Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Architecture: Making ‘a home for man.’ Part 3: The essence of the home

NOTE: This is the conclusion of a three-part piece by Peter Cresswell of Organon Architecture, leaning heavily on Claude Megson’s approach to architecture.  In this last piece, Peter outlines Claude’s notion that we shouls essentialise our understanding of the house’s most important spaces.

“Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more.
For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of
man is occasion. ... We are not building buildings, we are building
ritual, building occasion, building life itself.”
~ Claude Megson (after Aldo Van Eyck)

Over the last two days we talked about man and how to begin making a home for him on this earth: It’s not just about marking a spot; it’s about making places: human places, for human occasions.
But isn’t it the case that much of our built environment, and hence much of what architects do, is normally beyond our immediate awareness? Most people just don’t notice too much about the buildings they’re in, do they (at least not consciously) – they quickly become ‘second nature’ to us, unless of course something goes wrong!

We might ‘feel’ a space or a building as being good or bad or uplifting or stultifying or bland or glorious … but we don’t always consciously know why. So let’s start looking at what architecture is trying to say to you, and how you can begin to ‘listen.’  And let’s literally start in the home . . .

Part 3: The essence of the home

“A house is not an object but a universe we construct
for ourselves – not a garage where we park ourselves.”

Claude Megson

SINCE WE TEND TO take for granted the architectural experiences we are offered, so Jay Farbstein and Min Kantrowitz in their book People in Places suggest a starting point for learning to understand what architecture can say to you if you let it (assuming of course that the architecture has something to say!):
Architecture [they say] begins with the five senses, plus other (sub-senses) like those to do with temperature, humidity, air movement across the skin, and especially the kinaesthetic or haptic; the senses must come first!

Next, These sensations must be integrated into patterns i) of day-to day life – entering the house, engaging in conversation, cooking, eating, watching television, bathing, lying in bed – and ii)of integration with the wider world with the perceiver at the centre – detailed and complex recognition of siting, eye lines into the distant ( and close) landscape.

Of harbour, valley and hilltop (each with their own resonance for us) and even the gradual exclusion of the public realm (“this is our space”) down to individual realms (“this is my space”).

Architecture recognises and builds in all these patterns or rituals – try and identify them in the place you’re in now, and think too about that special place from childhood and see how its patterns go together, and if they played some part in making it special for you.

The point here is that all architecture begins with you – it doesn’t begin with some gods-eye view from above, or from some arid analysis of string-courses and pendentives. It starts from the point of view of the observer, of the person experiencing the whole ensemble---it starts there, and it radiates out1.

From this starting point then, architecture needs to integrate the material sensed (nothing should be accidental in art), and integrate it conceptually into a pattern that gives to the person experiencing it a meaning to life on this earth. It should be life-enhancing, on a distinctively human scale, because, as we’ve said, architecture is about making a home for man ­ - literally MAKING a home for man – and at the same time EXPRESSING the facts about our world and our place in it, and then underscoring whatever emotional evaluation follows from that.
* * *

Sometimes the house grows and spreads so that, in order to live in it,
greater elasticity of daydreaming, a daydream that is less clearly
outlined, are needed. "My house," writes Georges Spyridaki, "is
diaphanous, but it is not of glass. It is more the nature of vapour.
Its walls contract and expand as I desire. At times, I draw them close
about me like protective armour .. But at others, I let the walls of my
house blossom out in their own space, which is infinitely extensible.”
Spyridaki's house breathes. First it is a coat of armour, then it extends ad
infinitum, which amounts to saying that we live in it in alternate security
and adventure. It is both cell and world. Here geometry is transcended.

~ Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

AS WE’VE SEEN in Part Two of our story, the essential meaning -- the very essence of the dining occasion-- is celebration. Giving to a home this essential human meaning of celebration is what we’re doing when we build a space for dining (or, if we’re not very good, we build something that might give almost the opposite impression).

Thus, the essential human meaning given to the dining space of a home is not eating, but celebration.

In the same way, architect Claude Megson suggested that every space in a home has its own essential human meaning that must be given its essential place and expressed appropriately in the architecture (and in the following outline I use Megson’s schema). When we build a house, in the words of Megson “we build a whole universe for ourselves to inhabit” – that place must reflect our whole universe of needs and emotions. The universe of our own soul. So let’s take a tour round our ‘soul,’ and the essence of all that it contains.

If our Dining area isn’t just a place in which to gnaw on a raw bone, then the Bathroom isn’t just a place to hose ourselves down. It is, or should be, a place wherein we experience our physical selves (visually via our mirrors) and receive our full physical sensation of being; a place in which to cleanse and refresh ourselves both physically and spiritually (it’s no accident that religionists adopted bathing as a symbol of baptism.) It should express, if we can manage it, a feeling of cleansing and rejuvenation -- almost of rebirth.2 The term used by Megson was “Regeneration.” That, oddly enough, is the feeling a good bathroom should give.

Just to clarify here: A good bathroom, or indeed any space designed and built properly, should both support the function intended for that space, and at the same time express the human meaning -- the essence – of the space. Both feeling and function are equally important – indeed, the feeling is an integral part of the function that needs to be built into the form I f form and function are realy going to be made one. (And as Frank Lloyd Wright said on a somewhat related subject, if done properly “form and feeling become one.”)

So Dining = Celebration; Bathroom = Regeneration. What else needs to be expressed in Megson’s schema?

Our Living Room is the place where life reveals itself; wherein a stage is set for our lives, for all our entrances and exits; a place of both continuity and permanence; both adventure and security; a place for books, for relaxation, for discourse, for the good news and the disappointments of our lives; for the gatherings and the adventures and occasional withdrawing from the world we all do and need to do .. the place wherein the nature of our selves is worked out and revealed, with all the other spaces in the house acting as support.

And like a stage (and like our own private souls) the Living Room both exposes and hides us: as Gaston Bachelard explains the house should sometimes be around us like an armour, like a cloak, and at others it should hardly be there at all.

Most of all, a living room should express the adventure of life. All these things described in the living space reveal the nature of a full life, so the living room as a who;e shows us the whole cosmos of life. If dining is a mark in time, then our living rooms should reveal a sense of the infinite. So a Living Room worth its name must both support the function of lounging, and at the same time it should, Megson argues, express the concept of Revelation. That concept, he argues, best describes the human need fulfilled in our best Living Rooms. In this place, more than in any other part of the house, this concept should be most evident.

The Entrance: Here is our hinge, our place of welcome and farewell, the place in which we are midway between coming and going, where we are poised “cat-like” between entrance and exit, between rejection and welcome … a dynamic equilibrium representing the occasion of greeting; the concept best expressed here is Poise.

The Bedroom is our ultimate place of withdrawal; our place for solace and sexual excitement, for peace and repose, and for reflecting, planning and dreaming. Bedroom = Reflection.

The Kitchen is the place in which life is sustained and nurtured; in which the first lessons are learned of chemistry and physics; of safety and danger. The essence of the Kitchen is Sustenance, or Nurture.

All these functions and feelings and meanings take place under one roof, in one house. In the same sense that all artwork is making a statement about the world in which we live – whether the artist likes it or not -- every piece of art is a microcosm of what the artist considers to be fundamentally important within this universe – so too the house should contain a whole universe in microcosm.

In Megson’s words, the house is not just a garage where we park ourselves; nor is it merely an object: it is instead a whole universe we construct for ourselves -- “it should embody the complete human spirit.”

This is how we go about our task, of literally making a home for for man . . .

NOTES 1. A point to anyone who can see the similarity to Austrian economics, or to Montessori education.
2. We cleanse ourselves of ‘the outside’ while symbolically cleaning ourselves within; we emerge physically revitalised and metaphorically reborn. (It is no accident that bathing is the essential religious symbol of baptism.)
    Water represents purity; as does its complement, light; which together produce an essential sparkling, uplifting effect.

[Cross-posted to the Organon Architecture Blog]

Barr House, by Claude Megson (1972)


Built in Auckland’s Meadowbank back in 1972, the Barr House – on a small suburban site embracing a bush reserve – is described by Megson biographer Giles Reid as one of the finest spaces he has ever been in. Yet, astonishingly, up until now it has been all but unpublished.

If there is a reason for this omission [says Reid], it is not due to the building’s lack of importance. The Barr House represents a huge advance in [Megson’s] ability to conceive and manipulate space. Of all [Megson’s houses discussed in Reid’s monograph], its spaces and forms are by far the most memorable.

The design of the house, as Megson virtually described it to an interviewer in the year of its birth, “takes its shape from the relation to the bush and the fan-shaped section.” 


The clients approached the School of Architecture in 1971 asking for the best architect they knew. The name they kept hearing was Claude Megson.

The client wanted a house that would be, as it were, a work of art [recounts Megson’s 1971 interviewer Winifred Wilson]. He wanted something good, yet out of the ordinary, and it was to be a  reasonably quiet house in which to live. The site, at the end of a cul-de-sac, overlooks the bush basin . . .
    Colours, too, relate to the bush background. Basically, the house … built along the edge of this bush, forms a crescent around a large walled entry court.
    From here one goes up to the bedrooms or down to the living quarters. It [is clad] in cedar boards … [originally] oiled a yellow brown, with solid piers in reinforced brickwork of a rich warm brown. The motor court and garden walls are also done in this warm brick work.


    Inside, the brick walls are left exposed and the timber walls are lined with the same cedar boards … The high ceilings on the first floor are white plaster plainted white. The timber floors are covered in shag pile buff carpet and the whole house has a warm mellow glow of honey gold.

Having just spent a few days there, I can attest to the ingenious treatment of space Reid describes, powerfully assisted by the rhombic geometry suggested by the site.


As with the hexagonal design module used so deftly by Frank Lloyd Wright in his Hannah House, for example, the rhombic geometry opens up the house and gives a much greater feeling of freedom—movement systems and vision for example being on different paths, a feeling enhanced by the shafts of space shooting “laser like” from one side of the house to another.

Standing in the living room [for example, writes Reid,] one can see past the entry, across the stairs, just missing the back of the kitchen, through the family space and then breakfast area and out to the terraces beyond. Every plane seems to fold away from this invisible line with only moments to spare.

It is a wonderful house to visit—and still owned by the owners who originally commissioned it back in 1971; now reluctantly ready to sell after enjoying half a lifetime inhabiting the house.


They have nothing but praise for the house and the man who designed it for them. They would change nothing they say, and from the time the house came in under budget (costing less per square foot than state houses did at the time, reports the owner) to now when old age means they finally have to leave, they say they have loved every moment of living there.


Claude’s original model of the house, prepared for the clients at design stage.
The clients found it invaluable in decifering a tricky set of plans to read.


Image (258)


[Photos by Barfoots, courtesy Philip Oldham. Plans and original architect’s sketches from Building Progress magazine, 1972. Cross-posted at the Claude Megson blog]

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The Green House, by Claude Megson, 1978


Any architect can make a fair fist of impressing with a rich and expensive palate. What architect Claude Megson was very good at was using fairly standard inexpensive materials to create spaces of almost inexpressible delight—the sort that’s sometimes hard to capture through a lens, but that you can feel as soon an you enter his spaces, and delight in even more as you live in them over many years and discover all their many intricacies: the way spaces flow into each other; the links created to the grounds and wider landscape; the vistas through, within (and without) the house …


On the market now, after many years, is the spatial wonderland he crafted forty years ago for the Phillips family of Glenfield: the ‘green house,’ as it was dubbed, for its colour (which now appears the very least of the colours used!).

Inserted into lush bush at the end of a cul-de-sac, this project employs a number of characteristic Megson elements. The base of the house is formed from concrete blocks,with interiors on six-half levels cascading down under an inclined glass roof. Enclosing this is a highly complex composition of “periscope” forms – arranged both vertically and horizontally - that recall the Rees Townhouses, but which are painted a lush green – hence the project being referred to as the “Green House”. Projecting out into the bush on the downhill side of the house is balcony composed as a cantilevered cage of steel pipe, a motif that would reappear in Megson’s own house.

The real estate site says:

Architecturally fabulous and with all the elements of a truly special home, this unique property was designed by the renowned architect Claude Megson and built to admire the nature of the magical Scenic Reserve setting.
Our current owners bought this jewel in April 2000 recognising the beauty of the design, the exquisite location among native trees and the convenience of being at just 10 min drive [ahem – Ed.] to Auckland CBD.
This fabulous property is set on a 1113m² (approx) section and features 3 bedrooms and 3 living areas on six-half levels cascading down under an inclined glass roof that spills light into and throughout the home.
The attention to detail creates a home with a blend of quiet intimate rooms to dramatic areas under the vaulted ceiling, very different from what we are all used to see in the Market.
To absorb the resulting arrangement of spaces, with a gentle division of activities suggested for each of these areas, the first time spectator must spend time roaming the home, revisiting rooms, to understand the feeling and the flavour of each area.
The home is centred around the outdoor and indoor living areas, that inspires to entertain, to invite people to lounge on the open space; long lazy Sunday lunches or formal occasions would all be enhanced by this serene and very private environment.
There are areas for reading, to retreat to, to reflect, to gather with friends and discuss matters of great importance, or to simply absorb the peace of the view of the beautiful Kelmar Scenic Reserve.
Walking down the driveway and looking back to the home, you cannot help feeling inspired with Claude's creation; the current owners have lovingly looked after this home over the years but it is time to hand the mantle onto another owner who will thrive in this exceptional home.

The house has Open Homes this Saturday and Sunday.

Architect Claude Megson in his “green house” soon after completion.















Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Quote of the day: But isn’t this how every house should feel?

image“Architect Dominic Glamuzina says [Megson’s original 1970’s house] invokes the feeling that one should have a cocktail in one’s hand at all times while wandering through it.”
- from an article reporting on an extension to Claude Megson’s Rees House  (part of this complex of townhouses)

More on the story and extension from the GlamuzinaPaterson website.

The Design, Build & Renovate trade publication featured it in April 2014, offering an interior pic showing the characteristic Megsonian diagonal relationship between kitchen and dining space:




[Top pic from the GlamuzinaPaterson website]

“I’m twice the architect you are!”

From a 2014 interview with Patrick Clifford, of Architectus:

Q: And what about the ideas around at the time and which teachers influenced your own thinking?
PC: There are particular memories that I certainly have of people from that time. We learnt drawing from Pat Hanley, who was a very helpful and incredibly encouraging teacher, and people like Fred Beckett, Dave Mitchell and Mike Austin, who were practising and working in a completely different way, and Claude Megson, who I did quite a lot of studio work with. There were visiting architects, like Marshall Cook, coming into the School and offering studio programmes.

ANZ: Are there any entertaining moments that stick in your mind?
PC: I can still vividly remember Claude Megson in the studio one day yelling out at Peter Bartlett, “I’m twice the architect you are!” Peter Bartlett was the distinguished teacher, academic and practitioner who designed the performing arts building at Auckland Grammar, amongst other things….
    The School of Architecture was an environment that had a lot more complexity than ‘you’re coming here to just be taught something about architecture’. There were complex personal relationships and views about what architecture should be and how it should be taught and so on. As a student, you have to navigate your way through that and, at some point, hopefully form a view yourself about what you think is important. My recollection of that time is that a lot of the teaching was fairly laissez faire; it didn’t offer a strong view. The strong view was that students should figure out, based on their own experience and understanding, how to make architecture. There were exceptions to that: people like Claude Megson, who said, “This is how I do it and, if you’re going to be in my studio, you need to do it this way”…

ANZ: Do you think that the laissez-faire attitude was possibly a good thing for your generation, in the sense that New Zealand had traditionally followed overseas styles, so perhaps a laissez-faire attitude was a way for new generations of architects to evolve with some different ideas based more in the New Zealand context?
PC: Maybe, but in the ’50s and ’60s some New Zealand architects had formed a view that modern architecture in New Zealand should be its own version: people like the [Architectural] Group and so on, who we tend to celebrate now but it wasn’t being taught about at Architecture School back then. It wasn’t like we were being educated in an environment that said, “Look, here’s what’s happened before”. It was rather more “you figure out your own path”.

ANZ: A little bit directionless, you mean?
C: Well, it was a challenge for students to figure out how to approach this. But there was a balance with the Claude Megson approach of “do it this way”. So, as a student, there’s quite a lot of decisions to be made in terms of the ‘how’ – some of which, you probably don’t figure out what effect it had until a few years later

Full interview here: NZIA Gold Medal winner, Patrick Clifford

The New Romantics

From a 2012 interview with the now=late Peter Beaven, “taking us back in time to 1972 when new ideas about architecture were taking shape and exhibited at The Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt.”

…This interest in new shapes and styles first took visible form at The Dowse Art Gallery in Lower Hutt in 1972. An architectural exhibition which the Dowse labelled The New Romantics, included the work of Ian Athfield, Roger Walker, Claude Megson, John Scott and myself. There were, by then, already salient differences among us. For a small country, the architects featured in the exhibition were a pretty excellent assembly, developing as a group several clear, broad paths, which could have taken New Zealand architecture beyond modernism into rich new fields of our own….
    Inevitably, the ‘new romantic’ movement never really flowered. Neither John Scott nor Claude Megson lived long enough to extend their great formal skills. Ian Athfield and Roger Walker each developed large practices. In the running of their practices, their early enthusiasm and originality necessarily drained away to some extent. Each now inhabits a different world from the world that the Dowse exhibition seemed to be ushering in.
    It is far harder today for a young architect to make such an individual impression. The fashion for following the favoured styles of the day has become uniform throughout the world, driven of course by the insatiable flood of images everywhere, which can only overwhelm local romanticism….
Claude Megson, another of the ‘new romantics’, was an Auckland architect who had a remarkable talent for astonishing manipulation of small spaces into great spatial experiences. Auckland, ever urgently wanting new experiences, gave him plenty of opportunities….
    The strands of originality in the work of the five architects identified by the Dowse began to wither away after 1984.
    You can see this in a vivid, visual manner if you place any copy of Houses magazine beside the book NZ Architects’ Houses, 1970. In the 1970 publication, page follows page of rich spatial delight: architecture of the greatest originality, all stemming from the use of our limited building materials and our trust in each other – builder and architect – which was typical of old New Zealand.
    The 1970s’ book shows that a great number of New Zealand architects at that time were all doing really beautiful, original work, very much our country. Houses magazine, of course, does its best but it can only show that the 1970s’ New Zealand originality, in most cases, has faded into varying streams of international modernism.

Full article here: The new romantics

“…fantastic really because he was so passionate…”

Carolyn Smith from Architecture Smith + Scully talked to Claire Ellery, editor Houses, “about running a practice and her life in architecture,” including …

Q: Do you think the way you approach architecture, then or now, was influenced by your peers and teachers at university?
I think for me I was possibly more influenced by some architects who were in practice at the time. At university it was the studio tutors who I think had the most influence. I had David Mitchell and Claude Megson, who was fantastic really because he was so passionate. You didn’t always agree with him. He was a very stubborn man but he did some amazing designs and they were kind of unique and he pushed you to follow an idea….

Full article here.

Enduring Architecture Award for Claude Megson’s Cocker Tonhouses

Cocker Townhouses / Claude Megson Architect. Image © Patrick Reynolds

Claude Megson’s Cocker Townhouses were awarded an Enduring Architecture Award at the 2014 NZIA Architecture Awards.

Remuera’s Iconic Architects And The Significant Homes They Designed . . .

From a post at the Kellands Real Estate site…

Being an inspirational architect and teacher himself, Claude Megson has had arguably the biggest influence on several generations of Auckland architects, while his many clients have been able to enjoy living in his enormously life-affirming houses.  Norris House in Walton Street won the 2005 Enduring Architecture Award and his iconic style is obvious in townhouses he designed in Hapua Street and Warrington Road.  Some of New Zealand’s currently acclaimed architects were students of Claude Megson.

Full article here, including mentions of Vernan Brown, Megson employers  Gummer & Ford, Roy Binney and Horace Massey.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Yes, you can buy Claude Megson’s house…


Now for sale by new owners, here's late architect Claude Megson's own house, perched above tree-clad Dingle Dell in Auckland's St Heliers, with views in the other direction out to Rangitoto and the harbour. A simple looking exterior concealing an awful lot of living within.


Megson took the small, boxy, brick house (right) designed by the architect of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Richard Toy, and transformed it into something magical, something giving the feel of having discovered a particularly poignant tree-filled glade somehow touched by the gods.

Writing about the transformation a few years ago, architectural critic John Dickson said of it, "It is impossible without the process of Megson's imagination to connect the cluster of small, confined rooms of the house as it was to the expansive, multi-levelled, vertical-fissured, spatial-phantasm that it has become."

A new structure was built over the original brick base, with balconies - described by [former Megson student] Andrew [Barrie] as "cages of mesh and steel tube" - projecting from the house out into the treetops… Andrew Barrie says Claude was a world-class architect. "His houses brought a sculptural quality but they were also incredibly tied to the way people live. Usually, it's one or the other and to do both was unusual ... there were few like him."

For Megson a house was a lot more than just a machine for living—the family house for example house should support and enhance family life, celebrating and artistically expressing all its many aspects. 

And English architectural critic Professor Geoffrey Broadbent, writing after a 1992 tour of Claude's Auckland houses had this to say:

"This," I said to myself, "is work of a very high international standard indeed." ...One is constantly struck by the surprise around the corner, the bright shaft of light penetrating from above into the softer glow of the main living spaces -- especially in Megson' own house -- that give his work such very special qualities...
There is an essential "rightness" about Megson's spaces, for pleasant occupation by ordinary, normal human beings. Such things, says Dickson, have gone out of fashion with today's students. Well, so much the worse for the students [and their clients!]. Perhaps it hasn't occurred to them that if they design real spaces for human comfort and pleasure, then even those anguished souls overwhelmed by post-Heideggerian "problematics" about the nature of their existence might, given spaces like Megson's to contemplate that nature of their "Being," come to more positive conclusions! Because that's the point about Megson's spaces; they are life-enhancing.
Broadbent, for once, is exactly right.


Claude built the house for his own family as a classic three-zoned family house: with parents’ realm and childrens’ realm’ linked together through the house’s public realm.  Agent’s photographs suggest the current owners (and vendors) have retained this spatial planning (well expressed in the exterior, as you can see below), but have restored the house and kitchen elements so they are “largely as they were.”


You may buy it through Barfoot & Thompson.


[Photos by Ted Baghurst and Barfoot & Thompson. More pictures here and here.]



Click to enlarge…




















Childrens Realm