Solid state

A new sub­ur­ban dream by Dor­ring­ton Atch­e­son

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Re­think­ing sub­ur­bia in Auck­land’s Ko­hi­marama.

A cut out in the con­crete wall frames the view back to the en­trance hall where Char­lotte Dor­ring­ton leans against the cus­tom-steel cab­i­netry that lines the wall.

In a neigh­bour­hood where the front wall and pool are em­blems of sub­ur­ban fam­ily liv­ing, enig­matic ar­chi­tec­ture may be hard to find.

Yet this home, with an en­trance along a curved sleeper path­way be­tween land­scaped mounds, de­liv­ers sur­prise from start to fin­ish. Tim Dor­ring­ton and Sam Atch­e­son of Dor­ring­ton Atch­e­son Ar­chi­tects had a clear di­rec­tive for the 1100-square-me­tre sec­tion in Ko­hi­marama. A neatly typed list of 32 points and a se­lec­tion of pho­tographs was an ex­em­plary brief – ev­i­dence that this sense of sur­prise is no ac­ci­dent. A typ­i­cal sub­ur­ban set­ting at the front gives way to a green vista over Madills Farm at the rear. Po­plars and oaks tower above dog walk­ers and jog­gers – and on Satur­day morn­ings, the air is punc­tu­ated by the trill of the ref­eree’s whis­tle. ‘Mod­ernist in­dus­trial’ – the first phrase on the list – be­came the guid­ing mantra. “The own­ers wanted some­thing that didn’t ap­pear big or os­ten­ta­tious from the street, and ex­posed steel trusses were a given from the word go,” says Dor­ring­ton. The site was large and sloped away to the re­serve but the ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion of dig­ging out a mas­sive plat­form was off the menu. “The own­ers were keen to work as closely as pos­si­ble with the lie of the land,” he says. With gen­eral goals such as ‘time­less­ness’ and ‘strong shapes’ and more spe­cific re­quests such as ‘no se­cu­rity gates for cars’ and ‘cur­tains that dis­ap­pear into the ceil­ing’, the path was well-marked. Yet when the ar­chi­tects’ first de­sign went out to ten­der, it came back as too ex­pen­sive. It was back to the draw­ing board. “It was frus­trat­ing at the time,” ad­mits Dor­ring­ton, “yet it proved a valu­able process.” They pulled the bud­get apart, mod­i­fied the form and the next it­er­a­tion sailed through. Dis­creet from the street, yet in­trigu­ing, the home is loosely com­posed of two ele­men­tal blocks. The front, clad in ver­ti­cal cedar, is the bed­room zone. Stepped down a level, the liv­ing rooms be­neath a saw-tooth roof are en­cased in a pre-cast con­crete shell. Be­tween the two is a mo­ment of pause – a stair­well that leads past an in­ter­nal court­yard. A ‘se­cret un­der­ground’ base­ment

links to the garage, houses the laun­dry and a guest bathroom be­hind a slide-away wall. Con­cep­tu­ally, Dor­ring­ton calls this “the most dif­fer­ent house we’ve ever done”. It’s not hard to see why. It’s as far from open-plan stan­dard as you can get. Un­ex­pected ge­ome­tries, sliv­ered-in spa­ces and hid­den dis­cov­er­ies are tightly knit, and there’s not a white plas­ter­board wall in sight. Just be­yond the front door, shel­tered by a Corten canopy (an­other point on the list), a mild-steel cab­i­net sep­a­rates the hall­way from a bed­room. “It’s our ver­sion of a hall ta­ble,” says Dor­ring­ton. This ele­men­tal ma­te­rial is picked up on the stair­well, where the balustrades are shafts of steel. Weigh­ing many kilo­grams each, they were just one of the chal­lenges the builder had to deal with. Un­usual spa­tial pa­ram­e­ters with var­i­ously sloped ceil­ings meant it was rather like putting to­gether a 3D jig­saw. He has done his job well; the faceted tex­ture of the pro­gramme is per­fectly planned – there’s rea­son be­hind each twist from the norm. “We were ex­act­ing on height-to-bound­ary re­quire­ments. There’s no ex­tra floor space that wasn’t re­quired,” says Dor­ring­ton. Con­trary to first im­pres­sions, the bed­room block is not rect­an­gu­lar, but two right an­gles set off from each other by about 10 per cent. The pan­el­lised ceil­ing here gives an il­lu­sion of twist­ing from the wall lines. Such com­plex think­ing de­liv­ers the op­po­site – a Zen-like state of be­ing where spa­ces are re­vealed slowly and the mood­i­ness of the pal­ette keys into the ad­ven­ture of dis­cov­ery. Raw con­crete blade walls meet salt-and-pep­per floor­ing, char­coal-stained di­viders and black join­ery. This is dark­ness by de­sign. Not that there aren’t mo­ments of lev­ity. The kitchen, housed within a choco­late-stained Strand­board box with a win­dow to the view, has sunny yel­low cab­i­netry in­spired by the Bai­ley house, Pierre Koenig’s less­fa­mous Hol­ly­wood Hills case study. “It’s an in­ser­tion in the main vol­ume and, to me, it’s like a Kin­der egg, that choco­late shell with the yel­low cap­sule in­side,” says Dor­ring­ton.

More from the mag­i­cal mys­tery tour: a sump­tu­ous blood-red vel­vet cur­tain draws open to re­veal a snug TV room; a gui­tar on a stand in­hab­its the ‘mu­sic’ room where the touch of a ply­wood wall panel al­lows the built-in bed to de­scend; be­neath the stairs, a wine cel­lar that only those in the know would be able to raid. “The own­ers felt that cup­board and door han­dles would date the house, so we used none,” says Dor­ring­ton. It must have been tempt­ing to string a hor­i­zon­tal band of glazing across the face of that view to the park, a win­dow on the pa­rade of the sea­sons. But this is mod­ernism de­con­structed and the own­ers pre­ferred sec­tioned glass, so DAA split the glazing to frame in­di­vid­ual as­pects. Glass doors in the main liv­ing room on the north-west cor­ner of the home lead to a small deck over­look­ing the park; an­other set opens up to the se­cluded din­ing court­yard to the north. The in­ter­nal din­ing room shafts off the liv­ing space at a 20-de­gree an­gle, sep­a­rated by a solid con­crete wall. It’s a stepped­back room that serves to break up the sin­gu­lar­ity of the west­ern el­e­va­tion. Whereas an­gles abound in the ar­chi­tec­ture, the land­scap­ing takes a de­lib­er­ately fluid form. Atch­e­son sug­gested the chunky sleep­ers laid at ran­dom lengths that make up the deck­ing, and the cou­ple, who were highly in­volved in the de­sign, re-imag­ined the piles of earth that had been re­moved by dig­gers as mag­nif­i­cent mounds in the front gar­den. They planted them with wav­ing oioi and in­stalled a sculp­tural nikau near the front door. Then, at the rear of the home, they built the tim­ber path that snakes around an el­e­vated lawn and down to a con­cealed ‘gin deck’. In sum­mer-time, sun­down­ers are a life-is-good way to cel­e­brate the end of day here at this in­ter­sec­tion of pri­vate do­main and pub­lic park. If they’re feel­ing en­er­getic, they can carry a kayak to the nearby beach for a post-work pad­dle, then re­turn for a lin­ger­ing sup­per on the deck. From a wish-list of 32, only the pool – a ‘maybe’ from the out­set – fell off the fi­nal pro­gramme. Not quite full marks but def­i­nitely a top-of-the-class re­sult.

Right Emma-Jane Hether­ing­ton and Char­lotte ap­proach en­trance where a con­crete fin wall faces an op­pos­ing tim­ber wall.

Above and right Jasper Dor­ring­ton walks up the path of sleep­ers that curve their way to the home’s en­trance.

Op­po­site The tim­ber path snakes around an el­e­vated lawn to a spot nick­named the ‘gin deck’.

Be­low Ir­reg­u­larly placed chunky sleep­ers make up the deck.

Right Look­ing back from the park, this as­pect takes in the deck off the lounge.

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