Credit: Lester Jones

Like so many others in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Coogee House sits exposed on a hillside: relishing the salt spray, basking in the harsh sun, staring down the blustering Pacific winds.

But that’s likely where comparisons between this site and the nearby sightseers end, because Coogee House – granted, it is a house after all – is sheathed in an immersive protective veil, its tent-like roof and battened screen walls anchoring it to the landscape and shielding it from prying eyes. Not unlike a sunbaker, it sits back, lying deep into the landscape; its screens like gills extend and retract allowing the house to breathe in the cool ocean air. In those interstitial moments, it’s almost as if the house were alive, humming as it does with a sense of place and purpose.

And if you get the feeling that it couldn’t exist anywhere else but here and now, then Chenchow Little have done their job.

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Credit: Lester Jones

When she was 10-years-old, Stephanie Little’s parents – her father, a farmer of sheep, wheat, rice and sunflowers; her mother, a fashion teacher – engaged an architect to design for them a house on their property in country New South Wales between Griffith and Hay, or to approximate its location in more general terms: “in the middle of nowhere”.

“I remember sitting in those meetings and just being amazed by the beautiful drawings,” Little recalls fondly. “In those days, they coloured them all in watercolour and they were just really beautiful. Just seeing how they could plan our house in a way that was so functional and just really embody how we wanted to live our lives was incredibly special and something I became very interested in.”

A studious child with a “strange interest in math”, Little’s path toward architecture was so organic that it almost appears to have been preordained – something of a happy accident born from an interest in how others lived their lives with a passion that manifests itself in the context of a built environment. Her mother, she says, always kept the house “very nicely set out” and like many others (regardless of age, perhaps) she delighted in looking through open houses during real estate inspections with her parents. That she should move to Sydney when she was 17-years-old to undertake her studies in an intense architecture program at the University of New South Wales was a natural one, and it comes as even less of a surprise to hear that she relished her contact hours spent in the design studios of her tutors like John Gamble and Russell Jack, a stalwart of mid-century Australian architecture.

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Credit: Lester Jones

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Credit: Lester Jones

But the life-changing experience of long days working until midnight on design presentations over the course of a five and a half year degree would pale in comparison to a meeting that took place in Little’s last year at university. It was then, through mutual friends, that she met her now-partner in life and design, Tony Chenchow.

“We were actually in a relationship before we started our business almost directly out of university, because we graduated in the early 90s when there was absolutely no work, the whole architecture industry was desperate; architects were driving taxis because there was no work after the huge 80s boom. We were offered a job from one of our family friends and we thought, ‘We’ll do that straight out of university.’”

That first job – alterations and additions to a heritage-listed sandstone house in Milson’s Point – would prove to be a fitting introduction to the bureaucratic rigours and necessary negotiations of their shared profession, something Little is now a deft hand at. It was also the first time they’d collaborated on a project – a process that (luckily) revealed a sympatico understanding and a collaborative way of working. “We’re quite complimentary. We’re very different in our strengths and I think we’re fortunate in that. We work on every project together. Tony’s more of an abstract thinker, [whereas] I’m a bit more pragmatic. After that we were offered more work. Eventually we had to officially start a partnership, which [in 1994] turned into a company.”

Today, Chenchow Little has grown to encompass eight others working out of a converted warehouse studio in the heart of Surry Hills, with Little and her partner overseeing each project from both sides of the business and creative process. In their nascent years, they realised that they shared an affinity for taking on the kind of projects that allowed them to execute a great deal of detailed work to a high quality of finish, predominantly in the residential sector, which meant they naturally eschewed ‘bread and butter’ developers’ projects that tend to be undertaken not for love but money.

“Our growth has been very slow and steady,” says Little. “A bit like a project, but you have to work slowly and steadily. It’s not a profession about sprinting; we’re marathon runners.”

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Credit: Lester Jones
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Credit: Lester Jones

A sense of place is paramount when it comes to deconstructing the central principles underpinning their design practice, something that’s achieved only through slowly and surely assimilating an understanding of a client’s lifestyle and needs into their own vernacular. For Little, place and purpose are as inseparable from each other as climate, topography and the internal lives of the eventual occupants. Speaking with Little, one gets a sense that through a keen interest in the specificities of each job that their work is helping to combat a sense of homogeneity – a certain bland consistency of architecture, seen globally – in the way that we design the environments in which we live.

And though that ever crucial sense of place is integral when time comes to formulate each design on a bespoke basis, Little is wary when it comes to defining what an Australian architectural school of thought might look like. Their goal instead is to continue amassing a consistent body of work, with a preference to look forward rather than single out any standout projects – which isn’t to say that they haven’t garnered a great deal of acclaim, including winning the Robin Boyd Award in 2009 for their Freshwater House; a slew of awards for their spectacular Darling Point Apartment; and more again for their K House in Sydney’s Vaucluse.

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Credit: Lester Jones
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Credit: Lester Jones

That each design is formulated on a per client basis from the ground up means that their working process is a lengthy one: designs constantly evolve and a rigorous attention to detail means their blueprints extend right down to door knobs and stops. Months spent in the design stages soon turn into months spent at council and at tender before builders can even entertain the idea of stepping on site. Then there’s the build itself. It’s a process Little likens to watching a child grow and develop (their own five-year-old son is shaping up to be a particularly precocious draftsman “with an innate understanding of the creative process”).

“It’s a funny feeling because it almost feels as if it’s your house in a way and it’s hard to sort of give it over,” Little says of that cathartic moment once they hand over the keys to the owner.

“There was one incident where my partner actually said to the client, ‘Come in’, and it was their house. It’s hard to let go sometimes because you know every little corner of the house. You just have to let it go.”

CREDITS
Motion and stills: Lester Jones
Art direction: Patti Andrews
Location: Coogee House
Special thanks to: Stephanie Little and Tony Chenchow

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