At one with its location

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 edited extract.

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 says.

''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 enclosed courtyard.

In the manner of grander country houses, the walk to the front door allows ample time for visitors to marshal their manners.

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 notwithstanding.

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 certain implacability.

Blair has spent a career coming to terms with the Central Otago landscape.

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 another.

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.

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.