Take a walk around the Auckland suburb of Freemans Bay and what jumps out at you isn’t so much the pretty villas, fretwork and cottages, but the opposite. As the formerly raffish suburb –– which is nigh on two kilometres from Auckland CBD with widesceen views of the city –– has gentrified, people have slowly closed their doors to the street. House by house, walls have gone up; security gates, keypads, intercoms and double garages, too. It’s understandable –– humans, security, etcetera –– but you can’t help wonder if we’ve lost something in the process.
This new house by architect Jack McKinney is something of a contradiction in terms. It uses concrete in a heritage zone dominated by old timber houses with plenty of frou, but it’s possibly more sensitive than its otherwise traditional neighbours. “It’s not trying to be a fortress,” he says of the design. “We wanted a relationship with the street. We didn’t want a big wall, so it’s very transparent.”
That transparency is, to put it bluntly, quite radical. There’s a hedge at street level, but you can see through the gate and around the corner into the main living level. Strikingly, the garage door is glass — effectively, big steel glass doors that fold out and allow you to see directly in. It was a move that evolved from a discussion with Auckland Council’s heritage department, who suggested that a new garage door might need some windows. In response, McKinney suggested they make the entire thing glass.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. When McKinney was commissioned by the clients to design a new house, there was an old villa on the site. It was in poor repair, and there wasn’t much left of the original house. An arduous resource consent process followed – both to demolish the old house and build a new one. Somewhat unusually, the former house had been built with its verandah and bay window facing east to the view, and a lean-to facing the street. In the 1980s someone demolished the lean-to and added a dinky verandah in an effort to make it more like its neighbours, which only made it feel more awkward.
That’s where we return to the idea of a contradiction in terms. The house McKinney has designed is built from concrete, steel and glass, but the villa references are all there. Take the appearance from the street: it reads as one level, with a wide hipped roof — you don’t realise it descends a storey below and up into the roof, creating three levels of living that straddle the fall between the street and the back garden.
A wide concrete frame runs along the entire street frontage, almost like a verandah. The house faces squarely to the street on one side and takes full advantage of the city view on the other. North is along a side boundary, close to a neighbouring villa. Faced with this set-up, McKinney decided the house would obey the rules of the street. “Being a good neighbour is not staring at your neighbours all the time,” he says. “It’s just setting up a good rapport with both sides if you can.”
Most strikingly, McKinney ‘notched’ the hipped roof with two elegant skylights that cut through the roof and can be seen from the street. Inside the otherwise wide and horizontal space, the notches reach high above you, giving verticality. The detail here is beautiful: the roof cladding comes down and folds around, with the skylight pulling back inside the wall to hide the frame and flooding the interior with light. The plan is deceptively simple: a concrete structure over three levels, around which the façade shifts and moves, almost as if it’s inhabiting a concrete ruin with a crisp new object sitting inside the rough concrete walls. Living is at street level, with east and west balconies. The main bedroom is in the roof, there’s one at street level facing the garden and two downstairs. A couple of bathrooms and a second living area take the ground level. Throughout, the spaces are slightly less than villa scale, which is why the vertical slot through the living area is so crucial. “We are essentially working to the silhouette of the former house on the site, so the scale is very similar,” he says., “In my mind this keeps it domestic rather than grandiose or overblown.”
On the northern side, long slot windows bring in some light without overexposing one side of the house to the other. Throughout, McKinney has found tiny moments to slip in a window for light and aspect. “You feel you’ve got an outlook but really it’s just the side of a villa, which is only about three metres away,” he says.
Into that simplicity, McKinney has layered texture and detail with an almost sculptural hand. The walls are built from over-thick poured concrete, where the 70mm boards match the 70mm boards in the sarked timber ceiling and the concrete has been left rough and raw. Steel balustrades contrast with moments of high polish and understated luxury.
Surprisingly, the owners were utterly comfortable with the open nature of the house. “I think it’s nice to address the street,” says McKinney. “It’s really what all these things are about.”