Ken Crosson is an architectural extrovert. He has never been backward about putting his projects forward – numerous awards indicate his confidence is justified – and he has been just as willing to engage with the media. Few architects in Aotearoa would be bold enough to venture into the televisual territory famously pioneered by the late David Mitchell in the 1984 documentary series The Elegant Shed. Crosson went there in 2016, fronting The New Zealand Home, a multi-part history of this country’s residential architecture.
But Crosson’s faculty for gaining recognition is not confined to his profession, any more than his facility for communication is reserved for the TV cameras. Crosson has a rare ability to produce high-end architecture with cut-through popular appeal. In significant part, this is surely because his practice’s projects are legible manifestations of the ideas he says inspired them. These ideas – allusions might be a better term – are not out-there propositions that only the design cognoscenti can fully appreciate. They are references that resonate with a much wider audience, as is the case with three of Crosson’s Coromandel holiday houses: Coromandel Bach (2002), a fold-up box that suggests a timber crate dragged onto a colonial shore; Hut on Sleds (2011), a design with a similar conceit, but with the dragging apparently made easier by a foundation of timber rails; and Light Mine (2019), a shout-out, via its rooftop inverted “mine shafts”, to local gold-mining history. Most dramatically, there’s Te Pae (2022), the concrete observatory tower for United North Piha Surf Lifeguard Service that rises like a submarine periscope from the dunes on Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s west coast.
Crosson didn’t have to give these projects their rhetorical flourish, and no doubt he’s aware his exuberance might be interpreted as exhibitionism by critics who prefer a strict subservience of form to function. But his work, and his resolve to explore what he describes as “the cultural dimensions” of architectural projects, deserves to be appraised with the generosity due to architects who try to bring something different to every commission. Perhaps Crosson does not want to bore himself – he says his practice “doesn’t have a particular style” – or perhaps he just believes a profession that promises bespoke solutions is duty bound to deliver them. Whatever the motivation, Crosson Architects’ habit of investing their buildings with the Vitruvian virtue of delight has contributed positively to the sum of design happiness.
Crosson’s determination to extract something extra from a brief is evidenced in a building at Moeraki, the small coastal settlement 70 kilometres north of Ōtepoti Dunedin famous for the spherical boulders bedded into the sand at Koekohe Beach. On a new subdivision, not far from the protected boulder site, Crosson was given the “relatively straightforward” job of designing a holiday house for Canterbury clients. The section rises to a ridge, running roughly north to south, that offered a building platform with a stunning view of the bay that shelters Moeraki village at its southern end. The “straightforward” design response would have been a long pavilion, as extensively glazed as possible, marching along the ridge. Or, perhaps, following the lead of some of the neighbours, a gabled form in the hallowed tradition of rural vernacular buildings. (The shed, revisited.)
Instead, Crosson, with his clients’ encouragement, took another tack. “I was interested in modularity,” he says, “and we thought we might construct the house as a flat-pack and truck it to the site.” This prefab construction method complemented Crosson’s envisioning of the house as “a series of little pods across the hill” – a collective of mini-pavilions that fragmented an essentially longitudinal design. Off-site manufacture didn’t work out, and the 150 square metre house was constructed conventionally, in situ, of corrugated steel on a timber frame. However, the modular concept survived in the house’s plan. Two pods, one containing the main bedroom, the other housing two guest bedrooms, flank the central living-dining pod and are connected to it via small circulation areas evocative of an airlock between a docking rocket and a space station. A similar interstitial space serves as a porch or boot room on the house’s western entry side.
The modules, as Crosson says, are laid out “not straight, but in a stagger”. It’s as if two pieces in a Jenga puzzle have been pushed out of line, their retreat serving to establish the tripartite nature of the plan. The off-setting of the pods gives depth to a see-through house that’s effectively one room wide. So do the two decks on either side of the living-dining pod, one projecting towards the sea, the other looking inland over farmland towards forested hills in the distance. It’s the smaller decks outside the guest bedrooms, and on both sides of the main bedroom, that are the cutest elements of the plan.
These minor decks are enabled by the obtuse angle of the pods’ external walls, which provide privacy and a degree of shelter. This “canting” of the house’s form, Crosson says, is “a nod to 1960s and ’70s beach architecture”. One precedent that comes to mind is the Maunsell House, a small beach house at Riversdale on the Wairarapa coast designed by architect Derek Wilson around 1960 – a wedge-shaped work of modernist clarity, once notable but now much-altered, that featured a deep, ocean-facing parallelepiped deck protected by angled walls and deep eaves.
Like the original Maunsell House, Crosson Architects’ Moeraki House is propped up above the dunes, touching the earth not at all. Even though it’s elevated by almost a metre, the house sits low on the ridge; the relative unobtrusiveness of its verticality is abetted by the uniformity of its wrap-around-and-over steel cladding. It’s a white house, and as such runs counter to the current coastal preference, or even mandated requirement, for the recessive hues of Aotearoa’s natural environment. The colour was specified by the clients, Crosson says, but he defends their choice: “The white contrasts nicely with the green of the grass in winter and complements the burned-out colours of summer.” Left unsaid is the simple reality that Ken Crosson is probably the last person to stand in the way of someone wanting to do things differently.