Coolangatta: A Homage by Peter Macky with Paul Waite, photography by Sait Akkirman
Livadia Publishers, $65

A beautiful 1913 example of Arts and Crafts architecture was reduced to rubble in just 18 minutes on a December morning in 2006. Why was it allowed? This is the overriding question of Coolangatta.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the series of photos showing the violence a pair of "bright orange 20-tonne Hitachi Zaxis excavator machines" can so quickly inflict on a house, speak of many things: wanton destruction, greed, waste and the sickening splintering when steel jaws meet timber.

Also shocking is the absence of any attempt at salvage. Nikau Contractors, which demolished the home called Coolangatta at 464 Remuera Rd so efficiently, had been instructed not to save anything. "Among the rubble were household effects, furnishings and family records." No effort was made to recover the building's materials - kauri, matai, and jarrah timbers, matched lining, rimu doors, heart totara sashes and casement windows, blue Welsh Countess slates and purpose-made brass hinges.

Author Peter Macky's maternal great grandparents built Coolangatta. His grandmother and mother lived there during World War II. Macky, a lawyer and historian, spent his childhood nearby. The house "designed by architects of some genius" and "beautifully maintained with its striking use of white-painted brickwork" made a huge impression.

Determined to make sense of the savagery, Macky begins a meticulous labour of love - resulting in a book of beautiful photos and architectural drawings plus a history of the two owners of Coolangatta over its 94-year existence. At times dry in family tree detail, Macky nevertheless makes fascinating connections - from the burning of the Boyd in Whangaroa Harbour in 1809 to the invention of the "continuous fermentation process" used by Dominion Breweries. The former ties to the first owners, Jessie and Alfred Foster. The latter to Morton and Margaret Coutts (originally Kuhtze) who bought the home in 1954 for £15,000. The stories may seem like an interruption, but as Macky shows, the lives lived in a place provide the real fabric of heritage concerns.

Macky also spends considerable time on Arts and Crafts architecture and its proponents in Auckland - in particular Coolangatta's architects, Noel Bamford and Hector Pierce, who studied under Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. The result is a somewhat tedious list of who built what, when. But it's saved by superb photography of the buildings and the comprehensive record serves a higher purpose - a schedule of what heritage we ought to be protecting.

It's hard to be critical of Coolangatta, so rich is its written and photographic research, but the case for the Arts and Crafts movement might have been better argued. The movement originated in England and had its heyday between 1880 and 1910. Instigated by the artist and writer William Morris and inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, its roots were in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It raged against the machine - or rather the styles that had developed out of machine-production - in search of "authentic" design and decoration. Arts and Crafts believed a healthy society depended on skilled and creative craftsmen. Its architecture was about deep porches, steep roofs, asymmetrical composition, window arches, brick inglenooks and wooden fittings. It liked honest textures and ordinary materials, stone and tiles. You see all this in Coolangatta, but you don't get much about the theory.

Coolangatta's climax is an analysis of the Auckland City Council politics that allowed the travesty to occur. Macky's deconstruction of the machinations of both councillors and bureaucrats is devastating - a must-read for any who believe heritage is an important issue in the SuperCity elections. The hall of shame of those opposing heritage protection for Coolangatta (the vote was 11 to 6) has some surprises: Bruce Hucker, Doug Armstrong, Cathy Casey, John Hinchcliff, Linda Leighton, Toni Millar, Scott Milne, Richard Northey, Nolene Raffils, Penny Sefuiva and Vern Walsh.

Another key figure is David Boswell, Margaret Coutts' solicitor and son-in-law who applied for the demolition permit and acted so swiftly to see it through. Ultimately, of course, it was the owner Margaret Coutts' decision. But as Macky clearly shows, options that could have provided a solution to address both property rights and heritage protection concerns were never explored.

Could it happen again? Sadly, given the lack of robust heritage protection in Auckland, and the way money talks, the answer is yes, far too easily. But in its breadth of endeavour Coolangatta gives hope that a public dialogue about heritage may have begun. As Ruskin says in his book Seven Lamps of Architecture: "The greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity."

Chris Barton is a Herald features writer.