A pas­sage of time

A con­tro­ver­sial Wanaka farm­house de­signed by Ash­ley Muir in 1973 has stood the test of time

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — Matt Philp PHO­TOG­RA­PHY — Si­mon De­vitt

Farm­houses rarely ex­cite ar­chi­tec­tural con­tro­versy – at least, not at the level oc­ca­sioned by this home, built 45-odd years ago at Rip­pon, on the western shore of Lake Wanaka, for the pi­o­neer­ing wine­mak­ing Mills fam­ily. An­chored to the brow of a steep – and at the time, mostly bare – es­carp­ment by me­dieval-style raked but­tresses, the mud-brick build­ing came as “a bit of a shock to some peo­ple”, says ar­chi­tect Ash­ley Muir, of Dunedin-based firm Ma­son & Wales. The NZIA judg­ing panel didn’t even make it to the front door. “A cou­ple of ju­rors said that a house should never have been al­lowed there; they drove straight out of Wanaka.” Half a cen­tury later, it’s dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand the con­ster­na­tion. Both struc­ture and site have soft­ened and fused; vines now climb the but­tresses, which seem less like foun­da­tions, more an out­growth of the land. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, Rip­pon has been trans­formed into an in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised piece of wine coun­try, while the house has been a home for two gen­er­a­tions of wine­mak­ers. Muir was in his third year of ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice in 1973 when Rolfe and Lois Mills in­vited him to help them de­sign a house – and that re­ally is the best way to de­scribe the process. “We wanted our per­son­al­ity to be fore­most,” says Lois Mills. “We felt the best way to do that was to find a tal­ented young ar­chi­tect who lis­tened. That’s ex­actly what Ash­ley did: lis­tened, in­ter­preted and made our ideas ex­cit­ing.” The trio spent three days to­gether at the Mills’ Christchurch villa, dis­cussing how they wanted the house to work, the num­ber and type of rooms, and how the bud­ding fam­ily would live in it. “These were two in­ter­ested, knowl­edge­able, sen­si­tive, thought­ful peo­ple who were keenly in­volved in putting it all to­gether,” says Muir. “When you’re in a con­ver­sa­tion like that, you con­jure up a pic­ture of a house even be­fore you be­gin the de­sign.” Un­der­pin­ning the

“We wanted our per­son­al­ity to be fore­most... the best way to do that was to find a tal­ented young ar­chi­tect who lis­tened.”

de­lib­er­a­tion was Rolfe’s deep affin­ity with this piece of land. He’d grown up on Wanaka Sta­tion when it was owned by his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, the Dunedin mer­chant Sir Percy Sar­good. Rolfe spent hours on the site play­ing as a boy, then as a young man en­vi­sion­ing how it could be de­vel­oped. A trip through Por­tu­gal on the way home from war seeded the idea of viti­cul­ture, al­though he didn’t plant the first grapes at Rip­pon un­til 1975, af­ter the house was built. Un­til then, he com­mer­cially farmed an­gora goats. “Rolfe had al­ways said that if he ever got the op­por­tu­nity, he wanted to build on that hill,” says Lois. “It was the view, and he loved the to­pog­ra­phy.” Wine­mak­ers talk about ter­roir, the con­cept that wine ex­presses the unique qual­i­ties of a site. The same think­ing in­formed the Mills’ house. The front door and mantle­pieces were milled from an oak felled on the prop­erty, and the sun­dried bricks were hand­made from the sur­round­ing earth by a cou­ple of med stu­dents dur­ing their univer­sity hol­i­days. The north-fac­ing site was “re­lent­lessly slop­ing”, says Muir, and highly ex­posed to the pre­vail­ing northerly wind. The so­lu­tion was to “drape the rooms like a neck­lace around the con­tours at the edge”, cre­at­ing a large shel­tered ter­race at the back for a swim­ming pool and ex­tended out­door liv­ing. Rather than an ex­panse of glaz­ing, as you might ex­pect to see in a con­tem­po­rary lakeside house, win­dows were de­ployed ju­di­ciously to frame se­lected views. “Lois and Rolfe talked a lot about rooms, and a room in my book is very hard to de­fine if it has a wall of glass,” says Muir. “What we did was to take on the view and chal­lenge it, rather than be­ing to­tally over­whelmed by it.” In­ter­nally, it’s a house of un­usual an­gles, of shad­owed ar­eas that give way to more open and light-filled spa­ces, with un­ex­pected cir­cuits be­tween rooms. You en­counter cur­tained arch­ways where you an­tic­i­pate doors, and doors when you’re an­tic­i­pat­ing a wall. You can see why Lois’ six grand­chil­dren love the place: it’s a jour­ney, com­plete with loop­ing side trails. Yet when Muir was de­sign­ing the home, his think­ing was pretty el­e­men­tal. “One of the things I was read­ing about at that time was the idea that

if you break a house down to its es­sen­tial parts there are re­ally only two: one is the thresh­old, where you greet a per­son and ei­ther re­ject them or in­vite them in, and the other is the hearth. We ex­pressed that in the Mills house with the oak front door, fol­lowed by a process of de­com­pres­sion be­fore you get to the liv­ing room, with its odd-shaped fire­place wel­com­ing you. When you’re in that house, you feel re­ally se­cure – and in ev­ery weather.” Be­fore es­tab­lish­ing Rip­pon as a win­ery, the Mills and their chil­dren spent a year in France, see­ing if they could live as a viti­cul­tural fam­ily. Al­though the de­sign of the house pre­dated that trip, there’s a clear debt to south­ern Europe in the but­tressed foun­da­tions, the or­ange clay roof tiles and deeply re­cessed win­dows, as well as the in­te­rior. “They were all el­e­ments we de­cided were ap­pro­pri­ate for their house, but it wasn’t a pas­tiche,” says Muir. “They’re all co­he­sive and have a rea­son for be­ing. The word I’d use for the house now is ‘le­git­i­mate’. It passes ev­ery test of le­git­i­macy for a piece of land with a build­ing. Rolfe and Lois knew what was right – they were masters of it.”

Muir re­vis­ited Rip­pon five years ago. What did he think? “That it has stood the test of time. These things we de­sign are built to serve peo­ple over decades – that’s a driv­ing force of much of the ar­chi­tec­ture of this of­fice. With that comes a patina, a sense of it be­ing used. This house shows its life, it talks to you, rather than be­ing some pris­tine thing that a fin­ger­print would de­stroy.” For Lois, it’s a house that “be­longs to where it is”. “It has been a big part of my life,” she says. Rolfe died in 2000; she has never en­ter­tained any thought of leav­ing. “I’ve been here nearly 50 years, and it has the most amaz­ing mem­o­ries. And the first one of those was Ash­ley – he just lis­tened.”

Above and left When their chil­dren were young, the Mills spent a year in France, test­ing out the viti­cul­tur­al­ists’ life. De­spite the house plans pre­ced­ing their trip, there’s a feel of south­ern Europe that res­onates both in­side and out­side the home.

Right Care­fully placed win­dows re­veal par­tic­u­lar views: here, tall win­dows frame Ruby Is­land be­low the house.

Be­low Heavy fab­ric cloaks an arch­way in the pas­sage.

Above The home has had more than four decades to set­tle into the land­scape, with vines weav­ing their way across its ex­te­rior.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.