment living, the minimum hours of sunlight, cross ventilation, etcetera. However, I think that we are still way too stingy with balconies. As an office we are making them bigger, trying to incorporate integrated planting and seeing if we can get rainfall on most of them. It might not sound like rocket science, but it really is a challenge to get these initiatives incorporated. We are also designing multi-residential projects with open lobbies and corridors. It is depressing when you can’t feel the day as you open your apartment door! If it’s raining, or sunny, or windy, or hot, why not get the benefits of fresh air, natural ventilation and openness. It is so important that we encourage people to actually engage with the world and their environment, rather than spend all of the time in artificial environments.  

 Capturing light and breezes, the study has an outlook to the garden and city beyond. Photography by Felix Forest. 

Capturing light and breezes, the study has an outlook to the garden and city beyond. Photography by Felix Forest. 

How did the garden inform the design of the apartment and vice-versa, and what has been your experience of living amongst nature on a rooftop in Sydney?

The apartment was designed around three principles; frame the views, celebrate the sky, live in the garden. Simple! So really it was all about the external environment. I love waking up to the sound of Cockatoos or Wattle Birds rummaging through the Banksia’s and Melaleuca’s, and the patterns of the shadows that the trees make at dawn. 

The design process was iterative; we’d make a decision about the apartment that would then result in a garden decision that would then result in a change to the apartment design. It was a happy roundabout where each decision enriched and informed the next. We were particularly excited about the incorporation of significant trees and going to buy them was so much fun – walking through a nursery and deciding which tree you liked the best!  We also loved the incorporation of the outdoor fireplace. We don’t light it often, but when people come around they all stand around it. It’s like the outdoor version of the kitchen island bench.

What’s wrong with our buildings, gardens and city spaces being about Sydney, or Melbourne, or Bathurst or Broome! I want to celebrate regionalism and idiosyncrasy. The design of our cities and buildings should reveal who we are, rather than be a façade for who we think we should be.
— Adam Haddow, Architecture Director Sydney, SJB
 Raw and honest materials were chosen to "age gracefully" and give the apartment its timelessness. Photography by Felix Forest. 

Raw and honest materials were chosen to "age gracefully" and give the apartment its timelessness. Photography by Felix Forest. 

Your use of honest, raw materials gives the apartment a freshness and also a timelessness, tell me more about your design approach?

We choose materials that have an integral finish, ones that age gracefully and have imbedded beauty. You really can’t go wrong with materials that are natural and inherently beautiful. I am so unexcited about the fashion end of architecture and interior design. That world is becoming so monochromatic. What I mean by that is that everyone sees everyone else’s work and as a consequence, individuality and idiosyncrasy are being lost. Everywhere is starting to look like everywhere else and people are stealing ideas more readily and at a much quicker pace than ever before. 

I am so committed to designing places and spaces which are specific to here, which celebrate the things which make ‘here’ so fantastic and remarkable, rather than trying to be ‘New York or London, for example. What’s wrong with our buildings, gardens and city spaces being about Sydney, or Melbourne, or Bathurst or Broome! I want to celebrate regionalism and idiosyncrasy. The design of our cities and buildings should reveal who we are, rather than be a façade for who we think we should be.

 

 A window to the world positioned to view the University of Sydney's clock tower and the Blue Mountains beyond. Key pieces in the furniture collection include UP 2000 by Gaetano Pesce and Tufty Time by Patricia Urquiola for B&B Italia. Photography by Felix Forest. 

A window to the world positioned to view the University of Sydney's clock tower and the Blue Mountains beyond. Key pieces in the furniture collection include UP 2000 by Gaetano Pesce and Tufty Time by Patricia Urquiola for B&B Italia. Photography by Felix Forest. 

In the living area, the aperture window and its glimpses of the garden and city beyond feels very measured and very Japanese – what are some of the details you are most happy with and how have they enriched the experience of living in the apartment?

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That little window is placed so that when you sit at the end of the dining table you can see the University of Sydney quadrangle and clock tower, and the Blue Mountains beyond. It is really specific, it might look a little Japanese but it really is about capturing an opportunity. I guess I am happiest with the way the house feels; there is warmth, a sense of comfort, calmness and an effortlessness about the space. When there is just the two of us and Eric (the dog) at home it feels calm, warm and cosy and at the same time if we have party with 100 people, it still feels intimate. I also love where I have used colour. It makes me happy.

How did the furniture collection take shape, have you been collecting for a while?

I think that the trick with furniture is to buy what you love and not to be too contrived about it. The last thing anyone wants is to feel like they live in a display suite. The first real piece of furniture I ever bought was the Up 2000 chair by B&B Italia – the Big Mama. I have always loved that chair because it is beautiful to look at and sit in, but also because I looked at it for years before I committed to it. It will stay with us forever. We’ve bought things over the years that we love, like the Eames dining chairs and a Danish Safari chair among others, and Tufty Time designed by Patricia Urquiola. My husband, Mike, and Kirsten Stanisich, my business partner, worked together to choose things. Mike loved going to all of the showrooms and checking out materials, while I was to busy trying to finish drawings to keep the builder going on site! So really, I left it up to Mike.

The first real piece of furniture I ever bought was the Up 2000 chair by B&B Italia – the Big Mama. I have always loved that chair because it is beautiful to look at and sit in... It will stay with us forever.
— Adam Haddow, Architecture Director Sydney, SJB
 The Red Tailed Black Cockatoos by artist Anna-Wili Highfield adds humour and joy to the interior. Photography by Felix Forest.

The Red Tailed Black Cockatoos by artist Anna-Wili Highfield adds humour and joy to the interior. Photography by Felix Forest.

What are some of your favourite pieces in the apartment, and why?

Big Mama, without a doubt. I also love the outdoor dining chairs. A good outdoor dining chair is so hard to find and these are totally comfortable and robust. I also love the Red Tailed Black Cockatoos that hang in our entry lobby by artist Anna-Wili Highfield. She is amazing and I smile every time I walk in the door.

Are there some important lessons you have learnt from this project?

Firstly, never underestimate the power of a tree. Secondly, you need to continually experiment. So often with deadlines, timeframes and approval processes, trial and error is seen as a negative aspect of a project. I say we need to embrace it more. Try it, and if it fails, try something else. Thirdly, white couches aren’t great with two year olds! 

What are some of the inspirational places you have visited on your overseas sabbatical?

My gosh, I am so lucky. After 23 years at SJB I decided that I needed a bit of time to unwind and refresh. I am so grateful that my partners have supported me in this, I will forever be thankful to them! We have been to so many amazing places this year, but the standouts have to be spending a few months in Rome, before we ran the Rome Marathon, and a month of hiking in remote Alaska. In Rome the daily visit to the Pantheon and our favourite coffee bar will forever be my morning benchmark. In Alaska, kayaking and fishing in the Lake Clarke National Park are top of my "you have to go" list. Lake Clarke National Park is a pristine paradise about as far away from people as humanly possible. There are bears and moose and glaciers! It’s been a year of total reinvigoration.

Thank you Adam.

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