In 1973, the late Ron Sang and his wife Margaret Parker found a steep section in Hapua Street, Remuera, in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. It was wide and shallow – “perfect for one of his designs”, as Parker recalls. Up and down the street was a gaggle of mid-century homes by the late Claude Megson, the Group and others, which still line the quiet cul-de-sac. It should be heritage listed.
At the time, Sang was a partner in the firm of Mark-Brown Fairhead Sang, one of the country’s more progressive practices and known for its clean-lined designs that bore a distinctive international influence. To this, Sang brought Chinese influences, with the use of feng shui and a distinctive colour palette incorporating black, red and white.
The section was steeper than it had initially appeared, only revealing its true vertiginous nature when vegetation and rubbish were removed from the site. Undeterred, the house that Sang drew shows a sure hand and a crisp sensibility – despite being restricted by government regulations of the time to a comparatively modest 139 square metres.
Sang dug into the hill to create a long, rational house with two wings either side of a central stairway – bedrooms and bathrooms at one end, a series of living spaces at the other, all connected by the spine of a hallway. Rooms were well sized but not extravagant, and distinctly orthogonal. The top floor was dark-stained horizontal cedar shiplap; the base was rough-cast plaster over concrete blocks, which continued inside, the structure clearly articulated.
To the front: a series of evenly sized windows with deep overhangs and exposed rafters under what is an almost flat roof. To the back: clerestory windows drag light deep into the plan. At the entry: a five-metre-high cedar door, a detail that became one of Sang’s hallmarks. The initial intention was for the timber to be cut into two pieces, with one piece fixed at the top. When the timber arrived, he found it so beautiful in its entirety that he couldn’t bear to chop it in two.
Over the years, Sang would become almost as well known as an art collector and art-book publisher as an architect. It was in this house that his and Parker’s collecting really took off. Their first major purchase was in 1975, a Don Binney piece worth seven weeks’ wages at the time. It was eventually joined by works from the likes of Gretchen Albrecht and Pat Hanly. “Once a year, we would buy a painting and gradually, gradually after 40 years, you end with quite a lot of stuff,” Sang once said of the collection.
Over the years, he planted a garden of maples and kauri – which now surround the house and provide a changing outlook through the seasons – and expanded the plan four times, most extensively in 1985.
By then, building restrictions had been removed, his art collection was growing and he was well established in his architectural practice. In the 1985 rework, the interplay of horizontal and vertical lines stayed the same, yet the design added a crisper, slightly more glamorous feeling, with large panes of bronze-tinted glass and mirrors that trick the eye, travertine tiles and a glossy black ceiling in the living areas. It was, you might say, a bit 80s but in the good way, right down to the graphic street number cast into a concrete lintel above the garage in Eurostile Bold Extended – which became a feature of Sang’s houses.
The design dug further into the hill to create a double garage at street level, topped by a fabulous swimming pool. The old carport became a downstairs living room with its own bathroom and kitchenette. Upstairs, Sang pushed out under the eaves – in the living areas he enclosed the original decks into walkways and living spaces, and in the bedrooms he added white-plastered built-in desks. The cladding continued to be cedar, but windows were switched to aluminium, full-height and mitred at the corners with the mullions pulled in from the edges, creating the impression of a series of floating moments in the trees. Despite the work, the house didn’t lose its core feeling – a progression of carefully modulated spaces with defined functions, linked by hallways, borrowing long views through the house and from the outside. Eventually, after a decade and a half in the house, Sang moved on – he sold in 1988.
By 2015, when Ryan Maxwell and his wife Dianne stumbled across the house, it was looking a little tired. Successive owners had mucked about with it: in the 1990s one owner redecorated in shades of mushroom and beige. In another guise – a French country feel – it featured in a magazine. The cantilevered living area was drooping and the roof was shot. The exterior was faded and the mosaic tiles in the pool were falling off.
Still, the Maxwells weren’t daunted – the elegant bones of Sang’s design were still present. You could clearly read the dramatic flow of white horizontal spaces and dark vertical lines, and the contrast between space and void. The sunken den around an open fireplace was untouched, and the expanses of full-height glass were still fabulous. Intact sarked timber ceilings created warm moments to reflect and look at the trees. And the new owners would eventually find floating rimu treads under carpet on the stairs.
The kitchen and bathrooms were virtually untouched, including delightful mirrored 250mm toe-kicks in the kitchen, which make the cabinetry look like it’s floating. “The architecture called out to me,” says Ryan Maxwell, of his first visit, a hurried Sunday open home the weekend before the auction. It reminded him of his childhood home that was built in the 1970s. “There was that, but it’s all the other details – I just really appreciated the design.”
Over the past few years, Ryan and Dianne have carefully restored the house in keeping with the original design. The biggest job was the cantilever, which had been built on timber beams that had slowly bent. The couple turned to Darryl Sang, Ron’s son, to design a new structure from steel, cranking it up and putting it carefully back together.
The house has been painted inside and out, in a scheme close to Sang’s original, featuring crisp white walls and a black ceiling inside, with dark-stained cedar with red accents outside. They replaced the roof, finding a roofer game enough to run the standing seam over the ridge to create ‘prickles’, rather than installing a big flashing. In the kitchen, where Sang’s original cabinetry is still going strong, they updated appliances and refreshed the paint, leaving the original cabinetry intact.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the Maxwells began collecting art. “It just rubs off on you in a house like this,” says Ryan. “We’ve been to quite a few Sang houses, and they just need art.” As you come up the stairs, there’s a gigantic Martin Basher; beside the dining room there’s a semi-circular Gretchen Albrecht – a piece very close to one Sang had in the house back in the 1980s.
Nearly half a century on, the house retains all its original drama and glamour: from the street, there’s the double garage with its super-graphic street number, and a cascade of trees through which elements of a long, horizontal house peek through. Up the stairs – built by Sang himself – to the towering front door with its hand-made ceramic handle, the effect is special, very special indeed.
The Maxwells are reluctantly moving on: new projects are calling, and some time this year the house will go on the market – hopefully to equally respectful custodians.
Ron Sang died in June, as we were putting the finishing touches to this story. Our thoughts are with his family.