Wellington architect Gerald Parsonson muses on the evolution of New Zealand architectural styles from north to south. Photo Paul McCredie.
Architecture at its most basic level provides shelter and comfort for human beings. But ultimately it is driven by our dreams and aspirations. Over the last few thousand years, there has been infinite debate about architectural language. The discussion spans proportion and decoration-based classicism to ‘form follows function’ modernism. every approach in-between has been sieved through different cultures to create diverse and localised variations.
To me, the language of buildings is in the way they relate to their occupants and environment. They speak through the articulation of spaces, structure, forms and materials in the same way a painting speaks in the way paint is applied to canvas. Success is measured through how these are arranged and what their cumulative effect conveys.
Reading a culture’s architecture reveals a huge amount about that culture. So what do our buildings say about us?
Designed for the climate
I think New Zealand Architects have been developing a confident and distinctive architectural language that begins to speak uniquely of ‘people’ and ‘place’, especially in housing. It is interesting to consider how this language varies across the country based on regional climate and culture.
To my mind, Pacific Rim architecture embraces lightness, stick structures, warm climate, natural ventilation and connection to the outdoors. This is often seen in northern parts of New Zealand as expressed by Herbst Architects. Then the further south you travel, the more this lightness gives way to a language of insulation, solidity and shelter.
There have been periods in our history when architects have developed clear and unique approaches. This has been strongly demonstrated by the Group Architects, Christchurch Brutalism, Walker and Athfield in the 70s and 80s. In later times, there has been a run on modernist architectural housing. I feel much of this veers into shades of beige with flat roofs and an air of similarity.
Creating memorable buildings
Architecture becomes more powerful and memorable when architects tap into the uniqueness of context, site and client. A building may pick the rhythms of its environment. For example dark coloured syncopated and vertically layered wooden cladding on a structure might relate it to a forest. Fearon Hay’s Mountain Retreat within a beech forest is cut into a schist mountainside, with entry made through steps in its gravel-covered roof between thick schist walls. The work of Stevens Lawson Architects often has an elegant sinuous, sculptural quality that conveys its own personality and relation to context.
Architects of similar generations often employ similar languages whereas great architects invent new ones. Today there are so many new technologies available with a growing lack of restrictions in articulating form. Budget is often the main constraint. However even this has evolved into another defining attribute of New Zealand architecture: the ability to develop robust and articulate architectural language on the smell of an oily rag.
Sketches of different architectural styles
Buildings can be layered in many ways: vertically, horizontally and materially. Layering is one way of relating a building to its context. In a rural setting, a layering of roofs and walls may relate to lines of trees and fences and allow a flow of spaces from outside to inside. In a tight urban site or forest setting, the layering could easily be vertical. As well as layering form, materials and structure can be regarded in the same way to add further resonance and richness. Sketch of Martinborough House, Parsonson Architects.
Box forms are common in architecture from ancient times to the modern day. A Great Barrier beach house by Fearon Hay (left) consists of two box forms supporting a flat roof between. Here the boxes have a character all of their own. They are made of dark stained regular ply sheets, referencing DIY bach construction but are put together crisply. Perforated metal shutters on the same rhythm open up the box filtering the interior spaces in a magical way. Sketch of Waiheke House, FearonHay.
The main building material in the Pacific Region has been timber. It is readily available, economical and sustainable. What’s more, building with it is fun. Buildings can be raised off the ground, touching the earth lightly or to facilitate construction on steep sites. Sticks can be used as cladding (weatherboards) or layered to form screening from sun and wind, and draw relationships with the way light filters through trees.
Pitched roof forms are the most prolific of all building forms covering most houses in New Zealand. They are the most practical, economic way of providing shelter and can be shaped in infinite ways and convey different meanings. The Shoal Bay House sits in a rural setting, reading as a true rural building. Its roof has a gentle pitch and walls are layered to allow ventilation. Sketch of Shoal Bay bach by Parson Architects.
New Zealand has many different landscapes, from mountains and rural pastures to forests and coastlines. Historically we have built ‘object buildings’ – that is buildings that stand apart from their context, villas, cottages or modern suburbia. An alternative approach is to create a poetic relationship with the landscape, engaging in a conversation with the subtleties of the location. This produces buildings that are far more ‘of their place’. The illustration here is of an un-built scheme in Otago by RTA Studio. Solid stone walls anchor it into the landscape with contrasting lighter forms that are folded and fractured speaking to the wider environs. This same approach can even be applied to high-density inner city situations to generate appropriate architectural language. Sketch of house by RTA Studio.
Walls are how we usually define space, both inside and out. A floor plan is a plan of ‘walls’. In a house this arrangement defines a pattern for living or the bones of the house. Walls and holes in walls edit how spaces interrelate with each other and the outside.
The dramatic cliff side house in the sketch by Fran Silvestre is made of entirely plain white walls inside and out. Even the roof reads as a folded over wall. These walls and openings are expressed clearly and precisely and create a sculptural architectural form. Contrasting this is an economical house in coastal Pekapeka, where walls have been carried up past the roof to divide the house into three pitched roof forms allowing straightforward construction. These walls are clad in modular battened fibre cement sheet for economy. But this adds rhythm and creates a connection with the local baches. The exterior cladding flows from the outside through to the inside. Sketch of house design by Fran Sylvester.
The roof and wall can be considered as one surface shaped, cut and folded to articulate spaces, create form, provide privacy or open up to views. Of the two examples shown here, the first is a bach in Waikanae whose shape hints at the local ‘A’ frame and 50s houses. The folded form expresses how it peers out over the dune tops to Kapiti Island. The second example is a house on a very tight inner city Wellington site. The cut and folded roofs develop a relationship with the more traditional houses in the area, provide privacy with the adjacent south neighbour and at the same time, allow light and sun inside and focus the view onto the harbour. Sketch of Salamanca House, Parsonson Architects.
I opened Parsonson Architects in 1987, and we started with house alterations and additions. This gave me the opportunity to look at the work of architects I admired and study how they assembled their buildings. The practice now works on predominantly new housing and we are starting to look at slightly larger projects.
We are interested in weaving buildings into the New Zealand context, creating work attuned to local climate, local character and the client’s dreams. We feel amazingly privileged to create structures in this beautiful country. Parsonson Architects.