Visiting Terrace House by Austin Maynard Architects – thinking about the future of multi-res projects

Through meeting Dan, the new director of Melbourne School of Design, I was fortunate to be invited to the tour of Terrace House by Austin Maynard Architects, guided by Andrew himself. Along with Dan, Rory and Crystal from the faculty, I had an opportunity to listen to the views of residents who generously opened up their private apartments for us.

While Terrace House responds to a multitude of environmental, social and economic challenges multi-residential projects generally face, what stood out to me the most was the role of the Terrace House as a granular unit of the local community network and how architecture accommodates it in everyday life.

Community building as part of the design process

Unlike a typical multi-residential development where potential future residents engage with the property after its completion, the design process of Terrace House was led by prospective residents who have had a similar mindset towards their lifestyle – embracing tight-knit community in the inner city living and the simple and robust design.

The community solidarity built through the process is phenomenal; opposing the street-facing parking entry proposed for the adjacent apartment and requesting a more permeable interface between apartment units within Terrace House (supporting architects at the planning meeting) are examples of the impacts the effective community engagement can create in the neighbourhood and the apartment design itself.

However, at the same time, the effective community building at the Terrace House reflected the absence of it in most of the multi-residential (especially high density, highrise) developments. Firstly, some aspects of the statutory planning scheme set requirements supposedly reflecting the desires of residents (such as overlooking ‘issues’) that can hinder residents’ opportunities to meet and connect. It shapes a vicious cycle where residents, in return, become accustomed to and comfortable with being protective of the individualistic way of life, creating a social norm accepting social isolation within an apartment.

Secondly, the housing by typical developers does not reflect prospective residents’ needs; people are fitting into what the apartments offer, rather than the apartments accommodating people. Seeing the interactions between residents at Terrace House reminded me of the concept of assemblage that I have been studying through an elective subject at university – thinking of urban space as a multitude of relationships between living and inorganic elements (people, built fabric, plants, etc.). Suppose the future of multi-residential projects is about the relationships between residents and the wider community rather than the physical buildings themselves. In that case, the design process such as the one for the Terrace House has the potential to be further explored and integrated.

Interstitial space between apartment units

One successful design element that facilitates social interactions at Terrace House is the interstitial communal space between apartments. For example, when we visited the Terrace House, it was used for fixing a bicycle. Paula, a resident, also told us how kids would play there on the ground while adults have glasses of wine to talk in the early evenings. Moreover, just like terrace houses with verandahs on the street frontage, the window for a small nook next to the entrance within each apartment enables a visual connection between communal and private spaces.

As a resident of a highrise apartment in the city myself, where there is only a hotel-like internal corridor between units (sadly, I do not even know my neighbours after living there for five years), I can imagine how the accommodation of both active and passive interactions between residents using interstitial spaces would contribute to a sense of community and social co-dependency. It is a simple yet beautiful response to creating moments that are more than just accessing or leaving an apartment; it encompasses opportunities for residents to take agency of the place.

It was such a valuable chance to meet residents and visit their apartments at Terrace House and hear about the challenges the architects encountered throughout the process. The architect-developer model in multi-residential developments poses added layers of difficulties (especially financial), but I hope the residents-led placemaking approaches become more common in the housing industry. I would like to thank Andrew and Terrace House residents for the tour and Dan for inviting me to the occasion.

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