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Creating the cave

28 May 2021
New Brighton Rsa 3 Of 9

When an RSA and a bowling club teamed up with an award-winning architect, a few brews and laughs were guaranteed to spill over. Words Shelley Robinson

There are a few things guaranteed to prevail at an RSA and bowling club: beer, banter and a barrel full of advice.

And as a rather odd-looking building went up on the tail-end of the New Brighton RSA and Bowling Club, there was plenty to be said over beers.

New Brighton RSA secretary Garry House chuckles and rubs his chin as he remembers some of the comments
from members.

“Not all of them were positive,” he says.

Bull O’Sullivan Architecture director and architect Michael O’Sullivan puts it a bit more succinctly.

“[It’s] the problem with guys who have a lot of time of their hands, who have spent careers as carpenters, carpet layers, plumbers and whatnot – everyone is a ferocious expert in the field,” he laughs.

Your sides will ache after half an hour with this duo.

Their partnership began in 2017, when Garry was looking for an architect for a very special project. The RSA’s New Brighton Road building was decimated in the February 22, 2011 earthquake, prompting the RSA to combine with the New Brighton Bowling Club. Part of the deal was for a games room to be built at the 21 Mafeking Street club. Garry, as caretaker of the precious, hard-fought-for insurance funds, was after the best architect he could find. So, he headed out to Lyttelton to recruit Michael in person.

He found Michael welding up a drawing board at his new, soon-to-be award-winning, architecture studio. Michael remembers the day well.

“In walked this guy that was on fire, fizzing with energy.

I didn’t know anyone in Canterbury and in walks this guy, this magic man. He was the first guy to walk in the door and go, ‘Would you like to draw up something for us?’

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RSA secretary Garry House and architect Michael O’Sullivan shared more than a few laughs on the project. PHOTO: CHARLIE ROSE CREATIVE

And I was almost in tears with satisfaction,” he says.

The games room wasn’t Michael’s typical sort of project. In spite of the payout, there wasn’t a lot of money to  throw around.

“They had bugger all. We basically scrimped and extorted people we knew to help get the project across the line.

“Most of these guys [at the club] are retired and rely on the pension to buy their beer. You know? That’s the reality. But I was really taken by these guys.”

So, Michael set to work. He wanted to design something worthy of those he had met.

“It was basically building a cave for these men and women to go into and play billiards. Gone are the days of the smoke-filled rooms of Boston, Lower Manhattan and Detroit where billiards was where you concurrently organised some illegal activity and played billiards. But that’s not to say you can’t compress a space and make it intimate without the smoke and the maniacal nonsense.”

To save more money, he admits he did things most architects wouldn’t do.

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Michael designed and constructed the overhead lighting. PHOTO: CHARLIE ROSE CREATIVE

“We project managed it. It is a really dangerous thing to do as an architect because you take on a lot of liability. But it was the only way they could’ve afforded to do it. We were begging and asking for favours from everyone.”

Michael also built the suspended steel frame for the lights above the billiards table. Had they bought it, he estimates it would have cost $18,000. It cost Michael roughly $300. He also built the stunning ocular window.

“Most conservative people would go, ‘Architects can’t possibly make lights, we’ll buy them instead.’ But, of course you can,” he says.

And slowly, as the cave’s construction continued, camaraderie built up between those involved in the project.

“They are bloody hilarious,” Michael says of the members.


Down the end of a dead-end street in New Brighton, the combined club sits. The seagulls break the silence on what is a peaceful street. Cracked footpaths and tired car parks line the way to the club’s front gate, past humble homes where people give a friendly wave while easing their backs from work in the garden. In polite words, signs on the club’s white corrugated fence tell vandals to go elsewhere.

A hand through the gate unlatches the entrance and the greens are revealed.

A man gently encourages a bowl as it rolls down the green, but, before long, the bowl is getting a good telling off. Another bowler clucks behind his teeth and shakes his head slightly, while he studies the situation with arms folded. Down the back is a clubroom typical of most New Zealand small clubs, with a concrete white exterior. But there, snug as a bug in the corner, is the games room, a radical departure from the rest of the building.

New Brighton Rsa 2 Of 9Garry is easy to find; everyone seems to know him. A tall man wearing a badge and an easy smile, he’s waiting in the small bar area where a few gather for a late-afternoon brew.

It was done on purpose, explains Garry, referring to the distinct differences between the two buildings. Though, he chuckles, it was cause for alarm from some club members.

“But, as we explained, to match it to the existing building would be quite difficult because it would always look like an add-on. So, what you do is you make it radically different so it contrasts the other design,” he says.

Perhaps he is trying to diplomatically suggest that the white concrete building design is something best consigned to the past.

Garry switches on the light, turns and grins at the reaction.

Immediately the sound changes, as does the mood. It is like being surrounded by the clubhouse you dreamed about with your friends as a child, while you were crammed in a treehouse you hobbled together out of sticks and sheets.

When Garry first saw the model Michael constructed to convince the club’s committee of his design, he was awestruck.

“I thought, ‘Crumbs, this is different. Boy, this is a lot of work because all the timber in the roof is so complicated and circled, a real craftsman-like job.’ Just beautiful,” he says.

He is referring to the stunning curved interior, which is seamlessly lined with recycled rimu. It creates a wondrous feeling of a home away from home. There was a practical aspect to the design though.

“Michael did it like that because he was trying to keep the shadow of the building off the neighbours. It looks quite different, doesn’t it?” says Garry, as he turns to survey it with a beaming smile.

The room has a kind of ethereal feeling courtesy of the ocular window that overlooks the men playing on the green. Into what should be a darkened cave-like room comes the beautiful hazy light of the sunset. Of course, that is not an accident, but more inspired thinking by Michael – which he elaborated on later when we chatted.

“When the sun sets, which is predominately when most people are inside that space, there was an opportunity to pull a little bit of the sun setting into that cave in a primeval manner,” Michael explained.

The thought is in the details. Michael had the foresight to craft a recessed shelf for elbows to be rested and beers safely stowed in between shots.

“People cry over spilt drinks at that age, don’t they?” Garry grins.

RSA president Bill Lochrie wanders in. He is one of the committee members who approved the concept – though he is quick to say Garry did all the hard work.
“It would have sent me mad. He was gallivanting all around the countryside, dealing with the council. No wonder he’s lost all his hair,” he grins. Garry grins back, rubbing his head.

Bill waves his hand around the room: “If you can’t be impressed with this place, well, what the hell can you be impressed with?”

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The stunning ocular window where members can watch bowls and the sunset. PHOTO: BULL OSULLIVAN ARCHITECTURE

After 18 months, the billiards room opened last year and continues to impress. It promptly won the Small Project Architecture category at the 2019 Canterbury Architecture Awards.

Michael later acknowledged that the award helped to win over any doubters. “When the jury deemed it worthy of an award, everyone that grumbled and everyone that needed that half-time cuddle during the construction process all of a sudden went, ‘Oh my gosh, this is fantastic!’” he chuckled.

The sun has just about set. There are a few more in the bar. Garry is getting ready for a committee meeting. Michael is popping down for a drink later too.

As Garry offers a drink before departure he says: “You should bring your friends, the more the merrier. Anytime.

Tell anyone, we love for people to pop down, they just have to sign in.”

He pauses and looks around him.

“Some of these guys are widows. It is a place where they can come down, have a drink and play a game. It is better than sitting at home alone by themselves. That’s why this room is important,” he says.

Bill is sitting at a table with some friends. He glances up and grins.

“You off then? Thanks for coming down.”

A woman, with a kind of smile that envelops you in a hug, raises her hand in farewell. “You have yourself a lovely day, alright love?”

Others join the chorus.

It’s a club well worth belonging to, not just for its award-winning architecture.

*This article is from Style's February edition

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