To listen to Hudge's playlist inspired by this house, click here. “There is no big architectural move here,” says architect Stuart Gardyne of Architecture Plus, describing this new live-work dwelling next to a cabin he designed 25-odd years ago for the same client. “It’s about the very quiet, very relaxed moments.”
Those moments are, of course, the very things photographs can’t fully capture, and words can struggle with. They’re about being in the place, preferably over days. If forced to describe the feeling, at least on the day I visited (hold this thought as you look through the photos) it would be “calm”. And it’s a calmness I’ve most often experienced in environments where everything is of a piece, where half a lifetime of thought and attention and care, lavished on a single place by the same minds, creates something really quite special.
In 1997, Ray Labone asked Gardyne to design a cabin on land he owned in Morison Bush, a short drive from Te Hūpēnui Greytown. Part of the brief was that the dwelling “must first and foremost acknowledge the landscape it is placed in” and “must impress with its simplicity and compatibility with the landscape more than... its audacity of style”. Today, the same strand of thought runs through the place.
Labone and his partner Stefania Pietkiewicz lived in the original cabin during Covid lockdowns. The view might be expansive, but the cabin is small – it is effectively a studio. There was a need for more space. There was also the idea that extra space could support the couple’s consulting practice. It could be a place where business leaders might visit, spending time in a restorative environment, as they work through professional and personal development. The couple refer to this as a “regenesis” retreat, recalling ideas from George Monbiot’s similarly titled book. “We’ve changed our consulting practice to amplify the new space,” says Pietkiewicz. “It was symbiotic.”
A few minutes from Greytown, you turn onto a gravel road, then onto a driveway that winds gently down through a sea of kānuka. You park by a new garage, in the same white limestone aggregate concrete block as the original cabin – it was even sourced from the same Hawke’s Bay factory. You enter a new courtyard with the new dwelling to your left at the edge of the site and the original cabin to the right. Straight ahead the land falls away to the river. The only curved structural element is a large tin water tank, an emphatic nod to the rural tradition.
The entrance to the new pavilion frames a single tī kōuka the owners planted many years ago. This “pause piece”, in Gardyne’s words, or “opening-up moment” in Labone’s, says much about the spirit of the whole. “Keeping the cabbage tree was in a way a statement of what we are trying to introduce leaders to here, which is to work with nature,” Labone says. Pietkiewicz adds, “Nature was the driver... and that opening-up moment is a prelude to the kind of work we want to do here. It creates a different rhythm.”
Clad in black-stained timber, the new structure is effectively two boxes on tall stilts connected by a breezeway. As you enter, there is a single door to your right, leading to a lounge-office-studio with sofas, a desk by the window, and a communal work table. To the left of the entrance, there are two doors: one to a small bedroom, the other a bathroom. There is no internal access between the two. The rooms are simple, pared back. The bathroom feels like a retreat with light filtered through trees dappled on the walls and a bathtub by the window.
The courtyard is really as important as the new dwelling, formed both by the new structure’s position, and earthworks behind the cabin. It enables a whole new way of experiencing the site and the landscape beyond. “The courtyard is tough, whereas the cabins are gentle,” Gardyne says. You feel protected in the courtyard. The water tank, in this context, has a sculptural presence, reminiscent of artworks by artists Lee Ufan or Richard Serra.
There’s something about a simple cabin in the bush that is liable to cause those writing about architecture to wax lyrical. In Leaves of Iron, Philip Drew compares Glenn Murcutt’s rural Australian houses to American transcendentalist writers such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. Speaking about another significant 1990s house in New Zealand, the late American architect and critic Michael Sorkin noted “a certain Antipodean lightness”, and how the house had a balance that showed “both a certainty and a courtesy towards its setting in both culture and nature”.
All that is true here, too, most significantly that courtesy. But what I find most interesting is how the tough, hard, almost monochrome courtyard seems to resist or refute the easy lines about lightness and simplicity, nature and culture. Through the harshness of the courtyard – which may be eventually softened with planting – the two houses and the landscape beyond become all the more significant.