Central Planning: On Two Colourful Townhouses in Christchurch [Here Magazine]

Tony de Lautour, Central Planning (2013)

This essay was originally published in the launch issue of Here Magazine New Zealand. Interior photographs by Sam Hartnett.

After the earthquakes, Christchurch-based artist Tony de Lautour’s paintings changed markedly. His colours became brighter and bolder, and he took a turn to the abstract, building up angular forms into compositions that blur boundaries—sometimes letters seem to appear, while at others his canvases look like abstracted cityscapes viewed from above. Shapes totter and teeter. Red lines seem sometimes to read as the red tape that hindered reconstruction post-earthquake. And in one significant painting, titled (ironically) “Central Planning”, forms of colour are interlocked together against a plywood ground, with a rectangular hole literally cut out of the middle of the canvas. 

The hole could represent the loss of Christchurch’s city centre, cut out of the fabric of the city. Or it could represent the seeming absence of government planning that many saw in a city that so desperately needed it. Maybe it represents both at once. But recently, when thinking about Bull O’Sullivan Architects’ Chen Anselmi Units in Christchurch’s Sydenham, the painting has seemed to represent the vibrant small-scale development that has gone on in the city centre’s surrounding suburbs. It seems to say that the most successful development happens around and in spite of central planning, not because of it.

Chen Anselmi Units Architecture Christchurch New Zealand
Photograph by Sam Hartnett.

Case in point are these two 100 square metre townhouses built at the back of a section containing an existing bungalow. Where most might consider a lean-to extension into the back garden, or a single dwelling subdivision at most, Bull O’Sullivan’s Paul Anselmi and partner Maria Chen (an architectural designer at Athfield Architects’ Christchurch office) have fitted two 2-3 bedroom dwellings. Each has a garage, a covered outdoor area, a small garden and a third bedroom or study. What’s more remarkable is that the townhouses are positively generous, with gestures like a double-height light-filled atrium above the dining area. 

Paul and Maria were living overseas when the earthquakes struck, but moved back shortly after. “The bungalow was in a poor state when I first stumbled upon it in 2014,” says Maria. “The tenants also had lots of belongings, it was difficult to even see the floor. Most open home goers did a U-turn after they went inside; I thought the house had lots of nice opportunities. The location was perfect for me as I wanted to live close enough to bike to work in the central city.” At the time, zoning regulations allowed one unit to be built on the rear of the section, but regulations later changed and permission was granted to build two townhouses. “As the units were also intended to be rented, we needed them to be practical and flexible for tenants,” says Paul: “But at the same time wanted them to feel individual and domestic so they would enjoy the spaces and never want to leave”.

The driveway to the units is to the right of the bungalow. Straight ahead is the garage of the rear unit, which Paul and Maria occupy, while a left-hand turn half way down the drive leads to the garage of the second unit, which is rented. Each unit is entered via a private covered outdoor area (a sunny spot during the day), and into a corridor. Turn right after entering the front door and you come into the lofty double-height dining area, with kitchen on the right and a living area on the left. A staircase leads up to two bedrooms and a decently-sized bathroom, while the third bedroom/study is downstairs off the entry corridor. Spaces are tight, but never poky; and in these townhouses it’s colour and light that transform them into spaces far more than their back-section infill status might suggest.

Light, first of all: lots of it, thanks to use of a multi-layer polycarbonate in the double-height atrium and as the garage door. Irregular, tetris-shaped timber supports the opaque polycarbonate, which floods the space with an even light and ensures privacy from neighbours (plus insulation better than glass). “While budget dictated simple spaces and materials, we made a conscious effort to push a few key materials that would make the project special,” says Paul, and the polycarbonate delivers, lighting up the units like lanterns at night. Meanwhile a skylight above the stairs brings light into what otherwise would be the darkest part of the townhouse, and allows glimpses of both trees and the Port Hills.

Then colour: also lots of it, but more importantly, a too-rarely-seen confident use of it. Paul says, “We knew that we didn’t want white walls as it would have been oppressive in the small spaces. Choosing colours is all about experimenting. We went through many testpots and putting samples on the walls to the annoyance of the plasterer, and ended up with 18 colours in each unit.” This isn’t just a feature wall in the living room, but a layering of colour and texture to produce an effect not too dissimilar to a de Lautour painting like “Central Planning.” 

The front door is a most cheerful yellow. The double-height wall is a mediterranean-esque blue. The yellow carries through to the kitchen island, while the garage interior is painted in “Clockwork Orange”. A cabbage-tree green follows the staircase and landing. And then the bedrooms: that sea blue again, on one wall, with a light modernist pastel blue on the other. Meanwhile, the whole dwelling is given texture through use of Portuguese cork for the common floors and staircase, while the ply lining the staircase walls is “simple cheap pine” (Paul’s words). The effect is anything but simple or cheap—it’s vibrant and confident, turning the units into a microcosm of the bold experimentation going on across post-quake Christchurch.

This is one architect-couple’s contribution to New Zealand’s housing stock, done in a mindful and generous way. “It was important that the design didn’t just serve me and Paul, but a wider demographic of people who live in Christchurch,” says Maria. And Paul echoes this generous spirit, pointing to one of the project’s objectives as being to “Provide high quality of space that supports well-being and positive social relationships.” 

These units show that what’s good for one’s own housing prospects (in this case, having one beautiful home to live in and two to rent) can also be generous to tenants, neighbours and to the city. Which leads us back to central planning and government-sponsored house building… Who needs it, one half wonders, when it’s the spaces and shapes that spring up around the centre that give a painting or a city all its life?

New Zealand Architecture review
Photograph by Sam Hartnett.

Building it up just to tear it down [Newsroom Essay]

New Zealand Gordon Wilson flats modernism affordable housing
The ‘Star Flats’ in Auckland’s Freemans Bay are widely held up as a model of mixed-tenure housing. Photo: Mark Jennings

[Originally Published on Newsroom, 2nd June 2020].

For a generation rebuilding after war and the Great Depression, modernist architects offered a utopian vision for a new and exciting way of living. So why are we now demolishing their buildings? And will what we build to replace them actually be any better?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s self-professed favourite buildings are the so-called Star Flats at Freemans Park in Auckland’s Freemans Bay. Designed by émigré architect Fred Newman, they were built in the ‘60s and partially privatised in the late ‘90s. Now they’re widely held up as a model of mixed-tenure housing, with many still owned by Housing New Zealand, and others coveted on the open market by everyone from architects and art dealers to the Prime Minister. As Ardern explained:

“I think I annoyed my colleagues for years because whenever we talked about the housing crisis and the need to build townhouses and apartments at scale, I would always talk about Freemans Bay Park—four-storey apartments that were really fit for purpose. They were built to last and beautifully designed. And they had communities living in them. I also love their history.”

Buildings like these are worth remembering at this point in time, because there is a strange irony to the fact that just as we embark on our most significant period of house-building in at least a generation, we are also busy demolishing the apartments built to solve an earlier generation’s housing needs. In Wellington, in Auckland and elsewhere, modernist housing buildings are being pulled down—sometimes to make way for newer housing, and other times seemingly just because many people think they’re ugly. This raises two separate but related questions: why are we demolishing heritage affordable housing instead of refurbishing; and how do we ensure, with $5 billion announced in the recent Budget alone, that the new housing we build is actually any better?

Wellington’s ill-fated Gordon Wilson Flats. Photo: Supplied/Stuff

Take Wellington’s Gordon Wilson Flats and Auckland’s Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats. Both were designed by government architect Gordon Wilson in the early 1950s and completed later in the decade. Both were built as affordable housing to be rented to low-income individuals and families. Both are in central-city locations, close to everything. They feature a similar design, with mostly duplex apartments and views of their respective cities. Today this all reads as a wish-list for desirable affordable housing. So why is it that the other thing they have in common is that they are both to be demolished?

Of course, the buildings’ monolithic concrete and glass design has long been considered an eyesore by many, and has contributed to the public image of the buildings as “slums”. Each building has a history of difficult and complex social dynamics, and this too has often been blamed on the design of the apartments. And yet at the same time the buildings are recognised as being of outstanding heritage value, written about in many books (including internationally) and with dedicated architectural followings. Wellington City Council says, for instance, that “The Gordon Wilson Flats have architectural value as a good representative example of 1950s Modernist high density social housing, that though common internationally, is relatively rare in New Zealand.” The buildings represent the utopianism of post-war modernism, where a building’s aesthetic was to follow its function.

And in this case, the buildings’ function was to house as many people as possible, as affordably as possible, in as dignified a way as possible. The same goal as today, then. This creates all kinds of difficulties when talking about the buildings’ aesthetic, because the aesthetic is equality itself in built form. The buildings look the way they do because of the political demand for affordable housing—a monolithic design like this was the most efficient way to put as many units as possible on a given site.

An original plan for Auckland’s Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats, built in the 1950s as affordable housing to be rented to low-income individuals and families. Image: Archives New Zealand Reference: BBAD 1054/43b 

So let’s be clear about the aesthetics: when it comes to affordable housing, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. There is always a tradeoff. Low-rise is functionally and aesthetically better than high-rise, most of us would agree, but that way you house fewer people—and the location has to be further from the city centre. The larger each individual unit, the fewer units you can build. The more you spend on a higher-quality facade, the less money you have left for the interior of the units, which is what matters most to occupants. And then there’s the even more difficult reality that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder’s eye changes over the course of its life. Villas themselves, for instance—that now-aspirational housing type—were once considered flimsy tract housing.

And that’s the problem with demolishing these buildings: it shows up our own hubris. In one go, we destroy hundreds of affordable homes, at massive environmental cost (most architects will tell you that building wastage is an environmental tragedy we are soon to wake up to), only to rebuild. At the same time, we decide for all future generations that this was not built heritage worth keeping—that my generation won’t someday want to live in an inner-city modernist apartment, the way another generation wants their villa. Demolishing says that we now know better. But do we really?

Look around, and it’s hard to say any of the KiwiBuild houses currently going up are ones that future generations will be proud of, let alone that they might heritage-list. Where’s the innovation, where’s the excitement? Dare I say it, where’s the utopianism? For it’s those three qualities that make Gordon Wilson’s flats worth continuing to debate today.

Indeed, the most interesting affordable housing developments today have little to do with government-sponsored house building. Instead they’re being built and funded through Iwi and private philanthropy. Schemes like the Wellington Tenths Trust’s Adelaide Road Townhouses in Wellington’s Newtown and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s Kāinga Tuatahi Housing in Auckland’s Ōrākei (just down the road from the First Labour Government’s enduring 1940s social housing) are thoughtful architectural responses to affordable housing needs. Both are medium-density; both carefully reference surrounding housing typologies while creating something fundamentally new; and Architecture+ and Stevens Lawson Architects, who designed the respective schemes, are known for creating enduring work.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s Kāinga Tuatahi Housing in Auckland’s Ōrākei. Photo: Stevens Lawson Architects website

What’s unique about both these examples, and a number of others, is that they respond to our own present housing needs, in our own times, and in their own style. They are sensitive to their surroundings, to be sure—both have gables, though one is cottage-like and the other wide and marae-like—but are likely to endure because they offer a strong vision of how to achieve affordable housing while maintaining aesthetic values. And unlike so many other affordable housing schemes they even manage to maintain a little utopianism.

This is our challenge, and the current Prime Minister’s especially, as we embark on nation-defining house building. Will I love these buildings in 15 years’ time, when I’m the PM’s age? Will I want to live in their communities, as so many want to live in the Star Flats at Freemans Park? Or will my children demolish them in 50 years’ time, the way under our watch we tear down a previous generation’s utopian affordable housing?

Writing of the decision to demolish the Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats, former editor of HOME Magazine Jeremy Hansen said eloquently, “I wish we were a culture that embraced more nuance; that we were able to avoid the stupidity of constantly forcing ourselves into these needlessly binary situations.” And he continued, saying that above all “I hope weve learned from history, and that these contemporary clean-slate aspirations don’t result in the same mistakes our predecessors made. The last thing we want is to create yet another mess for future generations to clean up.”

Despite the sorry fate of the Gordon Wilson flats, hopefully we can take from them their utopian spirit: their belief that high-quality, long-lasting affordable housing is achievable in our lifetime. We should approach the house-building we are about to embark upon with excitement and aspiration, and above all with the commitment to build something far better than the heritage buildings we’re tearing down. Perhaps we might even stop, take a breath—and decide that our modernist apartments are worth keeping, after all.

Antipodeanism: The Architecture of Lightness in Australia and New Zealand

Clifford-Forsyth House, Remuera, Auckland NZ. Patrick Clifford / Architectus.

How to define Antipodeanism in architecture? Michael Sorkin, who died tragically of the coronavirus two weeks ago, has probably come closest. Writing in the late ’90s of Patrick Clifford’s house in Remuera, he said that the house displayed “… a certain antipodean lightness that comes of the logical economies of the new. There is a balance to this house that shows both a certainty and a courtesy towards its setting in both culture and nature.”

That same could be said of most architecture that feels essentially Antipodean. I think of Glenn Murcutt’s many houses and precisely the same could be written with equal accuracy: of the Marie Short House, of his Magney House, and of his own house renovation in Sydney’s Mosman. Here in Aotearoa, it’s not just Patrick Clifford: I think of other architects’ well-known houses like Mitchell Stout’s Heke Street House, Stuart Gardyne’s Tiratora, Pete Bossley’s Island Complex, many of John Scott’s works—and I could write precisely the same of each of them as Sorkin wrote of the Clifford-Forsyth house.

I think Sorkin’s formulation is ultimately a little too easy. In the end it’s an American’s take on far-flung new colonial architecture, for only in the colonies is there an enduring tension between culture and nature (in cultural centres the salient distinction is between tradition and the new, not nature and culture). And “the logical economies of the new”? Well, it’s a kind of architectural determinism—a little like saying that the harsh clarity of our light defined our architecture (as was said about painting by our art-historical nationalists). If we all face the logical economies of the new, then must not all our architecture display that Antipodean lightness? It most certainly doesn’t, as a quick glance at the rest of Remuera shows.

To be fair, Sorkin does acknowledge that he risks sounding like he’s writing a “colonial travelogue” about a “house I have not seen in a country I have not visited.” It’s testament to his thoughtfulness that he could offer such an incisive comment at such a distance. But I think more must be said.

Maybe it’s easier to start with sources and then to consider the variations. When I think of Antipodeanism my mind leaps to Aalto and Scarpa and the Japanese tea pavilion. Natural materials, then, wood first and foremost, but without any qualms about technology. Calmness and elegance over impressiveness. A deeply embedded modesty. A noble simplicity, but never coming anywhere close to grandeur. “Serenity” as a style and an effect. Perhaps humanism, plain and simple, sums the idea up.

Japanese-Scandinavian design affinities have been well explored, but the triumvirate of Japanese-Nordic-Antipodean design hasn’t yet been to any great degree. Environmental similarities perhaps produce similarity in architecture. Even more productive, I think, is the way that each of these regions have had to define themselves in relation to both international tradition and deeply embedded local vernaculars. None have had the privilege of cultural centrality to avoid thinking about these dichotomies. And so Japan and Scandinavia presage the Antipodean response, providing guides and models to form and materiality. Out of it, our architects have created something that stands apart, yet with these sources clearly visible if one looks hard enough.

For HOME Magazine’s 80th anniversary, Julia Gatley and Andrew Barrie were tasked with trying to pick the “best” home from each decade. They weaselled partially out of the impossible task by picking two homes from each decade—one from what they termed the “sugar cube” tradition of the International Style, and one from the “brown bread” tradition of regional modernism. Plischke’s Sutch House is then a “sugar cube,” and Athfield’s own house in Khandallah is of the “brown bread” tradition.

It’s a thoughtful approach; only, when I think of Antipodeanism in architecture, the houses that come to mind are impossible to place in one camp or the other. Many of Glenn Murcutt’s rural retreats, for instance, have all the interior slickness of a “sugar cube” urban apartment, yet with their monopitches and oversized downpipes they’re emphatically of the “brown bread” vernacular. Likewise with a house such as Stuart Gardyne’s own home, Tiratora: lined on the interior with plywood and keeping romantic remnants of a former tract house that stood on the site, yet also formed of glass cubes with seamless connections thrusting out towards the view. Or Bill Alington’s own house in Karori: included on the list as a “sugar cube” house, you nonetheless feel, when standing inside it, that it could just as easily be in the “brown bread” camp. To place these houses strictly in Gatley & Barrie’s typology is to dismiss what is most unique about them.

Antipodeanism, then, as productive avoidance of either the international or the regional? It’s as though houses in this style are far too knowingly aware of the traps of reproducing a staid internationalism, but also still aspire to a modernism that can be understood in international terms. They’re too learned to go in for any kind of vernacularism. This is why I’m not including New Zealand’s Group Architects in this Antipodeanism frame: their houses are concerned with New Zealand itself, and strove directly for a vernacular modernism. They have none of the lightness or even the internationalism of Antipodeanism as I have come to think of it.

To try another tack: where does Antipodeanism sit on the city house-country house scale? I can say only neither, and both. The houses I think of are baches in the city and city houses on the farm. They escape this typology, having both everything of the rustic bach and everything of the modernist box about them. Then: Antipodeanism as a style equally at home in the city, on the farm and at the beach? This seems to have something to it. In countries where European and American modes of dressing distinctly for city and country have never been salient, it’s logical also for our houses to escape entirely those same distinctions.

I’m aware that speaking of trans-Tasman currents in architecture is not exactly common. This is often for good reason, for without a larger rival, who could New Zealand ever measure itself up to? We have always defined ourselves by our differences, and I feel about as Australian as an Australian feels French, which is to say not in the slightest. And yet—and yet on a global stage we’ve always been more similar than we’ve wanted to believe, and there is something in our architecture that we share in common.

A Swede too feels different from a Norwegian, who feels different from a Finn. And yet despite this those nations have reconciled themselves to “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” monikers that emphasis the real commonality without (I think) overly obscuring national differences. Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion in Venice highlights how the larger grouping has worked to everyone’s advantage. And so why shouldn’t we, Australia and New Zealand, acknowledge our similarities; describe them and explore them; maybe, dare I say it, market them?

Antipodeanism brings together the under-appreciated similarities between Murcutt, Bossley, Leplastrier, Gardyne, Alington, Stutchbury, Clifford and so many others. To my mind, it captures a real style that has moved far beyond the “search for identity” that both Aotearoa and Australia undertook in the mid-century—and also moves beyond so many other architectural distinctions, whether it be city house/country house or modernist/postmodernist. The more I’ve thought about it, Antipodeanism is a term that captures something unique—it’s a term that is, to use consulting speak, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive; it defines something that cannot be described any other way. Which is exactly why it’s worth talking about and exploring further.

For a long time it was fashionable to compare a nation’s cultural life with the journey through a human life—from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. (Of course, no one ever mentioned the decrepit old age and death of the fully-formed “adults” they were comparing to). If we were to continue the analogy—just for old time’s sake—we might also recognise the truism that you grow up when you’re not really watching. Personal growth and development is somewhat tortured when too self-conscious; it’s worked best when you look back one day and realise the real changes happened when you were busy living life (or busy having fun with postmodernism, as the case may be). Perhaps the same has happened with our architecture, art and much else besides: when we stopped trying to force the development of a style, that’s when it finally came about.

Still, in the end, have I come any closer to a definition of Antipodeanism? I want to say it’s a certain lightness, maybe a certainty and a courtesy towards—yes, towards both culture and nature. OK, Michael Sorkin probably still came closest. And why should we be surprised? It usually takes a foreigner to point out the blindingly obvious.


Credit to individual photographers for the images below.

Antipodean Architecture Australia New Zealand
Clifford-Forsyth House
Murcutt architecture style Australia
Marie Short House, Glenn Murcutt
Stuart Gardyne NZ Architecture Antipodeanism
Labone Cabin, Stuart Gardyne
Bossley NZ Architecture Antipodean style
Island Complex, Pete Bossley
Peter Stutchbury Antipodean Architecture
West Head House, Peter Stutchbury
Mitchell Stout Heke Street NZ Architecture
Heke Street House, David Mitchell and Julie Stout
Fireplace NZ Architecture Antipodeanism
Heke Street House, Mitchell Stout
Murcutt House Australia NZ
Fredericks White House, Glenn Murcutt
Wellington Architecture Style Stuart Gardyne ArchitecturePlus
Tiratora, Stuart Gardyne
Leplastrier House Antipodeanism Architecture Style
Angophora House, Richard Leplastrier
Bill Toomath NZ Architecture Modernism
Bill Toomath House
Gardyne NZ Architecture
Labone Cabin, Stuart Gardyne
Clifford Forsyth House NZ Architecture Modernism
Clifford-Forsyth House
Leplastrier Australian Architecture Antipodean Style Mid Century
Tom Uren House, Richard Leplastrier
NZ Rural Architecture Modernism Antipodeanism
Otoparae House, Mitchell Stout Architects
Bossley Antipodeanism Architecture
Waterfall Bay House, Pete Bossley
NZ Bathroom Architecture Style Antipodeanism
Waterfall Bay House, Pete Bossley
Treetop Peter Stutchbury Antipodeanism
Treetop House, Peter Stutchbury
Antipodeanism Japanese Architecture
Angophora House, Richard Leplastrier
Murcutt Antipodean Architecture Australia New Zealand
Fredericks-White House, Glenn Murcutt
Herbst Antipodean Architecture NZ
Great Barrier Bach, Herbst Architects
Rural NZ Antipodean Architecture Modernism
Island Complex, Pete Bossley

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