Big House, Small House: New Homes by New Zealand Architects, by John Walsh and Patrick Reynolds (Random House, 2012), 429 pp., $80.
This archipelago of Pacific islands, New Zealand — resting on the edge of the alphabet delineated by Colin McCahon’s great ‘I AM’ painting — with its emphatic sweeps of darkness and light, its hills and harbours, mountains and lakes, constitutes a specific topography of place that our best house architects address. Out of the dialectical struggle between mid-twentieth century Modernism and late-twentieth century post-Modernism was born the style of leading house architecture being built here now: one that’s ironic, knowing and technologically state-of-the-art; conscious of carbon footprints, greenhouse gases and making the most of the view.
Architectural writer John Walsh and architectural photographer Patrick Reynolds in Big House, Small House: New Homes by New Zealand Architects showcase sixty houses — or house modifications — designed by sixty different architects and built since 2007. These have been selected from the work of 600 registered architectural practices all round the country. As John Walsh wrote in his introduction to the forerunner of this anthology New New Zealand Houses, published in a similar hefty, large-scale format by Godwit in 2007: ‘An architect-designed house must be one of life’s richest treats’, much more desirable than ‘making do with hand-me-down spaces expressive of the demographic realities and domestic
ideologies of a dead generation, or coming to terms with spaces organised to maximise a developer’s return’.
This then is a book for those passionate about architecture, passionate about good design, passionate about the possibilities of a new cultural iconography of the local: if you care about living here, if you want to improve your design literacy, your ability to read a building — the new building down the road for instance — this book is for you. Of course it used to be in Kiwi populism that one person’s Art was another person’s kitsch, though nowadays, heaven knows, anything goes. Into this swirling volatile situation steps one of our more articulate interpreters. As editor of Architecture New Zealand until recently, John Walsh has been explaining why architects are unashamedly elitist, as well as discovering and publishing examples of building design excellence.
There is something missionary-like about Walsh’s zeal, yet the need to thrash out coherent design philosophies is always with us, confronted as we are by overbearing outsize McMansions advancing along our coastlines, row upon row of beige-coloured town houses with uniform facades emerging in our suburbs, and battery-hen-type apartment blocks dominant in certain inner-city zones. Shelter is a feeling, but architecture rationalises and conceptualises that feeling in order to enhance it. The clichés of building are repressive as well as mediocre — and often wasteful and exploitative.
Making these arguments about what we should value, however, Big House, Small House doesn’t go into the Realpolitik of how a new house gets built in New Zealand — the planning permissions, the disagreements, the mistakes, the shortages, the delays — instead this book gives us praiseworthy examples of certain kinds of architecture lifted pristine and whole from the farraginous raggle-taggle of the urban and suburban, or the sprawling higgledy-piggledy of the beachfront, or the splendid isolation of the rural. In this book, each bespoke project is turned into an apposite photographic essay by Patrick Reynolds, laid out like a rebus to await Walsh’s verbal deconstruction via a short essay of appreciation, or else deconstruction in a short essay by a number of guest design commentators, including Tommy Honey and Bill McKay. In sum, what is being presented are sculptural articulations of material, texture and forms in space, with human beings placed at the centre, located in specific landscapes.
Patrick Reynolds shoots using available light, and his images here prove him a master of it, a dynamically inventive antipodean answer to Constructivist shutterbug Alexander Rodchenko. From low-slung beach house making a long grab for the horizon to high-minded apartment loft-space, he seeks to demonstrate structural transparency: open-plan is paramount. ‘One can be proud of having a house as serviceable as a typewriter,’ declared Le Corbusier, and while Reynolds doesn’t subscribe completely to that declaration of extreme functionalism, his images do evoke the old utopian ideal that a house is a kind of Bauhausian inhabited machine: that is, his energetically-arranged viewpoints, ever-conscious of the geometries of solid and void, carry the suggestion of laboratory-like conditions in which modern living is an experiment, a mode of realising the Self.
Reynolds idealises interiors by removing evidence of day-to-day clutter and tidying up what remains into neat serialism. He is after simple, sharply-modelled vistas in which every part of the image merges into the comprehensive volume of the whole image; the shaping of rooms as a sequence of spaces is given a kinetic liveliness of feel.
He presents sunstruck facades of concrete, rammed earth or stone, arresting patterns of roof beams, long perspectives of decks and verandahs, the superimposition of tree branch shadows, views though open sliding doors and out to sea. Objects visible in rooms are there to provide a meta-commentary: through windows we see the odd telescope or a pair of binoculars on ledge; on walls hang circle or grid abstractions by Ralph Hotere, Stephen Bambury, and others.
If sunlight offers clarity of form and an emphasis on surface qualities, house lighting at twilight gives a building warmth and atmosphere. On the cover, Bergendy Cook’s dark wooden cuboid house near Queenstown, lit up, resembles a lantern or beacon; it glows against the wintry landscape like a Halloween pumpkin. We learn that on the roof of her house, shielded by the cladding surround of wooden battens, there’s a sauna and outdoor bath — here, then is a touch of romance and glamour: a platform for viewing the moon and the stars.
One of Reynolds’s major considerations, it becomes obvious as you leaf through, is a wrestle with landscape: he seeks to ground each of the sixty constructions within a context, one offering not just a site but a relationship with surroundings. But in a book in which the buildings are the stars, the human presence can seem a bit ghost-like, as if the occupants have been spirited away, or have yet to arrive, or possibly have abandoned the place. Occasionally a house will contain a chilly imposing interior, impersonal and as flash as a hotel lobby in some global order of endless anonymous repetition, lacking a sense of actually being lived in.
Significantly, the only strongly noticeable (non-camera-shy) figures — apart from a glimpse of the occasional inquisitive child popping up into frame or the proud architect sometimes beaming on just in frame, are two artists in their new stand-alone studios busy at work creating: an analogue for the photographer’s art.
The mantra in photo and text that this book repeats is purity and refinement: the apogees of sense and sensibility, which in practice means top shelf architecture, and small houses by young architects designing for themselves, which are optimistic, cheeky, clever spaces, or big houses for clued-up clients which are sophisticated, elegant and have gravitas. In 2007 in New New Zealand Houses, the architecture tended toward the triumphant, while as if gnashing his teeth, Walsh wrote that ‘the sensitivities of the ultra-affluent do render a layer of this country’s architecture invisible’, but since then we’ve had the global financial crisis and the focus has to a degree shifted: one of the espoused aims of Big House, Small House is to emphasise the comparatively modest.
Consequently, it’s good to see Wellington architect and poet, the late Gerard Melling, represented with a modest but memorable-looking beach house, ‘Split Box’
on the Coromandel coast. In his 2010 book Tsunami Box (Freerange Press), Melling wittily described his involvement with the design and building of emergency housing in Sri Lanka, following the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and he ever championed low-cost architect-designed houses in New Zealand. Throughout his numerous writings the idiosyncratic Melling regularly evinced a certain antagonism towards grand architectural statements.
Reminiscent of his simple Skybox house that hovers above another building on the skyline in central Wellington, Split Box consists of two adjoining two-storey glass boxes in macrocarpa framing, clinging like twin bubbles to a cliff-face. Spartan, with skimpy fixtures, yet all the necessaries, this isolated beach house is buoyant, light-filled. Walsh observes that it meets the three conditions of Vitruvius’s classical maxim that the truly successful building muster offer ‘firmness, commodity and delight’: be fit for purpose in other words.
It has been said that early New Zealand beach baches and holiday huts were ‘knocked up out of packing cases, 44-gallon drums and No.8 wire’, and while such tumbledown structures are now ineffably quaint, the notion of the washed-up wooden box resting on the beach waiting to be unpacked informs many if not all the numerous beach houses featured in this book.
Like Melling’s ‘glass box’ affair, architect Gordon Moller’s beach house at Awhitu on the south side of Manukau Harbour is all double-height glazing, but here the much larger glass skin has been stretched over a skeleton of steel girders. It’s a big pavilion, perhaps too big for a supposed weekend retreat, but its airy spaces are animated by the play of light through the expanses of glass and it sends up its own grandiosity with a balcony bridge which also runs through the central space as if quoting the trampers’ swing bridge over a river. Outside, the bridge ends pointing north, a comic sentinel, facing Auckland city and Gordon Moller’s far-off landmark building, the Skytower.
Elsewhere along the nation’s foreshore, the tarred boards of the creosote bach of blessed memory are used to endorse the ubiquitous black or dark monochrome of the rectangular box that is the dominant shape of the contemporary beach house. In some of them, black-stained battens, predominantly of cedar, are used to reinforce a stockade effect, bristling protectively. In others, the metaphor is more elaborate, reaching an apotheosis in a beach house located at Piha and designed by Lance and Nicky Herbst. At its most reductive resembling a shelter made of sticks amongst trees, closer examination of the photographs of the spectacular Herbst design reveals nature enmeshed in the modernist grid of architecture in the form of a dwelling situated in the centre of a stand of mature pohutakawa trees. Some of the trees had to be cleared, and the result is a house that is a fable in wood, steel and glass, with references to tree bark, tree stumps, tree branches, the forest canopy and the forest floor all symbolically entwined with the structure, bound up in its engineered shapes and surfaces. Those who stay here, it is implied, take on the spirit of the trees, meditative and ingathered.
The box found as flotsam and jetsam on the beach shifted a little inland becomes part of the notion of encampment, as if we are still settled lightly on this lightly-settled land, and is expressed as an ‘abstracted vernacular’ in house after house, by architects ranging from Michael O’Sullivan of Mangere Bridge, building at Karekare, to David Berridge a New York-based expatriate building on the Coromandel: the ocean view from the heart of his stacked box decorates the book’s back cover.
Most of the houses depicted are in the upper North Island, but twelve are located in the South Island, predominantly around Otago. Some of these ‘Mainland’ structures also refer to the box, only in Central otago the box has grown more shed-like, or tent-like. A house by architect Thom Craig, set on a ledge scraped from a hillside above the Shotover river takes its cue from the shearing shed or the fruit-packing shed, while its origami-style folded-over roof also brings to mind a paper dart winging its way across river, but the steep angles on this shedifice can also be seen as mimicking surrounding hillsides.
Ian Athfield’s Queenstown house stepping down a hillside towards Lake Wakatipu, below the Remarkables, with its Oamaru stone walls and heavily-rusted steel cladding evokes geological strata, and its robust materials also seem addressed to winter storms and blizzards. It recedes into its location by being set amongst rust-coloured tussock and reeds. Thus its blockiness, weightiness and colouration pay due respect to the landscape. Likewise the house designed by Charlie Nott amidst the drama of rainforest scenery and dark clouds at Punakaiki on the rugged West Coast, where Patrick Reynolds makes explicit reference to the vatic utterance of McCahon with which I opened this review in the way he has photographed a roofscape, all black angles framing bush, sea and sky, as if uncovering something of the moody mystery of this still only partly-discovered country.
And grandstanding geomorphology is a primal shaper in much Wellington architecture, too, as the jagged roofline of Gerald Parsonson’s Salamanca House tells us, its ridges rising both like notches in a Modernist cogwheel and like peaks on the Rimutaka Ranges. Meanwhile, the Wellington sharp-peaked gable form that Roger Walker’s Noddyism in the 1970s did so much to enshrine finds it emblematic echo in James Fenton’s small two-level studio-plus-garage, whose neighbourhood-rhyming roof gable celebrates Wellington’s village ambience.
Much more fort-like and forbidding are the various urban residences photographed in Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland, from the biomorphic concrete slab cowling of a concrete steel and glass house created by Simon Twose (together with the builder-owner) that reads like a homage to Frank Gehry in Wellington, to assorted big buildings further north which actively turn their backs on their neighbours to celebrate family life with a secluded rooftop garden or secret inner courtyard. Such buildings, with windowless exterior walls or concealing shutters, and sometimes built above other properties, are hidden in plain sight, affirming the value of privacy and sanctuary in inner city precincts, yet always they have an eye to the view, to park treescapes or to an angle on the Waitemata Harbour.
Some of these properties, on the evidence of displayed furnishings lead lives of quiet ostentation on the interior but remain, to the oblivious passer-by, merely functional on the exterior. Through the ministrations of their architects, they have responded to Alfred Loos’s warning, issued many years ago in Vienna, that ‘in good society, to be conspicuous is bad manners’.
Amongst the most interesting — or historically resonant — of the urban fabric projects are those, such as Jeanette Budgett’s Cox’s Bay bungalow, or Pamela Ingram’s Arch Hill lean-to, which are renovations, enlivening quotidian spaces once pronounced dead and buried in architectural terms. Other projects, however, are harder to asses accurately. You’d like more photographs (and very occasionally less) and a little more text.
But it’s true that the best is largely self-evident: I was very taken, for instance, by architect Richard Naish’s own house in Grey Lynn, which set amongst streets of Californian bungalows has engaged in visual dialogue with them, displaying fantastic courtesy with floral lattice screens, like latter-day lace curtains (actually cookie-cutter perforated metal sheets painted white), that are decorated with half-daisy and fleur-de-lis patterns, quoting the verandah post and wall decorations and roof shape of the neighbours while decently screening the arriviste Modernist buildings around its inner courtyard from too inquisitive a view.
The anthology ends, though, not with glass hangar or disassembled sheds, hard urban box or the techno-futurist awkward-looking, slightly-weird apartment building in Ponsonby (this a casualty of over-fussy planning consents), but out on Bank Peninsula at Governors Bay and Miles Warren’s loving restoration of a heritage property. Here, with this cluster of renovated buildings and orchestrated series of splendid gardens, is a rustic assemblage that smacks of a fantasia on the theme of colonial Christchurch, something Peter Beaven surely saluted, marking days of future passed.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.