When the architects who designed Holman House first visited the building site, the place may have scared them a little. Located at the end of a residential block in suburban Sydney, Australia, the property borders a sheer cliff that drops more than 200 feet to the Tasman Sea. “We get south winds that just bucket down that coastline. There are waves crashing on the rocks below. It’s pretty wild,” says Camilla Block of the Sydney-based firm Durbach Block Jaggers. “We were almost intimidated by how beautiful it was.” Block and her partners, Neil Durbach and David Jaggers, overcame their aesthetic vertigo to produce a house that perches not only at the edge of a continent, but also at the balance point between the force of nature and the reach of human aspiration. 

The structure emerges organically from the cliff face, climbing in a series of terraces bordered by stone retaining walls. The same stone masonry covers the house’s lower floor, blending it with the striated geological formation below. The primary spaces at this level are two children’s bedrooms and a central, glass-walled studio that bulges into the otherwise straight-edged floor plan. “Sydney sandstone erodes almost from underneath, so you get these undercut cave spaces,” Block explains. “[The studio] is kind of a dream of that.”

The building’s form and materials shift dramatically at the main floor, above, which occupies an undulating volume whose exterior surfaces are coated with raked cement stucco. Fully exposed on its seaside elevation, this layer of the house presents a vanishingly low profile to its neighbors, offering only a garage and a small entrance canopy as clues to the house’s presence. “You see virtually nothing from the street,” Block says. “People go looking for it and pretty much never find it.”

But those who do are in for a powerful experience. The central living space—which includes kitchen, living, and dining areas—is a freeform X that extends two arms in a dramatic cantilever over the cliff edge. The living area opens to the north, terminating in an enormous operable window that fills an entire wall with a view of headlands jutting out into the sea (a glass railing provides security when the counterweighted lower sash is raised). The dining area telescopes toward an unobstructed prospect of the southern coast. A ribbon of glass slices through the curved eastern wall, linking the bigger views with a deliberately narrowed slice of horizon. “North and south are where the events of the ocean happen,” Block says. “Also, we have so much light, so much outlook. Something that’s more cinematic and edited is more powerful and serene.”