The house that Ath built.


One of our employees Tobias Buck grew up in an Ian Athfield house, so we thought, what with our current Athfield Exhibition running through till October 7th, that we’d take the chance to quiz him on what it’s really like to live inside one of these iconic buildings.

When was the Athfield house you grew up in built and how did that happen?

My parents lived next to Ian and Claire Athfield at their Khandallah home in a wee house with a turret that appears in one of the exhibition models. The Athfield’s sons are the same age as my brothers and they all spent a lot of time playing between houses, clambering over and around everything they could. When my parents moved to Hawkes Bay I think they were simply friends and so it made sense to ne involved in each others endeavours. My parents were also fans of Athfield team style and I know they really enjoyed working with people like Ian Dickson from Athfield Architects as well.

Our house in Havelock was begun in 1979 and finished in 1980 and the winery buildings have been completed in phases since 1984. The offices and shop were built first, then the connecting section with staffroom and fishpond you can see in the photo.

What was the response to the house at first? Where people pleased to see such a modern style of building go up?

From what I’ve heard there was some negativity about it being an eyesore. But almost everyone thought it was a lot of fun or could get on board. There was work to be done with the council and neighbours though, not totally smooth sailing. Also, just before that style of Athfield building is rendered with white plaster it’s covered in a black weatherproof paint. Apparently it looked like a stealth bomber sitting up on the hill. Couldn’t have been the most appealing thing to see.

People seemed more embracing of the style of the winery, which makes reference to the Art Deco and Mission Style influence in Hastings and Napier, but it’s also open to the public and part of a functioning workspace. The wine labels of that time as well have some very similar curves to the blueprints for the office that are in the exhibition..

I have to point out too that everyone walks across this diagonal tile wall that edges the fishpond as a shortcut. The clambering, rambling rule never seems to cease across Ath’s places.

Do people interact with the house that differently to the winery? Has it changed?

We often have people come up the drive to wander around the property and cars always park on the road for a few minutes. When I was a kid you had to be careful watching cartoons on a Saturday morning in your pyjamas in case suddenly people with cameras wandered past the window.

The house though seems to have been taken to heart now by locals. It’s well known and admired by fans of architecture and design and even had its own postage stamp in the nineties. Since there’s been so much development in Havelock since the 90s that’s very suburban and samey, I think most people like how whimsical and bold the building is.It’s something really different. When taking a taxi though, it’s easiest just to say the weird house on the hill.

What’s the best feature of these kinds of houses in your mind?

Cosiness. Our home has plenty of low ceilings and doorways and brick floors – there’s also a lot of brick in the house, some new, some reclaimed – so its cool in summer and, with the aid of a pot belly stove, warm through winter. It’s a bit hobbity. But that’s good though since in Hawkes Bay hot days usually swing into cold nights.

People have suggested comparisons to South African and North African architecture but sitting in the middle of the vineyard as it does, on a sunny day it’s hard not to see it as a kind of Kiwi-Mediterranean building. The small enclosed courtyards are my favourite parts. Really, I guess though, while it has all these things going on in it the house does also have a style all of its own. Personally I’m a fan too if this period of Athfield houses: sunny, strong modernist white plaster, an painted wooden sills on the outside, seventies timber, brick and carpets on the inside. The only place that is similar to it I’ve seen is the Athfield house in Korokoro where Paul Diamond lives.

Also, our home functions the same way a farmhouse does; it’s often full of guests, motorbikes driving around the property, people working. During vintage pickers head there for a cup of tea and a biscuit, or just to get some shade.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Because of that tendency of Athfield Architects to experiment with materials and shapes then re-use their favourite ones there are echoes of their buildings across NZ. The Te Mata Winery courtyard looks a bit like a mini-Civic Square for example, with its ponds, wide square steps and orange tiles. From door handles and stairs to grates and light fittings,walking through the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington is also very similar to walking through the red wine fermentation room at the winery built a year earlier.

Also, in the exhibition Julia Gatley makes a comment about the ‘humanity’ of Ath’s architecture. I don’t want get too gushy here but there is definitely a sense of human scale and human space in Ath’s buildings, which seems pretty cool to me.  The influence of in-fill housing and aggregated spaces that make the most of out of materials and budgets too is a principle that’s as relevant as ever. What suprises people most is that inside they’re actually fairly modest buildings clearly designed most of all just to be lived in and enjoyed.

There’s that playfulness and lightness to Ath’s touch that’s pretty infectious too: from installing rabbit holes in his buildings for kids like me, to placing a compass in the floor and ornamenting it with bricks. He’s got a well-developed sense of humour. And his team improves the worlds of a lot of people they work with. A lot of the builders on these projects had a heap of fun because they’re doing strange things they just don’t usually get asked to do. One of the plasterers at the winery left a mug in the wall to mark the occasion.