Taking the bend, you almost don’t see it from the road – the white, gently undulating form of Atlas House, abutting a wedge of parkland, in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. And yet, up close, the sculpted curving surface – given a new scaly skin as part of a recent overhaul of the 1996 house designed by local architect Tom Kovac – is a mesmerising piece of fluid architectural design.
“It was intended that the house would . . . define itself against the existing fabric of the suburban blur and form part of the parkland,” Kovac tells Life & Leisure from Slovenia, where he’s visiting.
That’s the thing with curves. While most architecture is rectilineal – all straight lines and squared angles – curves are often designed to soften a building’s impact, help the structure meld into the surrounding landscape. That’s why curves work particularly well near bodies of water, reflecting that sense of fluidity, or in rural and mountain settings.
"Curves derive their inspiration from the beauty of nature and the efficiency in [the design of] nature," Sydney architect Tony Owen says. “They also relate to the human body, the feminine form. It’s why iPhones, glasses and cars have curves; we instinctively love curvy things."
Owen is particularly renowned for embracing curved geometry in his portfolio, both residential and commercial. His Loop House, with its prominent fold; Leap House, a series of wave-like projections arching from a rocky outcrop in Dover Heights; and the bendy Longbeach Apartments in Brighton Le Sands with their wave-patterned shade screens are three of many such projects.
A curve also responds to, or can make a commentary on, its location. In the Melbourne bayside suburb of Brighton, the leaf of a pin oak standing in front of the luxury three-bedroom property was architects Cocks Carmichael’s inspiration for a floating rounded brow incorporated into the facade.
Handle with care
“You have one presence coming away from another major presence,” explains Peter Carmichael. But he warns: “You have to use curves with great care; it is a most dangerous form if not handled well.”
A curve can be used also to challenge its location. Saaj Design used a ribbon-like curve running down the spine of a compact inner-city block to create space, where the boundary tapered oddly on one side, from its more conventional orthogonal neighbours. But the external contouring also influenced and transformed the interior with a series of curved surfaces, from walls (including a spherical double-concave wall) and ceiling through to furniture, cupboards and robes as well as bedheads and skirting.
“There’s a sense of flow from one space to another . . . a subtle guidance, without realising your eye is being drawn by a curve to a view or a space within the house,” says Saaj’s Sally Anderson. “There’s something comforting and soothing about curves, they’re like a cocoon.” Atlas House and the Brighton home employ curves inside to similar effect, while reinforcing the exterior’s curvilinear character.
In a late-1980s Manly top-level apartment, designers C+M Studio created an internal snaking timber wall from Mafi oak boards that at once counters the unusual V-shape of the space but also demarcates communal areas from private. “There’s a number of curves that, right from the entrance, wrap around and lead you through the spaces, at different points revealing and framing different views as you progress though the apartment,” designer Christopher Glanville says.
With a current project, a Paddington terrace, Glanville is introducing curves to the renovation at the rear as a contrast to the linear front.
Curves can be wild and free – the swirls and wiggles of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao are a good example – but more times there are practical reasons why bending surfaces are adopted. The Atlas House walls, for example, cant inward to meet building height codes and setback controls.
Love them for a reason
For restaurateur Maurice Terzini’s place in Francis Street, Bondi, a steel-framed curtain of glass, designed by Luchetti Krelle, curved to avoid a sandstone shelf intruding on the rear of the property. For another of the firm’s projects, in Armidale, curves were incorporated to reference the art deco era, reflected in neighbouring buildings, such as the Tattersalls Hotel. In Adriano Zumbo’s The Star outlet and an elliptical kiosk in Westfield Sydney, curves were used on a smaller scale to generate flow and movement. “You shouldn’t have curves for curves’ sake,” Rachel Luchetti says.
While a curve creates a customised, bespoke piece of architecture, Anderson believes that many fear them because they’re challenging, complicated and costly. “One really has to explore what a curve has to offer rather than include it as a token,” she argues.
Owen, however, says design technology largely has removed cost as an issue. “We use parametric design,” he says. This, he explains, enables him to design structures economically that change every millimetre, producing a curve. “The reason the human body and nature is curved is it changes every millimetre,” says Owen, who coined the term “liquid architecture” a few years ago to more colloquially describe this fluid state of parametric design.
“The reason architecture is boxy is it changes every metre.”
For instance, each floor of The Eliza, a 17-storey tower opposite Hyde Park, is shaped differently by using 3D digital software based on parametric design. Each level can respond in its own unique way (with views, light) to its environment. Moebius House in Dover Heights and a current apartment project in Mooloolaba, Queensland, are other examples using the same design principles.
“A curve is always beautiful because it’s truthful,” Owen says.