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A photographer’s-eye view

1 May 2023
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From stunning new book Cape to Bluff shot by New Zealand photographer of architecture and publisher Simon Devitt, 03 selected three (all located in the South Island, naturally) of the 30 inspiring houses featured to showcase, with an introduction by Simon.

Our sense of the world is related to where we have come from and the places we have been – experiences that help to create our life story. They inform how we sense ‘place’ and how it feels when we arrive in a new environment.

Photographing architecture allows me an incredibly broad view of the world, with permission to treat landscapes, people and the built environment with the same democratic eye.

I’ve often been told by architect clients that I’ve seen more architecture than they have. Yet when I ‘see’ architecture, I don’t seek the technical detail, the architecture that could have been or the architecture that is – at least not the way they would.

As a photographer I see other things. I witness layers of beauty, atmosphere and moments. I see how the architecture serves its inhabitants, the landscape and the community it occupies, in real time.

I document these beautiful spaces as if on a treasure hunt. Spaces where emotions are felt, where lives are lived, where memories are formed. The evidence – a picture story containing a broader ideal, a single-minded proposition – as seen and experienced by me.

The camera records what it sees; that is self-evident. My role is to record how it feels to be there. The spirit of a place. I bring fresh eyes to every shoot. I arrive early and leave late, and there’s a bit of making it up as I go, but it’s that ‘in the moment’ creativity that excites me. I’ve been to hundreds of shoots before this one, but never this one! Seeing and feeling the newness of this moment and this place.

When making this book, I wanted it to feel like a long, slow walk through the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. Shooting at various times of the year over the span of a decade, I encountered what felt like twelve seasons and not the calendar four.

This languid transformation shows up as long shadows and short days; hot, high overhead sun blasting through swathes of vast cumulus; sheets of frost cast onto the Central Otago landscape, replete with an ice-bow. Magical landscapes in the deep south of the Pacific Ocean, on the land of the long white cloud.

Some houses in this book are built on seemingly unbuildable sites, meticulous solutions laboured by world-class architects and builders. Their clients’ precious dream confidently articulated using high craft and experimentation.

Eventually, this long, slow and intentional dance creates a new way of living, born from new world perspectives on old world land.

Scrubby Bay House

Horomaka Banks Peninsula, Waitaha Canterbury

Architecture by Patterson Associates

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Set in splendid isolation in a small, surf-battered bay on the north coast of Horomaka Banks Peninsula, this rustic‑style dwelling is luxury accommodation at Annandale, a 4000-hectare beef and sheep farm.

The bay is nature in the raw. Seals and penguins frequent the dense kelp beds offshore, whales and dolphins travel the coastline, and piled on the beach are tangles of bleaching driftwood.

Faced with such an uncompromising location, architect Andrew Patterson eschewed a modern or abstracted path – which, he reasons, “would have fought the timeless nature of the bay” – in favour of a rural vernacular form, albeit on a monumental scale.

Covering nearly 450 square metres, the house is dominated by two great gabled forms, staggered and interlocking, that stand centred in a natural amphitheatre. The drama is deliberate: “The centre point of the valley has a huge feeling,” says Patterson, “like being an opera soprano on stage.”

At the heart of the seaward pavilion is the living and dining area, with expansive views to north and south, and a ceiling that rises to a height of over five metres; flanking it are two bedroom suites. The landward pavilion contains a third suite and, facing south, a bunk room for younger guests.

While large living-room openings look out on the ocean, the other elevations have windows in more traditional farmhouse shapes, with shutters that enable the house to be secured when unoccupied. On a fine day, rolling away the shutters and sliders connects the living room with the proscenium deck to the north and the outdoor dining area to the south.

Cedar cladding wraps up and over the exterior, delineating the gabled structures while also drawing the elements into a unified whole. The warm timber tone harmonises the house intimately with the tawny-coloured grass, and also with the beached driftwood: a house conceived of as a piece of driftwood itself, weathered by sun and salt spray.

Inside, locally sourced macrocarpa boards line the walls and ceilings, while in the living area a fireplace has been built from local stone, and many of the fittings, from door hardware to lighting, are similarly bespoke. The house, notes Patterson, is “contemporary and abstracted in a material sense, yet unmistakably rural New Zealand”.

Black Quail House

Bannockburn, Central Otago

Architecture by Bergendy Cook

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Connection to place is at the heart of this understated house. It evokes the continuous but evolving human settlement in the Bannockburn area in Central Otago. Here, the rusted remains of gold miners’ cottages dot a stony landscape of old mine tailings along the banks of the Kawarau River.

“It’s an intense, exposed landscape,” says architect Bergendy Cooke, “and the clients wanted a home that complemented these surroundings.”

Bergendy’s response was a house embedded in the terrain, offering protection from the harsh environment while refusing to be ostentatious. The low-lying building that emerged will become even less visible over time through the patina of its materials.

“In such an outstanding landscape it seemed right to create a sensation of anticipation, with a prolonged arrival to the main hub of the house. Intentionally, the first views through are restricted, with only glimpses through to the landscape and courtyards. This dramatises the finale, where the house opens entirely to expansive views north and below to the river gorge.”

The clients wanted a flexible home that could enfold the two of them on an intimate scale – particularly in the winter – but expand when required to house wider family and guests. This is accomplished by full-height cavity sliding doors, which can close off a hallway, guest bedrooms and bathrooms from the main living areas.

“A courtyard located to the south of the main living area provides a protected outdoor space and an opportunity to grow a lush garden for softness and contrast to the harsh environment outside,” notes Bergendy.

“Smaller courtyards to the east and west offer varying extended living scenarios to buffer the environment, while increasing the transparency throughout the building.”

This house reveals its secrets slowly, in glimpses and apertures – its living spaces changing dramatically in character as the seasons cycle. Roof overhangs reduce summer glare, but permit raking winter sun to heat the thermal mass of walls and floors.

“This site needed a substantial material not only to provide thermal mass, but also to reflect the site’s materiality. The concrete enclosure is like a poured stone, an updated version of the stone used for shelter by the early gold miners.”

Bivvy House

Lake Wakatipu, Otago

Architecture by Vaughn Mcquarrie

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Mountain peaks, river valleys and glacial lakes sketch the subalpine landscape of the Southern Lakes – an environment revered by Jennifer Arnold and Alan Luckie. “It’s the wilderness of it all,” notes Jennifer.

“That immense space with its diamond-sharp air and the ability to engage with all the elements.”

With a bare site overlooking Lake Wakatipu, they engaged architect Vaughn McQuarrie to design a shelter that would “sing with the music of the sun, wind and rain”.

They discussed bivvies and huts, thermal efficiency and humble materials, and didn’t need (or necessarily want) the final design to resemble a traditional house.

Vaughn looked to the old gold miners’ huts of the area, explored as a child – “beautiful little ruins that propose the simplest way to live in the mountain environment”.

The building site itself had been cut from solid rock, with a lot of gravel and small boulders left behind. So the idea of a house assembled from fragments initiated two solid concrete forms to the east and west (sleeping spaces), with a simple tin roof slung between them to form a ‘bivvy’ for the main living space.

Sleeping spaces are dark and cocooned – band-sawn plywood lines the walls and ceiling, with small windows perfectly placed to frame a local landmark.

By contrast, the central living space is open and light, connected with the ground outside, the valley wall to the north, and the sky. Winter sun pours in to heat the concrete floor, which is coloured the same grey as the gravel outside.

The geometry of the house – with its tilting and splaying wall and roof planes – is generated from a wonderfully elaborate overlay of site contours, view shafts and the sun path. This poetic representation of the site topography echoes the splintered and carved faces of glacial valleys and schist to create a complex and interesting form.

“As we look outside at the world, we feel enfolded within the mountains,” says Jennifer.

“The cave and the boulder are very primeval, and it feels slightly sublime and sacred inside. The bedrooms feel like a James Turrell artwork with their carefully framed views; the whole building feels like a little gallery space.”

Edited extract from Cape to Bluff by Simon Devitt, Andrea Stevens and Luke Scott. Photography © Simon Devitt, words by Andrea Stevens.

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