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The Bondi Beach Penthouse has been almost universally hailed by the international media as Australia’s most desirable apartment, but can it truly ever live up to such a prestigious and lofty billing?

Today, Bondi Beach is largely famous for its surf, but Australians have been swimming and living around this magnificent bay since the early 1800s. In the 1880s, the authorities officially designated Bondi as a public beach and, later, in 1884, a dedicated tramline was constructed, linking the beach to Sydney Harbour, set some seven kilometres to the north. Up until 1900, strictly implemented local authority rules prohibited swimming during daylight hours. Once these were relaxed, largely due to public demand, the beach became a popular destination with locals and tourists alike.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of hotels, casinos and cinemas were built alongside the familiar bathing huts. By 1929, more than 60,000 people were visiting the beach on summer weekends. This saw Bondi become dubbed as ‘the playground of the Pacific’. The growth of the beach settlement in the early part of the 20th century has given the place a very particular, relaxed, almost dream-like, character.

Campbell Parade, the main street that runs along the edge of the bay, comprises an eclectic sweep of low-rise Art Deco, Spanish Colonial and 1960s brick buildings, all with shops and bars at ground level. This forms an eccentric, if welcoming, leisure parade.  In recent years new, tallerapartments and hotels have been built, but they have all been somewhat set back from the original seafront.

In some parts of Western Europe, an unrelenting fixation with heritage has become an unwelcome straitjacket. This has signally given rise to wave after wave of pastiche buildings that fail to meet the demands of the present. As a counterweight to this, many architects working with historic buildings find the restraints imposed by the process of preservation can inspire genuinely creative work.

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The Bondi Penthouse, clearly a labour of love by the Sydney-based MPRDG architecture group, is just such a building. This fetching three-bedroom apartment sits on the roof of an historic block in the very centre of Bondi Beach. It was sold for US$9million (HK$70millon) in 2006, but current estimates put its value now well above US$12million (HK$93million).

It has been built on to the structure of the original Hazel Flats building, set in the very heart of Campbell Parade. The three-storey block, built in 1920, was designed in what might be described as a distinctly Art Deco style. In truth, architecturally speaking, it’s something of a mongrel. Its hints of Art Deco actually blend with much more pragmatic style of what can only be termed ‘sea-side architecture’. Rendered and painted in powder blue and white, it’s highly redolent of many geographically disparate seaside buildings of its era, Here there is an architectural language that you might find on the South Coast of England, in parts of Florida or Portugal and even, perhaps less predictably, in certain residential areas of Shanghai.  It truly stands out in an area where most of the buildings are only two or three storeys high. This is largely because it was only in exceptional places, all of them pulled back somewhat from the parade proper, that developers were given the freedom to produce the occasional taller building.

The Hazel block, though, is surrounded by similarly eccentric buildings, all largely springing from the same construction period. Each one, however, tends to be differentiated in some way, frequently through the use of a different pastel colour, a different roof height or by little giveaway signs that indicate their original purpose.

Regardless of the overall form of the building, at ground level each inevitably proves to be home to a shop, a bar or a cafe. Each block is long and thin with a narrow frontage overlooking the beach. They also all feature ubiquitously playful parapet walls, usually masking a very ordinary roof or shed-like structure. .

MPRDG clearly relished the opportunity to work with the old building and opted to produce a roof-mounted structure that would be barely visible from the street.  The firm designed a lightweight metal-clad structure, with an organic roof form that sits behind the existing façade.

By creating a roof terrace immediately behind the original façade, it was able to give the family residing within the flat a north-facing private balcony, while maintaining the modest low-rise character of the street. Whereas the original buildings on the street use colour and basic facade decoration to create a sense of playfulness, this new addition comes wrapped in one single, striking white metal panel. It still, however, exudes a distinct sense of play, largely as a result of the excitement and novelty stemming from its unusual form.

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This rooftop pavilion is essentially formed from a series of planes and facets, rather than the far more conventional walls and roofs. The organic character of the structure, which sees it floating above the old rendered block, clearly expresses the fact that this is decidedly a new building engaging in a dialogue with the old. It is a fetching combination and one that underlines the creatively pleasing results that can be secured when such a fusion is handled with due sensitivity.

The planning that has gone into the apartment is deceptively simple. On one side, there are a series of three bedrooms, including an extensive master bedroom, on the other there is a small pool, luxuriously appointed and quite alluring.

At the front of the building, overlooking the beach and the terrace, is an open plan living space, complete with a dedicated ultra-modern kitchen and an extensive dining area. The kitchen appears to be formed from a folded plane, one which rises up from the floor and is cantilevered into the living space to form a work surface.

Residents enter this rooftop home by solus-use lift set at the rear of the building. There is also the option of gaining access via a spiral staircase, The stairs rise into a bright open, space, lit from above by a large round roof-light. A corridor linking the spiral stairway and the lift is also lit from above, this time by a five-metre long frameless skylight. This also provides borrowed light to the stairwell.

In order to make the most of the views of the beach on the north side of the house, the walls of the living space are formed from two planes of frameless glass. At certain moments, this glass and the accompanying clean white walls seem to dematerialise entirely, giving the impression that the occupiers are simply playing out their lives on the open roof of an old building block.

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