For the past 20 years, Pip Cheshire of Cheshire Architects has been designing something of a compound for expatriate clients on the cliff at Takapuna, looking out to Rangitoto through huge old pōhutukawa. The clients return to Aotearoa often – trips which now involve managed isolation on the way through – and for long periods at a time. As a result, the place has the feeling of an escape, a place of reflection, one in which to feel grounded and find peace.
The project started before Cheshire set up his own practice – he was still at Jasmax when he designed the main family house, which hovers in the trees on the clifftop and extends down five levels. “It’s a story about going down to the sea – a progression from the escarpment to the beach, and looking out to the volcano,” says Cheshire. The house is long and narrow, with spaces that are smaller than you’d expect and that run off a gallery staircase down the site. The views are fractured and focussed, rather than widescreen. The design has a distinct rigour on the tight site.
After time, the owners managed to buy the land next door, which led to an extension of the original house: the new part is expansive and horizontal, in contrast to the verticality of the original. While that project was underway, the owners started talking about a guest house on the other side of the wide lawn. Additionally, a large house was going up on the neighbouring property and would overlook the compound. What was required was a bulwark and also practical space for gardening. In its most basic terms: a garden shed with a sleepout.
Oh okay. It’s really not a sleepout, but its function and appearance have the same rusticated appearance as many New Zealand out-buildings, so it feels to me like the comparison holds. When you stand in the living room of the main house, you look over to a humble building under the trees, and it’s a distinct contrast to the main home – a jolt, in the best possible way.
There are distinct contrasts in form and materials. The new building has a pitched roof to the multiple flat roofs and pavilions of the main house. The cladding is oxidising corrugated Corten, in contrast to the stone, oak and concrete of the main house. The interior is lined with reclaimed teak and is furnished with a collection of vintage timber tables and chairs. A Murphy bed folds out from the wall; if guests seek privacy, a linen curtain is drawn from a recess in the timber to enclose the space in a diffuse expanse of fabric. “You know, basic stuff,” jokes Cheshire. “A very humble structure, a hut with a corrugated-iron fireplace.”
Half-jokes aside, there is purpose and meaning in the method. “We always have conversations about a component, a suggestion of prior occupation,” says Cheshire, of his working relationship with the clients. The design works with a sense that something might have occupied the site before, a remnant of an existence, or an invented sort of memory.
The design also takes in some very practical concerns. Storage and garden shed on one side under the pitch, guest house and a sheltered deck under a flat roof on the other. Back inside, a small kitchen is accessed through a door, and there’s a WC and bathroom. The detailing is seemingly simple but highly sophisticated. There are no gutters: water runs off the roof into a gravel garden; the studs run over the boards on the inside – all elements realised by Stephen Rendell, who had enormous input into all three buildings.
“You’ve got to be able to boil an egg if you need to,” says Cheshire. “But then the question is, what are the criteria that slide over the top of that? What do you want to feel when you’re here, how comfortable do you want to be? And how intimate do you want to be and what are the dimensions that give rise to that sort of intimacy?”
In this case: the dimensions are modest and the result is raw, but very beautiful, small and intimate. The main room is framed by windows that, in these pictures look like steel, but are actually fine timber fins inside a steel frame, and give the place the feeling of an enclosed porch. There’s a long table inside and comfortable chairs outside, looking through pōhutukawa to the volcano; a fireplace warms both the two spaces.
“I was interested in the idea that this would have its own strong character,” says Cheshire. “I was interested in the ramshackle or apparently naive being the dominant motif, and then other things gently added to that to suggest a level of comfort and luxury.”
The motive is perhaps not dissimilar to the sleepout or shed – the tradition of ancillary buildings that capture romance and separation. In this case, with fractured views and a feeling of peace. And that is very special indeed.