Mindful of the area’s mining history, John Hardwick-Smith creates a light-on-the-land bach for friends in Pūponga.

Gently Steep

Gently Steep

Pūponga is The Promised Land. It was this far corner of Mohua Golden Bay that Colin McCahon depicted in his 1948 painting by that title. A two-hour-odd drive from Nelson takes you through Māpua and Te Mamaku Ruby Bay, into the apple orchards and hop farms near Riwaka, up the Tākaka Hill, that grand, winding mountain that rises to a rocky moonscape with sweeping views down the valley; then finally down into Golden Bay and along the shore to Pūponga, where the sandy beaches of the Abel Tasman meet the nīkau palms and wildness of the West Coast. Wellingtonian Marc Baily, owner with his wife Nomi Bar Even of this bach by John Hardwick-Smith at Athfield Architects, points out: “The journey to get here is completely part of this place.”

These are all hallowed places in Aotearoa’s history, and the sites of countless important paintings by the likes of Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston, Doris Lusk, Leo Bensemann, and, of course, McCahon. It was this area around Pūponga that one art historian described with reference to McCahon’s painting: “The green coastal strip is bathed by an intense translucent blue as befits the unveiling of heavenly truth over a land green with the potency of regeneration.” The place invites such rapture, with grandiose cliffs covered in vegetation, small islands in an inlet, and the presence of Farewell Spit dominating the tides.

It was also on this land that Pākeha, in the late 1800s, began mining for coal. An embankment and railway were built from the inland mine sites out to the coast and then a kilometre or so into the bay so that the coal could be transported easily. Mining continued in various forms until the 1970s. As you walk around this site, coal can still be seen. These two histories – the stunning beauty that inspired epithets like The Promised Land, and the realities of long-term mining for coal, asbestos and iron oxide – are woven together in this thoughtful bach.

Baily is an urban planner with Boffa Miskell; Hardwick-Smith is a long-standing member of Athfield Architects. The two are also old friends. They spent two years mulling ideas, with help from the architects’ colleagues Pipper Enza and Chi Tran, before starting to build. Meanwhile, the owners began extensive planting. This long gestation period has resulted in a bach that feels far more embedded in its location and its history than most. In fact, it only really makes sense in light of that history.

From the road by the water, you go down a shared grassy driveway (there’s no road sign, so first you poke your head down a few driveways), then make a turn off to the right between some trees, the black tin cladding the only hint that this is the house. “There’s discovery and relaxation to arriving here at the bach as it’s unveiled, like arriving to Golden Bay itself,” says Baily. The old rail embankment bisects the site and defines the dwelling. Built by Dari Harris, the bach sits perpendicular to the embankment, raised on stilts where the embankment falls away.

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You’re led up steps to a structure with storage beneath and a deck above, then up towards the apex of the old embankment. Here an indoor-outdoor “boot room” leads out the other side to a deck with a concrete and Corten steel fireplace. The fireplace “holds” the upper space and locates the bach on the embankment, anchoring it to its site. ‘’Formally the fireplace is a nod to the old mining boiler relics further up the line,” says Hardwick-Smith.

To the right of the entry is a large, open kitchen-dining-living-bedroom space, with movable joinery by Make Furniture in Nelson. To the left of the entry there’s a bedroom and bathroom. Every area has a different and spectacular view, whether to the wetlands and hills inland or out to the bay itself. Back outside, where the land falls away (underneath the living area) there’s a large deck area and a multipurpose room. Hardwick-Smith describes this as an “under-wharf experience, where you’re down under the trees sheltering from the summer heat, with great horizontal views across the wetland. A landscape that may get progressively wetter in the future.” The leggy structure that supports this form was inspired by old miners’ structures, and the Pūponga wharf, recorded in historical photos of the area. The colour references the local iron oxide, still visible in cuttings, and once mined in the region. The shade was matched by Resene – another of many subtle nods to the site’s history.

It’s unusual to hear the architect say that this house is “almost not about the house”. Instead, Hardwick-Smith says, “It’s about being here and the experience of just being in this place. The form was the result of the movements around the land and spaces, rather than getting too uptight about how it should look.” This is in part the understatement of someone not prone to trumpeting their work, but it is true in a sense. The larch and tin cladding seem chosen to merge with the surrounding kānuka. The rooms aren’t novel, spatially speaking. But combined, you’re more aware of being here, in this place and nowhere else, than you are in many other homes. It’s an incredibly relaxing bach to be in and around: quiet, calming, uplifting.

In front of the house, on the embankment, there’s the more recent addition of a larch-clad timber structure for the owners’ prodigiously stacked firewood. This structure is perpendicular to the house, running along the embankment. It reads like an old carriage that might continue trundling down to the sea where the crumbling remains of the old railway wharf are still visible at low tide. It’s another of those small signs that, though this structure is modest, it’s filled with careful thought and attention to those who have tried to make something of this land before.

The “leggy form” reminiscent of miners’ structures, the red of the struts, the Corten fireplace, the wood stack, the bach’s wedge shape — they’re almost reminders not to mess too much with this land like people have before. From careful study of all the schemes and plans made here in the name of industry and advancement, this bach seems to know both the worthiness of building in such a spot and the folly of ever developing here at all.

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