Banbury House

Fashion is a wonderfully reassuring phenomenon. It guarantees change and innovation and it creeps up without many of us oldies realising what is going on. And while fashion is always recycling, only a narrow view insists that it is just repetition – every wave is the same but also different. So while modernism is back, it is back with a twist and in the last Architecture New Zealand Malcolm Walker with his accurate antenna picked up the current fashion for long thin boxes.

As Walker’s cartoon suggests, buildings do not functionally organise themselves into long thin boxes, so one way of achieving the requisite thinness is to divide the building to make two long thin boxes instead of one thick one. The boxes are then joined by some sort of link or third element as a kind of negative detail blown up to gigantic size. Might we call this the ‘linked box’ style? It is seen in the Lockwood houses of Peter Bossley, the Bay of Islands house of Fearon Hay and regularly in student designs. It is having the cake of closed rooms while eating modernism at the same time.

The rationale for the boxes is usually the traditional sleeping/living distinction but this is so often compromised one way or another that it is hard to argue the arrangement is functionally, and not formally, driven. However it is reassuring to have formal issues again taken seriously. The origin of the long thin boxes is obscure but one suspects that (as usual) Koolhaas is in the vicinity. If we were into fanciful explanations we might say the link is the resolution of the dualism of the boxes and the making of a triadic structure, but this is bound to be regarded as far too theoretical. In any case two boxes with a gap between suddenly seems as insistent as the current desire for the midriff gap in clothing – essential, it seems, regardless of weather.

When we visited this Northland house by Jill Shepherd and Aaron Sills the weather was lousy but this seemed appropriate as in some ways this is a house about weather. The visitor is greeted by blank wall (carefully disguising the garage doors) with weatherboards that are weathering to a soft grey. Water was running down the face of the zinc open channel downpipes and although there was a cold wind off the sea the house was sitting in its own patch of calm air. The layered pancake rocks are reflected in the weathered boards.

This raises the issue of site. We architects talk about ‘the site’ as if we know what we mean and it seems that we always have to acknowledge the site in some way. This is a kind of remnant of contextualism long after the theory itself has been abandoned. The site is paid homage to as a kind of permission to proceed with the design and the argument goes that architecture is the construction of site. Its proper concerns are the endless search for significance and the attempt to inscribe indelible lines on the land.

The Banbury house draws its lines down to the rocks, over the pohutukawas and out to the horizon where Sail Rock and the Hen and Chicken Islands are distantly silhouetted as in a nineteenth century painting.

The two boxes are said to relate to the rocks on the site. The boxes are playing with the view – one eye opened and one closed. One box opposes the hill like a thin slice of a dunehopper bach, while the other slopes down to the sea with the bedroom in the end. Low windows frame the beach from the bed. The sea end of the dunehopper accommodates the living room and the high end of the sleeping box a garage and mezzanine loft. The house backs into the hill and points to the sea.

The link creates a cross axis on the terrace which is cut and filled into the hill. In spite of the best advice of engineers the hill proved unstable and the house now anchors itself and the hill. This terrace accommodates entry carparking with the guest house opening off it and on the northern side of the house an outdoor area opening to the sun. The link attempts to be a neutral element but it is also the centre of the house. This empty centre, containing the kitchen and dining table is, both inside and outside, stepped down from the boxes. Like all connections it also serves to keep the elements apart. The affluent house separates and divides people while less affluent dwellings impose the pleasures and dangers of togetherness. Certainly the link divides the outside areas into two courtyards one open to the view and one cut into the hill looking at the view through the transparent link.

The New Zealand house has been characterized by its centrifugal nature, always gazing outside itself, as maybe New Zealanders themselves do. It is the opposite of the reflective courtyard house associated with many other cultures. It seems that the occasional appearance of a courtyard house (from Hackshaw to Patterson) is always notable. The closed courtyard at the rear of the Banbury houses does not quite make this a courtyard house because the entry arrives in it having punched through the sleeping box. From here the entry slips sideways through the glass wall to the link. This is reminiscent of entering a bach through the ranchsliders and the informal Kiwi version of hospitality that this implies.

It is good to see courageous clients putting their work in the hands of young architects and they have been rewarded by professionals who have put their energy and commitment into the project. Attention is given to the details in this house from construction to joinery down to the crafty wickerwork and steel entry gate. The care, control and restraint is admirable. As is usual these days the house was produced entirely electronically and it was also designed not by, but rather with, computer communication between the architects. At times one was in Australia and one in New Zealand. This is a much discussed aspect of computer use. In the virtual studio, proximity ceases to be of any importance. So why is everyone tearing around the place so much?

Mike Austin


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