Architecture or Art Object? The Crescent House Pavilion by Australian Architect Andrew Burns

Architecture or Art Object? The Crescent House Pavilion by Australian Architect Andrew Burns
Crescent House
(Courtesy Andrew Burns)

In the superheated Sydney real-estate market a mere $80,000 would get you nowhere. That is unless you already have a piece of land handy and are in the market for a spectacular architectural sculpture that doubles as a space of self-discovery and meditation. Sound tempting? Well, unfortunately the structure in question is not for sale, but it does exist in the form of Australian architect Andrew Burns's Crescent House, a small-scale 20 square metre pavilion currently on show at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in Sydney.

Burns’s Crescent House was recently announced as the winner of the inaugural Fugitive Structures competition, a series of four annual invitation-only competitions aimed at emerging and mid-career architects who are asked to design a small-scale temporary pavilion for SCAF’s Zen garden. Initiated by Sydney-based arts patron and director of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Gene Sherman, Fugitive Structures is Australia's answer to the highly successful Serpentine Gallery Architectural Pavilion series.

Since founding Andrew Burns Architecture in 2008, Andrew Burns has made a name for himself as a forward-thinking protagonist of architectural art objects. His talent for imagining boundary-challenging spaces was recognised in 2011 when he won the international design competition for Australia House, a gallery, studio and atelier constructed as part of the 5th Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in Japan. Burns clearly drew inspiration from Australia House for his Fugitive Structures pavilion. Both structures feature the same charred wood exterior, minimalist design, and attention to detail that characterise his unique architectural language – a language that has earned Burns a reputation for challenging the boundaries of architectural practice.

At first glance Crescent House appears to be nothing more than a simple dark wooden box. But that is what Burns wants you to think. Although initial impressions are still important to Burns, his approach is more about initiating a two-way dialogue than dominating the conversation. Where most architects set out to initiate maximum impact at first contact, Burns has discovered the power of using subtle cues to engender a more meaningful and personal connection between the space and the occupant. The reason this is so significant is because it is an approach that requires great skill and finesse. The less there is to distract people, the greater the potential for failure.

It is only after initial introductions have been made that the real character and personality of the structure is revealed. But even before the threshold is crossed the personality and character of Crescent House begins to emerge. What appears from the outside to be an introverted space soon reveals a hidden confidence that makes the first move. The ice breaker comes in the form of the concave entrance which is split into two by a metal screen that functions as a camera obscura device. From several angles the two entrances appear to be mirrored surfaces. However there is no mirror, just a space. But the space has a presence of its own, an invisible field of energy.

Once inside the structure the true potential of the space begins to emerge. Just beyond the entrance the two arcs that form the concave entrance bisect, creating a pair of infinitely sharp points and what Burns describes as “a threshold to the space beyond.” It is here that that the attention to detail becomes apparent. Instead of just shaping the structural wooden frame to create an apex at the end of each arc, a thin metal strip has been used to enforce a much more honest and truthful moment of transition.

Moving into the rear chamber of the structure is a truly enlightening experience. It is here that the serenity and spirituality of the space comes into play. Surprisingly, the back of the structure is completely open and sits literally a foot away from a massive rose apple hedge that dominates the entire field of view. The hedge is close enough to touch but it is so well framed from the inside that it is endowed with a sense of liberation that completely divorces it from the reality of the outside world. In a sense the hedge becomes a portal of infinite potential and possibility. Far from feeling claustrophobic, the anonymity and ambiguity of the space transports its occupants to a non-place, an infinite passage that defies time and space.

On the inside of Crescent House Burns has managed to create a space that frames stillness so successfully and divorces reality so effectively that it initiates a heightened state of self-awareness and encourages a moment of introspection. So what about the outside? For those curious enough to move around the exterior of Crescent House, a surprise awaits. On the left side of the structure is a concave space that hides a little seat big enough for one – a reward for exploring the totality of the pavilion.

Crescent House is undoubtedly a triumph of architecture and art for which Burns has eschewed the status-quo in favour of a more pure and honest approach to the creation of inhabitable spaces. He has created a spectacular monument that is about framing the ordinary and initiating a dialogue that challenges the boundaries of architecture and the art object. It is a structure that Burns describes as a response to elemental themes: darkness and light, the wonder of the night sky, the arc of the sun and the presence of bushfire on this continent. It is the product of an exploration of the boundaries of, and relationship between, two different approaches to form – and a successful one at that. But don't take my word for it, go and check it out for yourself. You won't be sorry you did.

Andrew Burns's Crescent House is on display at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation until 14 September. For more information visit the SCAF website here