Life in a 1960s Welling­ton home by Bill Toomath

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY Thomas Seear-Budd

Hid­den be­hind a mod­est tim­ber gate, down a nar­row dead-end Welling­ton street, lies a gar­den sanc­tu­ary con­tain­ing one of New Zealand’s enig­matic ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures. This el­e­vated tim­ber re­treat is a place of reverie in Mt Cook, nes­tled high be­tween the twisted limbs of the sur­round­ing na­tive bush. As the tim­ber gate closes with a sat­is­fac­tory clunk, the hub­bub of bustling Cuba Street fades be­hind a tall fence, shield­ing a gar­den wilder­ness of burnt oranges, vivid reds and calm­ing greens. A steep flight of steps leads to a mod­ernist house de­signed by Bill Toomath, which I am lucky enough to call home. Toomath died in 2014. Born in Lower Hutt, he com­pleted his Masters of Ar­chi­tec­ture at Har­vard Univer­sity on a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship. He was taught by Pritzker Ar­chi­tec­ture Prize lau­re­ate I.M Pei, a Chi­nese-born Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect who de­signed the Lou­vre’s Pyra­mid and Hong Kong’s Bank of China build­ing, among many other no­table struc­tures. Toomath then worked with Euro­pean mod­ern mas­ter Wal­ter Gropius, and later with Pei in New York. Af­ter his re­turn to New Zealand in 1954, Toomath de­vel­oped an in­spir­ing body of work in part­ner­ship with Derek Wil­son, which in­cluded his own house on Mt Vic­to­ria, com­pleted in 1964. The duo also de­signed the Welling­ton Teach­ers’ Col­lege, Wool House in Feather­ston Street and this crim­son tree-top re­treat in Welling­ton’s Mt Cook, all of which have re­ceived NZ In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects’ awards for en­dur­ing ar­chi­tec­ture. The Mt Cook re­treat was an early project for Toomath and Wil­son, de­signed in 1956 for a Mr and Mrs Dob­son, who had no chil­dren but did pos­sess a grand pi­ano. The house was com­pleted in 1960. To­day it is owned by Auck­land-based mu­seum con­sul­tant and con­ser­va­tor Rose Evans and her hus­band, ar­chi­tect Ken Davis, who moved to Auck­land in 2005 and now rent the house to ap­pre­cia­tive ten­ants, who have in­cluded cre­ative types such as ac­tor Ben Chap­lin, a vis­it­ing ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor and dig­i­tal ef­fects staff for Weta Dig­i­tal. Through a stroke of luck, this ex­quis­ite piece of modernism has since be­come the home I share with my part­ner, Talia Carlisle, and two close friends, Re­becca Mor­ris­sey and Peter Fal­loon. Climb­ing the steep flight of steps to the blue front door is a daily tran­si­tion from my work life at a busy ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dio to the calm­ing en­vi­ron­ment of our refuge in the trees. With ev­ery step, client meet­ings and loom­ing pre­sen­ta­tions fade. I also take pho­to­graphs, and de­cided on a slow, med­i­ta­tive process to cap­ture the ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in Toomath’s se­cluded re­treat. Pho­tograph­ing the house has made me even more aware of the in­ti­mate con­nec­tion Toomath cre­ated be­tween our daily lives and the ever-chang­ing land­scape, and how his use of clean lines, a sim­ple form and el­e­gant ex­pres­sion of struc­ture con­trasts with the or­ganic and wild land­scape. Rather than adopt­ing some of his mod­ernist men­tors’ ideals that a sin­gu­lar ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign can be ap­plied to any site, Toomath’s work il­lus­trates his ap­pre­ci­a­tion and re­spect for the con­straints and unique qual­i­ties of the land­scape. Much like his own home in Mt Vic­to­ria, Toomath’s de­sign for this house re­sponds to the steep site by pro­ject­ing half the struc­ture through and above the tree canopy. It re­lies on four braced posts for ad­di­tional sup­port, form­ing a del­i­cate con­nec­tion to the soil. As a coun­ter­point to the soar­ing can­tilever, the other half of the house rests on an ex­ca­vated plat­form, form­ing a more an­chored bond to the earth. The home’s crim­son ex­te­rior was likely in­spired by the deep red walls and white trim of Scan­di­na­vian farm build­ings and the way they con­trast with the sur­round­ing land­scape. There is a mo­ment of com­pres­sion as the blue front door swings open and you step over its thresh­old. More than a tran­si­tion space, the cor­ri­dor con­tains a long in­built side­board with open shelves be­low. Orig­i­nally de­signed for the Dob­sons’ large col­lec­tion of books and art­works, th­ese sur­faces are now adorned with our own pieces and there­fore our per­son­al­i­ties in the home, which was al­ready fur­nished when we moved in. Spa­tially, the cor­ri­dor is an in­te­gral el­e­ment of Toomath’s plan, as it forms the spine of the house and bound­ary be­tween the in­ti­mate, cave-like bed­room spa­ces and the ex­pan­sive liv­ing spa­ces perched high above the slope. The util­ity rooms, kitchen and sec­ondary bed­room run along the south­ern edge of the spine, tucked un­der­neath the low­est sec­tion of the mono­pitch roof, while the main bed­room, liv­ing and din­ing ar­eas slip un­der­neath the roof’s peak, pro­ject­ing five me­tres dra­mat­i­cally into the trees. By can­tilever­ing th­ese spa­ces high above their nat­u­ral sur­rounds and glaz­ing the en­tire north­ern face in a Mon­drian-es­que com­po­si­tion, Toomath nur­tures the con­nec­tion be­tween his ar­chi­tec­ture, our lives and the land­scape. Me­an­der­ing through the free-flow­ing, in­for­mal and over­lap­ping din­ing and liv­ing spa­ces, Toomath’s ex­pan­sive vista through the north­ern glaz­ing is un­veiled. A slid­ing par­ti­tion and in­te­rior glass wall blur the edges be­tween the liv­ing spa­ces, al­low­ing Toomath to bring the ex­posed land­scape and in­un­da­tion of light back into the cor­ri­dor, kitchen and din­ing ar­eas. The glass par­ti­tion be­tween kitchen and liv­ing not only stim­u­lates a vis­ual con­nec­tion be­tween th­ese spa­ces, but re­flects the light, colour and tex­ture of the land­scape, fur­ther an­i­mat­ing the in­te­rior. Out­side, the view takes in the in­ner city, the Na­tional War Me­mo­rial Car­il­lon, the har­bour and the Hutt Val­ley. Be­ing able to live here and pho­to­graph it over time has brought me closer to this vista and the land­scape around the house. With or without my cam­era, I have be­come more aware of the chang­ing sea­sons and their in­flu­ence on the land­scape, week af­ter week. From time to time I find my­self sit­ting at the edge of the glass with a cof­fee and a book, sip­ping and watch­ing the land­scape tran­si­tion from full canopies of vi­brant greens, to bright oranges, vivid reds and ul­ti­mately naked branches. Like the leaves, our time in Toomath’s crim­son mod­ernist box may not be per­ma­nent, but it has brought us so­lace. It has be­come our sub­ur­ban refuge, our place of calm, our life in the trees.

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