Updated and expanded over two decades, this Ian Athfield compound in Karaka Bay reveals surprise and delight around every curve and corner.

Remastered Classic

Remastered Classic

To listen to Hudge''s playlist inspired by this house, click here. For many years, on frequent walks, I have wondered what lay hidden behind a dramatic cantilevered room suspended off a hillside in Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s Te Motu Kairangi Miramar Peninsula. It always struck me as something like the cube of Ron Sang’s Brake House, but with hatches battened down for the Wellington wind. Was it 1970s, 1980s? Neither, in truth. But what lies beyond is one of the capital’s more special homes.

To give you a sense of arriving at this house, it took me a good 10 minutes to reach the front door, such is the drama of the approach – you have to stop to take it all in. You’ve wound your way down roads with spectacular views before parking, but this house extends the effect. It’s all curves, with a narrow, winding pedestrian bridge set high above the garden between the driveway and front door. Water laps at the coves below and the Remutaka Range rises up behind the harbour in the distance. You view the water through the stately branches of kauri planted by owner Simon Nightingale shortly after he moved here in 2001. This area is the seaside Wellington of film stars and studios, and all this drama – not to mention, the seclusion – certainly has something of Hollywood about it. It is both quintessentially Wellington and very international.

Conceived by Ian Athfield in 1968 for quantity surveyor Brian Cardiff and wife Viola, the house has many trademarks of an Athfield design with its spectacular curved rooflines and plaster. It is one of the architect’s earliest houses in Wellington, though it has changed significantly since. Rumour has it Athfield wanted the land himself. Instead he was approached by the Cardiffs after their abortive attempt to design a home themselves. In Joyful Architecture: The Genius of New Zealand’s Ian Athfield, Gerald Melling says, “Athfield... took advantage of the site’s concave basin, and strung out a loping, curling, lineal building dug into the bank, with just the odd little dive up and down the slope.” It was “two main levels; daytime on top, night-time underneath”. All this is still true today.

Nightingale bought the house from the Cardiffs when they retired to another Athfield house they had built in Waikanae. “No one wanted it,” Nightingale says. “It looked like too much to take on,” he says, adding with a smile, “I wanted to get everything done straight away.” Of course, it took a little longer than that. Over the following two decades he worked to create the house we see now, most recently in collaboration with Jenny Anderson, of Jenny Anderson Interior Design.

“The Cardiff House has none of the acceptably rough workmanship, of, say, the Porteous House,” Melling wrote in 1980, “all is very finely finished, and the pervading air of luxury perhaps accurately reflects the professional success of its owner.” This is also true today, and so although the house has been adapted and updated rather than strictly preserved, it remains true to those origins. All is very finely finished.

Some time after Nightingale took ownership, he bought part of the hillside from a neighbour, removed much earth, retained it with concrete and stone, and added a dramatic lap pool with rooms set beneath. Nightingale also commissioned the cantilevered cube on the seaward side. An upper storey was demolished (from above where the kitchen now is). And the interior has been turned into a meditative space that combines elements of the original architecture with Nightingale’s own sensibilities and interests.

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To create the stone wall and pool, craftspeople were brought down from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland to undertake some of the work so Nightingale and Anderson could ensure the quality and fineness of the finish. It is hard to fathom the scale of what was involved here, and yet none of it shows. It is something of a masterstroke. The entire area, encompassing pool, deck and firepit, is completely sheltered – by the house on one side and the hill on the other. Standing on the edge of the deck, watching the wind and water below, is a magical Wellington experience. It’s Wellington on a good day, most days.

Inside, the furniture and art are eclectic and carefully chosen. “I just spent so long on the internet trying to find the right things,” says Nightingale of everything in the house, down to tapware and lights. “I’d send some things to Jenny; she’d suggest other things. It was a long process. Jenny was so patient.” Anderson describes the process as symbiotic, and credits Nightingale’s commitment to attention and quality. The resulting interiors reflect an interest in international contemporary design and New Zealand art. There’s an almost Belgian sensibility, but then with the huge Allen Maddox painting in the sitting room, or the Billy Apple rainbow sculpture. There are pieces by Peter Robinson and Para Matchitt, and Jake Walker sculptures of Athfield-Walker chimney forms.

Spatially, the “daytime on top, night-time underneath” idea holds, but it is more complex than that. Melling described the place as “an explorer’s delight”. After crossing the bridge from the driveway, you enter the “daytime” level through a huge door. To your left is the staircase, recently covered in walnut, that leads down to the bedrooms but stops first on a landing with a small room adjacent. To the right are the living room and a nook for art and books. Ahead is the large open-plan kitchen and dining area; beyond that is the “cube” room with its horizontal picture window. From the kitchen, automated sliding doors open to the deck with firepit and swimming pool beyond.

There are many routes through the house. From the pool, you can take an outside path to the bedroom level, underneath the cantilevered room and past the sauna. From this lower storey you can also access a garden path that leads all the way down to the water. From the kitchen, there’s internal access to the garage and studio-bedroom above, along a narrow, curving corridor that hugs the hillside.

Having visited, I am still not entirely sure I can fit all the rooms together in my mind, nor grasp the scale of the work involved and the attention paid to every detail. The house is indeed an explorer’s paradise, and you almost want to get lost, popping up in a submarine-like bathroom or on the boardwalk leading around the lower level, finding something new to discover and look at each time. Perhaps, eventually, it would become normal, familiar. But I don’t think so, because for 50 years so far this house has attracted owners, designers and an architect who understood just how unique this hillside is, and just how unique a house is needed to make the most of it.

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