You know good weather is a rarity at your beachside retreat when the outdoor area is referred to as a ‘just-in-case deck’.
In The Catlins, a beautiful chunk of coastal countryside located at the bottom of the South Island, trees that are exposed to prevailing winds often grow sideways, big-wave surfers are regular visitors, and wool is always in fashion. It’s one of those places that feels right when it’s rough and special when it’s not. You can’t lose, really. And on the day I drive down the gravel road from Owaka, keeping an eye out for sea lions after spotting a road sign warning of their presence, it’s pretty damn special.
Richard Naish of RTA Studio calls The Catlins a bit of a hidden gem. And Jack’s Bay, a town with no dairy, just one road and a smattering of humble old cribs, is as quiet and quaint as they come.
Tough places like these require tough buildings and Naish says the owners – an artist and anaesthetist who live on a farm just outside of Ōtepoti Dunedin – came to him looking for a small, economical house that looked like a concrete block.
They were interested in brutalist bunkers and lighthouses and initially considered a very literal interpretation of those elements: a box that glowed in the dark. But Naish felt there was a way to include those references without being too showy (or causing any maritime disasters). “I always like to look for a local context,” he says, and he found inspiration a few kilometres up the road at the Nugget Point Lighthouse.
Naish is no stranger to this isolated part of the world. His parents spent a couple of years living in Bluff when he was young and he has family connections in East Otago. He’s also no stranger to small, utilitarian boxes in harsh climates, designing his own 72-square-metre holiday home in the Cardrona Valley. “The form of this house is quite simple. It’s a mono-pitched roof and a box with a concrete exterior, so it’s basically bulletproof,” he says.
But there are the things that make it so much more than just a bulletproof box and more like a deconstructed lighthouse: the diamond-grid pattern steel window. The black steel staircase. The porthole window. The splashes of red.
Lighthouses are specifically designed to stand out, but Naish recounts Frank Gehry’s quote about his own controversial Santa Monica home, where he combined a range of utilitarian materials such as plywood, corrugated iron and chain-link fencing in a unique way. “He said he was just trying to fit in with his neighbours,” says Naish. “This is also a reassemblage of parts. I’m not trying to be too smarty pants about it – but we do try and push things a bit further.”
Aside from a bit of kayaking on the estuary, the owners don’t classify themselves as seafarers. But they’re definitely seagazers. The crib is small, at about 90 square metres, not including the outdoor room. So to get the views of the roiling sea over the dunes, Naish constrained the width and added height. The huge steel window is a focal point and while “it certainly wasn’t a cheap item, it really delivers what we wanted”, he says.
The building code has moved on slightly from the days when Sir Ian Athfield was able to slot in a few concrete pipes to his renowned home in Khandallah, says Naish, so installing a metal porthole window on the second floor was a slightly more difficult task, but also well worth it for the effect. “It feels like you’re looking through a telescope.”
Even the water tanks at the back of the house are a design feature. The owners didn’t just want a couple of boring green plastic ones. So they covered them in corrugated iron and painted them a rich red. Naish says they offer “a touch of the Kiwi vernacular”.
Being so close to the coast, and with rising sea-levels a long-term concern, the house is elevated. And because sea lions like to nest under cribs in this part of the world, the ramp leading up to the deck and the house itself have been fully enclosed.
While the house is hard to miss from the road, it’s almost camouflaged looking up from the beach. The lightweight concrete panels, which were chosen instead of the more expensive precast panels they had initially wanted, work in with the sand. The shutters on the windows and front door allow the house to be totally enclosed when its vacant.
For the owners, the appeal of Jack’s Bay was that they knew no-one and there was nothing behind their plot but farmland. The isolation was an attraction and, given the climate, a lot of emphasis was placed on the interior, which, in contrast to the stark exterior, is eclectic and colourful. “It’s a minimalist house,” says one of the owners. “But we’re not minimalists. Everything has a story and everything was chosen to be here.”
A number of $14 solar-powered glow-in-the-dark gnomes from Mitre 10 sit underneath the hearth. An Anselm Kiefer photograph hangs on the back wall. Hand-crafted ceramics are sprinkled around the house. A striking Fornasetti desk from the owner’s old clothing boutique that was painted bright blue and had a few drawers added fits perfectly in the kitchen. The blue Piana dining chairs by David Chipperfield for Alessi, purchased one by one on trips to Australia and brought back because that particular colour wasn’t available here, match the desk. The rusted lights were sourced from a factory in Germany.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting something beautiful, but I’m not a snob. If you love something, you should have it,” says the artist-owner. “If we were going to have a small house, we were going to have a luxurious house. And a warm house.”
An open fire that is technically in an outdoor area, but can be used in an enclosed ‘indoor’ setting as a result of some architectural sleight-of-hand and a sliding door, make for a more flexible room; another just-in-case space, you might say. Like the lighthouse keepers of old, the owners have had to hunker down in their robust concrete box during some big storms and they’ve felt comfortable, safe and, with underfloor heating, warm.
“Architecture is like sculpture,” says the artist, with different materials, different influences and different relationships all being brought together to create something new. “And I feel like we are living in a sculpture.”