A dramatic weathered jewel by Parsonson Architects drops anchor on the hilltop above Te Mamaku Ruby Bay.

Tipping Point

Tipping Point

In the early 1970s, painter Toss Woollaston’s dealer Peter McLeavey encouraged the artist to try working on larger canvases. Woollaston was sceptical at first, but soon came around, finding the bigger size freeing. One of the paintings from this series, Tasman Bay, 1928, was donated a few years ago to Victoria University of Wellington, where I have had the pleasure of seeing it often. It is a sweeping panorama of the dramatic harbour near Nelson and Māpua, all blues and golds that seem to shimmer. The “1928” in the title indicates that Woollaston was recalling his first heady romantic sight of Te Tai-o-Aorere Tasman Bay as a young man, revelling in the possibilities of light and colour.

I was thinking about the painting before visiting this house by Parsonson Architects in Te Mamaku Ruby Bay, not only because Woollaston’s painting could almost have been painted from this very spot, or the fact that the architects have here also revelled in colour. The painting came to mind because it is a sign of a healthy and productive relationship between artist and art dealer, the latter freeing and emboldening the former to try new things. That’s exactly what seems to have happened in this dramatic house, where an informed and interested client enabled architects Gerald Parsonson and Sam Donald to follow their ideas with comparatively few constraints. Like Woollaston’s four-by-nine-feet paintings, now among his most coveted, the result is special.

In a way this house had a more-than-20-year gestation period. Parsonson and the clients (a couple, now with children) first met around the turn of the century and soon after embarked on a small project elsewhere in Aotearoa. Parsonson says of one of the owners: “He would come to us talking of architects we were excited by, like Wendell Burnette – you know, maybe not then a household name.” There were many conversations about architecture over two decades, and when I meet said client he speaks passionately about the likes of Sean Godsell, Zaha Hadid and Snorre Stinessen.

For this particular house, the client says of Parsonson and Donald, “We knew they would know what to do. There was one plan involving more concrete that came back from the quantity surveyor a bit high, then they came up with this, and we said, ‘Go for it.’” He adds, “I don’t understand why you’d go to an architect and tell them how you want your house to look or how it should work. That defeats the point.” Music to architects’ ears.

The large section sits on a hill above a curve in the road not far from the water. It has 270-degree views and slopes downwards. “Many people didn’t want it, because it was a bit harder to build on,” says Parsonson of the topography. Because of the incline, and the path of the sun, the house was sited perpendicular to the slope. But first, a smaller, simpler house was built on the lower part of the slope, and sold, enabling the clients to focus on their own home further up the hill.a

You catch glimpses of the house before you reach it. It’s hard to miss – a dramatic weathered steel “T” silhouetted against the sky. The outline is reminiscent of Colin McCahon’s Load Bearing Structure works, in which a large “T” or tau cross is silhouetted against a deep gold background. You then follow a sweeping driveway that grandiosely reveals the view of Tasman Bay as you turn to stop under the house. Two pilotis support the part of the house now above you, which contains two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The pilotis also conceal wastewater pipes – an elegant solution.

You enter the front door and turn right, climbing up to a landing where the bay is partly visible through slats in the steel cladding; then up again to a second landing. Straight ahead and to the left are the aforementioned bedrooms and bathrooms. To the right are the living-dining space, the kitchen and a multipurpose room with a sliding door. As you make your way down the corridor, you catch glimpses of the kitchen and the view beyond through a cut-out in the wall. It’s only once you enter the main living-dining space, with sweeping decks on either side, that you are thrust fully into that view from Woollaston’s painting.

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The site and the outlook are expansive, even romantic. When I visit, rainstorms pass in slow motion across the bay, and the colours of trees, crops and water are extraordinary. These effects were not lost on the architects. The horizontal nature of the house accentuates the sheer breadth of the view. The weathered steel rainscreen, folded down over the house, also serves to emphasise the building’s scale. For this project, Parsonson and Donald considered how a house can fit within a large landscape. Both mention the influence of Todd Saunders, the Canadian architect based in Norway, and his Fogo Island Inn.

In the living area, sound baffling is hidden behind thin timber slats near the ceiling, solving what Parsonson calls “often problematic modernist acoustics”. The timber ceiling extends outside behind the fireplace where it meets slats in weathered steel. And the floor, polished concrete, is in one large slab with no joins in the living space, which required significantly increasing the level of reinforcing as well as the slab’s thickness. This is just one example of what the architects point to as the client’s commitment to “getting it done well”, rather than most expediently.

When viewed from outside, the house is dominant and commanding, but the experience inside is very different. First of all, it isn’t large; there’s no sense of grandness about it. Secondly, the timbers (all oiled) give a soft warmth and glow. Thirdly, there’s an interplay in Parsonson’s signature use of bold colours that takes cues from the landscape. This contrast in feeling between exterior and interior was one of the surprises of visiting. As you walk in and out and around the house, through the sliding doors on either side, it continues to captivate. The five-and-a-half-tonne raw weathered-steel exterior transitions to an interior of spotted gum with delicate split columns supporting the roof.

The bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry are accessed from a relatively narrow passageway painted in bright reds and oranges, with the occasional hint of green. You’re compressed in all this colour and timber and then thrown out into the main bedroom which opens up once again into the landscape. Because the steel exterior folds down over the side of the house, you look out first onto the eave and then the landscape beyond.

The house was recently sold and, by the time this appears in print, new owners will have moved in. For those of us interested in architecture, there is a silver lining to this move: the possibility (I say hopefully) of a third act in a three-decade-and-counting architectural collaboration.

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1. Driveway

2. Entry

3. Bedroom

4. Ensuite

5. Bathroom

6. Laundry

7. Kitchen

8. Media Room

9. Dining

10. Living

11. Deck

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