Book review: Property porn to salivate over

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Private but claustrophobic?
Sir Miles Warren's Ohinetahi before and after the earthquakes

Big House, Small House

By John Walsh and Patrick Reynolds

Godwit, $80

Admit it: there’s nothing quite like looking at fabulous photos of unique houses. We buy lots of house magazines in this country – it’s almost a national sport.

Who lives in some of the more exotic houses, we wonder. And would we, given the chance? Why were they designed that way?

In fact, as the authors say in their introduction, the relationship between architects and their clients can be a confession of personal priorities.

So, when we look at those houses we are given revelations into those clients’ characters (and possibly the architect’s too).

And, sometimes we really wonder…

There are 60 houses in this wonderfully thick, beautiful book and distinguished writing that matches the marvelous Reynolds photos – writing that takes us inside the client’s and architect’s heads in a knowledgeable and descriptive way.

John Walsh says the 60 houses are the tip of the iceberg; the more than 600 members of the NZ Architects Association were invited to submit their recent designs and many had to be left out.

He writes that the final choices were made after asking: Was the project an interesting take on a type? Was it demonstrative of a practice’s approach or design philosophy? Was it indicative, in some way, of the state of this country’s residential architecture? Was it engaging or at least intriguing?

These houses answered all of that and more.

Some of these houses are extraordinarily beautiful; some incredibly ugly. One that stood out for me in particular, in south Otago, so melds with the landscape that it appears as a wriggly line on a clifftop.

Many are black, which is odd, as Walsh points out, “the suspicion remains that architects who like to paint it black are exhibiting not modesty but the hieratic tendency to which the profession is prone. All priestly castes have their mumbo jumbo”.

He also notes that the global financial crisis means renovations are included; that being the major work architects have done for the past several years.

And he admits to a black hole: the super private enormous homes being built for billionaires around our coastlines.

“Dangling Patrick above estates in central Otago and the Bay of Islands would blow the cover of a few mansions – if not lift their lids – but what would be the point? This type of house is as different from the debate about directions in contemporary architecture as its exemplars are remote from the public.”

Hmm, that seems a bit like equivocation to me … are we just talking about taste?

The book shows how architects meet interesting challenges – in Auckland, for instance, where the shortage of housing has meant the new Auckland Council has opted for intensification.

One of the Auckland homes in this book is built tall in a character neighbourhood and the design looks a little odd on the offset bottom floor but the apartment on top was clearly worth the effort.

A remarkable number of the houses have big open living areas in most areas. Clearly, the owners must have cleaners.

Myself, I want to see at least one house designed by an architect for messy people, who don’t want to reveal their kitchens to the world, not to mention their children-inhabited chaotic living rooms.

Which reminds me: these houses are all beautifully modelled: it might be nice to see one where someone has dumped their handbag and keys on mailbox handouts; a few dog hairs on sofas…. Tiny handprints on glass doors…

In all fairness, two of the houses remind me of Middle Eastern homes: plain on the outside (often without windows or decoration) with the design and living all internal. They are certainly private but both seems a little claustrophobic.

This book is a good, long read: buy it now and argue over it for months. I know which house I would choose to move in. Which one would you choose?

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