The house that grew

By Sarah Catherall
Photographed by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #72
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“It would never be anything else but ongoing,’’ Lady Clare Athfield laughs, talking about her iconic home which cascades down a Khandallah hillside.

Ever since the soil was first turned in 1964, a builder or tradie has typically been on site, building or renovating the ever-evolving Athfield Home and Office, as it is known. Son Zac has taken over the company − and the ongoing house project − since his father, Ian, passed away in 2015, soon after being knighted for his services to architecture. The iconic white village spilling down a hillside is a living tribute to Sir Ian’s architecture. Books have been written about it, and it recently received an NZIA Enduring Architecture Medal. It also is heritage listed, and one of the requirements is that it should be constantly evolving. “The house has been a lot of fun, but there are constant, endless jobs to be done,’’ Zac says.

The house was Sir Ian’s first project, and it consumed him throughout his life. Even when he was unwell with prostate cancer, he kept drawing plans for its future.

The couple bought the land in the mid-sixties, and the design of the house was inspired by visiting Mediterranean villages such as Todi, in Italy, not long after.  Says Lady Clare: “When we were in Todi, all the little villages were huddled down the hillside, and it made us feel we wanted to huddle down the hillside too, so that was how the rest of the house evolved.’’

Ian, or “Ath’’, as he was known, didn’t have a job when they bought the land, and the house had to be built on a shoestring budget. Many pieces − including the iconic towers and portholes made from stormwater pipes − came from demolition sites. “We explored New Zealand and we’d find things along the way. We were always interested in anything that was being pulled down, and we either got it free or didn’t pay much,’’ says Lady Clare.

Ian both designed the house, and helped build it. Zac points to a three-metre square shed, visible from the kitchen, at the bottom of the hair-raising driveway. That was the first building to go up, and the rest of the village gradually grew and sprawled above and below it. To make more space on the steep site, the architect and his team went up and down, rather than out.

According to commentary on Sir Ian’s work, the design was also inspired by Greek architecture, with its continuous plaster and small windows. It was the first to embody Sir Ian’s signature residential architectural style: homes cascading down hills, often comprising numerous linked volumes, to give a place the feel of a village.

Wanting to accommodate a community rather than a nuclear family, Sir Ian followed Aldo van Eyck’s idea that a house could be a small city. Today, the “village” is home to 22 people, and the workplace of 35.

Zac has also helped with the building over the years. From a young age, he and his brother Jesse played with rusty nails and concrete as their parents worked on the growing house. Zac laughs that his bedroom constantly moved, depending where his parents were living, or whether he wanted to get further away from them.

From 1968, Ian ran his architectural practice from the house, proving his belief that home life and work could happen under one roof. Inside, the house is connected by walkways and openings leading to unexpected spaces. The main house has ceiling heights which vary, with the feeling of an airy cathedral in parts, and a cosy nook in others. The entry stairs lead down into a double-height living space, flanked by a mezzanine dining room and den. A nook behind the living room boasts a platform behind two portholes open to the outside, where Zac and Jesse often used to sleep on mattresses when they were young.

Last Christmas, Zac and his family − wife Sarah, and children Isla, Tommy, Greta, and Sylvie − moved into one wing of the main house. Isla, 14, pounced on the iconic tower room with its distinctive Athfield porthole window. She accesses her bedroom via a spiral staircase which her grandparents retrieved from the old Bank of New Zealand when it was being pulled down.

Many of the pieces in the original house have stories behind them: the long wooden dining-room table came from a shearer’s cottage in the Wairarapa, complete with knife carvings in the wood; the kitchen stove uses both electricity and gas power, the first in New Zealand to offer both, and a test of the technology at the time. Lady Clare, who worked as an interior and industrial designer, designed the industrial rack and steel kitchen stools in the kitchen nook.

Over the years, the old kitchen has been added to. It has floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the concrete swimming pool, into which the village residents recently plunged for a mid-winter swim. The office sits beyond it, along with a residence occupied by another family. Lady Clare designed the mosaic seat in the garden, which has an image of Sir Ian lying down.

During their years there, Sir Ian and Lady Clare bought neighbouring properties to add to their village. When they bought the adjacent house in 1987, they began creating a link between the two properties, which has never been finished. Zac says, “The hardest bit was Ath would be three-quarters finished and he would be off on the next thing, and sometimes it took a long time to get things working.’’

Did they ever intend the place to grow so large? Lady Clare, who turns 80 in August, says, “All of it was experimental. Ath didn’t not experiment.’’

Over more than 50 years, since the first brick was laid, the sprawling white home has been controversial. Neighbours have obstructed consents, and Ath was constantly at war with the Wellington City Council as he tried to get permissions for the ever-expanding building.

Says Lady Clare: “We have always had issues. The biggest challenges were not getting permissions. It was very difficult in those days.’’ Zac says that Ath was never afraid of testing ideas: “The house that grew was Ath working against the Building Act.”

And the project isn’t over. The kitchen is about to be renovated, and there are plans to install a cable car all the way down the section from Onslow Road to the flat ground below. Zac sees the family continuing the legacy intergenerationally: “We’re hoping to power up the next generation. Ath spent his life on it, and I’ll be spent by it, so the next generation will have to keep going.’’


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