An Elegant Shed in Marlborough: The Axe House by Stuart Gardyne

Axe House Stuart Gardyne Architecture Plus Moore-Jones
House by Stuart Gardyne, Architecture+. Photography by Thomas Seear-Budd.

An essay commissioned by HOME Magazine New Zealand, published in print Feb/March 2020 issue.

“A paddock with grapevines on it” is Stuart Gardyne’s description of the site in Marlborough’s Omaka Valley in which this refined yet unpretentious house is found. There are views of the mountains, and neat, regular rows of vines. A few olive trees dot the site, as if to emphasise the many subtle shades of green and grey. For an architect the choices would have been almost limitless: the house could be placed anywhere on the site, and without any close neighbours there are no immediate other buildings or forms to respond to. Modernist glasshouse, or a sprawling estate? Both have been done before on New Zealand’s vineyards. Many now sit uncomfortably and feel out of place. What works on the coast doesn’t work on the farm.

When asked about the freedom that a site like this affords, Gardyne, who was approached by the owners of the land seven years ago, recounts a comment he once heard attributed Mark Mack, a postmodern American architect: “Sometimes you can have too much freedom.” And in many ways the house that now stands is a subtle, careful musing on that idea, for architect and client alike. What should you really do, when you can do anything? And what’s most important, when the choices are limitless?

Gardyne is perhaps the only architect to have a letterbox featured in architectural publications in this country. Known for his meticulous attention to detail and a love for materiality and tactility, he speaks with fondness for David Chipperfield’s work—specifically of the way that for all its marbles and patinated bronzes, his work still manages to get out of the way, pushing to centre stage the objects in a museum or the lives within a house. And in this house in Marlborough, that’s exactly what has been achieved, and without making any kind of fuss.

“If you’re striving for simplicity,” Gardyne says, “then the architecture has to have a level of perfection in the way it’s composed and in the spatial qualities of the rooms.” This is a simple house in its basic form, looking to the barns and sheds of the rural New Zealand vernacular, and to the long, repeated rows of vines of its immediate environment. At 41 metres long, the house is an elongated, extruded shed broken only by cut-outs that form decks. From this perspective it mimics the length of the vines. Yet the house is also just five metres wide, so that from the other angle it sits small and modestly, reminiscent of the idealised house forms of Stephen Bambury’s small sculptures and prints, or the cubist barns of Rita Angus’ paintings.

Located at the end of a driveway, you first drive past the vines and down the length of the house before arriving. Enter the front door and turn right, and you’re in a self-contained bedsit intended for use by one of the owners’ parents. Turn left and you are in the main space of the house, a large living-dining-kitchen area with a deck off one side. The main bedroom is located at the very end of the house, and to get there you walk through other rooms: a study, a multi-purpose room (or spare bedroom), past the bathroom and wardrobe. This arrangement of spaces, with a central corridor connecting the entire house, is economical despite the house being located on an expansive site. It implies a more thoughtful, time-honoured way of inhabiting space, rather than our modern, disconnected rooms in large multi-storey homes.

Gardyne explains that one of the critical design decisions was what pitch the gable should have. Too steep, and it could be evocative of a cathedral rather than a vernacular shed, looking foreign among vines and paddocks. Yet too low and it could look squat or stout, as though pushed a bit too firmly from the top into the ground. The 35 degrees finally settled on feels right in an inexplicable way, to the extent that there’s almost nothing to comment on. It’s “super normal”, in Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison’s formulation: design that distils and refines everyday objects to produce a new version that is instantly familiar, correct and comforting.

Axe House Stuart Gardyne HOME Magazine

When a house is to be inhabited lightly, as this one is, filled with very few but very beautiful possessions, the architecture has to do extra work—it can’t hide behind paintings or bookshelves or rugs, and must provide texture and personality that those furnishings usually offer. “I think it does place a larger demand on the architecture to actually be part of that aesthetic,” Gardyne explains, “because it’s not going to be shrouded or masked by the normal clothes of life, the things and objects of inhabitation that people bring.”

Looking at this house in our age of easy Instagram minimalism it becomes necessary to think a little harder about what complex and simple, more and less, really mean. For many, moving away from urban life and to the countryside is itself a response to those thoughts. Yet in its considered, refined interior, and with its beautiful realisation of the most basic shapes and forms, this house says that a simple life in the country doesn’t at all mean a life with less thought.

Raised half a metre above the grass and vines, the vistas out through the windows and from the decks are connected to the landscape, but from an architectural vantage point. There’s a play of connection and disconnection, closeness and distance, as you look out across the top of the vines to the hills beyond. 

But the real pleasures of this house are probably a treat only the owners will ever know: the serenity of moving through passages and spaces in which every doorjamb has been laboured over; the ease of pushing on the large black D-handles on the doors rather than turning a handle to enter another space; following the day’s light around the grapevines on each of the decks. This house has none of the pretension of an urban dwelling, but it didn’t get rid of refinement along with it. It might be minimalist in aesthetic, yes, but it’s a house emphatically maximalist in thought.

Stuart Gardyne NZ House

Modern Architectures in History: A Review of Australia, by Harry Margalit

Harry Margalit History of Australian Architecture

In Sydney recently, browsing the wonderful Architect’s Bookshop in Surry Hills, I came across this new history of Australian architecture. Strictly speaking, it’s just about Australian modernism—part of a Reaktion Books series on “Modern Architectures in History.” Margalit chooses the federation of Australia in 1901 as his point of departure, so there are no discussions of terrace housing or “Old Australian Houses” here.

The book is engrossing: a perfect mix of architectural description with discussion of the wider forces in Australian society that contextualises architecture. Margalit’s social history approach is masterfully executed, blended together into a narrative that never segues awkwardly or drags on too long, as is a risk of these kinds of histories.

There are descriptions of all the key buildings and personalities in Australian modernism, and from what I can tell (being a newcomer to Australia’s architectural history) the book is spread geographically across all states, not just concentrated in NSW and Victoria.

I thought it would be useful here to draw out some of the moments when Margalit’s analysis proves incisive to all modernisms outside Europe and America. For instance, writing early in the book about different interpretations of modernism immediately after Federation, Margalit describes how three architects “represent three parallel streams that have been constants in modern Australian design”:

“The first stream, typified by Wilson, is that of the nativist, a position that emerged surprisingly early and shows the quick remaking of English social conventions within a generation of colonial founding. As it matured it viewed the experience of Australia as unremarkable, but its paradox lay in seeking validation of the local through news and comparisons from beyond its borders.

The second stream is that of the globalist, in modern terms, whose loyalty is to the most advanced experiences available, regardless of provenance. This had its roots in the concept of Empire, where loyalties have a transnational character, and it seeks validation in good sense… The paradox here is that this imperial vision must be realised locally, a source of some frustration.

The third stream is that of the immigrant or outsider, like the Griffins. This view continually sees Australia afresh, adding its interpretation as the same time as it accepts the limited appeal of this material to the historical flow it attempts to join. This stream has added enormous interest to the country, but its products serve as repositories of possibilities, rather than viable broad alternatives.

I think this analysis is fruitful for New Zealand and other English settler societies with burgeoning modernisms. It shows how approaches to the nation itself informed architectural style, and I can imagine “Griffins, Wilson and Taylor” being replaced by three archetypal New Zealand architects in a slightly later period. Of Harry Seidler, Australia’s arch-International Stylist, Margalit says “[his] reception in Sydney exposed the layering of architectural influences along the dual axes of internal self-definition and international validation…”

Some of the most interesting moments in Margalit’s history are when he focuses on geographic differences in Australia, exploring how different states responded to the three trends I quoted above. On Sydney and architect Peter Muller, for instance:

“Muller’s early works in Sydney are thus among the earliest examples of that distinctive coalition of geographical awareness and anti-modernity that has been identified with the architecture of the time [1950s]. It nonetheless arose within an architectural tradition espousing craft as a critical component in opposing mass production, a value that can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts movement. Thus a recurrent anti-modernity in the English tradition, remade in Australia through cultural transplantation, re-emerged in the guise of a local movement centred on the Sydney region.

Peter Muller House Sydney 1955 Margalit Australia
Peter Muller, Muller House, Sydney, 1955.

There are elsewhere brilliant passages on the contortions of “authenticity” in modern architectural style, a phenomenon that I think still needs to be explored in the New Zealand context:

“The sentiment for authenticity was nationwide and has sometimes been so loosely identified with the Sydney School that it is possible to identify representative buildings in all cities. This is the result of conflating an intention with its manifestation, and while Sydney may have been an incubator, the same three tendencies can be found across the country. It was occasionally identified as regional, as in the assertion of a local identity over a national, or international, one, but the fracturing of national identity into progressive and conservative camps undermined any expectation of a cohesive cultural voice…

My only gripe with the book? The photographs are all printed in black and white, and colour would have made a big difference.

Who will write the New Zealand account of our Modern Architecture in History?

Furniture and Philosophy — On Vitsoe

This was a feature article published in HOME Magazine New Zealand, July 2019.

Vitsoe New Zealand
Vitsoe’s headquarters in Leamington Spa. Photography by Dirk Lindner.

Open your iPhone’s calculator and you’re looking at a version of the calculator that German designers Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs designed for Braun in 1980. It’s a modern classic: held in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, the functional, clear and even beautiful design is so difficult to improve on that Apple’s designers were left simply paying homage. But what irony, then, that our iPhones will barely last three years while Braun’s calculators are still going strong almost 40 years later. Apple’s designers borrowed Rams’ aesthetic, but not his ethic.

At least one company is still committed to both. Vitsœ (pronounced “vit-soo”) is a somewhat paradoxical company. Its key product—one of only three that it makes—is a flexible shelving system so understated that it exists merely to highlight the objects placed on it. Vitsœ is a company that doesn’t mind being invisible, like its shelves; but then again, you’ve probably seen these shelves many times without realising it. Called the “606 Universal Shelving System”, they’re the ones that house your architect friend’s books and ceramics, and which adorn the walls of so many Instagrammable mid-century modern houses.

It’s a “system” rather than a shelf because every part is interchangeable. You buy some vertical brackets that attach directly to the wall. Between these, you then fit the thin metal shelves or cabinetry. You can start with a small shelving unit and then add to it as required; you can replace individual parts if they wear out; and you can pack them and take them with you when you move—all of this is Vitsœ’s sales pitch. Because of their flexibility, I’ve heard it said sardonically that Vitsœ’s shelves are the most divorce-friendly in the world.

All three products Vitsœ makes—the shelves, plus the 620 Chair and the latest addition, the 621 Table—are designed by Dieter Rams, the man behind so many of Braun’s twentieth century designs. Clocks, shavers, coffee machines and toasters: Rams designed them all with a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and with the belief that if made well enough, consumer products could improve the world. Planned obsolescence was anathema to Rams. If a product is good, it should last. This was the ethos with which Niels Vitsœ began selling Rams’ home furniture designs from the late 1950s. 

What the shelves are is environmentally friendly, though you won’t see Vitsœ explaining this. The most the company emphasises is that “Recycling is defeat,” in the words of Mark Adams, the eloquent and elegant managing director of Vitsœ who brought the company from Germany to England in the mid-1990s. Adams was just 24 when he quit a lucrative office job to join a furniture store that happened to sell some of Vitsœ’s products. And for him, Vitsœ is far more than a furniture company—as he puts it, Vitsœ is a “service business that just happens to make some products.” He’d never say it (the company’s understated philosophy, and a dose of English reserve would prevent him), but the measure of success for Vitsœ seems to be more about how far it can spread its philosophy of “Living better, with less, that lasts longer”, than how many products it sells. 

Vitsœ is not the only company producing long-lasting, flexible shelves. Swedish company Lundia has a wood-based system that has been sold through an NZ-owned subsidiary for many years. It’s slightly less flexible, but the use of natural materials has long spoken to NZ-Scandinavian design affinities. One significant difference between the two companies is that Vitsœ only sells directly to the consumer through their website: you can’t go in to a store to pick up any shelves, though Vitsœ’s “planners” will design shelving combinations for you after you send them a photo of your wall. The direct-to-consumer approach has further helped Vitsœ reduce wastage since it controls the whole process, down to reusable packaging materials.

As I walked around Vitsœ’s beautiful factory (usually an oxymoron) my thoughts turned unexpectedly to New Zealand. I recognised something in Vitsœ’s honest and direct use of materials—the building is just exposed timber, glass, metal and concrete, without a single brushstroke of paint. There is something of the Elegant Shed and Number Eight Wire and Colin McCahon’s use of unstretched jute canvas to Vitsœ: a transparency and honesty, both in its building and in its philosophy. The normal corporate facade doesn’t wear off no matter how hard you go looking—in fact, there is no facade. With Vitsœ and its shelves, what you see is what there is. Much like a Group Architects house in Auckland, I want to say.

I found myself wondering: what if we were to double down on these values, making “living better, with less, that lasts longer” a kind of national design mantra? We seem to already have the foundations built for us by our twentieth century architects and designers. What Vitsœ shows us is that those values are not necessarily synonymous with “local business”—that you can in fact lead the world with them, and turn a good profit at the same time.

Now, just two years after the company completed the move from London to its new bespoke-designed headquarters, Vitsœ seems to be entering a new and exciting chapter in its history. For those who have followed the company for many years this is unsurprising. Vitsœ has always done things differently, always rejected trends and fashions. And at a time when the implications of a century or more of wasteful, throwaway design culture are more than clear, Vitsœ’s understated, long-term, slow-but-steady philosophy offers a lesson for us all. The philosophy comes free—beautiful, long-lasting furniture is an optional extra.

“I’ve Lived for So Many Days Now”: Rinus Van de Velde at König Gallery, Berlin

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

There are more pleasant places to spend early January than Berlin, but, finding myself there on a particularly bleak day, the thought of visiting the brutalist church that now houses König Gallery seemed to offer some respite. Perhaps only in Berlin would that be said of brutalism—nevertheless, it was palpable relief I felt to step off the wind-and-sleet blasted boulevard and into the gorgeous gallery spaces. I came for the architecture, but stayed for the art.

What I knew of König Gallery before visiting was this: in 2015 they moved into the old St. Agnes Church after renovating it, and now displayed art in two separate gallery spaces, the former chapel and the nave. I also knew that the owner and founder, Johann König, is legally blind (a childhood accident involving gunpowder). These two curious facts were enough to make me think of visiting the place when I had a free afternoon before flying back to London.

What I knew of Rinus van de Velde before visiting the gallery was, on the other hand, precisely nothing, not even his name. In retrospect, this made my unexpected encounter with his art all the more invigorating—it was the art on its own terms. Normally I would research an artist before visiting a new show, ensuring I knew at least the basics of biography and style, but here I walked into the first room figuring I would read the exhibition pamphlet after looking at the art.

The first “room” of the exhibition was more literal than normal. Van de Velde had constructed a room inside the room that is the former church nave: past the gallery reception, you walk through a threshold and into a smaller room that immediately gives the impression of some kind of gamer’s or coder’s lair. The light is dim, cigarette butts are haphazardly put out in an ashtray, computer screens give off their glare, and other contraptions let you know that the person who inhabits this room knows far more about all this technology than you do. The entire room is constructed by the artist using cardboard, wood and paint. Nothing is “real”, not the computers nor the cigarette butts, but everything is real enough that you feel you’ve entered a different space, a different frame of mind, a different world. You can walk around the room, jostle with other bodies (it’s not a large space), and some people tapped on the computer keyboards to see if anything would happen.

And who does inhabit this room? Looking for clues, I walked out the other door to this room-within-a-room, on the other side from where I entered. The brutalist architecture is back: a poured concrete floor with its stains and cracks intact, and beautiful brick walls. The floor ends a few centimetres away from the wall which gives the impression that the wall is a plane continuing through the floor, and this sense of verticality contrasts wonderfully with the horizontal brickwork. This room is one I could spend a long time in even if it lacked art on the walls—but again, I came for the architecture, and ended up staying for the art.

Three large canvases (the largest is over four metres horizontally) hang in this room, one on each wall. All are black-and-white charcoal drawings. And this is still Van de Velde’s room: because we passed through his constructed room, we enter this further gallery space in exactly the frame of mind that he wanted us to. Ahead of you is the work that gave its name to the exhibition, where we see a crowd of people, some gesticulating and yelling, others looking dejected or resigned. The jackets and name-badges that some of the figures wear give credence to my first thought that this is a scene from perhaps the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. And below the work in a horizontal strip is written, all in capital letters:

I’VE LIVED FOR SO MANY DAYS NOW. THAT’S WHY I AM ABLE TO BATHE IN A CONSTANT PERFECT REGULATED HARMONY. I CAN CALCULATE AND PREDICT WHAT IS ABOUT TO COME AND WILL HAPPEN IN FUTURE DAYS. THIS SETTLES MY THOUGHTS. IN MY BASEMENT I CONTROL THE OUTSIDE WORLD ON MY SELF-MADE COMPUTERS. CAUSING STRESS AND ANXIETY AMONG THE ONES WHO DON’T SEE THE PATTERNS.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

Is the inhabitant of the room depicted in the scene? Or is he just the mastermind of it? Maybe he has hacked into the NYSE cameras and is looking on this mass of people from the comfort of his private island somewhere. Maybe he’s like a James Bond villain. Maybe he’s just a millennial geek. Certainly he is philosophical and self-reflective, as the canvas on the left-hand wall shows us: we catch this man in flagrante, a woman on top of him, the contents of his room strewn over the floor. But here the text beneath the image (a constant in all of Van de Velde’s drawings) reads,

ONCE IN A WHILE I RETURN AND FIND MYSELF A THING THAT STRIVES TO PERVERT, CONFUSE AND OVERTHROW EVERYTHING. WHEREFOR ALL THIS NOISE, THE STRAINING AND STORMING, THE ANXIETY AND WANT? WHY SHOULD A TRIFLE PLAY SO IMPORTANT A PART, AND CONSTANTLY INTRODUCE DISTURBANCE AND CONFUSION INTO MY WELL-REGULATED LIFE.

From afar, the artist’s charcoal drawings seem perfectly rendered—almost like a black-and-white photograph on the front of a newspaper. Move closer, and the forms collapse into one another as your eyes focus on details. The canvas is so large that the figures appear life-size, and the way Van de Velde has blurred and blended the lines (he uses his hands and sometimes even his elbows) gives him the ability to hint at gestures and expressions without fully developing them. In this medium just when you think you’ve got a hold of what is depicted, you wonder if that grimace is not actually just someone with their eyes closed. The works gain energy from the ambiguity of the lines—as in the work I just described, where the man’s face looks not at the woman’s breast above him, but to the left, maybe into the distance or perhaps just into his deepest thoughts.

My favourite was the work on the right-hand wall. Ostensibly a seascape, the light shimmers and moves over the surface of the water. Of course, the “light” is made up of those parts of the canvas that the artist has not drawn on. I thought of one of Anselm Kiefer’s small seascapes I recently saw in London, and of another small seascape by Colin McCahon. But this surpassed them both, for its reserve (it is just smudged charcoal lines!), its melancholy effect, its movement as you move closer and then further away. Here, beneath the drawing:

AFTER ALMOST TEN YEARS NOW I REALISED THAT I GAINED SOME HERE AND LOST SOME THERE.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition
Rinus van de Velde Belgian artist, Konig Gallery in Berlin, Germany

Read this, and suddenly what appeared as a melancholy image (I thought of this Bitcoin bro James Bond geeky villain dangling his legs over the side of a jetty and looking down into this water) comes across as self-reflectively ironic. This coder villain seems to realise the banality of his melancholic statement, even as he says it or thinks it nonetheless. I could almost see him smirking, wryly laughing at himself. This is a step beyond the postmodern irony and cynicism we’ve come to expect. I think it’s testament to how fully Van de Velde constructs these worlds—the coder’s lair, the ambiguous expressions, the literary text beneath the images—that we can be drawn ever more deeply into them.

We are told, in the exhibition pamphlet, that the room Van de Velde has constructed is in fact the set for a film he has been working on for over two years—and that it will screen by the end of 2019. I already look forward to seeing it. But I hope, whatever it contains, that it doesn’t give away too much of the character behind this room and these drawings. Because it is our own relationship to the questions raised by them that give the drawings so much life. That’s why I felt that the weakest part of the exhibition was the fourth drawing, back by the gallery’s reception: a self-portrait of the artist, Jackson Pollock heroic with cigarette in his mouth, with the text beneath musing on a lost love. It almost gave us too much—but only almost, because I still went back to the other room and enjoyed the drawings even more on second, third and fourth viewing.