De­sign note­book

Q&A with ar­chi­tect Ross Jen­ner

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You’ve de­scribed the house as a slight re­ac­tion to Claude Meg­son. What would he make of the place?

It was less of a re­ac­tion to Claude than a re­al­i­sa­tion I was fi­nally over the in­flu­ence of his do­mes­tic de­sign classes at univer­sity. Claude’s de­sign ap­proach was largely based on or­gan­i­cally in­ter­sect­ing ad­di­tive units. Af­ter that, I dis­cov­ered Loos and Kahn’s ap­proach – not of ad­di­tion but sub­trac­tion – ex­ca­vat­ing and hol­low­ing spa­ces out of a sin­gle mass. Claude was very happy with the de­sign when he came around and in­stantly wanted to de­sign the land­scap­ing!

What does the court­yard form have to of­fer Auck­land?

Auck­land is still try­ing to fathom medium-den­sity hous­ing. There are rea­son­ably good ex­am­ples of ter­race hous­ing based on UK and Aus­tralian prece­dents but good ex­am­ples of ‘car­pet’ and court­yard hous­ing haven’t re­ally been ex­plored. The usual model is to put de­tached sin­gle fam­ily houses on ever-di­min­ish­ing plots with noth­ing to look at but one’s im­me­di­ate neigh­bours look­ing back. Putting the void in the mid­dle al­lows for pri­vacy, much more in­ter­est­ing pa­tios, and much less wind.

The de­sign called for sig­nif­i­cant earth­works – why don’t more New Zealan­ders do this?

There seems to be a pho­bia about ex­ca­va­tion, which re­quires tank­ing and all sorts of moves that are re­garded as risky, es­pe­cially by de­vel­op­ers. Con­crete slabs and piles al­low for a colo­nial myth of ‘touch­ing the ground lightly’, to use Glenn Mur­cutt’s phrase, but not nec­es­sar­ily se­ri­ous en­gage­ment with the ground or land. The ideal of the pav­il­ion is pre­dom­i­nant.

You favour a house with shad­ows and walls rather than a lot of glass. Why?

I pre­fer houses that de­velop in­te­ri­or­ity and in­trigue rather than bland ba­nal open­ness all around. Walls cre­ate shad­ows which can be sources of mys­tery and, when white, they fos­ter re­flected light which tends to bring shade and shadow alive. Glass is the en­emy of in­te­ri­or­ity and in­ner life. Ar­chi­tects and stu­dents in New Zealand have been read­ing In Praise of Shad­ows by the Ja­panese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki for more than 30 years but very few have man­aged to digest and im­ple­ment his find­ings in de­sign. The houses of Māori and Pa­cific cul­tures in­tu­itively fos­tered dark­ness. Be­sides, it is im­pos­si­ble to have a li­brary and fur­ni­ture which are not bleached out by ul­tra­vi­o­let light. To para­phrase the Ger­man writer, Wal­ter Ben­jamin, glass does not fos­ter cul­ture.

The two houses form a com­pound – first with your par­ents and now your brother. Are there any draw­backs to liv­ing in such close prox­im­ity?

We’ve yet to dis­cover any draw­backs. When the chil­dren were young, my par­ents de­lighted in see­ing them and the chil­dren would grav­i­tate up the steps to them when the par­ents were pre­oc­cu­pied. Both houses are self-con­tained and I can go weeks with­out see­ing my brother or his fam­ily.

9. Court­yard 10. En­try 11. Bath­room 12. Void 1. Bed­room 2. Study 3. Laun­dry 4. Wine cel­lar 5. Bal­cony 6. Din­ing 7. Kitchen 8. Liv­ing

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