Dobson House

Bill Toomath, 1960.

Wellington, New Zealand.

Published in Home Magazine 2016


Hidden behind a modest timber gate, down a quintessentially narrow dead end Wellington street, lies a garden sanctuary containing one of New Zealand’s enigmatic architectural treasures. This discreet elevated timber retreat is a place of reverie in Mt Cook, nestled high between the twisted and distorted limbs of the surrounding native bush.

As the timber gate slams shut with a satisfactory ‘clunk’, the hubbub of bustling Cuba Street dwellers fades behind a tall fence shielding a garden wilderness of burnt oranges, vivid reds and calming greens. A steep flight of steps guides me through the native fauna and quietly chirping birdlife towards a humble 1960’s modernist house designed by renowned Group Architect, and pioneer of New Zealand modernism, Bill Toomath (1925-2014). 

Born in Lower Hutt, Toomath completed his Masters of Architecture at Harvard University under a Fulbright Scholarship. He was taught by Pritzker Prize laureate I.M Pei, a Chinese-born American architect responsible for the Louvre Pyramid and JFK Airport. Toomath then worked with European modern master Walter Gropius, and later with Pei in New York. Upon his return to New Zealand in 1954, Toomath developed an inspiring body of work in partnership with Derek Wilson which included the Mackay House in Silverstream, 1961 and his own house perched on Mt. Victoria in 1964. The Mt Victoria property features a replica of the study from Antonello da Messina’s St Jerome built circa 1460-1475. The duo also designed the Wellington Teachers’ College, Wool House in Featherston Street and this crimson tree-top retreat in Mt Cook, all of which received NZIA awards for Enduring Architecture. 
 

The Mt Cook retreat was an early project for Toomath and Wilson, designed in 1956 for a Mr. and Mrs. Dobson. It was completed in 1960 for the childless couple and their grand piano. Today it is owned by Auckland-based museum consultant and conservator Rose Evans and her husband, architect Ken Davis who moved to Auckland’s harbourside suburb of Devonport in 2005. Since then the house has been rented to mostly creative types, including Charlie Chaplin’s grandson - actor Ben Chaplin, a visiting architecture professor, and digital effects staff for Weta Digital. Through a stroke of luck this exquisite piece of modernism has since become my place of reverie that I share with my partner Talia Carlisle and two close friends, Rebecca Morrissey and Peter Falloon.

Climbing the 70-step journey to the blue front door is a daily ritual of transition from my work life at a busy architecture studio to the calming environment of our refuge in the trees. With every meditative step towards the upper branches, my rhythm of client meetings and looming presentations fades. Instead, my mind fills with thoughts of my latest photographic studies, some explored on Greenland’s ice sheet last August. Upon my return from isolation, I drew on my slow and meditative photographic process in order to capture the experience of living in Toomath’s secluded retreat. Peering through the viewfinder of my 35-year-old Hasselblad film camera I have become even more cognisant of the intimate connection Toomath has created between our daily lives and the ever changing landscape. Tripod perched on the steps, staring through the lens, I survey the way Toomath’s modernist use of clean lines, simple form and elegant expression of structure contrasts with the organic and wild landscape. However, rather than adopting his modernist mentors’ ideals that a singular architectural design can be applied to any site, Toomath’s work illustrates his appreciation and respect for the constraints and unique qualities of the landscape. Consequently, much like his own home in Mt Victoria, Toomath’s design for this house responds to the steep site by projecting through and above the landscape, while retaining an anchored connection to the earth. The relationship between the projected and anchored sections of the house is revealed as I continue my climb up towards the entry.

As I rest my tripod on the final landing to unlock the door, dappled light trickles through the trees onto the crimson timber exterior. The colour scheme was likely inspired by the deep red walls and white trim of Scandinavian farm buildings which contrasts with the lush surrounding landscape. There is a moment of compression as the blue front door swings open and I step over its threshold. Planting my camera in the wide skylit corridor, I compose my frame. More than a transition space, the corridor contains various art pieces as well as a long inbuilt sideboard housing architecture models, precious ceramics and a 20-year-old bottle of wine. Spatially the corridor is an integral element of Toomath’s plan as it forms the spine of the house and boundary between the intimate ‘cave-like’ spaces and the expansive, communal ‘perch-like’ spaces. The ‘cave-like’ spaces of the utility rooms, kitchen and secondary bedroom run along the Southern edge of the spine, to the right of my frame, tucked underneath the lowest section of the mono pitch roof. To my left, the ‘perch-like’ spaces of the master bedroom, living and dining areas slip underneath the full height section of the roof, projecting five metres dramatically into the trees. By cantilevering these spaces high above their natural surrounds and glazing the entire Northern face in a Mondrian-esque composition, Toomath nurtures the connection between his architecture, our life and the landscape.

 

Meandering through the free flowing, informal and overlapping dining and living spaces, Toomath’s expansive vista through the Northern glazing is unveiled. A sliding partition and interior glass wall blur the edges between the communal spaces, allowing Toomath to pour the exposed landscape and inundation of light back into the corridor, kitchen and dining areas. The glass partition between kitchen and living not only stimulates a visual connection between these spaces, but reflects the light, colour and texture of the landscape, further animating the interior.

Toomath’s careful articulation of the tension between ‘cave’ and ‘perch’, retreat and project, and sleeping and living draws me and my camera to the edge of the glass where architecture, life and landscape intersect. From this position, the final frontier, a mosaic of burgundy crimson leaves,  rugged branches and deep green ferns fill my viewfinder. The green fronds of the nikau slide and dance past the glass, adding to the lush foreground while establishing a softer edge to the harder, more diverse urban forms of the city beyond. As more leaves blanket the ground, my view from this ‘perch’ towards the inner city, harbour and Hutt Valley expands between the skeletal winter-ready branches. Winding on the film, the branches of the mighty copper beech sway, creak and groan. Staring back into the belly of the camera to compose my frame, the autumn coloured leaves tremble in the light breeze, floating gently past my sqaure-framed view of the world to the forest floor below. As I remove the dark slide and trigger the shutter, the camera blinks - interrupting the silence with a distinctive resonance.

Being able to live in the house, and photograph it over time has brought me closer to the landscape and its ephemerality. With or without my camera, I have become more aware of the changing seasons and their influence on the landscape week after week. From time to time I find myself sitting at the edge of the glass with a strong coffee and a good book in hand. Sipping and watching the landscape transition from full canopies of vibrant greens, to bright oranges, vivid reds and ultimately naked branches. Like the leaves, our time in Toomath's crimson, modernist box may not be permanent, but it has brought us solace. It has become our suburban refuge, our place of calm, our life in the trees.