In 1990 Roger Walker decided to build his own house on an inner city site to further explore his ideas of domestic design and to display the results of his mature experience. WalkerÂ’s modern house nestles among its older neighbours at the base of Tinakori Hill, harmonised and integrated with them without damaging the architectural character of the suburb. However, it was not an easy task for Walker to design a house for himself. This house is a daring attempt to relate the architecture of the house to the architecture of Wellington in an expressive and positive way.
In 1990 Roger Walker decided to build his own house on an inner city site to further explore his ideas of domestic design and to display the results of his mature experience. It was a challenge for Walker to build a spacious home on a tiny site in Thorndon, Wellington. Thorndon is one of the oldest suburbs of Wellington, characterised by its immaculate colonial cottages. Walker’s modern house nestles among its older neighbours at the base of Tinakori Hill, harmonised and integrated with them without damaging the architectural character of the suburb. However, it was not an easy task for Walker to design a house for himself.
Walker’s bright and colourful house, which completely absorbed its 280 square meter site, is utterly particular to its site as well as to the Wellington context. Walker’s intention was to create a modern expression of the suburb’s character in terms of vertical proportion, hierarchy, and an innovative as well as practical solution to other sites and locations. However, this house was also a daring attempt to relate the architecture of the house to the architecture of Wellington in an expressive and positive way. Walker wanted the house to be a strong architectural statement. “I think it has something to say in a serious way. There are things incorporated here that I have been working on for more than twenty years”.
Walker has always been delighted by contrasts and edges in architectural language; the tiny site is smaller than the real floor area of the house. It is situated between two boundaries; the town’s natural greenbelt and the built city. The site’s nature suggested the idea of the form of the house, “The site was narrow and small so it squeezed the house upwards”. The location inspired Walker to have one form of the house relating to the town belt and another one relating to the city; he separated these two pavilions with a glass link. Logically Walker determined two different colours for the two different forms. The first pavilion is green, a tall and angular tower relating to the green belt which rises steeply behind the house; the second pavilion is pink, relating to the high density city scene to the east. However, because the site is compact and restricted by the existing houses, Walker opted to lift the house out of the ground and create terraces, decks and balconies as outside living spaces with views over the city.
Yet it is not a simple house and because it is built on a tiny site, Walker was attracted to the idea of making separate entrances for separate activities. “I like the idea of building a little village where you actually go outside and come back in again”. The house is a series of hierarchies of forms, materials, spaces, colours and textures. “I have tried to keep the house pure, so it’s a collection of pure geometric shapes, triangles, squares and circles”. The house comprises a blend of different shapes and sizes, such as windows which echo the square shapes used in the construction. The thickness of the walls was emphasised by the contrast with the light steel frames. Furthermore, the external walls are covered by coloured stucco which provides an irregular texture. In this house Walker did not use any coloured timber because he appreciated wood as a natural resource. “It is a sin to use a native timber and conceal its beauty behind wallboard or paint”.
Walker’s house is multi-levelled with a staircase working as a strong feature of the design. The house consists of a large living room, dining room, kitchen, three bathrooms, three bedrooms, studio and a three-car garage. From the main entrance on the middle level one can move in four different directions; you can walk to another door to stairs leading down to his cave-like studio at the bottom of the house or you can go directly to the spacious living room on the same level. By going up a few stairs one can go into the dining area and the kitchen where you can use an outdoor staircase leading up to the tower. The tower contains a guest bedroom with its ensuite bathroom. Finally a staircase leads down to the two bedrooms and their bathroom.
The two-storey living area, which represents the main focus of the house, is the largest space and contains built-in book storage. It is situated in front of the higher dining and kitchen area and is characterised by a two-meter long feather sculpture which is hung of the ceiling. The feather, made in fibreglass and polycarbonate, is by Christchurch sculptor Neil Dawson. It defines the living space perfectly as well as being in complete agreement with the aspirations of the house. The kitchen and open dining area are the informal living space for the family and overlook the living space and the view beyond.
Walker intended to build a modern style house to exhibit the deliberate use of modern materials and their appropriateness to their specific functions. He has a preference for industrial materials such as glass blocks, metal, steel windows, double glazing, plastering techniques, and corrugated iron which was deliberately used both internally and externally. One of the most successful aspects of this house is the deliberate combination of the different materials, such as steel framed doors and windows as well as the large expanses of glass. Contrast is the main theme of the house. “I wanted to set up relationships between different colours, different textures and different materials”. So Walker used industrial steel in a positive way to contrast with natural wood, while brightly coloured trusses and beams are juxtaposed to contrast with ivory-coloured plaster. He consciously left three walls as bare concrete to emphasise the contrast between its raw textures and the more elegant materials on the upper floor.
Colour, always one of the most important and exciting elements in Walker’s buildings, is used to enliven the house and strengthen the articulation of the different elements of the whole. Walker has investigated the factors which affected his house’s colours in the urban settings. He studied the importance of daylight and climatic conditions as well as the dominant presence of the building’s colour in the environment. Unlike some of the house owners who, do not feel comfortable with the use of bold colours on their house’s exterior, Walker has proved in his own house that bold and strong colours do not conflict with each other or with the surrounding environment. “They in no way distract from the outside / inside relationship”. The bold facade created with strong colour contrast becomes clearly figural and takes the focus off its surroundings.
Externally, a green object in front of natural green background can advance dramatically towards the viewer or appear as an integral part of the background. Walker intended to explore the spatial effect of the green colour and creates optical illusion using this effect in three dimensional form. Walker used the pink-colour to blend with the city scene especially in sunshine, as the pink hue dominated against the cooler colours of the neighbouring buildings. Internally, Walker used off-whites for living areas to emphasise the sculptural effect of the architectural features such as doors, structural steel and joinery.
Light is also one of the important factors to define the shapes and sizes of the different windows. “The moods you can create with light can have a bearing on social beliefs and human emotion”. Walker was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome when he studied the effect of light in his house. Internally, he considered the natural light as the top priority during the design process. He articulated the house to work as a conservatory, an effect which has been achieved with particular success in the kitchen / dining spaces.
The floating nature of Roger Walker’s house has allowed for not only the preservation of the surrounding natural landscape, but also a way of living with it. Despite all the different elements used in the house, it is apparent that Walker tried to achieve both simplicity and compatibility among these elements. So in many ways the house is assertive and stands on its own as an original modern statement. It also looks more natural to both built and natural context as well as showing the maximum respect to its neighbours. Again, designing for himself is definitely a great challenge; “I like to be reminded of the bones of the house”, he said.
Walker’s theatrical house was featured in television on ‘Open Home’, as well as being visited by a large number of people including groups from universities, polytechnics, schools and members of the construction industry. As a mark of Walker’s celebrity, both local and international visitors have been through the house including the manager of the Housing Directorate of Sweden, the actor Sam Neill, the former Prime Minister, David Lange, the former Governor General, Dame Catherine Tizard and the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly who visited Wellington in 1991 and admired Walker’s work. Connolly recognised that Walker has “a great sense of humour”, and they have become good friends.
The success of Walker’s house design has been recognised by an award from the New Zealand Institute of Architects, Wellington Branch in 1992. The NZIA’s citation states: “A spontaneous and colourful reaction to the preciousness of Thorndon played out against the backdrop of the city’s green belt. A challenging architectural statement with internal and external strength which questions the traditional values of the area without damaging them”.
- All images credit:
- Roger Walker selects Stucco. New Zealand Concrete Construction, May 1991, p. 10.
- An Award Winner [Walker House]. Homelife, v. 13, No. 1, March 1993, p. 14.
- H & B, December 1990 / January 1991, pp. 99-100.
- Linda Niccol & Adrienne Rewi, With a View to Inspire. H & B, October / November 1993, p. 85.
- New Zealand Concrete Construction, May 1991, pp. 10-11.
- Sunday Star, January 24, 1993, p. c5.
- H & B, December 1990 / January 1991, p. 102.
- H & B, October / November 1993, p. 85.
- A. Rewi & E. Sarginson , Architects at Home, 1995, p. 160.
- Louise White, Feast of Forms. H & B, December 1990 / January 1991, p. 99.
- Across the Board: Wellington Branch Awards. ANZ, March / April 1992, p. 24.