A way of living

By Paul Litterick In Books

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The house was built on a coastal site in Auckland’s Stanley Bay. Photo/Paul McCredie

Jeremy Hansen’s introduction to Modern: New Zealand Homes from 1938 to 1977 quotes an enthusiast of the modernist movement from 1943: “There is a striking new feature in our national life which when war-time activities cease will manifest itself with increasing force: it is a strong desire for better and truer types of homes – homes designed with charm and artistic fitness and a realisation of how deeply they are capable of affecting the well-being of everybody and the joy of life to all.”

This was a time in our national life when we more concerned with living than with property.

The young moderns, recent graduates of the Architecture School at Auckland University, were concerned with the home more than any other building type. They saw a landscape of dull brick-and-tiles, decayed bungalows and rotting villas. They saw that these were in styles imported from overseas, from Britain and America, that these houses were assembled from mass-produced parts by builders, with little consideration for local conditions. They longed for an architecture that was both modern and of New Zealand, simple and straightforward like the homes of the pioneers, before prosperity and decadence took hold.

The modernist enthusiast was a contributor to Home and Building, a forerunner to Home, of which Jeremy Hansen is the current editor. Until the 21st century, the magazine was published “under the auspices of the New Zealand Institute of Architects”. It was a propaganda title, really, one designed to persuade New Zealanders to commission NZIA members to build their new homes.

A mezzanine study, designed so Howard Newcomb could work from home, overlooks the main living area. Photo/Samuel Hartnett

Hansen and I are talking in a cafe in Auckland University’s Kate Edger Centre. The building is certainly modern – glass and steel, with sliding doors and a high-tech finish; machine-like. But the buildings we are discussing in Modern are nothing like that. They are modest and calm, made of wood and sometimes brick, and often with less glass than one might expect. They hardly could be called machines for living in. They are a different kind of modern. The building in which we talk was built after post-modernism; it is modern but self-consciously so: it knows modernism to be one stage in the history of architecture, one that came to an end but then was risen from the dead when PoMo had run out of things to say and poses to strike. The buildings we discuss were built when we were modern, when there was no possibility of being anything else. Their modernism is innocent and sincere.

The years after the war were an age, before the Oil Crisis and the European butter mountain, when many New Zealanders could afford an architect. Hansen is rather pleased that some of the houses in his book were built for “potters and teachers”. These are not “hilltop mansions visited for three weeks a year by their millionaire owners” but homes designed for everyday living. Several of them are still the homes of their original owners, and among these are homes designed and indwelled by their architects.

Bill Alington in the dining area, in which he lowered the height of the dining table and the window transoms to create a sense of greater spaciousness. The ‘Brno’ chairs by Mies van der Rohe at left are a reminder of the architect who inspired the home’s design. The sofa in the foreground is by Ernst Plischke, and the ‘LCM’ plywood chair is by Charles and Ray Eames. Photo/Paul McCredie

So who are these people and what do they want? Part of the fascination of this kind of book is to see in the photographs how people dwell and the stuff they have accumulated over the years of dwelling. Bill Alington, the architect of the Met Office in Wellington, sits in the dining room of the home he designed, a small home with many paintings and many chairs. His wife, Margaret, sits with her laptop at a built-in desk in one of the bedrooms. There is a kind of precision to living in houses of this kind. Hansen says they mould their owners to them. There is none of the boundless opportunity of the glass boxes on beaches of the one percent, with their acres of empty space and their multiplication of features. There is no pizza oven, no barbecue pit and the only dining table is in the dining room. These are people who somehow manage without a blackboard in the kitchen for writing inspirational messages and reminders of activities (Hansen mentions a woman who was selling her house and so had her friends write notes about imaginary events on the kitchen blackboard to make her life seem more interesting). These are people seemingly able to live as themselves, rather than as display.

These people seem to be those the English writer Michael Frayn once called “herbivores”: politically liberal, cultured and gentle. Their way of living, back in the day, was one they wanted everyone to be able to enjoy. They subscribed to the Listener and to Landfall, and hoped everyone might one day do the same. There are few of them left and few of their homes survive. One home in the book, Peter Middleton’s Lomas House, was saved from the demolition desired by its new owners by an enthusiast who offered to buy the house and move it from Hamilton to the shore of Lake Rotorua.

This home was a contemporary response to Brake’s request for a Japanese style house. Here, a stylised tearoom hovers over a cloud of magnolia branches. Photo/Becky Nunes

Some have been altered, Hansen says, with “appropriate care and sensitivity”, although this writer remains to be convinced. The Clifton Hill House in Sumner, designed by Ernest Kalnins in 1965, has been given a fashionable stone garage and a stockade fence. It stands as a commentary on our times: the original house is open and full of light, welcoming and looking out to sea; the external additions on the landward side are like a fortress. Ours is a more frightened society than theirs.

But Hansen’s book shows other ways of being at home in the modern world.

“This house works for me because it makes me feel like I’m living in the ’50s and in a cartoon world, which is what I want,” says the owner of Vladimir Cacala’s Tapper House in Kohimarama, Auckland, who works in television and drives a Chrysler Imperial LeBaron. While the herbivores acquired or made works of art and craft over decades, he has filled his house with bric-a-brac: dusky Tahitian maidens painted on velvet, coloured glassware and that coffee table you threw out years ago. The original owners would have cried into their chilli con carne.

There are no empty houses in this book. In his introduction Hansen reveals that, when a largely unfurnished house was to be photographed, “stylists” were hired to provide furnishings, so as to “re-create a sense of how these homes might have appeared in their heydays.” This was not a good idea. The modernist tradition, followed by Home and Building, was to photograph houses empty, often at night with all the lights blazing. The house style of Home is to show the house inhabited by its occupants. The styled recreations are in an eerie place in-between, of rooms sparsely furnished with exemplary pieces of modern design and also, incongruously, furniture from the lower end of the market. Had Ingmar Bergman directed a situation comedy in the ’50s (At Home with the Existentialists) the set might have been similar.

The home’s top floor is elevated on a steel girder frame and topped with a hyperbolic paraboloid roof that guides light and air into the central core of the upper level. Photo/Paul McCredie

But at least without the distraction of the chattels of the owners, we can see the architecture. When Nikolaus Pevsner, the great architectural historian, came to New Zealand in 1958, he gave a radio talk for the NZBS and his script was published in the Listener. He observed, “now – what appears to me most praiseworthy in these new houses is the planning, ingenious ways of placing and surrounding the staircase, and ingenious intercommunication of rooms on one or on several levels and also at least in one case an ingenious placing of the whole house across a narrow section so as to get the maximum benefit out of it.” This ingenious planning is evident throughout the book. New Zealand architects, many of them immigrants from Europe, knew how to create space and solve problems.

And this book, which was made possible because Hansen and his predecessor had commissioned photosets of mid-century houses for the magazine, provides plans. Most are the architects’ own, bits of history in themselves. Books of this type seldom include plans, but they show that the editor takes the reader seriously. Plans allow the reader to put the house together from the photographs, to see what goes where, to walk around, to be free from the tyranny of the image. This book also includes some supporting illustrations, like William Sutton’s painting of St Sebastian, tied to a tree and wearing nothing but his undershorts; Sutton’s model was the designer of his home, Tom Taylor. The accompanying text tells us that artist and designer remained friends.

Most of the writers are architectural historians who will be familiar to readers of recent architectural books; some though are the owners, who contribute their own histories of dwelling. Many of the houses will be unfamiliar; Hansen’s choices are often outside the canon of New Zealand architecture. And many are in places not noted for their architecture.

When Nikolaus Pevsner came here he was asked whether he could see a New Zealandishness in our architecture. He found that in modern houses, “built honestly of local materials for a client who – like all New Zealand – is neither rich nor poor but comfortably off; and built within that client’s money.” A lot has changed since then; New Zealand is no longer comfortably off and now most of the houses featured in magazines are built less than honestly of synthetic materials for clients who are very rich and probably not very honest. Many of the modernist houses of the 1950s have been demolished and replaced by what Hansen calls “bloated, forgettable dwellings”; much that is built today is full of “flabby, poorly planned spaces that ignore basic modernist precepts such as the careful management of light and ventilation”. Hansen is too polite to say so, but many of the homes of the rich are simply vulgar.

This book then, provides some nostalgia for a kinder and more sensible age. It also gives some hope for the future. Not only might houses of this type be appreciated and preserved by their owners and by the local bodies, but perhaps some of those modernist precepts, of honesty and planning, might be observed again in new houses. But even if they are ignored, this book broadens our understanding of the modernist house in New Zealand, showing the work of architects who are little known and the culture of an age that has not been forgotten but has been remembered badly.

Modern: New Zealand Homes from 1938 to 1977, Random House, $75.

Paul Litterick is a PhD candidate in the School of Architecture and Planning at Auckland University, who has written a thesis about architectural writing in New Zealand.

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