Keshaw McArthur designs an artful Arch Hill cottage extension around a distant maunga.

Reach out

Reach out

When Katrina Keshaw and Xuan McArthur Nguyen first started devising the design for a renovation to a tiny workers’ cottage in Arch Hill, Tāmaki Makaurau, they turned first to an unusual source – the art of Lucio Fontana. The Argentine painter and sculptor, who died in 1968, was the first artist known for slashing his canvases.

Fontana thought of his cuts as events, the act of which was as important as the final artwork itself. In some ways, it was as if he was trying to resist the very nature of a two-dimensional picture, or to remind us that a canvas isn’t two-dimensional at all. Sometimes, he lined the back of the paintings with black gauze to emphasise the idea of the painting being a three-dimensional object. All of which might seem a long way away from a south-facing 1900s cottage on a cute street in Arch Hill – but bear with me. The suburb sits on the south side of Great North Road: it’s charmingly raffish, with much smaller houses and sites than Grey Lynn a short walk away. It loses the sun in the afternoon, and the Northwestern Motorway sits just down the hill.

When Keshaw and McArthur first visited, the house was a very cute, but very small two-bedroom affair. You walked straight into a long open-plan living room that ran from street to deck, with two bedrooms and a bathroom in a line and opening directly into the living space. On the street side, there was a small living area and the kitchen sat in the living area to the south. The owners, who were living in Sydney and had the place rented out, were entirely trusting and offered very few guidelines other than their desire to engage with the outdoors, and to have a place to cook wood-fired pizza. (It was only later that the pair discovered they also owned an excellent collection of Scandinavian designer furniture.)

Aside from the usual requirements of upgrading a century-old cottage (heating, insulation, straightening where they could), Keshaw and McArthur had two things to contend with. The first was the fact that the site slopes to the south. “We were really conscious that that side of the hill loses sun super early,” says McArthur. “So we always had it in our minds that we wanted it to be light and uplifting – we didn’t want it to be wet and cold.” The second was the unavoidable presence of Maungawhau Mt Eden across the valley. It’s ever-present, looming into view as you turn corners and coming in and out of view behind buildings. Often, it sits in sunlight when you’re in the shade, which gives it a special sort of luminosity. It is a strong, though friendly, presence in the landscape.

So on that initial visit, the first thing they noticed was the view of the maunga. “It was so strong, it ended up influencing everything,” says Keshaw. Which is understandable, only completely at odds with the need for light. So while the obvious idea was to reach up and grab light from the north, turning the house’s back to the south and reaching up to gain much-needed sun, the architects kept coming back to the same idea – back to Fontana, and back to Maungawhau.

No items found.

At its most basic, Keshaw and McArthur’s scheme sought to do the minimum to the old house to bring it up to standard. They reinstated a hallway to create a third bedroom on the street side, and left the bathroom and kitchen where they were, adding a large skylight over the island to bring light into the middle of the house. Then, they created a generous extension with a sequence of levels stepping down the slope of the site. In their minds, each step in level is an event – like Fontana’s slashes – defined by brick stairs and thresholds that run across the site under a gently draping roof.

These vertical elements mark your descent through the new space, eventually framing the living space which leads out to the garden – a gently winding path through the building down stairs and landings. The effect is to slow you down, make you pause and take in your surroundings – out to neighbouring cottages, up to the sky or out across the urban landscape surrounding the maunga beyond.

“We could never see a lightweight structure at the back,” says Keshaw. “It just didn’t feel right.” Instead, the couple used brick fins, contrasted with floor-to-ceiling glass sliders, to lightly contain the living space, creating a solid counterweight – almost an anchor – to the white wooden cottage at the top of the slope.

In the centre, the dining area opens into a garden on one side and a small deck on the other: when the sliders are open, they create large, open voids in either direction. (The connections across the neighbouring sites reestablish a sense of community – these sites historically were without boundary fencing allowing the landscape to continue throughout.) The result is a space, a breath between the old house and the brick pavilion. “We didn’t want the new and old parts of the house to touch,” says McArthur of the intentional disconnect. “We wanted that to be an open moment, and then the roof just ties it all together.”

All of which creates a singularly beautiful room. As you walk through the spaces, each a few steps down from the other, the roof works in two ways above you: one side kicks up to create a horizontal window perfectly framing Maungawhau, while the other runs down the slope, mimicking the angle of the original lean-to. It’s a complicated idea that feels effortless, and drags in light and scenery. “The elements, the parts are all very simple,” says Keshaw. “And the planes in which the bricks are applied are intentionally singular. Then you’ve got these transparent moments around them – so they read quite lightly.”

Now, as you walk through the house, you’re acutely conscious of moving down the slope, and through different spaces and functions. You get beautiful long views through the space – out to the maunga in one direction, and back up through the house in the other. But your overwhelming experience is that of open space. “We felt like the openness was the main media we were working with,” says McArthur. “It’s just trying to develop a set of freestanding elements and then leaving the space around it to do its thing. It’s about not trying to close it down too much – and then when we do, it’s quite a clean frame.”

No items found.

1. Entry
2. Bedroom
3. Bathroom
4. Laundry
5. Kitchen
6. Dining
7. Living
8. Deck
9. Patio

Related Stories: