A craft brewery, a bakery, a perfumery or two, a DVD rental store and an exceptional restaurant named after a brilliant New Zealand artist. Colourful villas and cottages line the streets, some the kind of places real estate agents might euphemistically call “chocolate box”: cute, but there’s never enough inside. Bone-chilling and ethereal mists, and sun that in winter seems to dance along the ridgeline. Kākā, tūī and bush everywhere you look. A famous encounter between a leading public servant and a Soviet spy. It could only be Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s Aro Valley, a suburb that a sceptical journalist once introduced succinctly as “a small, dark, cold inner-city suburb in Wellington. Home to students, liberals and the odd pot-head, it is arguably the capital’s most colourful community…”
No better place to stay, then, if you’re visiting Wellington for a few days – or longer. And on a formerly empty site (a pre-existing cottage burned down in 1974), Caro Robertson and Tim Gittos, of Spacecraft Architects, working with James Dickson, of James Dickson Building Solutions, and partner Adrienne, have designed just the place. (Yes, it’s available as short or long-stay accommodation – from 108Aro.co.nz.)
The first thing you should know is that this house is on the northern side of Aro Street, the spine that runs through the valley. This side is not known for being bathed in sun, and the day I visit is no exception. The feeling of stepping into a sunless timber cottage in the middle of winter is an experience most Wellingtonians will share. And yet, you enter this house to a space flooded with light and warmth. This is its first achievement.
“In many ways, this project was about solving problems of traditional house forms – things like light in the interior, and privacy – and those concerns fed into ideas of the front and back of the house being very different,” says Gittos. The front is a riff on the traditional bay window, running the full three storeys high. The back is essentially a wall of glass, opening to a peaceful garden. And right above the front entryway is a skylight which, thanks to two storeys of void and slatted timber flooring, brings light right down through the core of the house. There’s ambient heating under the concrete floor slab.
The second thing you should know is that the house is prominent, right by the village and opposite the entrance to one of the suburb’s major streets. Visually, this gives it outsized importance, surrounded by old buildings on all sides. “We felt a lot of responsibility doing this house,” Robertson says. “It’s in a heritage area, it’s on a prominent site. It became an interesting study in what makes something fit in… We wanted it to be elegant and contemporary.”
It was always logical that the house would pick up on the cues of the cottage next door, which Dickson bought along with the section some years ago. But discussions with council planners focussed on how to achieve “fitting in”. One point of contention was how many storeys the house should be, since most nearby are only two but this was intended to be three. “We played around with the top storey a lot,” says Gittos. “Sometimes it seems architects can avoid doing anything with the space under a sloping roof, in case people turn around and say it’s too low, at which point you can’t do anything about it. But they can be nice spaces, and kids particularly love them.”
Entering the house, there’s a living room to your right, stairs and laundry straight ahead, and kitchen-dining to the left. Up one storey are two bedrooms and a bathroom. Up another are a bedroom, study and bathroom under those sloping roofs. There are balconies off both bedrooms at the rear, looking out to mature trees and down along the side of neighbouring cottages. It’s all very compact but doesn’t feel it, and the experience is mostly one of being aware of where you are: nestled in the bush amongst a small and tight-knit community.
This is all by design. “I wanted it to feel like the perfect base for people visiting or working in the city, somewhere to explore Wellington from, or to work from home at,” says Dickson. “Like a city retreat.” He built the house himself, and was faithful to the architects’ plans. He was careful not to adjust things on the fly that might diminish the central idea, despite a constrained budget. The result is testament to that commitment.
And that’s a third thing I think you should know about this design, that it is quintessentially Wellington in another way, engaging in the tradition of riffing on vernacular housing in continually interesting ways. This is the tradition of Sir Ian Athfield, Roger Walker and Gerald Melling, the latter of whom Gittos worked with. It’s there in the simplicity, the modesty and the character – even a bit of humour! – of the place, and much of Spacecraft’s work generally.