A Stalwart Mountain Cabin — Wanaka House by Fearon Hay
Wanaka, New Zealand
Ringed by the mountains surrounding the Lake Wanaka basin, encircled by a concrete perimeter wall, and cloaked by perforated steel shutters, Fearon Hay’s Wanaka House is defined by the layered interaction between a series of concentric forms and spaces.
Designed as a primarily winter retreat for the client, the project is a response to the vast, rugged landscape of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island. Fearon Hay co-founder Tim Hay describes that the house was conceived as a small, two-bedroom cabin. “We wanted something not too large that had the quality of a cabin in its scale,” he says, explaining that the development of the brief was driven by a need to respond appropriately to the location to develop an alpine base for the client. This informed not only the project’s scale but also the materiality; “the sense of a warm, rich palette was cued off that idea of a mountain cabin, albeit a more contemporary version,” he reflects. The terrain called for robust and enduring materials, and the idea of the cabin as reference point informed the limited palette of concrete, timber and steel, expressed both externally and internally.
The large site is defined by its proximity to the lake and the mountains that surround the basin in which Lake Wanaka, and the eponymous township, rest. With the disparity between the vast scale of the landscape, the breadth of the site and the modest scale of the building, Fearon Hay sought to exacerbate a sense of perimeter boundaries through the architecture. “Rather than just putting the house as an element on the landscape, our idea was of the house set within a courtyard perimeter, so it is conceived as a series of layers that radiate from the centre,” Tim says. The concrete shell forms the principal boundary, in a semi-contained ring that recalls the encircling mountains above and beyond. The timber and concrete house rests within this robust concrete wall, and an additional layer is added through the perforated metal shutters that wrap around the inner building.
Designed as a primarily winter retreat for the client, the project is a response to the vast, rugged landscape of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island.
“Because the site is quite large and the scale of the landscape, the mountains and skies, is so big, we wanted to provide a feeling of intimacy and protection. If you don’t provide the sense of scaling with a perimeter on the outside, you become lost in the landscape,” Tim explains. The outer wall is a simple device that provides important protection from the cold prevailing winds, but on a more nuanced level, it also exists to encourage physical interaction with the building. “It provides an edge to nestle against, with a long bench against the wall that the clients can place cushions on to give it a layered occupation,” he says. The wall is not about shutting out the view – the height of the mountains means there is always a relationship between the protected space behind the wall and the peaks of the mountains above. Instead, Tim describes the wall as akin to the cockpit of a boat, which one can lean the lower half of one’s body into while leaving the torso open. “The torso here is the main building that is exposed but the edge provided by the concrete wall acts like a cockpit, which gives a sense of comfort and protection,” he reflects.
Both the outer concrete wall and the perforated metal shutters see the building explore how the control of openings can mediate and frame the experience of the view. While the concrete wall creates a consistent edge that informs how the view is both concealed and revealed, the shutters are more of an “adaptable skin,” explains Tim, “they can fold right back to open the house up, when closed they filter the light and in summer they provide shading. Given the house’s intermittent use, the shutters also enable the clients to lock it down when it is not inhabited.” From the outside, the concrete wall creates a relatively impervious and blank, unreadable façade. The shutters add another, more subtle and transient layer to this exterior. While it becomes clearer as one comes closer to the building, it is only on entering the space that the relationship between each of these elements is made evident.
“Rather than just putting the house as an element on the landscape, our idea was of the house set within a courtyard perimeter, so it is conceived as a series of layers that radiate from the centre.”
From within, access to the view is deliberately limited, to varying degrees, by both the outer wall and the metal shutters, in order to create a variety of experiences despite the home’s small scale. “To have the view of the entire landscape would be quite overwhelming,” says Tim, “so to have these moments where you get a different view depending on your position is nice. There’s a certain view from the living room that is different to the courtyard – the view is available from both, but we’ve limited it to draw different experiences from different spaces.”
The palette of concrete and timber, which emphasises a sense of protective enclosure, contributes to the play on compression and release that is created through the contrast between the protective shell of the building and the vast scale of the view. Yet this is also subverted by the use of mirror glass that conceals the laundry and storage within one block, whose reflective surface ensures that the kitchen, living and dining area feels like one single rectangular space. The mirrored glass not only confuses the geometry of the room but also reflects back either the view or other parts of the building depending on the angle and emphasises the changing light over the course of the day. In this way, the mirror at once mimics an aperture, heightens the sense of the materiality and contributes to the quality of the space, creating altered and deepened experiences of both the architecture and the view beyond.
Both the outer concrete wall and the perforated metal shutters see the building explore how the control of openings can mediate and frame the experience of the view.
This emphasises what Tim describes as Fearon Hay’s interest in “space-making, rather than architectural form-making.” The Wanaka House cannot be understood through considering it in terms of a singular object within the landscape but rather by thinking in terms of relationality. The architecture creates meaning in the relationship between inner and outer, the assemblage of materials, the ideas of concealing and revealing, and of exposure and protection. It is a cabin in essence, if not in archetypal form.