Design Canberra Festival 2020 logo

Laurie Virr Rivendell - Martin Miles
Laurie Virr Rivendell - Martin Miles

Rivendell by Laurie Virr: an enduring design

Architect Laurie Virr’s family home Rivendell is an internationally acclaimed, rare Canberra example of the late twentieth century organic style of architecture. Virr’s 1975 design is based on a complex geometric plan using a hemicycle, to reap the benefits of north facing solar access. At just over 123 square metres, the home is a modest, clever, energy efficient design. Rivendell won an enduring architecture award in 2016, and continues to inform and inspire environmentally responsible design today.

“The aim was to design a house in which the siting, exploitation of space, the massing, the concern for the environment, and the details, expressed in unequivocal terms what I considered to be Architecture” explained Virr, who has designed work in the United States, New South Wales and Victoria, along with a number of houses in Canberra.

With massing, use of geometric forms, deep roof overhang and energy efficient design, Rivendell is an outstanding example of the late twentieth century organic style. The house has been published many times, in the USA, Europe and Australia. Inexplicably, it is relatively unknown in Canberra.

The house is based on a hemicycle—an architectural planning device that has been employed since ancient Egypt and used by Frank Lloyd Wright and others in designs for twentieth century houses. The hemicycle has been used in conjunction with other elements, either circular or rectilinear. However, in 1975, Virr’s combination of this device with with triangular and hexagonal elements was unique.

Rivendell is effectively one room wide, with very little area dedicated solely to circulation space. The living, dining, kitchen and studio are small areas in themselves, but they are arranged in such a manner that they borrow from each other, and together with the mezzanine bedroom, form one horizontal and vertical space.

Unlike many so-called solar houses that have warm living areas to the north, and very cold bedrooms to the south, the ground plan allows most of the walls and floors to act as solar collectors. During winter the sun strikes a wall of the main bedroom as soon as it rises above the hill to the east in the morning, and is still shining in the area of the dining table, at the other end of the house, late in the afternoon. The masonry alone—30,000 bricks—furnishes 120 tonnes of mass, and this is enhanced by that of the insulated concrete floor slab. Provision is made for cross-ventilation during the summer months, while the eaves and heavily insulated roof ensure that the effects of the sun are excluded during the warmest time of the year.

The construction materials are predominantly face brick masonry, wood casement sash and French doors, a colored concrete floor slab, trowelled smooth, and grooved along the lines of the module, and glass. Almost all the furniture is of wood, and built into the structure, with custom made upholstery for the bench seat. Colors used in the house blend with landscape and the landscaping of the site displays the same concern for the environment as does the house.

By Martin Miles canberrahouse.com.au

Rivendell was designed (and largely built) by Laurie Virr in 1975. It is located at 17 Meredith Cct in Kambah ACT and will be featured in the 2020 DESIGN Canberra festival’s new Design Revisited programs.