12 Questions: Ken Crosson

Ken Crosson is an Auckland architect at Crosson, Clarke, Carnachan who last week won the best small house category at the Architizer Awards in New York. The father of two grew up on a farm near Methven in the shadow of the Southern Alps.

Architect Ken Crosson says his work has been influenced by landscapes of his childhood.
Architect Ken Crosson says his work has been influenced by landscapes of his childhood.

1. Describe your childhood home.

It was a 1920s Canterbury farmhouse made out of timber milled on the farm with a big roof, high gables and we always imagined living in the roof space. I was the second of five boys - no sisters. My father calls himself a specialist. It was on an interesting part of the plains that house. It's the hinge between the plains and the Southern Alps, a very manipulated landscape which was all about roads and water races, power lines, a landscape determined by people but then the ruggedness of the Southern Alps around us which is the majesty of nature. We were always deferring to nature. I think my architecture reflects a lot of that landscape.

2. Did you want to be a farmer?

I was always going to be a farmer but it's a hard life. I think we boys were really just labour units at the end of the day, ha! Don't put that because Dad will read this. But none of us stayed on the farm. Mum and Dad always gave us the freedom to explore different things.

One brother's in the police, one's a counsellor, my brother is the Arch-Deacon of Dunedin and another's at Auckland University. We're all quite diverse. Yeah, the farm's gone now. Dad had a heart attack and he had to sell it.

3. Were you isolated as a family?

Not at all. Mum and Dad were very active in the community. Some of my fondest early memories are of [Presbyterian] Sunday School and the kids would be inside and the farmers would gather outside around the oak tree just talking for an hour. The mums were at home, putting on the roast I expect. With five boys my lovely mum seemed to spend so much time cooking for us. And washing - footy shirts, school shirts, farm clothes. It was a very rich and loving childhood.

4. How did you discover architecture?

I don't think I even knew what it was. At Methven High School you could take a languages course or a science course and that was it. Because I was going to be a farmer I took science. So I didn't have any appreciation of art or art history. I liked building stuff and was always drawing plans but they were very mechanical. We went to a careers day in Christchurch and I saw [Sir] Miles Warren's beautiful watercolours in the town hall and it was warm and lush and beautiful. I can remember the timber in it. Just beautiful. And that was it.

5. Is beauty important?

I fundamentally believe it is. I think it's really important that everyone is exposed to good design, not only buildings that are warm and clean and dry but beautiful. It enriches us. Bruce Springsteen says music is one of those things where you can transcend the here and now. That's audible beauty but there's also visual and spiritual.

6. Do you cringe at some of your earlier house designs?

Oh yes. I don't want to go there because you evolve if you've been doing this for a long time. The 80s was not a great time for architecture and that's when I came out. There are a few in the top drawer that I'm not that proud of. The 80s was the decade when modernism had failed us and we reverted to classicism but it was pastiche and so shallow. It was stylism for the sake of it.

7. What do you mean modernism had failed us?

We don't live that absolute minimalist, reduced way. That's not life. It's certainly not life where I grew up with five kids in a house. You can't have that clean modernism with books and toys lying around on the floor. I think we've got it about right in our houses now.

8. Your winning small house is just 40m square: is that a statement about the excess in our homes?

It was really a response to the site in a coastal erosion zone and the brief from our clients, but it was also about the discipline of how small could we make it and it still worked for a family of five. I grew up in a 1920s home with an outside toilet and one bathroom for seven people. Then post-war houses had one garage, then later it was two garages, two bathrooms, then three bathrooms and two living areas and the question is why? New Zealand houses are twice the size of the average house in the UK because they build tighter and more efficiently.

9. Your children will have grown up in a house and lifestyle very different to yours: is that a worry?

It's a real worry. You need to teach them the value of money. We built a little holiday house - 130sq m - in Coromandel. My kids were 9 or 10 and Ponsonby kids and they were geared to that cafe-type life, so we wanted a place connected to nature. There is no TV, no computers. They thought their arms were cut off, well, not quite, but they learned to play in the bush and that there was another world.

10. What's the ugliest part of Auckland?

I'd rather talk about the up and coming . . . from Westhaven to Wynyard Quarter and around to Britomart, there is a sense of optimism now. Botany Downs? I've never been to Botany Downs. Why would I go?

11. Should the Auckland Council building be torn down?

No. That's a great building. If you're talking about sustainability that's it - we should be retrofitting and reusing. That gives you richness in the city. We lost so many good buildings in the 80s because we worshipped progress.
We should definitely not be pulling the council building down. A lot of the debates we get in this city are disappointingly low level and that's one of them.

12. What else makes you angry?

The public transport issue is a really poorly debated one. There's no doubt that any successful city with successful communities has to have a great public transport system. Build it and people will come, yet nothing for the City Rail Link in this year's Budget.

Yes, I did drive to work today because I have a meeting out of the city. But I have got a Vespa.

- NZ Herald

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