NZ architects making their mark on the world

By Claire McCall

New Zealand architects are making their mark around the world.

Ken Crosson's 'hut on sleds', a 40sq m bach on the Coromandel Peninsula that can be shifted around its beach-front section. Photo / Supplied
Ken Crosson's 'hut on sleds', a 40sq m bach on the Coromandel Peninsula that can be shifted around its beach-front section. Photo / Supplied

French logic is not the same as ours. Bien sur, architect Pete Bossley has personal experience of this. He's negotiating a path forward with the council authorities in the mediaeval village of Vence, about 20km inland from Nice. He's in the preliminary stages of designing a home here that overlooks the striking blue-and-white zigzags on the roof of the Matisse Chapel.

"The clients found me on the net. They wanted a place with that Kiwi sense of open-ness," he explains. While he accepted the commission with relish, he's finding it tough dealing with laws written in what he calls "the mists of time". With no Gallic version of the Resource Management Act, he says, it's difficult to argue your case for modifying the rules.

On the other hand, the French building consent process seems like a veritable doddle. It includes only two site visits - at the beginning and the end of a project. "So what happens if something goes wrong in between?" asks Bossley with some trepidation.

Though the French system is frustrating, the architect has also designed and built a holiday home on Maui in Hawaii. It's a series of interconnected pavilions, open to the elements. Heat and light are controlled by sliding doors, generous roof overhangs and banks of louvre windows. "It took us 18 months to get approval for a naturally ventilated house. Without air-conditioning, the powers-that-be didn't believe it would work."

Bossley Architects is currently also in the initial stages of designing a home in a gated community in Florida. That means another set of particular guidelines and yards of red tape at both State and Federal level to work through. "The building rules in the US are draconian - we are blue sky in comparison," he says.

The upshot is, though overseas jobs may sound romantic and glamorous in reality, they're "bloody hard work", says Bossley.

While his French adventure has the added challenge of collaborating with an Italian architect who speaks no English; architects Jeff Fearon and Tim Hay have discovered a common language with the geo-technical engineer they're consulting in San Francisco.

The job came to them as a follow-on project from their award-winning Tribeca apartment, a conversion of an industrial loft in this super-chic district of New York. This time they're building a family house on a San Fran hillside. The site is steep. "I asked the engineer, 'what happens when you dig here?"' says Fearon. The answer was pretty much the same, seismically, as excavating a vertiginous face in New Zealand.

"Sometimes it's very big world, small world stuff," says Hay, whose company has just been shortlisted three times in the current World Architecture Awards.

Securing the business to design houses overseas is a long-winded, usually circuitous process. You need to be seen - and then be seen to be needed. That's why many of our country's leading architects enter houses in international awards programmes.

One emerging platform for public scrutiny on a mass scale is the World Architecture Festival. Now in its fifth year, it's billed as the event where "architects fall in love with architecture all over again".

Hay: "It's an opportunity to present your work and have face-to-face dialogue with the judges. The competition is not hierarchical - you don't have to be a big name to win - so we never feel like the dark horse."

On the contrary, it seems, WAF judges tend to take social and cultural factors into account. "They're almost anti-glamour," says Fearon.

Though the firm has had two houses shortlisted in the WAF - in 2008 and 2009 - they're not the only New Zealand firms to have competed and triumphed.

In 2011, Richard Naish's own home in Grey Lynn was shortlisted in the residential category. It's easy to see the irony in this. It was the very same house, with its filigree panels and weatherboard-style cladding, that caused such a furore in the local press. To some, its modern take on the villa did not respect the heritage of the area.

"Someone called it 'a vile blot on the landscape'," recalls Naish. He's adamant its design was not meant to be antagonistic. "Sometimes you need to take your architectural work outside your own culture and present it to another in order to get an unbiased evaluation."

His firm, RTA Studio, has been shortlisted at WAF three years in succession and Naish believes these accolades are partly due to New Zealand architecture finally being brave enough to develop its own style. "I think we're going nowhere if all we do is duplicate brick-and-tile bungalows or replicate villas."

He's excited, too, by the opportunity we have to be an exemplar nation when it comes to the arena of sustainable design.

Again ironically, it is China that is a market leader in this respect. This is from necessity, not luxury. Says Naish: "They simply don't have enough power to turn on every lightbulb in the country, so are developing photovoltaic technology to generate electricity and doing everything under the sun to reduce demand on conventional power."

A house that is respectful of its impact on our natural resources and so is constructed to live in a light footprint is Ken Crosson's "hut on sleds". This modest 40sq m bach on the Coromandel Peninsula can be shifted around its beach-front section or even, if need be, removed. "Since it is in the coastal erosion zone, it had to be 'demountable' so it could be dragged up to higher ground or even on to a barge," says Crosson.

It is a tiny but exquisitely functional box where the cladding, flooring, joinery and kitchen cabinetry are built of sustainable macrocarpa.

"Timber has the lowest embodied energy, whereas products such as aluminium burn up an enormous amount of resources to make," Crosson says.

The design has already won official acclaim here. It was a finalist in Home New Zealand magazine's Home of the Year but Crosson also entered it into the 2012 awards line-up of the British-based Architectural Review - a publication that has a 114-year history of promoting cutting-edge global design. The hut on sleds earned a commendation, the judges calling it an "impressive and commendable project".

"It's great to benchmark yourself against the world and New Zealand's residential architecture is up there on the stage because we have some incredibly talented designers, teamed with wonderful landscapes and a clientele that is quite courageous." Crosson believes this is part of being a young country. Our domestic architecture punches above its weight because it's a product of more-relaxed New World thinking. This attitude gives architects the scope to exploit their ideas.

Crosson has a strong belief in pushing boundaries: "Clients get the biggest kick when we challenge them."

Though local patrons are encouraged to be adventurous, those who live in another country and choose a New Zealand-based designer must be seriously impressed with an architect's CV.

In just over a decade, Fearon Hay Architects has grown from a two-man band into a medium-sized practice that has projects right through Australia, a couple on the go in the United States and one in Croatia. "We love to work overseas. We just need to develop strategies to make it happen," says Hay.

Naturally, these include the use of email and Skype, a focus on nurturing good offshore relationships and, unavoidably, regular travel. "And just when you think you've eliminated the hurdles, you've still got quite a few to go," quips Fearon.

Then Mother Nature also sometimes has her say. Last year, a home they designed on a section near the Brisbane river was subject to some serious damage by flooding part-way through the build. "It's a series of concrete platforms and overhanging roofs that fall down the hillside amid a leafy canopy of massive trees," says Fearon.

Setbacks aside, the firm is keen to work more overseas for the variety and challenge this brings. In the early 2000s, Wallpaper magazine catapulted the pair into the limelight by including them in a list of emerging architects.

"Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics rang us after that. He wanted us to build him a house in the Bahamas. It never eventuated but it was good to get the phone call," laughs Fearon.

As such, they were one of the first to realise the value of appearing in design books and magazines. The Brisbane client, for example, came across Fearon Hay after seeing two of their houses (one on Great Barrier, the other at Rawhiti) featured in the glossy design book Pacific Modern, by Raul Barreneche. The consensus among those who do make the foray abroad is that it's fantastic for New Zealand architecture to be such an integral part of the global mix.

"We do it because by putting our work out there, we are sharing it," says Fearon.

Bossley, too, has found publication is the way to attract long-distance interest but admits, "It's a big call to deal with someone on the other side of the planet."

His design response to that call encapsulates both seriousness and joy. "If people come to you, I consider it our job to lift their spirits."

- NZ Herald

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