The house at Whale Bay is located on a hillside in Northland and has the high internal volumes of Pacific buildings and in that way stands at some variance with the more common open pavilion of contemporary New Zealand holiday houses.
A main building with steeply pitched roof straddles the old coastal road, large sliding doors open to this area allowing the memories of travellers to retrace their steps. The building creates two outdoor spaces along the line of the old road; the first is a formal entry area with a staple like gate and fireplace, the other a contained room like space used for dining and overflow sleeping.
Further around the hill a boatshed with monopitch roof provides shelter, storage and more recently a second place to stay. The original ‘fale’ was completed 1996 while at Jasmax, subsequent additions and reworking continues.
On the Back of the Whale chapter text from Architecture Uncooked follows gallery.
Undertaken while a director at Jasmax
Photographed by Patrick Reynolds and Pip Cheshire
Cheshire, P. and Reynolds, P. (2008). Architecture uncooked. 1st ed. Auckland, N.Z.: Godwit.
IT MAY BE THAT an early path led around this slope and across the saddle to the bay below, skewing across the ridge and its knoll that together look like a whale in silhouette. It may be that this was a coastal track, skirting the cliffs and avoiding the traps of a rising tide, a link between the fertile land behind the dunes to the east and the shellfish grounds to the north. Or it may be a farm track cut more recently above the road to give access to stock, the edges ground down by a century of sheep until it ,is not much more than a shallow bench in the green slope of the hillside.
On a summer's day, with a blue sky glimpsed through holes in the grey underbelly of the clouds, gulls above and a sea breeze on one's face, it is a benign view, the bays and valleys exposed. Yet if one looks closely there are deep shadows under the valley bush where the birdsong suggests a continuum of occupation, and breaking waves, quietened by distance, are a metronomic beat. At such times it is as if the land cloaks human presence and one can imagine a hundred histories whose secrets have been compressed over time into the Northland clay. Whatever its past, that narrow shelf of ruts organises a dispersed occupation around the site, connecting a number of recent structures and creating a run of outdoor spaces that turns the whole of that whale's backbone into a place to stay.
We arrive on the saddle between backslope and knoll, between beach and bay, and where we might expect a singularity, a welcoming path or door, we find choices. The road is buttressed with stone gabions and folds back on itself to continue on up the hill as two-wheel ruts marked out in limestone. To the left a flat pan of concrete paving and a lopsided shed beyond offer ship-shape order, a path under a rusted steel portal disappears over a mound, and another twists down into the bush.
The situation is ambiguous: where are we to go? Where are our friends? Perhaps the roller door of the shed is open, a gaping mouth filled with promise; mattresses on the floor and a laptop humming open on a trestle table. Or perhaps through the portal and over the rise? But that too is uncertain, the giant staple too formal. Is there a bell to ring to warn of our approach or should we wait to be met and invited in, called through the gate and beyond?
If we take that path through the staple we find an open ground, thirty paces wide measured in stepping stones. The land is enclosed on our left with the rise of a north-facing hill whose contours are, lost beneath trees. On the right a series of timber panels stop the wind and shape a space for seating around an outdoor fireplace. A retaining wall, parallel with the path, forms this open ground below thick planting that rises beyond head height and filters the view of the ocean beyond. Before us a building with a high, steep roof is set at right angles to the slope of the land and skews across the retaining wall. Though the building gazes seaward, a wide, louvred sliding door faces across a wooden step to the open land and completes the enclosure of that area.
This is loaded space, empty yet so completely enclosed that we feel we are intruding, as if we have crossed a threshold without invitation. Perhaps we are observed, just as we can observe the bay below through the seaward wall of planting. If our cries of arrival are unanswered we are still at a loss; we are already within, having passed the black maw of the open shed, entered the portal and crossed the grass. Yet we have no certainty that our friends are before us, behind us, below us or above, for there are signs of occupation everywhere.
The little steep-roofed building's door lies across our path. Its step is an invitation to advance and enter, a boot rack to one end a hint of a softer, more domestic interior - a place to take off one's boots and stay a while. The door's wide opening and its alignment with another of equal scale and construction, visible across a narrow strip of interior, suggest that perhaps this is more of a way-station than a place of formal welcome, as if we might enter then pass on.
Inside, the frisson of ambiguity is immediately lost. We are enveloped in an interior that is as finite, static and enclosed as that arrival crossroads at the whale's spine is infinite, dynamic and open. Though sharply defined by the simple geometry of the building, the interior has strong contrasts of light, the high lofted space softly lit by louvred windows in the gable ends and the lower plywood-lined wall pierced by doors that capture a narrow slice of the bay's curve beyond.
The scale is confusing. We have reached this small room through an entry sequence that began on the road a hundred metres away to the east, passed the stone abutments at the gate, braved the gaze of a stone warrior, navigated the ambiguity of the saddle's crossroads and crossed the green forecourt. We might expect something grander of the space, no more than five paces by five, yet it contains the heart of that hillside's occupation: a bench, gas burner, fridge, table and couch. The hiss of gas boiling water font brew creates a potent soundtrack to the domestic tableau before us and banishes the uncertainty of our entry.
The volume above is a reservoir of darkness that folds back over a loft space squeezed under the roof lining, the whorls of the plywood grain hiding a thousand faces and the possibility of conversations overheard. This is a place where the outside seems remote and the fall of sunlight makes a sharp outline across the table.
Such a strong division between in and out is unusual in buildings of the last few decades as we have built to live both in and out at the same time - the indoors flooded with light through large glazed walls, the outside captured in decks, terraces and similar platform extensions of the house. This encampment on the whale's back eschews this attitude. Rather than blur the certainty of the exterior wall, dissolving it in an array of sliding doors and extended roof canopies, the encampment creates rooms spread across the site and linked by the garden: one goes outside to go to the next room.
There are significant functional drawbacks to this strategy. It can be a damn nuisance to don wet-weather gear and head off to the bedroom in the bush when the nor'easters dump their moisture in thick humid squalls, or to reach for some woollies when the southerlies bring their cool draughts into Northland. It is hard to argue the delights of experiencing a southerly blast while en route to the bedroom in a culture determined to minimise inconvenience; it is an especially unattractive proposition when comfortably cocooned in the warm glow of a wooden interior.
Sometimes, though, midway through the dash over squelching wet grass, the trees and bushes silhouetted waypoints to another hut glow-worming in the blackness, one might slow and smell the south wind. For a moment one is an explorer in the tempest, defying the elements, alone and bent into the wind with feet slipping, breath hard in the throat. And that' s just going to the bedroom.
One destination might be that large shed we passed at the entry, another oddity on this slope, an undivided plain of solid timber floor enclosed by sliding shutters and sleeping mezzanine above. It is called the boatshed yet skews from the hillside some fifty metres above and half a kilometre from the water's edge and rarely sees a boat. This is a playroom writ big, a playroom for all seasons - open the roller door and activities spill on to the forecourt, an extended space from inner shadow to the sun on the whale's rump. It is a playroom for all ages, freed from the particularities of use and able to accommodate whatever might come.
It is rare indeed to set aside the dimensional dictates of function and use in favour of those that are big enough and loose enough to permit a wide range of activities. Since the earliest days of architecture's engagement in modernity the catch-cry 'form follows function' has been used to promote the making and assembly of spaces that respond to the spatial needs of specific events. Loosely speaking, sufficient analysis of any human activity, so the argument goes, will yield a set of critical dimensions that are required to house that activity. Thus the correct way to plan a playroom is to undertake analysis of the sort of play to be undertaken in the room, calculate the dimensions and clearances required for such play, and then use those dimensions to configure the walls and roof clearances of the playroom.
This is an approach that yields great efficiency and is a happy coincidence of architectural strategy and constructional pragmatism: only that which is • absolutely necessary for play is constructed. Sensible as this sounds, it does rather consign alternative future uses and the qualitative measure of a space to the back seat. If the dimensional requirements of the activity are perfectly catered for the space is, by definition, perfectly designed . The boathouse stranded on the whale works by a different set of measures altogether. Make a space big enough, and it will certainly house the events you have in mind, those you and the kids have not yet thought of, and it will also suggest a few activities of its own.
And so it goes on the whale's back, an endless perambulation across the slope on holiday's trivial errands, each enlivened by the passage of a cloud across the sun, a wind change or the chance sighting of a lonely white sail on the far horizon. Surely this is the essence of a holiday - a place where the functional imperatives of ease of use are knowingly sacrificed for the delights, and inconveniences, of changed patterns of living, be it the late-night dash to the bedroom through the rain or the negotiation for your place in the morning shower queue. And what a heady pleasure to be wrapped up in your own building, a sleepout away from parents, where the sound of a hedgehog in the grass at night starts a round of ghost stories.
The morning assembly of sleep-slowed kids from their dispersed hiding holes might be a bit like life under canvas but this is not camping in the wilds: there are no hand-dug long drops, sagging guy ropes or slow-kindled fires. It is a weekend retreat, a Friday night destination at the end of the sealed road and a city week, kitted out and ready for holiday action; a place for everything and everything in its place.
DOWN IN THE BAY BELOW, another of those east-coast river mouths forms a shallow estuary separated from the open sea by a narrow spit of leasehold sand on which stand a number of modest baches that offer a sharp contrast to the encampment on the whale. These are little pastel-coloured boxes with shallow sloping single-pitched roofs and large ranchslider doors making up most of the front elevation. Where the hilltop buildings are scattered, the sandspit baches pack around an informal shared road with no obvious signs of demarcation, boundary or ownership. So close are these little structures that were it not for the individuality of the colour schemes they might appear as one building.
If the hilltop offers the prospect of a solitary space of one's own and enforced exposure to flora, fauna and the elements in the course of a day, those on the estuary offer another experience altogether. The small size, close physical proximity, and the dominance of those ranchsliders means a holiday of close sociability and shared outdoor space. If one wants privacy one goes for a walk, or to sea, or perhaps to home.
Both places, on the hill and on the estuary's shallow mound, are founded in recognition that a change in the order and structure of daily life is a more important aspect of a holiday than a change in the view. Between the two, a recent subdivision offers small parcels of land with roads, kerbing and channelling, water supply, sewerage system and shared tennis court. Though only one or two houses have yet been built, we can see that they have more in common with suburban living back in town than the examples of holiday living on either side.
The re-creation of suburban home comforts in coastal subdivisions results largely from the desire of councils to stop the spread of low-density land use by identifying areas, such as the bay below the whale, for higher-density use. Alas, about the only precedent that the councils who control such developments are familiar with is the suburban house, the houses at the estuary's edge failing to meet standards of what constitutes a 'dwelling unit' and that on the whale's back occupying too much land.
The combined effects of increasing land costs, demanding bureaucratic requirements and escalating expectations of comfort and ease of use have caused the holiday bach to grow in size and to assume the style, internal planning and materials of a city house. Something important is lost in this process of suburbanisation. Away has become the same as home, lawns need mowing at both places - there is no change from one to another save the view outside the window. We need some ways of building on land like those on the whale and at its base, offering both opportunities for privacy and density of land use. These are not just holiday-house issues; our towns and cities are chewing up open land in suburban sprawl, requiring expensive roading, power, water and community infrastructure, and setting residents up for energy intensive commuting times.
Land-use arguments are complex, invariably pitting individual property rights against the collective wealth of the community as it is realised in ideas about a 'natural' landscape, be it abandoned farmland, high-country river flat or coastal edge. We have had the luxury of building pretty much where we want in these domains for the last couple of hundred years without doing too much irreparable harm to this wealth, but the clutter resulting from the relentless subdivision of open space into low-density 'lifestyle blocks' or the spread of holiday suburbs around some of our more attractive destinations suggests it is time to reconsider our ways.
Between whale and sandspit there are a number of possibilities for projects which offer the best of both worlds, the opportunity for groups of buildings either joined or in close proximity to each other yet allowing solitude and a close engagement with flora, fauna and the smell of a new day. There is in fact a fine tradition of architectural utopianism focusing on communities and carried on in texts, drawings and a few completed works that seek to promote, or protect, the values of simplicity and freedom from the oppressive strictures of contemporary life.
Perhaps we need not isolate ourselves from mainstream life simply to get wet running between kitchen and bathroom, but our councils and land development and construction industries have worn a pretty deep rut that makes it increasingly hard to depart from the normal ways of building. Clear title over land, favoured by banks in consideration of loans, hikes up the land cost which in turn precipitates an apparently inviolable multiplier that mandates a building budget of twice the land cost. It always seems this way in architecture: examine a design for long enough and I guarantee that the conversation pretty quickly leaves behind considerations of function and its silent companion, beauty, and descends into an interrogation of the usual suspects: the councils, the Resource Management Act, bankers, lawyers and, when really pressed, the client.
We have no need of recriminations or witch-hunts: we seek only a window seat to curl up in and hear the rain on the pane, the companionship of friends around the dinner table, and the hoot of ruru as we stumble off to bed. This is no longer naive idealism; it is a necessity. We have reached the limits of our profligate ways, and just as the country has taken bold initiatives with the conservation and repair of flora and fauna, so should we make bold initiatives with our buildings in the landscape - not hidden but gathered together and surrounded by open land.