Big House, Small House, New Homes by New Zealand
Architects, the latest book by John Walsh and
photographer Patrick Reynolds, shows why New Zealand's
residential architecture is so well-regarded. Here's an
When architects are
asked about the generators of a particular project, they
usually refer to the site and the brief.
Well, of course: it almost goes without saying that a
building's location and purpose influence its plan and form.
It's true, no site is quite the same as another, and all
clients have their idiosyncrasies, but still, most answers
roll, responsibly, along these two main tracks. Sometimes you
hope for a reply that heads off in another direction, along a
branch line to somewhere surprising. But architects are so
used to accusations of waywardness that they've trained
themselves to keep their answers to the straight and narrow.
So, it is rather arresting to hear architect John Blair
discuss the journey to this house above Lake Hayes. And, no,
he's not using a metaphor that, nowadays, is more eye-roller
than eye-opener; he's being literal. Blair says he conceived
of this house, which is not the client's primary residence,
as much as a country house as a holiday house.
What distinguishes a country house from an urban or suburban
house, he says, is a sense of arrival. There's something
ceremonial about the progress through a rural property to the
house at the end of the drive. Here, Blair plays up the
anticipation of getting there by routing the approach through
a hillside vineyard, postponing and masking views of the
destination, a strategy coincident with local planners'
desire to render rural houses as invisible as possible.
''There's a staged arrival that tempts you forward,'' Blair
''You get glimpses of the house, you know you're getting
closer, and then finally you're there.''
The house is entered from the top, at the level of its roof,
via a wide staircase that descends into a courtyard that
leads to the front door and then flows through to the house's
upper gallery level.
More steps go down to the lower level, a long pavilion
housing the kitchen, dining and living areas. It's all
carefully choreographed, this last bit of the trip, to create
a dramatic conclusion.
From the carpark, all view; then, in the courtyard, no view,
or at least, only through-views; then, inside the house,
framed views, all along the west elevation, across the lake
and up to Coronet Peak: ''A whoosh of panorama'', is how the
architect puts it.
Visitors don't just turn up at the door of this house;
they're funnelled from wide open spaces - and the topographic
overload of the Crown Range, Cecil and Walter peaks, and
Arrowtown to the north, down on the valley floor - into the
In the manner of grander country houses, the walk to the
front door allows ample time for visitors to marshal their
Blair has been in the architecture business for many years;
he has run his Central Otago-based practice for more than
four decades. That's long enough to have started in
modernism, gone through a protracted post-modernist phase,
and then well and truly come out the other end.
He hasn't quite gone full circle, although this house in form
and plan sits comfortably in the modernist tradition. But,
through the stages of his styles, Blair has always been a
grid guy, the outward appearance of his buildings
Post-modernism was a movement whose influence was always
skin-deep; its mannerist facades could co-exist perfectly
amicably with rationally ordered interiors.
This is a house of rectangles, as linear as the rows of vines
planted around it. Dug into and stepping down its sloped
site, it keeps its head down. Clad in schist and zinc - a
latter-day manifestation of the stone and tin composition of
the miners' huts from the gold-rush days - the house has a
Blair has spent a career coming to terms with the Central
Like a guest challenged at the entrance to a marae, any
serious architect designing in Central has to recognise and
respond to the demands of place. Early Blair houses in the
region were quite assertive structures; in the face of alpine
grandeur they presented an upstart cockiness.
That's one way to talk to all those mountains; this house is
The language of the house is that of reconciliation, not
competition. The contours of the land continue through the
house; the terracing is expressed internally by the
upper-level gallery that runs along the top of the pavilion,
from the owner's quarters at the north end of the house, to
the guest bedrooms at the south.
An unfenced drop from gallery to living level nicely
emphasises the terrace reference.
Outside is also brought inside by the continuation of schist
walling through the heart of the house.
Blair has flirted with cliche here, but manages to avoid the
dreaded Central Otago schist applique look, in no small
measure because of the quality of the stone work.
Raked joints suggest dry-stone walling and a striated effect
has been achieved by cutting the edges of the stones with a
Guillotine: now there's a word to stop you in your tracks.
Together with the handsome reproduction of Turgot's famous
1739 bird's-eye map of Paris hanging in the house's gallery
level, it prompts ancien regime thoughts, and a comparison of
privilege across the ages.
Modern Queenstown and its environs are hardly strangers to
inequality; indeed, Central Otago seems to be shaking down to
a two-class society: the rich, both citizens and foreigners,
and those who serve them.
This condition is expressed by an architecture of
intermittent occupation. So much amenity, such infrequent
use. What a house like this deserves, you can't help
thinking, is more permanent habitation.