Home sweet home

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Architects spend their working lives designing for the desires of their clients. A new book by John Walsh looks at what happens when they can please themselves. Rebecca Barry talks to the author. Pictures by Patrick Reynolds.

Neville Price's Bay of Islands home. Photo / Patrick Reynolds
Neville Price's Bay of Islands home. Photo / Patrick Reynolds

Where do architects sleep? If you're Tony Watkins, anywhere you feel like it. There are mattresses in various parts of his house, including one in an A-framed space that, theoretically, could be moved anywhere to create a new bedroom. As if to redefine "indoor-outdoor flow", Watkins' rebellious Glendowie home has trees growing through it, the idea that it's counter-intuitive to shelter from nature, the very thing that gives us life. With no doors, you'd want to be careful getting changed.

"Tony is much more comfortable with a lack of order and some chaos than many people," says John Walsh, the author of new book Home Work: Leading New Zealand Architects' Own Houses.

"That house is an expression of him. He's not worried about heating and comfort in the way some people would be. What is indoors and what is outdoors is a moot point. You have to be quite hardy and tough to live in that house and he's a pretty hardy character. He's quite happy with the fact that the house may one day not exist, that the site may revert."

With stunning, multi-perspective photographs by Patrick Reynolds, Home Work opens a bespoke door to New Zealand's self-created oases, some a response to practical needs and the wishes of their families, others serving as awe-inspiring reminders of our own unadventurous walls.

Not all of Walsh's subjects have such unorthodox design values. At the other end of the spectrum is business-savvy Sky Tower designer Gordon Moller, who lives at the Point Apartments on the Viaduct Harbour, and well-travelled "starchitect" Neville Price, whose sleek West Plaza high-rise is eons away from his Santa Barbara-influenced Bay of Islands home.

Perhaps because life continually changes and nothing ever reaches perfection, many architects' houses remain unfinished. Megan Rule talks about the construction of her concrete Mt Eden home as an evolutionary process. Ginny Pedlow and Gary Hunt's Westmere property has continually responded to the ephemeral nature of family life, reinforcing every architect's conundrum of whether to design for the present or the future. Over the course of 40 years, Ian Athfield's Khandallah home has continued to expand on the hilltop like a sprawling space camp, despite the architect's near-death experience a decade ago when he accidentally impaled himself on a reinforcing rod.

"Athfield's complex is amazing," says Walsh. "It's like a village. There are people working and living there. You open a door and there's people drawing, you open another door and there's people having lunch. There are stairways going down through it. The centre of the house has moved around over the years so it's easy to get lost."

Walsh was driven to write the book after he and Reynolds collaborated on New New Zealand Houses, a book about contemporary residential architecture, and discovered that the most interesting homes were those architects had designed for themselves. Home Work, while not a definitive collection of architects' own homes, portrays a diversity of skill and character, ranging from "woolly-socks" environmentalists such as Watkins to mavericks like Wellington architect Gerald Melling and more conventional practitioners such as Kerry Mason. He'd likely have a hard time living nomad-style in Watkins' home, as his Sumner house is a picture of chic restraint.

"His house is not at all weird or wacky in the way that some of them might be," says Walsh, "but it's very well done."

"Frozen music" is how Goethe defined architecture - so what kinds of songs do architects sing? Walsh embarked on insightful, sometimes discursive, and at times, challenging interviews with 23 of the country's top architects to find out what drives them. Athfield's eyrie acts as a show home (not that anyone has pointed to it and said, 'I'll have one of those', notes Walsh), whereas others wanted sanctuary.

"These houses are allowed to be an expression of the architects," says Walsh, who is editor of Architecture NZ magazine. "When you get a brief from a client there's all these things you can and can't do and you're collaborating on someone else's vision. But with [architects] there's a shortcut to themselves. And there are no real excuses with their own house. There are all sorts of reasons why things don't get finished or work out well but they can't say 'the client made me do it' or not, it's them and their spouse and their families. So it is a built expression of their individuality, of what they think is important. Not just in a building but in how they live."

Many of the houses in the book are startling beacons of non-conformity. David Mitchell and Julie Stout's ultra-modern, angular abode has no doubt polarised their Narrow Neck and Devonport neighbours. Then there's Fritz Eisenhofer's playful dome house, built into the sand dunes on the Kapiti Coast. The Austrian architect followed his fascination with earth shelters and created what now looks like a kitsch enclosure for an alien headquarters.

"Eisenhofer's house is an amazing building, this 60s delight with this dome ceiling above you, retro furniture, and you're in a sand dune, so it's a very surprising experience because it hasn't been done before. It's slightly hippie-dippie."

Because the houses in the book span the generations, some have featured in magazines before, Eisenhofer's included. Then there are two celebrated examples of urban living: Patrick Clifford's bush-clad Remuera home and Marshall Cook's private Freeman's Bay townhouse, which maintains its privacy without barricading the neighbours out. Walsh says he wasn't concerned about covering familiar ground because he would have asked different questions. Indeed, after the author's commentary on each house are interviews allowing the architects to express their ideas in their own words, giving a feel for their personalities.

Michael O'Sullivan, who has built his family home in Mangere Bridge, says in the book that architects require "stoic" temperaments, a trait often interpreted as belligerence.

Walsh agrees. "They get a lot of knockbacks, designs that never go ahead. A lot of people come and see them, tyre-kickers, then it goes a certain way before they pull out, or they might go a long way and then run out of money. So I think they're used to dealing with obstacles. Even if projects go ahead, there's all the council stuff, legal objections. There are always things in the back of their minds that this might not go ahead but you've got to do it anyway. All this work, and nothing might emerge at the end of it. Which I think does require perserverance."

For the few who make it through architecture school, the job becomes a vocation. Walsh points to the likes of Peter Beavan and Bill Toomath, both in their 80s, whose work emerged after the end of World War II, an optimistic era in which the belief was that society could be made new and better. Walsh says architects are generally worldly people who travel regularly and keep an eye on global trends. They also have to mix with people from many different areas, often encountering resistance from neighbours, councils, and the other endless rigmaroles of building. Their days are not just spent dreaming and drawing but mollifying clients, builders, engineers, artists "and all sorts of people trying to get something done".

Regardless of these physical advertisements for their work, New Zealanders tend to be suspicious of architects. With our frugal DIY sensibilities, they are often viewed as a step up the cultural food chain few of us dare tread, for fear they will waste our money. Add to that a homogenous landscape of villas, the leaky building fiasco and the expense and red tape involved in bucking convention and it's no wonder so few of us decide to build with the help of an architect. Those who do would still be at the mercy of Watkins' discerning eye.

"So many architects are caught up in a materialistic world," he says in the book, "without the values of love or beauty or surprise or delight."

Photographer Patrick Reynolds, who comes from a family of architects, captures the houses in their best light - and shadow - to show how they operate, treating them not just as staid objects but moveable pieces of art that interact with their owners. Anyone looking to design a home will likely get an idea as to who they could imagine working with. While many of the houses answer a host of complex design questions, the best designs advocate that age-old maxim: less is more.

"Simplicity is quite hard to achieve," says Walsh. "To have no excess, no clumsiness, to keep things refined, takes time. A lot of good houses take time."

Home Work: Leading New Zealand Architects' Own Homes, by John Walsh & Patrick Reynolds (Random House, $75) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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