When the architects of the group built their experimental home in Takapuna in 1950, they set a distinctly New Zealand mark of modernism, incorporating light timber construction, a low pitched roof, a free plan and the interpenetration of interior and exterior space. Later in the decade, Miles Warren, first in the famous Dorset Street Flats in Christchurch, then in a series of houses in Christchurch and the surrounding neighborhoods, developed a domestic idiom that retained the group’s innovations in plan and connection with the exterior, but also embraced the sense of mass that only masonry construction could provide. Low-pitched roofs have been replaced with traditional gables and ridge lines, derived from contemporary Scandinavian domestic architecture as well as homes inspired by the arts and crafts of the inner Christchurch suburb.
Modernism’s capacity for evolution is challenged by the post-modernism of the 1980s, where gratuitous and often awkward references to classical tradition roughly overlap with what remains a fundamentally modernist approach to design. The shams of postmodern classicism have now, for the most part, been abandoned. Since the mid-1990s Modernism has reaffirmed its position as a philosophy of design, but now that the heroic modernism of the 1920s and 1930s has been recorded in history, to be re-examined in books and major exhibitions such than the Modernism of the Victoria and Albert Museum: Designing a New World, its principles have fundamentally changed. While the modernism of the early twentieth century sought to change the world, today it has become the architecture of the establishment: the avant-garde fragility of the Group’s Experimental House has been transformed into the assured substance of the modern house from the beginning of the 21st century. . Just as the glass-walled office tower became the architectural hallmark of corporate capitalism in the 1950s, so in the domestic sphere, modernism took on new meanings.
Christchurch Wilson and Hill architectural firm has achieved considerable success with a series of meticulously detailed and well-designed grand houses that meet the challenge of exploring contemporary modernism, a tautology that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Their homes on Carlton Mill Road (2001) and Thornycroft Street (2003) each received NZIA New Zealand awards, as did their recently completed home on Clyde Road (2006). The Clyde Road house, much to the rear opposite the University of Canterbury, was built for a professional couple with a large family. The generous rectangular land is approached by a surprisingly wide tree-lined driveway, at the bottom of which the angular mass of the house rises beyond a wall of concrete panels that separates the private garden from the paved forecourt.
The house itself is essentially L-shaped. A spacious circulation spine runs the length of the main wing, its length highlighted by a reflective basin of similar width that extends eastward. in the garden. Prefabricated cantilevered staircases lead up to the first floor at each end of this space, eliminating the need to walk from one end of the house to the other to access the upper level. Along the north side of the major axis is the formal reception area, the kitchen and the scullery, as well as a spacious double-height living room. This opens to the north to a family room with a covered outdoor dining area beyond. Storage space, a formal dining room, and a home theater are found to the south of the gallery-like circulation space.
On the upper level, a string of children’s bedrooms extends along the main east-west wing, separated from the parent bedroom wing by the void in the living room. This separation is reinforced by the mode of access to the master bedroom, through a glazed bridge, which also forms a gallery at the east end of the living room. The lack of visual substance of this drawbridge-like feature, suspended in space beside floor-to-ceiling windows, induces a sense of psychological unease, though safety is never compromised. A similar sense of risk is induced by the five-meter cantilever from the master bedroom, which forms the canopy above the outdoor dining area. The visual support for this element, a series of slender and widely spaced pilings, once again reads insignificant, despite reason dictating that the structure is up to the task. From the outside, the master bedroom reads as a separate unit, clad in gray aluminum panels and hovering above the fully glazed family room below. The visual lightness of this wing contrasts with the solidity of the main living room and bedroom wing, which is constructed of thermomass concrete panels with a dark gray terrazzo coating above.
The exterior palace toned down from unpainted concrete, terrazzo, and aluminum cladding is emphasized by the use of Timaru’s bluestone paving which extends the narrow color gamut in the garden. Inside, visual warmth is provided by American white oak used for the floors in the living areas, except for the formal seating and dining areas. Quarter-sawn white oak is also used as a wall surface along the north wall of the circulation gallery and for fitting out living and family rooms. Extending the continuity of the exterior aesthetic, terrazzo is used for the fireplaces inside, while the aluminum cladding of the master bedroom wing wraps around the interior wall it shares with the living room. This material repetition further signals the unobtrusive and pod-like nature of the wing. At any time, it seems, it could break loose and fly away.
Another notable feature of the exterior are the solar screens, vertical against the north and east walls of the living space, horizontal along the north-facing bedroom windows. The screens themselves are made of white, translucent glass, which protects from the sun while reflecting diffused light into the rooms beyond. When illuminated at night, the screens glow softly. Such details are indicative of the thoroughness of the architects’ approach to overall design, which has evolved over two years. The extra two years it takes to build the house indicates the unusually demanding construction process, more akin to that of a commercial building than that of a house. It also means the efforts of the architects to perpetuate the house with advanced electronic systems, which integrate lighting, security and audio functions throughout the building.
The architects and their clients worked together on furnishing the house, ensuring that there were no conflicts of architecture and applied art that could easily undermine the most carefully crafted plans. The collaboration between architect and artist Bing Dawe resulted in a custom-made rug from Dawe’s Eels & Shags (Migration) series, created by Dilana Rugs, for the living space. The vast interior wall surfaces of the house call for additional works of art of this scale and daring; in their absence, the interior spaces seem inhabited but not yet fully inhabited.
Despite all the attention Wilson and Hill have given to creating a livable environment capable of adapting to Canterbury’s climatic extremes, while still preserving the connections between indoor and outdoor spaces, the indefinable quality of the domestic realm remains rather elusive. Is it a function of the scale of the house, of the rigor of the plan with its precise differentiation of zones, of the carefully controlled palette of materials, or simply of the tyranny of the right angle? Even in their most rigorous form, the early masters of the modern movement recognized that houses demand a certain expression of play, a certain quality of the unpredictable and the irrational. For example, the Tugendhat House by Mies van der Rohe (1928-30) in Brno, Czech Republic, used a wall with sultry curves as a space divider. Le Corbusier also recognized the power of curved shapes and ramps that crisscrossed the space, as well as the value of the juxtaposition of coarse and unfinished materials with immaculate surfaces.
The interplay of sensuality and precision in early Modernism architecture is also apparent in the work of David Chipperfield, the contemporary English architect who has been a permanent point of reference for Chris Wilson. As Chipperfield himself has recognized in his own works, the rough textured masonry of Mies’ 1920s Berlin houses and the spiral staircases of Le Corbusier’s early villas are as much a part of the legacy of Modernism as the allegiance of movement to the aesthetics of the machine. No architect has recognized the potential of Modernism to open up dead ends more clearly than Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect Wilson clearly admires. Yet even Wright’s most problematic houses of the late twenties and early thirties, which have some connection to the work of Wilson and Hill, have a spatial complexity that transcends rational analysis.
The legacy of modernism remains problematic. In its name, the core of large cities was destroyed and hectares of soulless mass social housing built, but modernism also inspired buildings of undoubted virtuosity and expressive power. Since modernism seems certain to remain a source of powerful ideas for contemporary architects – in New Zealand as elsewhere – for the foreseeable future, it is essential that attention be paid not only to the rationalism that has been used to validate the architectural revolution of the 20th century. , but also to the underlying contradictions of modernism – to its richness and complexity, and to its underlying irrationalism.
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