Inside the home of Grand Designs NZ host Chris Moller

By Greg Bruce

He’s an architect, a designer, an urbanist and a philosopher. Greg Bruce meets the multi-talented Chris Moller.
Chris Moller is an architect, a designer, an urbanist and a philosopher. Photo / Anna Briggs
Chris Moller is an architect, a designer, an urbanist and a philosopher. Photo / Anna Briggs

Chris Moller gestured towards the uninspiring ground floor space under Cuba St's fairly unimpressive-looking Quality Hotel, housing the prosaic-looking CQ Cafe, and said: "This is pretty intense what I'm giving you!" It was surely a claim that no ordinary person would have made about this place. "The cafe is in the street; the street is in the building!" he went on. "Is this a building or is this a street?"

The question was framed as - and possibly was - a philosophical puzzle, but there was no time to either work out the answer or even to really understand the question, because by the time he had asked it, he was off.

Moller, the host of Grand Designs New Zealand, which next weekend will start its second season on TV3, was leading me on a short, entertaining, tour of the landmark Wellington street, demonstrating how a modern city can work and how passionate he is about this place in particular and about cities in general.

"We're not done yet," he said, walking quickly. "We're just warming up! Come through." We walked through the cafe, or the street or the building, or - who knows? - the very fabric of space-time itself. We ended up in what looked like a back alley. But is a back alley really a back alley? It would have been crazy to try to think. It was hard enough just to keep up.

"Is this a building or a street?" he asked again. "What are you?" Was he asking the building? I couldn't be sure. "Are you a building? Are you a house? Are you a business? It's a question. There's no definitive singular answer."

We were through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, deep in Moller's mind, and we were far from done.

We are only one series of Grand Designs New Zealand - eight episodes - into the televisual life of Moller and have, therefore, yet to find out very much about him except that he's done a surprisingly good job of fronting the local version of a British show famous, in large part, because of its host.

That host, Kevin McCloud, is warm and thoughtful, has a big personality, is able to elegantly deconstruct complex concepts in compelling pieces to camera, is skilled at putting people at ease while drawing them out, and is hypnotically engaging in a way that would inevitably have made him rich somewhere else if he and Grand Designs had never collided.

A strong argument could be made that McCloud is the defining host of our times - a relaxed Stephen Fry, an intelligent Jeremy Clarkson - a lot to live up to.

Moller says that McCloud warned him that he would be "swamped by middle-aged housewives" when he started hosting Grand Designs New Zealand, but he says what has actually happened is he's had lots of women going, "My husband loves your show" - and most of those husbands are tradies. That "touches my heart", he says. In the couple of hours we spent together on the streets of Wellington, no one seemed to recognise him.

A really good house is something that empowers you as an individual or as a family, as a bunch of people, to live in a certain way.
Chris Moller

He's an attractive man. His eyes are melty. They could destroy you. The intensity of his face is offset by his warm and thoughtful nature, and his hair is like a single, magnificent, flying buttress.

Unlike McCloud, Moller is a proper architect, a renowned architect, even an internationally renowned architect. For 20 years, he worked in Europe, where he founded his own practice S333. One of his company's projects appeared in the best-selling Alain de Botton book, The Architecture of Happiness, and McCloud himself says he has been a long-time admirer of his work since visiting one of Moller's housing schemes in Holland, before Grand Designs made either of them well-known.

"It was inspirational," McCloud says. "The thoughtful layout, the blind tenure (you don't know who's renting, who's owning, how big the houses are even) and the implicit belief in the scheme that contemporary architecture can help solve contemporary problems were catalysts for much of the thinking we developed in my housing business, HAB. So I both admire and am very grateful to Chris."

Some of those who work with Moller on Grand Designs remember the greenness of his early appearances on camera, which they generally frame as learning experiences, but they must have been frightening times. They had considered more than 60 local architects, designers and other possible candidates to host the show before they green-lit the untried television talent of Moller.

"He was a bit rough as a presenter," says MediaWorks TV head of commissioning Sue Woodfield of his first attempts, "but he had a really lovely quality about him. He's charming with a gentle, inclusive humour, deeply knowledgeable, passionate about design, but he was able to talk about it on a really accessible level, and enthusiastically."

Series producer Megan Jones says: "We didn't want someone to fill Kevin McCloud's shoes, because they're big boots to fill, so it was trying to find someone to make our own show."

Moller is not just an architect. He's a designer, a maker of things and an urbanist, interested in reshaping and rethinking what it means to live in a place and how we might do it better. He was senior urbanist for the city of Groningen in the Netherlands; he's spent years devising a new way of building that he hopes will allow us new ways of living; he's working on a strategy to revitalise the town of Thames.

At all these things he is accomplished, even world class. On TV, he's still learning, so maybe it's too soon to draw conclusions, but one obvious conclusion is that, as a presenter, he is very different from McCloud.

Moller says his own home is rugged and robust "like an old oilskin or an old bush hat". Photo / Anna Briggs
Moller says his own home is rugged and robust "like an old oilskin or an old bush hat". Photo / Anna Briggs

On Cuba St, Moller commanded me to stop on a busy street corner.

"Look at this!" he said. "Look at this! This is unbelievable! We're in the most successful pedestrian street in Wellington by a long way. You get all sorts of stuff happening here: students skateboarding - all the rest of the road is used for all of that." He paused, then dropped his voice: "This is State Highway One. This," he pointed down the road, "is heading to Auckland; this is heading to the airport. That's literally Highway One, that piece of land there belongs to, uh, what's the name of the government department, the road people? So what I'm seeing is: this is urban weaving. Warp and weft. Even the busiest roads in the whole country are going through, and can co-exist with, the most successful pedestrian streets."

I asked if he would prefer it if SH1 didn't run through the most successful pedestrian street in Wellington.

"No," he said, "I think this is great. This is real, this is 21st century thinking. It's not about - look! look! look!" he urged, interrupting himself as a skateboarder rolled past, "That's totally normal here. It's both/and, not either/or."

Moller is a regular mentioner of Henry David Thoreau, writer of Walden, the famous 19th century American treatise on living simply, which detailed Thoreau's move to a tiny cabin in the woods and general shunning of the world. At one stage, while we stood in the book-heavy, bush-enclosed rusticity of the living and working area of Moller's cliffside home, he opened an elegant volume of Walden and read aloud: "This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallisation around me..." He read on, but that was the gist.

"So there you go," he said, "that is the ultimate house."

Light builds, simple builds, timber builds, cost-effective builds: these are the things that seem to most inspire Moller, which is a little ironic given that Grand Designs often features builds that are complex, heavy, concrete and terrifyingly costly.

"I know," he said. "Tell me about it. I'm trying to educate them slowly and I'm looking for more examples that are using a hell of a lot more with a hell of a lot less."

Right now, in Wellington, such a place is being built. It's a 40sq m house, designed by Moller, and built using a quick, inexpensive building method he has spent 10 years developing. He calls it Click-Raft and it uses timber framing that clicks together, therefore requiring basically no nails or fastenings. He estimates the house will cost $100,000 to build.

Chris Moller's living room. Photo / Anna Briggs
Chris Moller's living room. Photo / Anna Briggs

When I said 40sq m is small, he disagreed with such vehemence that it felt like he might have taken personal offence.

"That's all it needs to be," he said. "Her bedroom is this size, which you can see is way too big." He gestured at the tiny 10sq m Click-Raft shed he had built in his backyard, in which we were standing. I wondered if he was joking. He wasn't.

He said that the house's remaining 30sq m, the size of a double garage, would contain the living area, kitchen, dining, laundry and bathroom.

"But still ... " I said.

"The other thing we should do," he went on, "as we live in more and more compact ways like the Europeans do, is use the city and the city spaces more - like the piazzas, all those dimensions that are in public space, are your real living room ... that way you don't need so much space."

It seems factually accurate to say 40sq m is small, but sometimes what we think of as facts are just unchallenged assumptions.

When he talks about housing, Moller talks not so much about buildings as he talks about life. When you ask him what a perfect house is, he answers by telling you that "house" is a verb, not a noun.

His own place couldn't fairly be described as beautiful or grand. It's more rugged, robust. Like "an old oilskin or an old bush hat", he says. It conveys a feeling and facilitates a certain type of life - coastal, bushclad, damp, remote from - but still connected to - the city. It's made of rough-sawn, stained cedar which he says needs to be coated only once every 10 years, despite the damp site on which it sits and the southerlies that sometimes seem to smash it without cease.

The view from Moller's Wellington home. Photo / Anna Briggs
The view from Moller's Wellington home. Photo / Anna Briggs

"A really good house," he says, "is something that empowers you as an individual or as a family, as a bunch of people, to live in a certain way. Say you lost your job, it empowers you to be able to make ends meet, maybe to retrain, to do all of that on the smell of an oily rag. A house should help you to get well, it should be looking after your health and wellbeing, and it should make you feel really good in the morning."

They asked him to host Grand Designs three times before he finally said yes.

On the fourth request, he says, "I kind of got it. I realised it's a really important platform to help Kiwis understand more deeply the importance of good design, of architecture, of our built environment, how crucial that is."

In his quest to illustrate to me the hidden depths and meanings of the built environment of Cuba St, the city of Wellington, the nature of architecture and by extension, the human condition, Moller took me to a place with a big sign out front saying: "Proudly Serving ... RAGLAN ROAST COFFEE".

"Tell him where you're from," he ordered the two young men and a woman gathered around the street-front counter.

"Raglan," one of the guys said.

"How did you guys end up here?" he asked them.

"I don't know," one of them said.

"Just opened up a shop here," the other said.

This exchange, and this place, clearly filled Moller with joy. "Just what the hell!" he said, turning to me "Why not?"

He sent me inside: a tiny smirk indicating his delight at what he knew I was about to experience. Squeezing between the tiny counter and the wall, I emerged into a massive warehouse-style area for cafe patrons, filled with old sofas and armchairs, pallets, an odd mixture of art, boxes, and at least one bicycle.

"A lost piece of Raglan hidden in dense urban Wellington!" Moller exclaimed on the way out. "How the hell did that happen?"

I asked him what he liked so much about the cafe.

"The whole attitude of it. It's very different from this," he said, pointing to a place we were just passing, called Ekim Burger, which had been brashly designed to give the appearance of casual indie cool, featuring jury-rigged lighting, light scaffolding, camouflage netting and seats made out of painted 44-gallon drums.

"I think this is awesome," he said, "but it's more self-conscious. The guys at Raglan are just being Raglan. That's what they do. They're just being themselves."

We carried on down Cuba St, Moller's fantastic, half-crazed, stream-of-consciousness narration accompanying us every step of the way.

The further we went, the more apparent it became that, whatever talents he has as an architect and urbanist, this is a man who belongs on TV.

- Canvas

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