A Process of Discovery – Waiheke House by Cheshire Architects
Waiheke Island, New Zealand
A stone wall emerges from the ridge to become the central spine between two pavilions, one open, the other closed. Just as the wall seems almost to have been excavated from the ground, Cheshire Architects’ Waiheke House was conceived less as the outcome of a design process and more as a discovery, arrived at through heuristic exploration.
The distinction between an outcome and discovery may appear too fine to be meaningful, but it lies in the difference between generating and discovering. Nat Cheshire explains that, instead of seeking to create something new within the typical parameters of site and brief, “we had the sense that there was an answer that existed somewhere out there, like [scientists] looking for an unfamiliar particle.”
Understood in this way, the activity of design becomes akin to a scientific process of testing and gradually accumulating knowledge. “When we start drawing, we’re not drawing with the intention or the expectation that what we’re drawing might be the answer, what we’re doing is creating tests to throw at this intangible, invisible thing to see how it reacts,” Nat explains. “We always have a sense that there’s that ‘dark matter’ sitting out there, an answer that’s beyond what we already know and that therefore requires us to do this work in order to discover it.”
Over 30 designs for the Waiheke House emerged, each testing a different idea, each moving forward slowly and exploratively toward the answer that could be felt but which was as yet unknown. “We presented option number 28 to our clients, which they agreed to proceed with,” recalls Principal George Gregory. “It wasn’t until after that meeting that plan number 31 came long. We thought this was better than 28. So, we re-presented and had to somehow divulge that the house we had only just presented was, in fact, less good to what we now had in front of them.”
Needless to say, relentlessly pushing the design until the most complete answer was found requires a very specific kind of client. Cheshire Architects refer to the home’s owner as a patron, someone who recognised something in the studio’s work that they were interested in seeing pursued and who wanted to provide the architects with the avenue to do so. “At their best, [a patron] helps you to see your own work through a different lens, so that when George and I started work on the house, it was in a way that we wouldn’t have with a typical brief,” Nat says. “Having such an intellectually active client is incredibly empowering.”
The brief, such that it was, sought a place of retreat on several hectares of land on the furthest reaches of Waiheke Island that the clients had owned for 10 years. “The site is spectacular. Immersed in native New Zealand bush, much of the land is unable to be occupied with its steep contour running down to the sea’s edge. They had used this place to escape from their fast-paced city lives; a place to come, pause and dwell,” George says.
“They are entertainers and wanted a place to dine thirty and sleep none of their guests,” he continues. “The desire to focus the home on living without the need for endless supporting spaces was a wonderful opportunity – to build with control, carefully placing value on space and selecting just a couple of special materials to gild those surfaces.” Within this aim rested an ambition for the building to have “a monastic simplicity, the quiet beauty that reductivism and minimalism open up, and, at the same time, have something warm, rich, emotional, atmospheric and humane,”
Challenging the equating of reductivism with emptiness, the Waiheke House instead proposes an organic minimalism, paring-back the building and the experiences it creates to the most primal and essential of qualities. The two pavilions, and the stone wall between them, are reductive in their simplicity yet rich in their emotional resonance. Situated on the ridge where the owners had previously spent their summers camping on a platform and picnicking on the lawn, the building evokes the poignant simplicity of these moments.
“They worshipped a close relationship with the lawn, the vines below it, the gulf and its islands. This was the natural resting place for the new home,” George says. It was important to ensure that the view was revealed in the right sequence – a sequence that begins with the journey on the ferry over and the car trip out to the site. “The gentle winding metal roads of the eastern edge of the island offer glimpses down to the bays below through the narrow openings in the valleys and treetops. The ride out sets up a sense of anticipation for what may lie ahead.”
Arriving at the property, the curvature of the stone wall controls the view as one makes one’s way up the slope and through a sheltered garden to the home’s entry. From here, George describes how “the wall widens and bends inwards, revealing a parting of the stone wall which frames the bay below and the gulf beyond. It’s a wonderful way to arrive. The pavilion, voluminous and full of light, with the bay now entirely revealed.”
The living pavilion is glazed on three sides, creating an experience that is not dissimilar to sitting in the open atop the ridge, sheltered by only a canvas sail. But here, “exposed through the ridgeline’s edge, shelter was essential. Permanence in an otherwise shifting landscape,” George says. In fact, “we were terrified at the prospect of making a pavilion with glass on three sides. How might one occupy that space and feel contained on anything other than a sun-filled day?” he explains. “There was no immediate place to hole up on a winter’s evening with a book and feel contained or wrapped up. The glass-sided pavilion was ‘slippery’. We needed friction.”
Offsetting the pavilions to either side of the stone wall, and thus splitting the occupation of the house, created depth and containment. Where the space for living and dining is open and seemingly boundless, the private sleeping and bathing quarters are accessed through a fissure in the stone wall, the narrow passage conveying a sense of the mass of the stone. “The bedroom wing is land-facing, ensconced in stone, its ceiling low and its apertures tight. The shadows are soft here,” George reflects.
In this arrangement of open and closed spaces, the Waiheke House is intrinsically primal. “At its core, it’s a cave with a tarpaulin or some palm fronds propped up in front of it on a stick,” Nat says. “That’s how we talked about it to our clients – that it was a cave at the mouth of which you might light a fire, but deep into which you would go sleep.” As a result, George expands, “the sequence of waking, leaving the safety of your bedroom to bathe within the refuge of the stone wall, to venture out into the light of the pavilion is a wonderful experience. The home takes delight in focusing those simple human rituals.”
The materiality of stone that will weather over time and of timber boards that are oiled, not sealed, to keep their surface alive to their use, echoes these concerns. These are real materials that, unlike synthetics, will patina and become improved and more complex with time. They are also materials that are as old as the practice of building itself.
This quality that responds to something older, more primal about the human condition can be traced to the idea that the design was an act of discovery, rather than a creation of something new. In the very concept of discovery itself, there is a dual meaning. In one sense, the idea of a scientific discovery suggests progress or innovation, but, in the other, it also implies finding something that was already there and speaks to a sense of exploration.
It is not quite a paradox, but this duality exposes the flimsiness of a culture that careens towards the newest technology (the latest invention, the most radical rhetoric) at the expense of exploring its current circumstances more thoroughly. As a studio, Cheshire Architects has by no means shied away from innovation and has previously embraced the architectural opportunities provided by technology, but this is tempered by a desire not to pursue progress just for the sake of progress.
“I think there’s a great danger in always advancing the culture or advancing design – we’re more interested in extending it,” Nat says. “The new is really interesting and exciting, but we’re more excited by the extraordinary than we are by the new, and there are opportunities for the extraordinary buried all through our culture. I see our role as being to excavate some of the latent opportunities that already exist between nodes – between minimalism and humanism, for example.”
In its capacity as a primal, organic building, the project does not exist despite but, rather, in reaction to a vision of hyper-accelerated modernity, Nat explains. In this way, it is both a consequence of these times and a reflex action. “It’s what makes George and I feel that there’s quite an urgent and contemporary need to make work that’s in some way archaic.”
The building rejects the digitalised and leaves the hum of the city behind, reflects George. “The home needed to deliver a slower rhythm and tune in with the environment. The careful planning of the spaces, their volumes or lack of, the degree of exposure to light and view, the crunch of footfall on fine pebble or the soft patter on solid stone. It’s these simple tools that we oriented, bringing into focus that which already existed.”
The house is an archaic building, in this sense, but it is not one that looks backward with nostalgia to something that has been lost. Rather, it is about investigating more deeply what is already here, pausing in the advancing current of contemporary culture to explore its context, its cracks and layers, to discover something essential, meaningful and enduring.