How far the house and culture of home making has evolved, from our ancestral cave dwellers to Grand Designs and other weekly exposes.

Through the ages, the house in whatever form has stood as shelter and the focus of family life and ritual. If placed in multiple groupings it becomes community. An integral part of being human.

The capacity to dream has expanded the notion of house over the millennia. Perhaps taken for granted as a place of the day-to-day, the house is far from an ordinary idea.

How the New Zealand idea of house has evolved as a cultural artifact is an interesting story.

Ngamatea Homestead by John Scott

The whare of native origin was low tech, built of local material and skill. Infused with the function of shelter and story telling. Taking over where the cloak left off as a mediator between the body and an environment from which comfort was hard won. A cloak with foundations, conceived as an extension of the body in space. Followed by the ubiquitous utilitarian cottages and sheds. By necessity of place and time, simple in form and function.

The European and other settlers brought with them also tradition and preconception of house. A roof, four walls, a front entrance, a rear entrance, some windows, a roof shaped so, a hearth. Composed and constructed using the technology and style of the time – Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Modern, Post Modern etc. The story has grown, yet ask a child to draw a house and what do they unequivocally produce?

The fusion of mana whenua ideas, farmyard utility, immigrant memory, fantasy, available resources, technology and skills have coalesced into what has come to define NZ domestic architecture.

The house reaches deep into our consciousness through time to our collective memory. The links deeper perhaps than we realize as we visit yet another open home. A loaded concept, the house is symbolic of our psyche and an expression of our self; but at the same time a status symbol and a means to economic advantage.

What is a house in Hawke’s Bay?

In the popular mind, the image still remains of house in landscape, not house in community. Is that the Hawke’s Bay dream? This image of solitude harks to our pioneer days perhaps, but is also an image tied closely to our consumer culture and dreams of success. House and success are entwined as a measure of status, an expression of self and wealth.

So, the house is much more than just shelter from the elements. It is hard to disentangle what is a complex web of economics, supply chains and politics that has shaped our idea of house. The cave, with life centered around the fire, has become life centered around television, market economics, potential capital gain and image. The hunt with spear has been replaced with a weekend looking at open homes.

Real estate is the one basket most Kiwis put all their eggs in, an approach that continues to have numerous risks. No matter the economic cycle, our psyche is all about house ownership. Dinner party snippets re latest valuations, the addition, the choice of bathroom tile, reverberate throughout the nation. Either we are making money, losing it or on the way to either outcome via our ideas about one of the most basic human needs, shelter.

The majority of the Bay house building starts are in the new suburbs such as Arataki, Frimley, etc. They generally lack that specific sense of uniqueness or place that one would expect as a product of Hawke’s Bay climate and culture.

If there was one thing I couldn’t give up in my Hawke’s Bay house it would be the ability to effortlessly move from outdoors to in. The Hawke’s Bay house modulates the space between interior and exterior. At times acting to blur the two. At other times giving precedence to one over the other as clearly the better choice for habitation at any particular time. The extremes of season managed via intelligent design. It enables inclusion of nature where it can and turns its back when necessary. It is exactly whatever we need it to be.

What are we building?

A survey of NZIA National awards over ten years shows there to be four winners in Hawke’s Bay. Of those projects only two of them for houses, and one of those an enduring architecture award for a house built in 1974. That houses have only been national award winners twice over the last years is interesting.

One is the Te Mata House by Auckland firm Stevens Lawson; the other is the Warren and Mahoney-designed Foster House in Havelock North completed in 1974.

Heretaunga, a carved house of Taradale

Both these projects fit the stereotype of large house in the landscape. Both houses carefully modulate and control the relationship to the outdoors. Outdoor rooms are created in both projects. Rooms suited to Hawke’s Bay summer. Interiors imbued with warmth for winter frosts. Carefully placed in the landscape. Exquisitely crafted. Worth well over the million dollar mark. Iconic New Zealand architecture.

Local awards are much more generous to residential architecture, but not at the expense of standalone dwellings, rural or semi-rural in nature, or beach houses. An exception would be Rod Drury’s town house in Havelock North, a 2012 winner. Of the new houses built in the Bay annually, there is generally a very low turnout for buildings designed by architects. The competition provided by Horvath et al proving too much for the average punter trying to maximize his square metres in pavlova paradise.

Designer homes

The majority of New Zealand housing was built in a couple of key periods – 1920s, post-war 1950s and 1970s. The new suburbs created in those eras were not the exclusive domain of the group home builders. The quantity of architect-designed homes in the 60s and 70s was quite a remarkable compared to today. The likes of John Scott, Barry Sweet, Peter Holland, Len Hoogerberg, Guy Natusch and Paris Magdalinos were all busy in the new suburbs of the Bay, building ‘dream’ homes for ordinary people, not just for doctors and lawyers.

A generation later, the game has completely changed. A drive through any of the new suburbs will illustrate quite clearly that ‘design’ has been put on the backburner. Cookie cutter cottages inhabiting cookie cutter streets that could be anywhere provide the market with adequate shelter, with streets providing plenty of room to maneuver for cars.

Designer houses are left as an elite luxury to park next to the Audi. Learning from the experiments of the past seems largely lost. The trickledown effect, if any, to the suburb makers has seemingly dried up.

What should we have learned from the pioneers of house design in the Bay? What makes a John Scott house still a sought after proposition? What makes a stay at any of the Black Barn houses so popular? A sense of the aesthetic and beauty. An understanding of how a building might manage that interface between human need for shelter and for dreaming. Celebration of the landscape and modulation of the interior/exterior experience.

Get the basics right in our houses, perhaps the city will follow.

The challenge for the housing industry, territorial authorities included, is to somehow get back to where we were and, when considering an opportunity to build, reinsert some of the dream into what is on offer to the mass market.

The real estate agents as usual tap directly into the universal vein – Living the Hawke’s Bay Dream … Paradise in the Hills of Havelock North … More than just a place to live.

How that dream gets translated into an affordable model is the key.

It is the business of the architect to harmonise the world of necessity with the world of romance. A Home is not a ‘machine to live in’ as some of the Moderns claim. A Home is an extension of Ourselves and just as man does not live by bread alone so his Home must have a Soul as well as a Body.”
~ James Walter Chapman-Taylor

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