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

Old Thorndon: A Selection of Photographs

On the day when I first visited, stepping out of that dark southerly wind into her home [Katherine Mansfield’s], the house where she was born, there immediately was the Victorian presence of old New Zealand to greet me. How close it pressed in.

Kirsty Gunn, in Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project.
Old Thorndon photograph Sydney Street East
Looking down Sydney Street East in Thorndon, taken around 1900.

Old Thorndon and Lambton Quay photo
Where Thorndon Quay and Mulgrave Street intersect. Thistle Inn in foreground, Old St Paul’s to the right. Taken 1866.

Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand
Looking across Thorndon towards Courtenay Place, circa 1923.

Tinakori Road and Anderson Park
Tinakori Road / Glenmore Street from Anderson park, 1932.

Thorndon from Wadestown in 1800s
Thorndon as seen from Wadestown in 1871.

Patanga Crescent and Tinakori Road in Thorndon
Patanga Crescent and Tinakori Road in Thorndon, circa 1902

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

Two Books on Returning to New Zealand

Paula Morris On Coming Home BWB Book Review
Kirsty Gunn Thorndon Wellington and Home My Katherine Mansfield Project BWB Book Review

“Is it the end of things, really, to come home?”

Two books caught my eye recently, both published by Bridget Williams Books (BWB) in 2014. Both are short; both are published by expatriate New Zealand writers; and both deal with a return to New Zealand. For those aware of my own recent return to New Zealand, the attraction these books immediately had will be entirely unsurprising.

Who was it who said that “Should I stay or should I go” is New Zealand’s unofficial national song? If our literature all stems in some way or another from Katherine Mansfield, then this isn’t too surprising: her youthful clamour to return to London from Wellington is an essential part of her Hero’s Journey, as is her late longing (and failure) to return to Wellington from Europe. From even before Mansfield, pakeha New Zealand’s dilemma has always been a kind of ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. And it’s this syndrome, though never directly named, that both these books end up dealing with most deeply.

Kirsty Gunn’s Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project picks up on Mansfield directly, drawing parallels between hers and the authors’ lives. A return to Wellington for the first time since childhood is the premise of the book, enacting a kind of hypothetical: what would have happened had Mansfield managed to return? Paula Morris’ On Coming Home, on the other hand, is a kind of anthology of writing about the return. From Mulgan and Mansfields’ lifelong longings to return, to Rilke and Rushdies’ exiles, New Zealanders’ arrivals and departures are made significant.

Gunn’s book wears its problems on its cover, with that double-colon title. Hypothetically a book about Thorndon, Wellington, returning to New Zealand and Katherine Mansfield, the book touches on all of these subjects but never quite gets to the heart of them in its 120 pages. Throughout, you can see the books begun and left unfinished, hurriedly stitched together with often-awkward segues (Gunn calls the book a “sketchbook,” implying the real work lies in the future). But despite this, there are lyrical and poignant moments throughout, as when Gunn meets an English broadcaster who has been in Wellington for many years:

“He looked out the window and said that the thing about Wellington was that you couldn’t really leave, the geography of the place forbade it. Oh I know there’s a road, he’d said, two roads to take you north, and the airport… But none of that really counts. The place itself is designed to keep you in.

Or when she muses on the unregarded significance of domestic life:

“Why should it be, I wonder, that other dramas are deemed more important? Why matters of church and state must eclipse the family, and over and over again fiction that takes as its subject the domestic should be sidelined and trivialised? For houses are like theatres. They give light and atmosphere. Every day the curtains at the window are opened and closed to drama and play and scene setting and the endless rich interplay of language and human affairs that’s the everyday, every day. Where we live is surely who we are.”

Passages like these, and others dotted throughout the book, add up to make a memorable chapter in Wellington’s literature and New Zealand’s literature of return.

I wish Morris’ book, on the other hand, had been longer—and it should have been titled The BWB Anthology of Returns to New Zealand. I wanted more throughout! Morris’ deep and cross-cultural reading on the psychology and literature of return adds up to a wonderfully rich, but all too short, compilation of quotations.

“‘It is dangerous to abandon one’s own country,’ James Joyce wrote to Italo Stevo, ‘but it is more dangerous still to return to it, for then your fellow countrymen, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart.'”

“In New Zealand, writes James McNeish, ‘there exists a curious state of tension with the rest of the world, in part because we do not like our sons and daughters to go away… We boast of our infantry going to fight abroad but not our artists and intellectuals whose fight for recognition, out of the great loneliness of being a New Zealander, may be rather more difficult.'”

And Morris’ own lines add up to some of those to be quoted in the Anthology of Returns to New Zealand, whenever that does eventually come out:

“Coming home was the thing; it made you a real New Zealander. You only went away to splash yourself with the heavy cologne of Old Culture before suffocating in it: that’s when you turned back to the bracing fresh air of home.”

Suffocate in that cologne of Old Culture I did: sometimes after a day of reading at the Bodleian my hands and pores would be coated with the thick orange grease of disintegrating leather, from mouldy book bindings. And now that I’m back, I’m still rather enjoying the bracing fresh air of home. Some tell me it will wear off soon, but I wonder if things have changed; as when I sit here at Devonport Library, surrounded by young people from England, Germany, Sweden and the US, tapping on their keyboards and reading books about NZ. The dilemma of “should I stay or should I go” is theirs to deal with now, not mine.

Anyway, does anyone still wear cologne? And maybe the bracing fresh air of the Hauraki Gulf or the Cook Strait is what the world needs these days.