• The islander style roof included a north-facing clerestorey to light the central palm court(Jim Whitelock).

22d Vaucluse Road, Vaucluse, NSW, 1965–66

One of Sydney’s largest houses of the mid 1960s, this second residence for Sir Theo Kelly’s family, titled Tahiti, was a classic demonstration of Snelling’s ‘tiki-style’ (Pacific ethnic) inspirations. Apart from its unusual architecture, the historically significant feature is Snelling’s design of the world’s second, and Australasia’s first modern, infinity (spill-edge) swimming pool.  

Sited at the foot of a long, steep driveway, the 2046 sq m block was part of large, colonial Hermitage estate, which overlooked Sydney Harbour from the Vaucluse hillside. After Woolworths bought the Hermitage, the new house site was subdivided and sold to Sir Theo Kelly’s private company, Boyco, in 1964.

Snelling’s Tahiti design maximized the compact land area, including various courtyards, terraces, gardens and the partly cantilevered swimming pool. Deceptively seen from the driveway as a modest one-storey ‘thatched hut’ beside a four-car garage, Tahiti cascaded to include two more floors of living areas and five bedroom suites. These wrapped around three sides of a lush palm court (now demolished) that was skylit and ventilated by a cleverly designed roof clerestory.

  • Carport and entrance to the Kelly House 2 (Max Dupain).

Internally, the upper floor contained the garage to the west, the central lobby, and four bedrooms on the east side. The master bedroom suite, looking north-east, opened to a small garden that was screened from the driveway by a Polynesian-style fence of timber posts. The ground floor comprised a staff flat, large laundry, a second carport (double), a large kitchen and cook’s room, the family room, informal ‘meals area’, the main dining room and living room, a study and reading room with a cocktail bar, and a storeroom.

Off the living zone, the infinity pool was engineered using technical notes to Snelling from architect John Lautner in Los Angeles, and was mosaic-tiled in sky-blue, with a pink-orange hibiscus motif (probably inspired by the orchid flower motif decorating the pool at his favourite Waikiki hotel, the Halekulani). The basement contained a recreation room, plant room, sauna and storage area.

  • Perspective of the Kelly House 2 and its landscape, looking south.

Externally, the house was dramatised by its tribal-style roof. Spreading wide eaves in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, it also ascended central peak, containing a light reflector, that was sculpturally inspired by certain kinds of Asian and Pacific thatched huts. This allusion to vernacular architecture was emphasized by the roof material, an imported American sheet cladding with a gravel coating and dark grey colour similar to weathered shingles. Interrupting the roof on its north corner was the cylindrical chimney of the living room fireplace. On the northwest side of the roof, five clerestory windows were inserted to skylight the garden court of mature palms that were transplanted from elsewhere on the Hermitage site. (Subsequent owners removed this jungle.) Snelling was aware of potential for his Kelly roof to be criticized as ‘kitsch’ (by supporters of modernism’s international style) but he wrote a pragmatic rationale for the Tahiti roof in captions typed for his 1964 portfolio of project photographs:

Shape of the roof is strictly a function of wide overhangs where most desirable, with the high turnup [central peaked section] acting as a large light reflector facing [north] west down the harbour. This reflector picks up brilliant colours of the setting sun and redirects them down to the interior garden, as well as reflecting normal daylight to assist plant growth. Entire residence is airconditioned, including the internal garden, and this produces an environment capable of growing exotic tropical plants. This garden is separated from the main living areas only by the open wooded screens which can be used to diminish or increase the drama of the garden court as they can be rolled out of view.

Viewed from the approach side [driveway], the rear of this light reflector creates the illusion that is perhaps gimmicky Hawaiian. However, this shape is purely a function of the light reflector. There are no gutters at the roof edge and the water spills generally onto hard stand areas which are adequately drained. All entries are protected by either large overhangs or at the main entrance by a large porte cochere.

Beneath the light reflector, a
timber staircase and flagstone path descended through the palm garden from the
front to the rear living areas. This was the most spectacular example of
Snelling’s sectional strategy to hug sites rather than sit above them. Also, he
manipulated the northwest (harbour-facing) façade to minimize the building’s
scale when seen from the water.

Viewed from the harbour, the house is well integrated with its site and surrounding foliage, which tends to diminish the large scale of the house, which from the harbour side is virtually four storeys high. The colour of the roof shingles and the main brick walls merge with the colours of the landscape. The light-coloured band (cement rendered edge of the pool terrace) tends to reduce the height of the house and the service storey below this band almost completely disappears.

Although it was one of Sydney’s most significant 1960s houses (which set an Australian sale price record in 2007 at $29.25 million), this residence was never published because Snelling and his clients ended their relationship towards the end of construction. New owners purchased Tahiti in 2007, with intentions to demolish and rebuild.

Sources

—Dudek, Marion. Personal communications, ca March 2003.

—Gibbins, John. Personal communications, ca 2003.

—Jahn, Graham. 1997. A Guide to Sydney Architecture. Sydney: Watermark Press, p. 157.

—Pemberton, Gary J. 1984. Douglas B. Snelling: A Monograph of His Works (B. Arch dissertation). Sydney: New South Wales Institute of Technology.

—Sydney: SLNSW MLMSS 8801. Letters from Douglas Snelling to Marion Dudek, 1963–1985.

—Trevillion, James. 1995. The Adventures of Douglas B. Snelling (B. Arch dissertation). Sydney: University of Technology, Sydney.

—Whitelock, Jim. Personal communications, 21 April 2002.