Modern: New Zealand Homes from 1938 to 1977, by Jeremy Hansen (Godwit, 2013), 352 pp., $75.00
There is something fundamentally wrong about the oxymoronic idea of ‘retro modernism’, but this desire to recapture the essence of mid-century architecture is what has driven design taste here for the past quarter century. It has been one of the most sustained and at the same time unselfconscious periods of revivalism in recent architecture because it has never really felt like a revival. The reasons are made abundantly clear in Jeremy Hansen’s handsome volume Modern: New Zealand Homes from 1938 to 1977, which draws on the magazine HOMES that Hansen also edits. The houses stubbornly refuse to age, a factor ensured by the founders of modernism who were determined to design for the age of the airliner, the car and the radio, not the country squire or the Renaissance prince. Even the earliest house in the book, Robin Simpson’s compact timber pavilion in Greenlane, shrugs off its 75 years with insouciant ease. This is an acknowledgement that one of the primary ideas of modernism actually worked out the way that designers intended. These houses are fit for a modern existence, whether lived now or in the age of our grandparents. It is quite a feat to perform with a designed object that is fixed in its time of creation and is therefore worth reading about.
Hansen locates this fascination for the mid-century in his own experience of visiting a house by John Scott built near Hastings in the early 1970s. The young Hansen’s epiphany was that there were houses that were very different to the villas and bungalows that made up the principal stock of the nation. To this writer growing up on the North Shore in the 1960s, visiting similar places was like going to the movies and being absorbed into another world much more attractive than everyday reality. Details of open-riser staircases, Scandinavian furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows bored deeply into the child-mind, where an alternative New Zealand quietly germinated. It seemed urbane, sophisticated and informal, whereas so many local buildings seemed to be grudgingly received gifts from another generation whose taste belonged to another era. Ever the observant student of good modern houses, Hansen steered me towards my own contribution to the book, Warren & Mahoney’s Rutherford House, that sits well outside the firm’s expected sphere of activity in the Dunedin suburb of Belleknowes. With the devastation wrought on their work in Christchurch, the presence of an intact early Warren & Mahoney house elsewhere in the country is like finding a Degas under the bed.
The selection opens with Tibor Donner’s own house in Titirangi, built in 1947 on the proceeds of an architectural competition for the Savage Memorial. Born in the old state of Austro-Hungarian Empire and arriving in Auckland at twenty, Donner received his architectural training at the Auckland School of Architecture under its first Beaux-Arts trained head, Professor Cyril Knight. In this sense the house relates to the hand-hewn textures of Donner’s Hungarian contemporary Marcel Bruer, with its extensive use of rough stone masonry and irregular forms. The house flexes on a gentle arc in the way that old European villas conformed to their sites while being reshaped around changing domestic needs. It is a very human form of modernism that denies the straight line along with the rigid orthodoxy that looked to be the least desirable part of the new architecture. The variety in the rest of the book draws the reader in like a favorite album.
Cedric Firth’s 1958 house for the McKenzies in Ngaio was more the sort of thing that could be seen around the North Shore in the same era, and provided my own introduction to the modern house. A mezzanine is lofted up into a double height space and pulled into family home shape by setting the stairs at a right angle to the linear plan and extending the bedrooms in a line with a small bathroom interposed between. The intersection of axes and voids and views to the garden create the sort of light-filled spaces captured in both Paul McCredie’s and Patrick Reynold’s superb photography throughout the book. I imagine moving through the house to be a constant pleasure, just as it is to leaf through the pages of Modern. Pity those who do not see the romance in a patterned concrete-block screen, a wall of plywood panelling or a kitchen divider.
The early image of the New Zealand modern house has become somewhat fixated on the approach of Vernon Brown in Auckland whose low-slung creosoted boxes, often with a bright white corner bitten out of them, became an instantly recognisable architectural genre. English-born Brown’s considerable influence at the Auckland School of Architecture in the 1940s was paralleled in Wellington where European emigrés settled and found work with the government and building industry.
The brief biographical notes on the architects are revealing. Czech Henry Kulka was taken on by Fletcher Construction, following formative experience in Austria with the architect and critic Adolf Loos, writer of the compelling and now classic essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1913). The internationalism of the small timber modernist house has tended to be pruned off the local nationalist myth surrounding this vernacular bach-type form in New Zealand, and Julia Gatley reminds us that Kulka was doing similar work to the Halberstam house in association with Loos in the 1930s. It was the beginning of a local branch of modernism that grew to challenge and even overwhelm the slightly stale streamlined art deco that lingered from the late 1930s.
Confusingly for architectural history buffs, there were two New Zealand modernist architects with the unusual name of Reginald Uren (pronounced ‘Wren’). The older of the two was active in Britain from the mid-1930s and responsible for the Hornsey Town Hall and various London Underground stations, while the other was busy around Wellington in the 1960s. The house at Raumati, designed by the Wellington-based Uren for his graphic designer brother Ronald, is one of the unanticipated highlights of Modern. A mixture of Californian Case Study house, Japanese modernism, and Mies van der Rohe pavilion, it conjures impressive space out of a sequence of horizontal planes and vertical panels of concrete, pebbles, basalt stone, wood and glass. It could be a mess, but it is a revelation. You would not know that local domestic architecture had ever reached this height without its inclusion in the book.
The selection continues in a similar vein, leading us into a series of beautiful spaces that are part of a disturbingly fragile heritage. Who but the unrepentant lover of modernism would be happy in a bedroom of unpainted concrete block furnished with a double bed and a wooden chest as found in the John Scott house for the potters Bruce and Estelle Martin? Not for everyone, certainly, but Hansen’s carefully curated subjects show a consistent regard for the emotional feel of modern architecture through a range of sensations, from monkish asceticism to joyous arm-waving. This latter tendency can be seen at full flight in architect Don Wilson’s own house in Whanganui, where Joan Miró-like amoeboid blobs writhe invitingly across the entrance wall. That Whanganui should possess this house, its natty little modern airport and Newman, Smith and Greenhough’s War Memorial Hall, is a treat for the architectural tourist and a good reason to turn off the highway and then carry on to Palmerston North and New Plymouth, places that enjoy similar unspoiled riches.
The projects enable the reader to see that modernism was not a narrow and formulaic philosophy limited to the major centres, but a flexible container for ideas that were both internationalist and local, generic and personal, ambitious and restrained. Recent research has provided me with a catalogue of Ernst and Anna Plischke’s personal library (thanks to Linda Tyler). All of the valuable architecture books were taken out and redistributed before the list was made, leaving what the architect read for pleasure in New Zealand and carried back to Austria in the 1960s. Humorous titles like How to be an Alien suggest that Plischke was trying to understand his unusual situation in New Zealand. The Henderson House in Alexandra shows this struggle to adapt to the cultural and physical climate of New Zealand in the post-war period. It is difficult not to see the house as a product of an international design culture that links New Zealand with iconic designs such as Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House, built only four years earlier in Palm Springs in 1946. While Tyler recalls typical modernist reluctance to discuss influences, it is more that Plischke and architects like Neutra were contemporaries facing similar circumstances rather than master and disciple. We are reminded, with Henderson House, of the connectedness of modern architecture.
If this review sounds like one of the many polemics for modern architecture issued at the time, it’s not coincidental. It is difficult to look at the projects Hansen has assembled and not feel that change was under way and progress being made. The notion that many of the houses were regarded as unconventional at their time of construction also appeals to the desire not to conform to an ordinary suburban existence. To be able to buck regular taste in something that is rebellious, practical and highly comfortable at the same time is a rare and special treat that a few fortunate owners will get to enjoy. Since the publication of the book, the custodians of similar properties have been in contact with each other to compare houses and the shared experience of ownership, suggesting that books still have the ability to draw people together in the age of online networks.
In praise of Godwit and Random House’s fine book production, it was a pleasure to loosen the dust jacket and see the pale linen cover with its impressed stencil type. It suggests a sensory and aesthetic relationship with the subject that only a book can fully offer.
MICHAEL FINDLAY is a Professional Practice Fellow with the Department of Applied Sciences at the University of Otago. He was formerly Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts at Auckland Museum and collections curator at the Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin. His research interests are the relationship between visualisation and design history; British and New Zealand modernist architecture; Italian product design; and modern decorative arts in general.