Walking through the streets of Fremantle, trying the handles of doors that looked both unused and interesting, an architect and an academic were oblivious to the gem they were about to stumble upon – on just 24sqm.
Unless you knew it was there, most of us would walk past the building that houses Keanu Breeze without a second glance. The heritage-listed facade at street level is a nondescript wall and gives no indication as to what goes on behind its door. However some, like owner and interior designer Clare Davidson and architect Emerald Wise of Whispering Smith, would look a little harder.
“Previous to this, Clare and I had been running a pop up gallery called Debbie in a tiny kiosk in the centre of Freo. We operated within an exemption in the liquor act and were closed down because the gallery was deemed ‘not in the spirit of the act’,” says Emerald.
Needless to say, after Debbie, neither was interested in running a bar or gallery space, yet they still liked the idea of showcasing local art.
“Perth can often be so predictable in its spatial use, but why can’t people live in a 24sqm space opening right on to the street in the centre of Fremantle?” asks Emerald. “The novelty or the intrigue created by people who adapt unique spaces for living in cities like Paris, Berlin or even Melbourne is so appealing, but Perth hasn’t yet truly valued the possibilities these spaces offer.”
Enamoured with the idea of finding small, unusual or unwanted spaces and putting something completely unexpected in them, they went on the hunt.
Opening the door to the tiny storeroom with terrible light that they would later convert into an inner-city bolthole, Emerald and Clare entered part of an old stable from way back that had more recently been used as storage for a local cafe. Through the layers of dust and industrial detritus, the two designers imagined a new place out of nothing and set about making it a reality. A sort of live-in, private gallery of local art and design was born.
Developing a monastic-style retreat for artists that was right in the heart of Freo was the aim. “We hope to run an Airbnb part time, to pay the bills, and a retreat for artists doing a residency at the Fremantle Arts Centre or Artsource the rest of the time,” explains Emerald. “We hope to collect work from artists as payment, and for the art in the space to be on rotation so that guests visiting the Airbnb can be exposed to local and interstate art and design.”
Despite the misgivings and incredulity of the numerous trades that looked to quote on the fit out work, Emerald and Clare eventually found the right craftsmen for the job. Great architecture relies on great clients, great design and great building skills, and it’s a blessing to any project when you find that final part of the equation – the builders, trades and craftsmen who get it, who see the value in the design, and have the attitude and skills to pull it off.
The result? Step off the street and through the front door to arrive directly into the space. The ground floor is made up of a dining room, a small lounge, and a glass-screened bathroom. Additionally, a clever galley kitchen is complete with solid marri fronts with dovetail joins, and walls, splashback and window recesses with venetian plaster.
At 24sqm it is very small indeed, with a scale more akin to a holiday cabin than an inner-city apartment, and far smaller than any home in an Australian suburb. Enhancing the assets it does have is lime wash paint to the walls and ceiling with a super high gloss enamel to increase the amount of light bounced around the space, and a geometric stickon glass filter on windows that refract light.
Keanu Breeze is a curious project. At first glance this compact space appears to be a millennial’s solution to the problem of housing affordability: build a tiny, simple home to facilitate a lifestyle at minimal expense. In the heart of Fremantle, though, even a property this small doesn’t come cheap, and a second viewing reveals the beautiful finishes and additional effort that the designers have put into this place.
It is by no means austere. The craft and design are evident throughout, from the staircase that doubles as pantry and laundry to the solid timber kitchen, the polished venetian plaster walls, and the confident structure of the mezzanine and its angled timber floors.
There is an energy in the place, an agitation. There’s an inherent awareness of the outside world, with the glazed, heritage-listed door and windows to the street facade diminishing any sense of a threshold. As pedestrians pass on the footpath just a couple of metres from the couch, there’s a feeling of performance for an oblivious audience. Something like a shop window, maybe even a vague hint of Amsterdam’s red light district.
It doesn’t feel like a space for lounging in, for whiling away the hours. Instead, it feels like a space for doing, for creating, for planning, for stepping out the front door, and getting on with the adventure. In a similar way, the design expresses that energy as well. Another designer might have opted for a clean interior, sharp and basic to maximise the space and the light, but the busyness of the interior fills the house with stories instead.
Nominally white, the palette of materials goes from polished plaster, to marble, to terrazzo tiles, to handmade steel balustrades, to recycled blackbutt timber, to painted brickwork. Part of this is because the small scale of the project allowed for interesting and high-cost materials to be applied; high ‘dollars per square metre’ costs are negated by the very few square metres on offer. Part of it is the designers’ joyful application of ideas and the lack of restraint that comes from a personal project.
“Architectural training teaches you to disregard what you like”, Emerald muses. “Often an architect will concede design by thinking to a client’s wishes, and such expressions and experiments get left by the wayside.”
Trying doorknobs, dreaming up spaces, working through problems and experimenting with the built form – this is what good architects do, and it’s a genuinely wonderful thing to watch it happening in your own city.