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Book review: 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 about their choices. Why (as in this book) would you want a kitchen that looks like an abattoir? Or a bathroom without any cupboards – do people bring their toothpaste and toilet paper to and from the room?

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

John Walsh writes that 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.

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 in south Otago so melds with the landscape that it appears to be a sinuous, wriggly line on a clifftop.

Many are black, which is odd, as Walsh drily 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. That means the houses in this book range from renovations and backyard studios to baches and apartment buildings. He is clearly disappointed that more of the last were not offered. “There are some highly competent apartments in this book but we were hardly inundated with new multi-unit buildings.” And, yes, given Auckland Council’s new-found hunger for intensified living, that is surprising.

He also notes that sustainability has now become the norm in house design but: “What has yet to change significantly is the powering of houses. New Zealanders will probably have to be dragged kicking and screaming to consideration of technologies such as photovoltaics for example.”

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. The influential houses of the last century … were distinguished by design, not dimension.”

No, I’m not impressed with that argument: some of those houses have been designed by architects and are magnificent, reflecting their owners’ and architects’ characters: is it that Walsh thinks some are just plain vulgar?

I would have been interested in some of those homes too to see if they also use the alarming but increasing New Zealand public-living style of design. Do they also have kitchens completely exposed so anyone working in can see the mess? Are their living rooms totally bare of curtains and blinds: just picture the morning after a party as seen from the street …. Or, maybe, if you can afford to have an architect-designed home, you can always afford cleaners.

In all fairness, several of the houses featured in this book do take a different approach: plain on the outside (often without windows or decoration) with the design and living all internal. They are certainly private and reference both the Middle East and ancient Roman living but one of them in particular seems a little claustrophobic.

This book does show 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.

Auckland is likely to be a continuing problem for architects. The council is now considering whether to declare all houses built before World War II ( a combination of villas and early state houses) “historical,” with owners forced to justify alterations or demolition.

Walsh writes “it’s a good idea to preserve some heritage buildings, including houses from earlier eras. And it also makes sense to preserve them severally, rather than individually. A few is a family, one is a freak.”

But as he notes, there’s a burlesque quality to the villa frontage. “What you’re promised is a cornucopia of period-piece divertissements, so what you get is inevitably rather detumescent: plain-Jane spaces, altered to accommodate conventional 21st domestic arrangements and house all our modern stuff.”

He is puzzled by the enshrinement of the villa: “…. you can understand why the old villa would appeal to traditionalists but what explains its appeal to ageing lefties and liberals, some of them local politicians? Perhaps it’s nostalgia for their student days, experienced in a time when undergraduates could afford to live in Herne Bay and Mount Eden. Just as the summers of our youth are remembered as cloudless and sunny, perhaps those student villas are never recalled as cold or rotten.” I couldn’t agree more with Walsh on this.

Walsh suggests there is no prevailing school of New Zealand residential architecture as designed by New Zealand architects (though he snippily notes there are plenty of rote houses, produced by designers).
“In the main they [architects] just get on with it and the rather surprising result is that a small and conservative country has spawned a tradition of idiosyncratic residential architecture.”

This book is a good, long read and the pictures are stunning: buy it now and argue over it for months. I know which house I would love to move into: which one would you choose?

 

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