John Wil­son

The Min­istry of Works ar­chi­tect de­signed only three houses in his ca­reer: for his brother, he cre­ated a ma­jes­tic home among the trees.

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text Aimie Cronin


The orig­i­nal house on the sec­tion was a bach. It was the 1970s and the pop­u­lar­ity of Taupo as a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion was re­flected in the baches spring­ing up around the town. When Len and Ruth Wil­son and their three daugh­ters vis­ited the prop­erty with the view to buy it, they saw be­fore them more than 1000 square me­tres of na­tive trees with lit­tle room to build and some­where, up high, the pos­si­bil­ity of a view to the lake. They took it. They shifted the bach to Waita­hanui, where the fam­ily lived un­til their new house was built. Len wanted his brother John to de­sign the new house. John, an ar­chi­tect for the Min­istry of Works, first in the power di­vi­sion and then the ar­chi­tec­tural of­fice, had only one pri­vate project be­fore that, a cot­tage-style house on the Thames coast for his fa­ther. He re­mem­bers vis­it­ing the Taupo site and want­ing to nod to the sig­nif­i­cant ar­chi­tec­tural lan­guage in the town: “I was en­am­oured with the idea of it be­ing a col­lec­tion of hol­i­day baches bun­dled to­gether into that form,” he says, “a sense of baches that rose up among the trees.” It was a com­pletely charm­ing, if com­pli­cated, idea. Len and Ruth em­braced the plan when John made them a balsa wood model to ex­plain the com­po­si­tion. There were a few de­sign as­pects to con­sider, along with the tight­ness of the site: Ruth had grown up on a farm and was used to cook­ing large roast din­ners, so she wanted what was then the lux­ury of a big wall oven, and a small mar­ble bench­top to roll pas­try. She also wanted a snug in the house, as John says, “to be able to sit in the fire”. Len, a forestry con­sul­tant, re­quested that his brother de­sign him an of­fice some­where in the space. John had his own pet peeves: in par­tic­u­lar, he dis­liked the idea of the dou­ble garage dom­i­nat­ing a house – “I find that just ghastly” – so he buried the garage un­der­neath, which had the added ef­fect of push­ing the house fur­ther up to­ward the view. He

also didn’t like frosted win­dows in bath­rooms, and made sure they were re­flected glass. John fret­ted at the po­ten­tial cost of his de­sign and re­mem­bers his brother say­ing, “Look, boy! You get the de­sign right and I’ll worry about the money.” The house was com­pleted in 1977 and won an NZIA Branch Award in 1982. “Now I look at it,” says John, “and I think how could I ever have done that?” De­spite his ob­vi­ous de­sign abil­ity, John never set up in pri­vate prac­tice as an ar­chi­tect, and he only agreed to de­sign one more home in his ca­reer: a house in the Cash­mere Hills in Christchurch with a series of mono-pitches at dif­fer­ent an­gles, us­ing con­crete block and tim­ber. Other than that, he re­mained with the Min­istry of Works for 35 years. “I be­came a public ser­vant, be­cause I didn’t want to be an elit­ist. I wanted to do good de­sign for peo­ple who couldn’t nec­es­sar­ily af­ford good de­sign.” Chris and Kathy John­ston are the third own­ers of the house, and have lived here for 15 years. At first sight, Kathy knew she wanted it to be the house in which she raised her two sons. Says Chris: “We lucked out and found a trea­sure, and our role has been just to main­tain it.” The pre­vi­ous own­ers had painted many of the walls pink. “It was the 80s,” says Chris, by way of ex­pla­na­tion. Other than paint­ing the walls and re-car­pet­ing, the cou­ple has done very lit­tle to the house. They know snippets of its his­tory. Some­one told them that the place was called Toad Hall, and in­deed, there had been a sign next to the door with these words be­cause Len of­ten re­ferred to his daugh­ters as toads. They’ve al­ways as­sumed the home was con­sid­ered to be ‘out there’ in its day, but John doesn’t re­call the re­ac­tion from out­siders. He says that his broth­ers’ friends were an arty and pro­gres­sive crowd who no doubt em­braced it.

Both Chris and Kathy are keen art col­lec­tors and when I vis­ited them, the tour was grand be­cause of the work that sits in the house and the house in which it sits. A sub­lime cou­pling. The house it­self is com­pletely de­void of wide-open spa­ces, and around ev­ery cor­ner there’s a sur­prise space that has been de­signed with a spe­cific pur­pose, to be en­joyed at cer­tain times of the day and year. “You grav­i­tate to the fire in win­ter and in sum­mer you grav­i­tate up top to the light and sit out on the deck for din­ner,” says Kathy. Each room has three points of light, with wraparound decks and large doors that open to the trees. The house feels ut­terly time­less and Kathy and Chris are of­ten asked if it has just been built. There’s a strong use of tim­ber with matai ceil­ings, rimu cab­i­netry, and black tim­ber braces that in­ter­cept the rafters, partly de­signed to help the span of the rafters but to also add, as John puts it, “to the woody feel”. “It seems to be get­ting bet­ter with age,” says Chris. The cou­ple re­mem­bers los­ing sleep when they fi­nally de­cided the orig­i­nal kitchen was well over­due for ren­o­va­tion: they wor­ried about not do­ing jus­tice to the grand de­sign. It is, by mod­ern stan­dards, a rel­a­tively tight space, but they ended up keep­ing it to scale, and adding mi­nor touches such as stain­less steel bench­tops and up­dated hobs and ac­ces­sories. (The mar­ble bench­top for rolling pas­try re­mains.) The of­fice space that John’s brother had re­quested is a fea­ture of the house and was de­signed with Len’s forestry ca­reer in mind, up a small spi­ral stair­case: it feels like be­ing in a tree hut. “He had to climb a pine tree to get to his study,” says John. “It was a play­ful idea in re­la­tion to his busi­ness.” The house takes a lot of work to look af­ter. “Even chang­ing a light bulb is hard work,” says Kathy. “You have to get up lad­ders – it’s a total labour of love. You have to love a house like this to live in it – and we do.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy Paul McCredie

Pre­vi­ous page An Eames lounge chair and ot­toman by Charles and Ray Eames for Her­man Miller sit in front of the fire. Right Ar­chi­tect John Wil­son re­calls be­ing en­am­oured with the idea of bas­ing his de­sign on the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar; ref­er­enc­ing the col­lec­tions of hol­i­day homes that were ris­ing up and bun­dled to­gether. Fac­ing page A com­pli­cated de­sign on a tricky site, the house was com­pleted in 1977 and won an NZIA Branch Award in 1982.

Above right The sculp­ture on the din­ing ta­ble is ‘Push Me Pull Me’ by Nick Dry­den. Above ‘Cass’ by Derek Hen­der­son, taken at Waitoa Freez­ing Works, hangs in the stair­way to the tree-hut of­fice. Left The pho­to­graphs that hang be­tween the tim­ber beams in­clude work by Yvonne Todd, Derek Hen­der­son, Ava Sey­mour, Gary Baigent and Peter Bush. ‘Coloni­sa­tion’, the sculp­ture on the shelf, is by Harry Wat­son.

Be­low left The home’s third and cur­rent own­ers, Kathy and Chris John­ston, fret­ted over the much-needed kitchen ren­o­va­tion, not want­ing to stray far from the home’s de­sign. The wall-hung oven con­cept and mar­ble bench­top have been re­tained in what is a rel­a­tively tight space. A piece by Fane Flaws hangs on the far wall. Be­low ‘Col­o­niza­tion’ by William Dun­ning hangs above the Dan­ish cre­denza. To the right of the bird house by Perry Davies is a sheep’s head by Sean Craw­ford. Right The pumice and clay sculp­ture on the ta­ble is by Wi Taepa. The so­fas are from Si­mon James.

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