Architects On The New Zealand Houses That Changed Their Lives

By Johanna Thornton
The Stoneways House, designed by William Gummer, in Epsom. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Johanna Thornton asks local architects about exemplary houses they didn’t design, but maybe wish they did.

Is there a house that changed you? A house from your past or present so profound it set your life or career on a certain trajectory? I put this question to New Zealand architects,

Architecture has the power to elevate the everyday. How a house can capture the sun, circulate the air, frame the view and encourage people to gather; these seemingly simple propositions require skill to execute, and the houses in this story, and the architects who chose them, do all those things and so much more.

For Jane Aimer of Scarlett Architects, William Gummer’s celebration of transitional spaces like verandas, courtyards and loggias in his 1920s Stoneways House, discovered when she was a teenager, has been a “revelation” that sparked an ongoing exploration of “in-between spaces” in her own practice.

For Lisa Webb of Studio LWA, walking through the doors of Ron Sang’s Remuera home as a child changed what she knew was possible and opened up a world of “extraordinary” architecture.

For Richard Naish of RTA Studio, a 1950s home by John Scott visited on a whim later in his career was a powerful reminder that vast budgets and coveted materials aren’t prerequisites for great houses.

Read on for more houses that have inspired architects’ imaginations, and reinforced the possibility of a life less ordinary.

John Scott's Martin House in Hastings, designed in 1971. Photo / David Straight
John Scott's Martin House in Hastings, designed in 1971. Photo / David Straight

Richard Naish of RTA Studio selects the Martin House by John Scott

Richard Naish is the executive director and founder of award-winning RTA Studio, which specialises in public, commercial, urban and residential design.

Location: Bridge Pā, Hastings, Hawke’s Bay

Designed in: 1971

The Martin House by John Scott is in Hawke’s Bay on the flat plains west of Hastings in Bridge Pā. The house is set back from the road on a large piece of land with a few established trees. It was commissioned by Bruce and Estelle Martin and their three children. They were potters. They lived in it all their lives. The house is a cluster of mono-pitched concrete block pods connected by flat roof links. Some point east and some point west. It is actually two clusters, one houses the living spaces and the primary bedroom and the other, the kids’ bedrooms with a common room and bathroom.

I only discovered this house about six or seven years ago. I was aware of John Scott’s churches and had seen one of his houses. I was in Havelock North for work and had several hours to kill before my flight home to Auckland, so I googled John Scott buildings. I first visited a roughcast church in Hastings and then realised the Martin House was not far away. I drove to the Google location and couldn’t see anything from the road. I noticed a sign on the letterbox saying “studio open by appointment only”, with a phone number. I rang the number and an elderly voice (Bruce) answered. I asked if I could visit the studio and he said, “Sure, what time”? I said, “Well I’m standing by your letterbox”. He said, “Come on up the driveway”. I visited the studio located in what used to be the children’s common room, accessible directly from the garden. Bruce was such a gentleman, we talked, and I discovered his great love for architecture, and he generously guided me on a tour of the house. Of course, I purchased a beautiful pot upon my departure.

There are so many things I love about this house. Its vernacular reference to a cluster of buildings in its rural landscape, its simplicity of material palette : concrete block, terracotta and wood, its distributed plan and arrangement of the family programme within. But mostly its control of space and light when you are within. Each cluster has partly a flat roof and a steeply sloping roof. So, when you move from under the almost uncomfortably low, flat ceiling to the generous volume, there is this palpable release that lifts your attention to the volume of space and light and the sky you can see through the window and conversely, a lovely containment as you enter the lower spaces. It seems to hold you within but release you to nature at the same time. The careful curation of each pod according to its use is masterfully handled by the use of materials, orientation, window placement and other deft moves.

Since visiting, it has remained in my mind as an exemplar that uses simple, careful, sensitive, and modest moves assembled to make a powerful residential architecture. It is a reminder that vast budgets and coveted materials do not necessarily make great houses. As an architect, if willing, there are always lessons to be learned from masters that can lift our own work.

Mountain Retreat by Fearon Hay Architects, designed in 2008. Photo / Patrick Reynolds
Mountain Retreat by Fearon Hay Architects, designed in 2008. Photo / Patrick Reynolds

Thomas Seear-Budd from Seear-Budd Ross selects Fearon Hay’s Mountain Retreat

Wellington-based Thomas Seear-Budd established Seear-Budd Ross with James Ross in 2019, a design-focused architecture and interiors studio spanning residential, hospitality, retail, and furniture design

Location: Overlooking Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

Designed in: 2008

Mountain Retreat is a relatively small structure, around 100sq m, embedded into a rocky outcrop with views through the trees towards the lake and mountains beyond. It is a simple structure anchored to its site as the form and heavy massing sinks into the land. Heavily rendered local stone engages with the natural tones and textures of the landscape, making the structure difficult to time stamp.

It is quiet, restrained and withdrawn, mirroring the way in which its occupants might use the space — as a retreat and place to rest. The atmosphere is dim and moody, with raw concrete, grey timbers, and dark fabrics. The interior spaces offer protection and warmth, while the extensive glazing draws the landscape inside, creating a perfect place to enjoy those wintery Central Otago days.

I am particularly drawn to Mountain Retreat’s simplicity, strength and connection to place. The exterior form is purposeful and sympathetic to its surroundings, and the interiors are restrained and calming, allowing the landscape to draw focus. I also really enjoy the tonal consistencies across various materials and textures. These materials and textures help the interior feel cohesive, where all surfaces of the space are unified. The cave-like interior and selective comforts make it a primal space, often the opposite of homes with busy lives in populated cities.

Distilling projects to their essence with calming atmospheres is a foundational notion for Seear-Budd Ross. We also often use Mountain Retreat as an example of refined selections that speak to the place while celebrating local craft and materiality. As a space, it’s somewhere both James [Ross] and I would enjoy spending time. We do see architecture as an opportunity for refuge and reflection and these notions are taken through all of our projects.

58 Hapua Street, Remuera, designed by renowned architect and art collector Ron Sang in 1973. Photo / Wall Real Estate, Webb's Auctions, 2021
58 Hapua Street, Remuera, designed by renowned architect and art collector Ron Sang in 1973. Photo / Wall Real Estate, Webb's Auctions, 2021

Lisa Webb of Studio/LWA selects Ron Sang’s Remuera House

Lisa Webb is an architect and director of award-winning Studio/LWA specialising in residential architecture.

Location: Hapua Street, Remuera, Auckland

Designed in: 1973

When I was young, around 7 or 8, my parents took my sister and me to dinner at their architect’s house in Hapua Street, Remuera.

Their architect was Ron Sang. We sat in the sunken lounge, all shag pile carpet and roaring fire, eating exotic snacks like wontons, and spicy peas before dinner. It took me years to wrap my head around the dried peas. Not like the frozen ones I knew. Which pretty much sums up the whole experience.

The house was like nothing I knew before. Up until then, all the houses I knew were the same, or the same enough. Walking through Ron and Margret’s oversized front door was like when a movie goes from black and white to colour. The environment was overwhelming — a sensory experience, as well as a visual one. The house was layered with texture, dancing with light, and the spaces all felt different — some intimate, some open, all crammed with artworks and so many ceramics. So much to look at, all overwhelming and just so interesting.

The house had a profound effect on me, it changed what I knew was possible. When I grew up, I wanted to live in a world like theirs. I wanted interesting, not boring.

Architects do a lot of things, but for me, it all comes down to this idea that the world you live in doesn’t have to be average. Stepping through that front door is the transformation at the heart of each project I do.

Who wants ordinary when you can have extraordinary?

With thanks, as always, to Ron and Margret.

William Gummer's Stoneways House in Epsom, designed in the 1920s. Photo / Ted Baghurst
William Gummer's Stoneways House in Epsom, designed in the 1920s. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Jane Aimer of Scarlet Architects selects William Gummer’s Stoneways House

Jane Aimer is an architect and director of Auckland-based Scarlet Architects, established in 2000 with Lindley Naismith and later Mike Dowsett. Scarlet Architects specialises in new houses and renovations.

Location: Mountain Road, Epsom, Auckland

Designed in: Late 1920s

In the year before I started architecture school, my family moved to a house built in what was once the terraced and extensively treed rear garden of Stoneways, opposite Auckland Grammar on Mountain Road, Epsom.

Stoneways was a house designed in the late 1920s by well-known architect William Gummer as his family home, and to my untrained eye seemed extraordinarily exotic. It looked as though it had been beamed in from the Hollywood Hills or some Moorish-influenced area of Spain. With its painted shutters, lattice infill panels, balconies and terraces, it looked very foreign.

This aura of glamour was only strengthened by the character of the then-owner, the marvellous, and to me quite eccentric, Hope Delahunty, who with her rather risque stories about supplying flowers to the rich and famous, and her fabulous parties, seemed the antithesis of my own rather more conservative parents.

I later learned that Gummer had been influenced by the modern classicism of Edwin Lutyens for whom he had worked in London, and that the design of the house was more considered and formally composed than I had realised. Unusually for the time, Stoneways has a reinforced concrete frame with a double cavity plastered brick exterior. Gummer was certainly better known for his commercial buildings such as the Dilworth Building on Queen Street, and the Auckland Railway Station so perhaps this influenced his construction decisions.

The plan consists of two oblique wings fanning out from a centrally placed entrance hall and portico, with an elegant, well-proportioned living room opening to the north. But the real show stopper for me was the beautiful loggia accessed from the living room, effortlessly occupying the space between the formal interior and the landscaped garden. This was filled with Hope’s plants and cane furniture and to my adolescent gaze seemed the height of sophistication. I was more used to houses where you were either inside or outside on the back lawn, with little acknowledgement of the delight of a transitional space, so this was a revelation.

In the subsequent 50 years of designing houses I have explored this idea of the critical relationship between house and garden and it seems more relevant than ever as we learn to live with more extreme climate conditions. I have no doubt that my ongoing interest in these in-between spaces — courtyards, verandahs, loggias — has been influenced by my delight in Gummer’s house and the supreme indulgence of a space unlabelled by a function, bridging the divide between inside and out.

Rewi Thompson’s Kohimarama house, designed in 1988. Photo / David Straight
Rewi Thompson’s Kohimarama house, designed in 1988. Photo / David Straight

Jun Tsujimoto of Jasmax selects the Thompson House by Rewi Thompson

Jun Tsujimoto is a principal architect at Jasmax, where his work spans boutique retail fit-outs, residential, tertiary education, civic buildings and urban infrastructure.

Location: Kohimarama, Tāmaki Makaurau, on a very tight site with a steep, east-facing slope.

Designed: 1988

One of my favourite homes is the Thompson House designed by the late Rewi Thompson for his family. Rewi is remembered as a leading architect in Aotearoa and an internationally renowned indigenous architect.

The Thompson House sits confidently to the street and is a bold, monolithic form that nestles into a steep sloping bushy site. Its stepped sculptural form is clad in plywood and cantilevers over a masonry base. At first glance, the house appears to have no windows, but as you get closer you realise that the architect has carefully composed a series of windows and skylights on the sides of the building. The composition of these openings offers a sense of privacy for the residents while allowing light to fall into the interior. To the rear, the Thompson House opens out to dense bush, creating a private world that embraces its natural setting. The house has three levels, and cleverly stacks and interconnects spaces that change in proportion as you move upwards.

I first discovered the project while studying at architecture school in 2005 — it’s a very significant project within the architectural history of Aotearoa. Although I had known about the house for a while, I only physically encountered it (from the street) when I returned from practising architecture in Japan in 2016. I have never been inside the house but have thoroughly enjoyed studying the architect’s drawings.

I really enjoy the way Rewi has created a kind of meditation on light. From his drawings, I get the sense of his intention to create a dramatic interplay of light and shadow in the home. I also enjoy the way the spaces are organised vertically, creating a sense of generosity and fun within a tight footprint.

As an approach, I admire the clarity and boldness in the design that also demonstrates a sensitivity to shaping spaces through light. I also admire the way he has turned the constraints of the site into a real opportunity.

For me, it also has parallels with contemporary architecture common in Japan that I naturally gravitate towards. The idea of creating a sense of privacy and protection for a family, that somehow expands out into the natural world through a small courtyard. The clever way that you can make use of a small footprint by creating interesting relationships between spaces, stacking and interconnecting them vertically.

You can see how some of these ideas have inspired the Wellington flagship store that Jasmax designed for the Aotearoa fashion brand Stolen Girlfriends Club. We created a shop that has a solid monolithic front protecting the shop’s interior from the busy street traffic. There are a series of vertical apertures that provide glimpses and intrigue into the shop — and create a dramatic natural lighting effect in the shop interior.

The glass wall looking out from the living room of Rotherham House in Devonport, photographed in 2003. Photo / Martin Sykes
The glass wall looking out from the living room of Rotherham House in Devonport, photographed in 2003. Photo / Martin Sykes

Sarosh Mulla from Pac Studio selects the Rotherham House by Bruce Rotherham

Dr Sarosh Mulla is the director of award-winning design studio Pac Studio specialising in architecture, interior design and special projects.

Location: A suburban area of Devonport, Auckland, hidden from the street down a long drive.

Designed in: 1950-1951

The design is classically Kiwi in its simple exterior of weatherboard and metal roofing. It almost looks like a shed at first sight, but when you look closer, the proportion has been carefully considered and in the interior, it really pushes deeply towards American and European modernism. The mezzanine floor, with its unique folded balustrade/floor hangs over the other spaces. The house is a real classic of New Zealand architecture.

I discovered the house via a tour. I was fortunate to be taught by Dr Julia Gatley, who now owns the house and generously included a tour of it when she pushed the Group Architects book.

The circulation through the house is simple, but again very considered so no space is wasted. My favourite part is the unbelievably tight brick staircase that wraps around the fireplace to access the mezzanine. I’ve been up church belltower staircases that have been wider. When you exit the stairs the spaces feel even bigger on either side. There are also lots of salacious old stories about occupants over the years and architects always love that stuff.

In general, the house makes a few moves very clearly and then doesn’t get hung up on things that are peripheral. I’ve always found that interesting and have tried to bring that to my own work. I also love that Bruce Rotherham built the house with the Group Construction Company. That entrepreneurial spirit and the drive to will projects into existence has always been an inspiration.

The Brake House in Titirangi won the NZIA 25 Year Award, designed in 1976 by Ron Sang. The house is a series of pavilions interspersed by native bush.
The Brake House in Titirangi won the NZIA 25 Year Award, designed in 1976 by Ron Sang. The house is a series of pavilions interspersed by native bush.

Guy Tarrant of Guy Tarrant Architects selects the Brake House by Ron Sang

Guy Tarrant Architects is an award-winning Auckland-based practice, led by architect Guy Tarrant, specialising in residential design and interior alterations.

Location: Titirangi, Auckland

Designed in: 1976

My first visit was for a Home of the Year awards event. Even though the house was full of people, I recall it feeling incredibly still and serene. At night the lights of the city in the distance draw you forward to the glazed pavilions hovering above the tree line, but it was actually the ground-level spaces beneath — the undercroft — that I found most mesmerising. The house has a purity driven by a simple plan exquisitely executed.

Brian Brake [the owner] was a photographer who spent a lot of time in Asia and Ron Sang was Chinese. The house combines modernity with an Asian sensibility and a zen-like quality within a New Zealand context. Timber and glass volumes are suspended over a valley and float within the treetops. By contrast, at ground level, you are on the forest floor, with a completely different quality of light. This variation of light and shade, openness and enclosure speaks of qualities found in Brian Brake’s photography and a consideration for nature that is often present in Japanese architecture in particular.

The lineal plan elegantly separates public and private realms, with the entrance positioned at the juncture of these two zones. Like all good architecture, it appears effortless. The suspended upper floors create the opportunity for an undercroft, which in this house gives you a sense of being on the forest floor. I found these spaces at ground level particularly compelling as you have the feeling of being beneath a canopy and surrounded by nature.

I’m always pursuing a purity in my architecture. This house really distills for me what that means. It also highlights that a variety of spatial experiences make a house richer. The cooler, darker spaces below have a contrasting light quality to the glazed pavilions above. It’s a masterful example of controlling light to create spatial richness within buildings.

The Wilson House in Whanganui, designed by Don Wilson in 1958-1960, features in 'Modern: New Zealand Homes from the 1940s to 1970s' (Random House). Photo / Paul McCredie
The Wilson House in Whanganui, designed by Don Wilson in 1958-1960, features in 'Modern: New Zealand Homes from the 1940s to 1970s' (Random House). Photo / Paul McCredie

Eva Nash of Rogan Nash selects the Wilson House by Don Wilson

Eva Nash is an architect and director of Rogan Nash Architects which specialises in new houses, additions and alterations as well as small commercial projects and offices. Eva has a passion for sustainable design and has a master’s degree in residential sustainability.

Location: A leafy, hillside site in Whanganui.

Desinged in: Late 1950s

The house is nestled on a hill on a large leafy site in Whanganui. It was designed in the late 50s when Don Wilson went to study in America under one of the world’s most famous architects, Mies van der Rohe.

The house is a beautiful local example of mid-century modern design. The abstract mural on the front elevation is eye-catching and unique and the house is full of wonderful details that are clearly influenced by time spent studying under Van der Rohe.

I have a love for mid-century modern design and came across the house when studying the influence on New Zealand architects. I have visited houses by Richard Neutra in California and this house has many of the same design elements.

I love the bespoke design features including the well-considered built-in cabinetry, colourful partitions and playful screening element to the interior staircase. Every surface and material selection is considered. I also love the horizontality of the large glazing elements in this house, which must have seemed so daring at the time it was built.

The house has beautiful natural daylight that floods into the living areas and I imagine great parties out on that large deck.

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