villa ultimo is the award winning piece by perth based building designer andrea basini
Andrea Basini was recognised for his masterpiece, Villa Ultimo, at the Building Designers Association of Australia’s National Design Awards 2023, named the overall design winner. Image: Jody Darcy.

The Property Tribune recently sat down with award-winning building designer, Andrea Basini, to delve deeper into the story behind his award-winning masterpiece: Villa Ultimo.

Villa Ultimo was the overall design winner at the Building Designers Association of Australia’s (BDAA) National Design Awards 2023, garnering the top gong: National Design Excellence Award, and the award for New Residential Buildings over $3 million.

Settling into his chair after collecting a printout, a warm smile gently spread across Andrea’s face. On one side of the office was a Rogue’s gallery of Brutalist icons, and on the other side was an eclectic collection of Lego models, sketches, and more – all of which turned out to be an early indication that the award citation ‘a love letter to Brutalism‘ didn’t fully capture a much more fascinating journey, a personal story, and a decades-long friendship.

The brief

Envisaged for Andrea’s longtime friends Enzo and Genny Sberna, whom are also the duo behind Perth-based European furniture and kitchens powerhouse, Ultimo Interiors, the design brief was to create a sleek, ultra-modern home.

Enzo’s and Genny’s vision was driven by their personal and professional lives, being at the very forefront of their field.

enzo and genny sberna are masters of interior design
Villa Ultimo plays host to some of Perth’s most exquisite examples of modern European interiors; furniture and fittings are in lockstep with the latest in design several thousands miles away. Image: Jody Darcy.

“The design language in Europe is just clean-cut concrete, concrete floors, concrete walls, and all the furniture, the kitchens especially, reflect this,” Andrea recounted.

Porcelain and modular were very much in vogue, with Andrea adding that kitchens were subtly integrated into designs, indeed, concealed and masquerading as furniture or walls.

The designer and the clients

“There’s the old adage where designing would be so easy if you didn’t have to deal with clients, right?” chuckled Andrea.

“But in this case, we were all on the same page.”

His longstanding friendship with Enzo and Genny has spanned multiple homes, with Villa Ultimo being their fourth project.

“We’ve all grown together with the designs. The first one was very simple; back in the day they couldn’t afford much and I couldn’t do much.”

The camaraderie between Andrea, Enzo, and Genny and their collective expertise led to a highly synergistic designer-client relationship.

During design discussions, Andrea told me that the design followed the furniture which followed the design, ideas which bounced effortlessly off each other.

andrea basini designed villa ultimo to be flooded with light from all angles
Image: Jody Darcy.

This design process also harked back to how ‘true great architects’ designed homes to the nth degree, considering not only layout, light, and livability, but also creating and curating furniture, light fittings, windows, and more.

Andrea recalled how the greats like Frank Lloyd Wright and Iwan Iwanoff would design homes that way, and how some clients may butt heads with architects because designs and furniture worked one way, however, clients wanted another way.

“But with Enzo and Genny, they know furniture. They know quality design and how to lay out spaces, so, it was easy designing for them, it was a joy.”

“The furniture was designed to complement the architecture.”

The design

The City Beach home was originally envisaged as a three-storey home, created to welcome vast ocean vistas from the top floor. However, a regulatory change part way through the planning application dropped the maximum height by half a metre, meaning the home could not enjoy views of a shimmering Indian Ocean.

“As is the case in life, when one path reaches a dead end, you take another path and it works out better,” said Andrea.

As he went back to the drawing board, Andrea shared another vignette from the early design stages – one that displayed a beautiful sense of intuition and expertise:

“When we had the final meeting before we launched onto this path, Genny said, ‘It’s all nice, but it’s not really what I had in mind,'” recalled Andrea.

“So, I just took out my butcher’s paper, I did a quick sketch, and I said ‘Something like this?’ And she said ‘Yes!'”

Borne from that sketch was the final plan, Andrea adding that that sketch has since been framed and now sits proudly above Enzo’s desk in the study.

A streamlined nod to Iwanoff

Renowned Perth architect, Iwan Iwanoff, was famed for his use of concrete breezeblocks, launching into an ‘artistic fervour’ in the remainder eight or so years of his life, in the words of Andrea.

“Once he got onto breezeblocks, he just found his element and was prolific in those eight years.”

Andrea was hoping to use some of these blocks in Villa Ultimo, but it didn’t fit with the scheme.

“I was hoping to use it in the fence, but then we went with steel.”

Other parts of the home were also considered for a nod to Iwanoff’s famed blocks, but the design brief for a streamlined home didn’t fit with the use of those blocks.

Taking further inspiration from Iwanoff, Andrea said:

“Iwanoff would design the home and then he’d create a feature wall; that’s where he’d make an artistic statement with the blocks.

“That’s what came to me: If I can’t use the blocks and it had to be a streamlined, very modernist look, then maybe I can introduce the motif.

“The motif wasn’t discussed with the clients, at all.”

“I just did the sketch without the motif, and said ‘Yep, that’s what we’re going to do’, and I just snuck that in.

“When I showed it to Enzo and Genny, they just said ‘This is fantastic!'”

andrea basini architecture design won national awards with bdaa
The motif, which was a nod to Iwanoff, was not originally discussed with clients. Despite that, it became the linchpin that made Villa Ultimo a winner with both the clients and beyond. Image: The Property Tribune.

Andrea explained that Genny had preferred a traditional, white modernist design, while Enzo preferred the concrete look.

“Genny was afraid the concrete wouldn’t work.”

“That motif was what convinced her that the concrete would work, and not the white.”

Image: Jody Darcy.

Eventually, Villa Ultimo saw the motif tastefully imbued into some thirteen areas within the home, on the front, side, gate, retaining walls, and more.

“That’s my nod to Iwan.”

A personal connection

That artistic gesture was not without precedent, it seemed, as Andrea shared anecdotes from his early teenage years.

Decades ago when working for his uncle, Peter Gelencser, endearingly referred to as Uncle Peter, Andrea met the softly spoken Iwan Iwanoff.

“I met Iwanoff when I was younger because I was free labour for my uncle, as is the Italian way, and I would be working on the house.”

andrea basini used to work with iwan iwanoff in his formative years
Andrea had the opportunity to work with Iwanoff when Andrea was younger. Image: The Property Tribune.

The opportunity appeared twice over, as Andrea worked both on the smaller duplex and the main house, which was built later on the remainder of the subdivided Cottesloe site along Curtin Avenue.

“I just learned about proportions, basically.”

Andrea added that, “Both my uncle and Iwan were a big influence on my life, and you don’t know at the time either, it’s all at the back of your head.”

That cropped up later in our conversation when Andrea discussed design adjustments made to suit furniture choices.

“Enzo and Genny had a few ideas for the lounge suite, they wanted either an arketipo or a Rolf Benz. They said, ‘If we lay it out this way it had to be an arketipo, if we lay it out that way then it would have to be a Rolf Benz,’ and this was the way it went all the way along.

“The robes are critical because all these things are modular; you have to work it out to a certain size.

“The robes in the children’s bedrooms were a combination robe and study desk, and it’s all part of one unit – which is what Iwan did at the Cottesloe house, so there you go, there’s another thing!”

Playing with light and proportions

“Brutalist houses are generally dark and dingy inside, and we didn’t want that,” said Andrea.

“We wanted to make sure that there was light in every direction.”

A generously sized skylight was placed above the bathroom, with Andrea explaining to me that it was required because a window ran the length of the bedroom past the ensuite, however for privacy, the blinds of the ensuite would pretty much never be opened.

this entrance hallway artwork in villa ultimo display a temporal sense of sun movements
Image: Jody Darcy.

Even corridors were designed with careful consideration to ensure areas were flooded with light, lending itself to a particular optical illusion. Not only were corridors very short, but large amounts of glass were also used, indeed the lift had a glass back and walls, and the door was glass.

“We’ve made sure that the corridors don’t feel like corridors. It’s because there’s light coming to you from all directions.”

The home also features a piece of artwork that interacts with the shifting sunlight.

In the main entrance corridor, there are strategically placed windows. As the sun travels through the sky, it hits the raw concrete feature wall and feature art, comprising various metals including brass, copper, and aluminium, with the light delivering a balletic performance across the various surfaces throughout the day.

The challenges

Delivering the sleek, streamlined, modern design with concrete required a deft touch.

“From a design point of view, the only real difficulty was designing the panels – because that’s all pre-cast.”

Andrea said that leaving the joints exposed would give Villa Ultimmo the appearance of a factory block, particularly as they were 20 millimetre mastic joints, designed for movement.

villa ultima was designed by award winning building designer andrea basini
Image: Jody Darcy.

Architecturally, the answer was to strategically locate joints such that they would be out of sight.

That gave rise to yet another challenge: engineering.

The structure and panels were designed to appear as if they were floating, but the engineer protested, saying the vertical pieces should sit on a horizontal slab.

Andrea insisted that the engineer make the floating design work, with the panel eventually sitting in front of the slab instead, and of course, requiring additional connection and engineering details to make the design a reality.

Andrea also had to carefully consider the size and thickness of the pre-cast concrete slabs.

“With precast panels, you have two restrictions: size and weight.”

“There’s a maximum size, and a maximum weight, and sometimes the two work against you in different ways. You can have a very short and very long panel, but if it’s overweight, then you’ll need to cut it. On the other hand if you have a very light panel, but it’s over length, because this depends on thickness, reinforcement, where it sits. and so on.

The challenges of pre-cast concrete slabs didn’t end there.

“Everything on the plan is designed to the millimetre. It’s easy, draw a line, and if the computer says it’s 12 millimetres, it’s 12 millimetres.

“However, on site with a 10 tonne piece of concrete on a 200 tonne crane, where you’ve predrilled all your services and connections, if you’re five millimetres out – your two day schedule becomes two weeks.”

andrea basini worked with precast concrete which is not common for residential homes
Working pre-cast concrete slabs presented multiple design and engineering challenges. Image: The Property Tribune.

“So, the methodology is sound, but in the execution, nothing ever goes to plan. It’s very rare that this type method of construction is used for residential. For one, it’s really expensive, but we decided early on that if we wanted this seamless look, that looked like the whole house was poured out of concrete, it had to be pre-cast.”

While the look could be achieved more easily with lightweight, Andrea said down the track, there would be maintenance, movement, and cracks.

“Whereas concrete, it is poured onsite or poured in a mould, and you never touch it, and it ages.”

The block itself also presented unique challenges, that also came with one major opportunity.

Although 700 square metres in size, the setbacks were 7.5 metres from the front.

Asked whether the corner block was advantageous or not, Andrea said both.

On the one hand, you have setbacks, so twice as many issues, and they cost more because two sides of the house are visible from the street, as opposed to one, however:

“Corner blocks are great because you can really make a statement.”

And what greater statement than two very well-deserved trophies and national titles.

andrea basini wins national design excellence award bdaa 2023
Andrea Basini won the National Design Excellence Award, and the award for New Residential Buildings over $3 million at the Building Designers Association of Australia’s (BDAA) National Design Awards 2023. Image: The Property Tribune.


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