Houses and homes, Robin Skinner

Group Architects: Towards a New Zealand Architecture
Julia Gatley (ed)
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869404666

 

Home Work: Leading New Zealand Architects’ Own Houses
John Walsh and Patrick Reynolds
Godwit, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869621667

 

Sixty years ago The Group were the firebrands of New Zealand architecture, and many knew it. Their First House of 1950 gained national publicity as a radical project by architecture students who were co-operating to create a new architecture for this place. They aimed to produce climatically appropriate, economical houses of local materials, which addressed and challenged the lifestyle of the post-war New Zealand family. In the decades following their demise, a significant mythology built up around their projects.

The early 1990s saw a renewed flurry of interest in their work when the Auckland City Art Gallery exhibited a one-to-one scale model of part of the First House. In architecture school design studios, adept students increasingly referred to examples by The Group, while guest critics cited the same precedents for their own contemporary projects. Perhaps it doesn’t need stating that a good deal of plywood was specified.

Nevertheless, while it was known that The Group centred on the charismatic figure of Bill Wilson (1919-1968), knowledge of the fluid membership was vague, and foggy notions of the practice’s output often prevailed. There were detractors as well. Some from an older generation would confide that The Group did interesting work … although not much of it, while others opined they were local tearaways, or that they did nothing new. In addition to the standard criticisms made of 1950s homes – small kitchens, lack of storage and minimal insulation – there were rumoured structural defects, complaints of poor acoustic performance, and a chair design was said to be unstable.

Despite substantial writing on The Group over the last 15 years, some murky understanding remains. It is most fortunate then that Julia Gatley has embarked upon this present multi-authored project – Group Architects: Towards a New Zealand Architecture. With access to the Group Architects Collection that has built up at Auckland University since the late 1980s, she has produced an exhaustive and masterful work, which resolves many of the misconceptions and prompts a thorough reconsideration of their work through the two decades of practice.

Plans and early images are reproduced, along with Simon Devitt’s and Paul McCredie’s recent photography, which together significantly boost the standard of architectural history book production in this country. The volume charts the course of the student “architectural group” in 1946 and the successive practices which operated under three company names between 1949 and 1968. With nine contributing authors, it soundly examines the students’ second-year writings, noting the sophisticated intent of their manifesto call for a New Zealand architecture, while resisting commentary on its naive contradictions. Design projects are examined along with essays addressing pertinent aspects relating to The Group’s production.

In 1949, some of the students formed a company with an expressed aim of putting their principles into practice, producing a series of now canonical experimental houses. Although Brenda Vale’s chapter now debunks the economy and thermal performance of The Group’s First House, Gatley and Bill McKay clearly communicate how that split-level, open-plan house with exposed rafters was so revolutionary in 1950. In its various forms, the practice went on to produce some 250 designs. Readers familiar with the Auckland scene will be surprised at the extent of their work, with many unknown (and sometimes ungainly) projects now documented for the first time. Gatley soundly explicates design approaches and concurrent typological investigations, which extend understanding of our (not necessarily Group) post-war domestic architecture.

Identification of individuals’ work within the practice prompts readers to consider how the designers bounced their schemes against one another’s projects. Gatley’s identification of the extent of Wilson’s interest in the Maori houses is especially noteworthy. Interesting personalities emerge from The Group cohort, with polymath Bruce Rotherham (who notably is recorded to have queried some Group mythology) clearly demanding further study. In its first decade especially, The Group was firmly rooted in the Auckland milieu of Vernon Brown, A R D Fairburn, Bob Lowry et al, and some readers will be drawn to follow up the literary-cultural nationalism of the 1940s and 1950s which is touched on several times throughout the book. Wider issues are also expanded on: the chapter “Buildings for the Sub-tropics”, in particular, offers insightful observations on New Zealand’s broader architectural condition; while in the final chapter Paul Walker and Justine Clark perceptively ruminate on the development of New Zealand’s architectural canon.

Overall, the book gives a very positive account of The Group’s endeavours, which may explain why the varying criticisms their work attracted are not explicitly charted. For example, the antagonism raised by the Architectural Group’s 1946 single-issue magazine Planning 1 is not discussed. While several of the book’s authors quote Fairburn’s enthusiastic New Zealand Listener cover story on the First House, no one comments on the antagonistic letters that followed, nor mentions Fairburn’s own reservation on the exterior composition.

On the other hand, the book makes no reference to how The Group’s mission eventually gained an implicit endorsement from the 1971 Commission of Inquiry into Housing in New Zealand. With illustrations of Group projects of the mid-1950s, the commission bemoaned that while The Group’s attempts to simplify house construction and planning had resulted in significant impact on other architects’ work, their projects had not impressed “a nation somewhat conditioned to meretricious symbolism in house design”. Despite this observation, over the last four decades the impact of The Group has spread, and now – with the addition of Gatley’s superb volume – can only extend further.

John Walsh’s and Patrick Reynolds’s Home Work: Leading New Zealand Architects’ Own Houses is an architecture book with a different role. It documents 23 homes designed by New Zealand architects for themselves and their families. The houses are illustrated with Reynolds’s exemplary photography, while Walsh perceptively introduces each case study before presenting a lengthy interview with its architect. As Walsh states in the book’s explicating introduction, he embarked on this project because he found when producing his previous work, New New Zealand Houses (2007), that architects’ own homes were not only personal, they were autobiographical, “showing what their architects liked … [and revealing] quite a bit about what their architects are like”. In addition to two apartments, an urban rooftop addition and a double town house development, featured works mostly comprise low density stand-alone houses for the nuclear family.

While most of the designs have been previously published, not all New Zealand architectural publications incorporate in-depth interviews with designers about their featured projects, making this book an especially worthwhile undertaking. Walsh’s pertinent and productive, targeted questions allow interviewees to give lengthy, revealing and compelling commentary on their projects, values and family life. Readers gain rewarding insights into the processes at work when an architect designs and creates a home.

Reynolds’s sumptuous photography presents portraits of the homes and their commanded views; however, pointedly, there are remarkably few shots showing the buildings in their wider urban contexts. Long shots are presented in rural settings while this does not often occur at the city sites. With many of the architects discussing the importance of context in their design, text and images bifurcate.

It is especially fitting that Reynolds is involved with this project. His mother was a member of the Architectural Group who later went on to report on low cost housing and requirements for women and the elderly. In 1980 she prepared a book with Stephanie Bonny featuring the homes of 50 New Zealand architects. As Walsh and Reynolds note, Living with 50 Architects was the forerunner of their Home Work. It was a more modest undertaking in production terms, with mostly monochrome images, limited description and plans drawn at a similar scale. Many of the houses presented were developed out of the architectural language promulgated by The Group in the 1950s, which befits a book that was aimed to help readers determine what kind of house they wanted to buy or build. With its contemporary focus on the architect as creator, Home Work has a different agenda.

 

Robin Skinner lectures on architectural history in the School of Architecture at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Architecture, Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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