Alan Duff: House design a learning curve for Kiwis

New Zealanders seem to see only the cost of architecture and not appreciate the value.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealanders seem to see only the cost of architecture and not appreciate the value. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Yes, I do have stars in my eyes on many aspects of the French and France. But, as I said, nothing beats a Kiwi.

Well now I'm contradicting that in talking our overall lack of taste in house design. Can't be called architecture as only a tiny minority of houses in this country use the profession.

Homes here are, in the main, designed and built from a pragmatic perspective. No thought is given to having a house that blends in or coheres with others to give it that sense of community as well aesthetics. It's Bob the Builder mentality.

Give our blokey Bob the cheapest materials and he'll give you the fastest, cheapest methods of construction; every shortcut taken. Good taste overtaken on the first blind bend. "There ya go, mate. Done before you knew it."

Only have to add the budget furniture and Bob's your uncle too.

Friends drove my wife and I through their township and it was no less than an Ugly House tour. Hideous does not describe it, though won't name the town as might get lynched next time back.

We saw a competition on who can construct the country's ugliest, most garish-taste dwelling. First-equal prize could have been handed out to at least 500 dwellings.

Be as rich or poor as you like, in this country, from a low-cost subdivision to an exclusive gated community, you'll see the national cultural trait: A public declaration of contempt for architects, the attitude: "Who needs one of them? Buggers only add to the cost."

They can do, depending on their brief. You tell him/her this is my budget, this is how many bangs I thought my buck would buy. And he/she in turn will give you several options, all of which will be of a minimal aesthetic standard.

No front door pillars. No multiple levels of roof line for its own sake; no clashing angles and forms butting heads. No 45 degrees cladding lines. And absolutely no clinker bricks more properly described as solidified blocks of human turds.

Not a chance of tiny windows remembered at last moments of construction. A love affair with the sun, not a divorce. And so on.

You (should) want balance, cohesion, clever use of space; natural light is as important as artificial lighting. Everywhere you look (from inside) should reveal a different surprise each day as you realise how well trained is your architect.

One underlying design principle in architecture is the Golden Rectangle. That's a shape or created space of mathematical calculation too complex for this column, but a length to breadth ratio of 1.618 is close enough.

House design, like life, can be a fuller experience. Kiwis should try it.

The Golden Rectangle, otherwise known as Divine Proportion, has its roots in mathematical repetitions.

In other words, it occurs in nature and seems to have a universal appeal to any discerning eye. Which takes out near the entirety of town in question.

As someone who grew up in a state house I've no idea where the love of architecture comes from. At age 21, I came out of a book store with a book on Spanish architect genius, Antoni Gaudi. A book I rate equally with English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins' poetry as life-changing.

So I know aesthetic senses are probably more nature than nurture.

Last week, I gushed how jolly marvellous Kiwis are but with a few qualifications. This week I have no idea how the nation might acquire good taste in residential buildings. It must be an evolutionary thing.

We only ever owned three homes in New Zealand. Two John Scott designs and one by the legendary Ian Athfield.

Mr Scott demonstrated my then lack of good taste when I asked of our new house being built if we could have an "en suite".

"On sweet?" he asked sarcastically. "Sure. I'll install a basin you can pee in right beside your bed."

I realised he was telling me to reject this stereotypical, suburban-home dream crap and access the more artistic side of myself.

Same he showed that fibre board installed on Golden Rectangle principles turned the sow's ear into a silk purse.

John Scott was Maori and one of NZ's most revered architects.

"Ath" gave us a waterfall that became an external pond that went into the house with a little bridge across it. Six metre windows in the living room, spaces that soared or were just intimate crannies.

House design, like life, can be a fuller experience. Kiwis should try it.

- NZ Herald

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Alan Duff

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