A rare Christchurch house by the late Sir Ian Athfield proves a wonderful backdrop for a collection of classic mid-century pieces.

The Things We Carry

The Things We Carry

Sir Ian Athfield – or ‘Ath’ as almost everyone knew him – was an individualist who grew up in 1950s Christchurch before moving north to launch a career as New Zealand’s most affable maverick architect. By 1968 he had set up his own practice in Wellington and was making waves in the nation’s capital by building himself a bonkers home-office-political-statement on a prominent slope above the CBD. The Athfield house resembles a post-modern Greek village, a large clump of white-plastered angles in motion, pitching and rolling down the hill. It was, and still is, bewildering. 

Ath was inherently anti-estab­lishment, he was social and brimming with good-humour, charisma and creativity. He attracted spirited people and projects. From his Wellington hillside experiment, he took on commissions from friends and friends of friends who admired his exuberant style and personality. Jaunty towers and turrets, circular nautical windows and irregular, up-and-down forms fast became his trademark, which makes this house a bit of an anomaly in the Athfield back catalogue. 

Given his renegade reputation, it’s surprising that when Bruce Jones – Ath’s old high-school rowing coach – called from Christchurch with a commission, Ath paused, shifted gears, and penned a design unlike his fruity Wellington work. Instead, he embraced the distinctive, but well-mannered Christchurch Style – a Danish model of housing transplanted, adapted and perfected on the Canterbury Plains by Ath’s former mentor, the master of New Zealand modernism, Sir Miles Warren.

The elements of the regional Christchurch Style are deceptively simple – concrete-block walls painted pure white, steeply pitched roofs with shaved eaves, deep-set windows and fantastically tall chimneys. This apparent simplicity resulted in complex, sculptural and beautifully detailed homes in a style that, although borrowed from Scandinavia, was handled in such a way that made it belong in New Zealand.

Ath’s work on the steep Wellington hills was reactionary and startling, and this home on a flat site in the Christchurch suburbs is comparatively polite and subdued, but no less exciting. In fact, it’s a happy marriage of the two ideals. There’s a cheekiness to it, and despite reading from the Christchurch script, Ath gave things a little wobble. Naturally.

Quite unlike the familiar row of neighbouring bungalows, all lined up neatly and paying careful attention to the street, the Jones house breaks the roadside rhythm and sits at the very back of its deep, rectangular section. There’s no picket fence, but instead a long view to a striking, abstract gable with just one large square window placed high and off-centre. It’s good.

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Extending directly from the house is a walled courtyard that protects from prying eyes and the fierce nor’wester winds. Once inside the sheltered garden, things feel pretty calm and ordered. But only briefly, because every view is asymmetrical. The pointy peaks and corners have been sliced from the building and the rooflines dip, rise and intersect at angles, giving the house an unexpectedly playful tempo. 

Inside it’s much looser than anticipated, with two open loft areas – originally designated as playrooms – accessed by narrow, ladder-like stairs. Inserted in the walls are a few circular pipe vents for functional fun, and the floors are paved with English quarry tiles. No carpets, no argument. The rooms flow openly from one to another with a minimum of separation and only the main bedroom and bathrooms bother with doors, which recede into the walls. 

The Jones family moved out in the mid 1980s – to another, much more kooky Athfield design on the Cashmere Hills. This home is now occupied by a collector whose focus is 20th-century modern design, which he sources from all over the world – America, Europe and Scandinavia. He has been collecting for more than 20 years and has moved his much-loved belongings many times over, from house to house – everything from a villa to a warehouse – but it’s here that they feel most at home. It’s an eclectic, but considered collection that feels in tune with Ath’s idiosyncratic approach to interior design – his own living room was furnished with tubular steel Bauhaus chairs, Italian post-modern pieces and an original beaten-up Eames lounge chair.

It’s hard to say why Ath toed the line and so embraced the local style. Deference seems unlikely – he wasn’t the type – but he did have respect for the local tradition and he certainly knew how it was done. Whatever the case, it worked, and fellow architect and non-conformist Peter Beaven approved. “It was my favourite Christchurch house for many years,” he said. “The Christchurch Style was extended into much more romantic forms without losing any of the discipline of that style.”

The Jones house is one of 12 homes featured in I Never Met a Straight Line I Didn’t Like by Matthew Arnold and Mary Gaudin. See here for purchase and shipping details.

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