Hidden away, high in the Waitākere Ranges, sits the Lee House. It was designed by architect Ross Lee for his family and built between 1967 and 1968. Surprisingly, it has never been published. A small window to visit the home appeared in January, only days before the Lees moved out, after five decades living here.
Lee himself was born in Tāmaki Makaurau in 1935. He graduated from the University of Auckland in 1958. He and wife Veronica married in 1962. His brother, architect Warwick Lee, helped the couple find a site in Titirangi, telling them “enthusiastically about kauri forest and native bush and the emerging, more unconventional Waitākere lifestyle”, recalls Ross Lee. Rather than settle down immediately, the newlyweds travelled to England, then emigrated to Canada in 1964.
Lee designed the house while working in Montreal at Menkes & Webb, a practice that emerged from Peter Dickinson Associates, named for one of Canada’s most exciting architects, who died young. Lee was put in charge of Montreal’s 1000-unit Rockhill apartments, a landmark of Canadian modernism. The couple returned to New Zealand in late 1966. Lee went to Stephenson & Turner, becoming a director and later retiring in 1998. During his 32 years with the firm, he worked on buildings for the University of Auckland’s School of Medicine (it has subtle shades of Rockhill), Nissan Datsun, Auckland City Hospital, BMW, and Auckland International Airport, among many others.
The Lee House is located about three kilometres west of Titirangi Village, along a cul-de-sac off Scenic Drive. It lies below the road and is impossible to spot. To see it, you must drive down to a garage set above the house, before descending the rest of the way by foot. The best view of the building is from this approach, overlooking its corrugated iron roofs. The steep site and dense bush restrict the perspective from other angles. While the building can’t be viewed in the round, the architect has created a journey, taking you between platforms at various levels.
“Being, almost literally, planted in the middle of the bush, we recognised that we had to have a generous amount of glass on the exterior to maximise the daylight internally,” Lee says of the design. “We knew we could afford some extra floor area and better materials and finishes than the norm, but not too much… We wanted a spacious feeling arising from interconnected spaces and changes in floor level. We favoured separation of children’s bedrooms and parents’ for both parties’ sanity and that worked well.”
After reaching the bottom of the steps, you approach the entrance via a deck running down the longer leg of the house’s “L” shape. This wing houses the children’s bedrooms. A second storey, for the main bedroom, pops up from the roof where the plan cranks. The living room occupies the short wing of the “L”. Its glazed walls encourage the eye to travel right through the interior, to the trees and decking beyond. Nature presses up to the glazing; glass and intense greenery combine to create myriad reflections.
The entrance is located where the three parts of the plan intersect, giving direct access to all areas of the house from the front door. A short staircase leads up to the main bedroom, commanding the best view over the section. The deck’s post-and-beam construction, coupled with wide horizontal timber railings, call to mind Arthur Erickson’s 1965 Baldwin House in British Columbia. The children’s bedrooms and family bathroom are on the entrance level, around the corner to the right. The kitchen and dining areas are straight ahead and down four steps. The living room is to the left of the entrance and on the same level.
Slender mullions frame the large sheets of glass, stained brown externally and clear-sealed inside. Above the windows run horizontal shutters, painted white outside and assorted colours on the reverse. The house’s elevation above the earth, its small roof overhang, and the combination of dark framing and white panels recalls the Japanese kominka or pre-war traditional house. However, the extensive glazing and punchy colours are very contemporary.
The living room roof is a shallow gable. The structural timbers are super thin. Rafters connecting the long walls to the ridge beam are stiffened by the sarking and restrained by paired horizontals and steel-tie rods, forming a very elegant structure. The painted brick wall and chimney anchor the living room to the slope and brace against the wind, in combination with a complex foundation system underfoot. The brickwork of the wall and chimney step up the slope of the gable roof just before meeting the ceiling. This clarification of structure, achieved by separating the elements, is characteristic of the detailing throughout. Beautiful timbers, which seem luxurious now, were more widely available when the house was built: ceilings have rimu tongue-and-groove boards; roof framing is Oregon pine; floors and joinery are heart rimu.
The rear of the house is a continuous, full-height, timber-framed wall. It runs from the kitchen, past the children’s bedrooms to the office, which, like the living room, is clad in brick. There are no windows along the wall’s length. Instead, solid shutters aid ventilation. A louvred clerestory splits the roof in two lengthways, providing high-level daylighting. “The bedrooms face north west across the passage to a glazed wall which opens onto the entrance deck and the bush,” says Lee. “There are no internal walls between the bedrooms and the passage – privacy is limited to that provided by full-height drapes.”
When he designed the house, Lee was clear about its future enlargement. What is now the main bedroom ensuite started out as a compact office. The intention to extend the two-bedroom children’s wing and create a permanent office was realised in the early 1970s. Later, he connected the decks between the living and dining rooms, enclosing the space with a conservatory to create a spot for year-round use.
Except for a few council consent schemes for friends, a house alteration in Titirangi and a holiday home at Piha, the Lee House is the architect’s only domestic commission. That it seems to spring from nowhere makes it even more of an accomplishment. It is spatially sophisticated, the detailing resolved, the materials and structure confidently handled. Most architects would need to have completed several houses to test their ideas prior to mastering this level of ambition. However, the design’s long gestation allowed for refinement, and Lee could draw on the planning and construction skills he acquired working at design-led practices in England and Canada.
The house’s complete anonymity during the past 54 years is in part due to its invisibility from the street and the family’s desire for privacy. As big a reason has been Lee’s reluctance to promote his own achievements. He sees the home as a small, early building in a long career otherwise engaged with large-scale institutions and commercial organisations. He preferred a company structure where credit is shared, rather than one where all the publicity goes to an individual.
What the Lee House demonstrates is that, even after decades of interest in mid-century modernism, there are still important works to unearth, and new stories to tell of under-recognised architects who have nonetheless made a significant contribution to New Zealand architecture.