Ross Jen­ner

An ar­chi­tect aca­demic de­signs his own court­yard home with both views and in­tro­spec­tion in mind.

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text Si­mon Far­rell-Green Pho­tog­ra­phy David Straight


At first blush, the house of Ross and Chris Jen­ner seems like a fancy or a folly, some kind of post­mod­ern neo-clas­si­cal in-joke.

When it was built in 1985, it bore lit­tle re­sem­blance to a New Zealand house – and even less re­sem­blance to the ver­nac­u­lar tra­di­tion of small, tim­ber build­ings that had de­fined the coun­try’s ar­chi­tec­ture for the pre­vi­ous four decades. Thirty years on, its white plas­ter forms and lay­ered in­te­rior spa­ces still seem some­how for­eign, glam­orous and deeply ur­bane: twin col­umns reach up through a dou­ble-height void and down to the ground floor be­low, mar­ble tiles cover the floors, and the walls are painted chalky white. There are in­tri­cate mar­ble ‘gar­goyles’ to drain wa­ter from the tops of tall con­crete walls, and tall con­crete posts that reach to nowhere, like some re­claimed Ro­man ruin. The top of the garage is a pond, so that when you come down the drive­way you’re pre­sented not with a roof but a shal­low pool of wa­ter that re­flects the square front façade of the house. The round door han­dles open not against any­thing so pro­saic as a door stop, but slip snugly into holes drilled into the walls be­hind them. And yet, it’s so deeply prag­matic. Ross and Chris moved to Auck­land in the early 1980s af­ter trav­el­ling around Europe and a short pe­riod liv­ing with Ross’s par­ents in Dunedin. The Jen­ners se­nior fol­lowed shortly af­ter, sell­ing up in Dunedin and sug­gest­ing that the four of them build two houses on one site. They even­tu­ally found a steep bank of a site in Re­muera with views out to Mount Welling­ton. “When I first looked at it I won­dered how the hell you could even put one house on it, let alone two,” says Ross, an aca­demic at the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s ar­chi­tec­ture school. Jen­ner’s mother was in a wheel­chair, which led to him de­sign­ing a house for his par­ents on one level at the top of the site. He gave it a sim­ple asym­met­ric roof that ran down to a small court­yard cut into the home’s north­ern side, and a pro­nounced chim­ney. In re­sponse, Jen­ner had to keep the foot­print of his own house

as tight as pos­si­ble, which meant dig­ging down into the site to make room for three storeys of house and a small, shel­tered court­yard with a pond at one end. Auck­land, Jen­ner in­sists, sits at a sim­i­lar lat­i­tude to Athens and Casablanca, where com­pounds built around walled court­yards are com­mon­place re­sponses to the in­ten­sity of light and prox­im­ity of neigh­bours. While Auck­land doesn’t have their tem­per­a­tures, it does have a sur­pris­ing amount of wind and, with its never-end­ing suburbs, there are neigh­bours wher­ever you look. “We’ve got pretty good steep light and it pen­e­trates well,” says Jen­ner. “But be­cause of the Bri­tish tra­di­tion and Kiwi shack mythol­ogy, ev­ery­one wants to have a box, rather than turn it all in on it­self.” Jen­ner’s plan­ning for the site was driven by a sin­gle idea: to pre­serve the views of Mount Welling­ton. He moved his house as close as pos­si­ble to the north­ern bound­ary, cre­at­ing a di­ag­o­nal open­ing across the site that be­came a paved stair crab­bing its way down the slope; con­nect­ing and di­vid­ing the two houses, one above the other. The dif­fer­ent forms are united by a sim­i­lar, care­ful use of win­dows and white plas­ter walls. This has led peo­ple to think of the house as some kind of homage to Greece, which be­muses Jen­ner: “I just like white mod­ernist houses.” To reach their house, you wan­der down blue­stone steps – “I wanted ev­ery­thing to be vol­canic”, he says – be­tween white plas­tered walls, lead­ing to the dou­ble-front door that opens into a dim hall­way, be­fore en­ter­ing into a light-filled dou­ble-height space. The guts of the de­sign is formed from three squares, each roughly four me­tres by four me­tres. One square takes the bal­cony and the din­ing room, with a dou­ble-height void that’s lit by a long, nar­row sky­light that runs the full width of the room be­fore run­ning down the north­ern wall. The se­cond box is

the liv­ing room; the third the court­yard, cut away like a ruin. Down­stairs, there’s a bed­room and Jen­ner’s study. Up­stairs is the main bed­room, which opens into the void, along with a se­cond bed­room and the bath­room. The three storeys are con­nected by a tight stair­way and the smallest land­ings pos­si­ble, while the kitchen, laun­dry and bath­room are stacked up above each other so the plumb­ing can fol­low the short­est pos­si­ble dis­tance. The plan, Ross jokes, was a re­ac­tion to Claude Meg­son – who Jen­ner stud­ied un­der in the 1970s – known for com­plex, tightly wound ge­ome­tries. “It’s ab­so­lutely ra­tio­nal,” he says. “I wanted ev­ery­thing ra­tio­nally laid out – square and calm.” In Septem­ber 1985, the Jen­ners moved into the house when it was half fin­ished and be­fore it had been painted. Painstak­ing job by painstak­ing job, Ross has spent the in­ter­ven­ing 30-odd years fin­ish­ing it off him­self. There was the sum­mer of 1986 when he spent weeks cut­ting up two trailer loads of mar­ble tile, largely left over from the con­struc­tion of the Re­gent Ho­tel, which he then laid through­out the house. He has plas­tered, painted, fixed win­dows and built a wine cel­lar. One day, he’ll add a per­gola to those col­umns and grow a grapevine for year-round pro­tec­tion. Ross’s mother died in 1997; his fa­ther in 2002. For a time, their house was rented to tenants and now, Ross’s brother Ted lives there. No one has ever been both­ered by the prox­im­ity of the two houses – in fact, his par­ents de­lighted in hav­ing their grand­chil­dren around as they grew up, run­ning up and down the stairs be­tween the two houses. But you do also sus­pect the ar­range­ment works be­cause he re­sisted putting too many win­dows into those tall con­crete walls – choos­ing in­stead to care­fully mod­er­ate light and views, as well as neigh­bours that now in­clude three town­houses on their north­ern side. “Oth­er­wise there’s just too much glaz­ing; you don’t ap­pre­ci­ate in­te­rior space,” he says. “I think sit­ting in­side away from the world is re­ally im­por­tant.”

Left Since mov­ing in 30 years ago, the ar­chi­tect has laboured over nu­mer­ous de­tails – from plas­ter­ing to paving – in fin­ish­ing the home. Right The home’s stacked squares open to the court­yard through tall doors. The de­sign is of­ten mis­tak­enly thought of as be­ing un­der a Gre­cian in­flu­ence. Rather, Jen­ner sim­ply likes white mod­ernist homes.

Above Twinned col­umns run up through the dou­ble-height void. Ross Jen­ner be­lieves in de­sign that en­cour­ages an in­ward fo­cus – re­treat­ing from the out­side world is im­por­tant, he says. Pre­vi­ous page The white-painted ex­te­rior is carved by lines and con­trasted by shad­ows.

Left Jen­ner’s plans were driven by the de­sire to pre­serve views of Mt Welling­ton. The scene from the din­ing area takes in Wa­iatarua Re­serve and Re­muera Golf Club. In the dis­tance is Mt Welling­ton. Left and be­low Jen­ner’s mar­ble ‘gar­goyles’ are el­e­gant, rather than typ­i­cally grotesque.

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