A new home by Patchwork Architecture has transformed the former Gonville Swimming Baths in Whanganui into a contemporary family compound.

Pool House

Pool House

Many stories in Whanganui start with the late Ross Mitchell-Anyon. The famed potter lived here for more than 40 years, making cups, plates and bowls of uncommon earthiness and beauty. He also served on the local district council and was an enthusiastic saviour of the city’s heritage buildings. “He wasn’t particularly good at doing them up,” says his son Ben Mitchell-Anyon, of Patchwork Architecture, “but he was good at saving them from being demolished, and then finding good people to pass them onto.”

In 2009, Ross bought the former Gonville Swimming Baths – along with the neighbouring town hall and former fire station – from the council. Surplus to requirements and in danger of demolition, the buildings had been abandoned to graffiti artists: the pools had operated until 2006, when leaks made the complex uneconomic to run or repair.

The main pool was dug in 1912, six lanes and 25 yards of competition pool, with an eight-foot extension for children. A paddling pool was built in 1928, gifted by “the mothers of Gonville”; and a learner pool was added later still. In the 1970s, after much use, the wooden changing sheds, which sat on the street side, were replaced by a jaunty building with a zig-zag roof and a circular window, in the style of Ian Athfield or Roger Walker. Behind that, along the southern wall, were three utilitarian concrete-block changing sheds. Oh, and there was – and still is – a particularly cute lifeguard tower. Ben, who learned to swim here, has fond memories of long summer days, jumping into the pool and then lying on the concrete to warm up.

Ross never got around to repairing the buildings, though he did secure them and clean them up a bit – in 2015 he fell from a ladder, suffering a head injury that curtailed his great energy. Eventually, not long before he died, his children sold the block to Frank Stark and Emma Bugden. Creative transplants from Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, the couple are no strangers to unconventional building projects. They’d already restored a rifle range in the capital, and lived in the Round House, a 1940s home built by a maker of concrete tanks.

They had intended to be in Whanganui for three years while Frank worked on the refurbishment of the local museum and Emma did a PhD, but they fell in love with the place. Whanganui was named a UNESCO City of Design in 2021, and is reimagining itself as a small, design-led centre: a process Emma is intimately involved with in her job as strategic lead of creative industries at Whanganui & Partners. When the pools came on their radar, the couple decided they were here to stay.

“We asked Ross what he’d had in mind and he said he couldn’t remember,” recalls Frank. “But a few things were plain – he’d carved a passageway between the town hall and the pool, so he obviously had some idea of making it interact.”

Frank and Emma spent a couple of years plotting before they did anything. “We’d come and have picnics here and that sort of thing, trying to get the best sense of it,” says Frank. They subdivided the site and sold the fire station to friends to finance restoration of the rest. Frank set up an office and the Gonville Centre for Urban Research in the kiosk, along with an art and architecture library in one of the concrete changing sheds. In 2021, they converted another of the changing sheds into a self-contained flat, before turning to Ben – coming full circle – to design them and daughter Peggy a house. “We loved the site, and we’re interested in its history,” says Emma. “We wanted to enhance it and give it a new life.”

The idea was to restore the learner pool and turn the big main pool into an orchard. Partly, the decision was practical – the main pool was too big and expensive to repair – but they also knew this concrete complex would need a green, shady well at its centre if it was to become a permanent home. They broke up the bottom of the pool and filled half of it with dirt for an orchard; the other half contains raised beds. The trees are now two years old, and it’s not hard to see how radically they will change the space in a decade or two.

When it came to designing a house, the initial idea was to restore one of the concrete-block changing sheds, but they were so structurally unsound there was no option but to start from scratch. The couple wanted their home to be simple and sympathetic to the original buildings. Ben’s own house in Whanganui, the Dog Box, was a key reference. “We wanted small bedrooms and a big living area,” says Frank, “and we wanted it to be as thermally effective as possible, but we didn’t want a fully passive house, because we didn’t want to seal it up.” They also made some vague references to David Hockney and sent half a dozen photos of things they liked from Patchwork’s website.

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Ben’s response was rational yet playful. There was only one spot for the new house, he reckons: replacing the remaining changing shed on the southern wall, tucked into a corner overlooking the pool. He would continue the line of rectangles, leaving plenty of pool deck. You approach the house down a long driveway between the town hall and fire station, rather than through the main gate. It makes the place feel private, and there’s a sense of surprise as you step through a plain door in a corrugate wall into a living space bathed in light, overlooking the pools and garden. “It’s not a courtyard house,” says Ben, “but the feeling you get when you’re in there is kind of courtyardy. It’s big, but it’s a walled space, looking inward.”

The layout is rectangular, with glass on two sides and solid walls on the other two – a trick Patchwork uses to give small houses weight. There’s a big open living room at one end and two bedrooms at the other, with a TV/spare room between. Materials are simple: concrete, ply and steel. There are references to pool architecture throughout. Stacked concrete walls speak of utilitarian public architecture, while custom steel trusses carry the roof and divide the spaces – in the plan, Ben called them “lanes”. The trusses have a zig-zag pattern that invokes swimming flags and the roof of the kiosk. It all feels much bigger than its 120 square metres.

So deft is the balance between old and new that many have trouble distinguishing them. “It’s beautiful,” says Emma, “but it looks functional and simple and slightly industrial.” While it’s a private home, it still has something of a public spirit. The couple have hosted concerts by the likes of Don McGlashan in the old town hall, and they rent the space to ballroom dancers a couple of times a week. Next, they plan to turn the former kiosk into Airbnb accommodation.

You get the sense it will never entirely be private property, and that’s okay with them. One morning, not long after they moved in, the front gate had been left open and – as people are wont to do – a man wandered in, down past the pool to the house, where Emma was sitting at the table, eating breakfast. “Oh, they’ve opened a new cafe in here!” the man exclaimed. “I’m so sorry, but this is my home, and this is my breakfast,” said Emma. “Well, can I come in anyway?” he replied.

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1. Original Entrance

2. Kiosk

3. Sheds

4. Orchard

5. Garden Beds

6. Outdoor Living

7. House

8. Peggy’s Garden

9. Pool

10. Town Hall

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