Written by Marcel Van Drongelen
Photography by Jamie Cobel
Back in the 1960’s, modernist architects looking to design structures that would blend into and embrace the landscape chose the untouched, bush-clad sections of this elevated West Auckland suburb to build their simply styled, streamlined homes. Built in 1965, Orr-Walker House is one of this area’s pioneering modernist homes – a mid-century time capsule with all the patina of a well loved home.
The large, verdant sections offered the perfect opportunity to create an expansive home with incredible privacy.
John Orr-Walker, the original owner and designer still lives in the home. Although he started his training to become an architect, an aversion to mathematics saw him eventually move into dentistry. However, his love of architecture never left him. When it came to designing his own home, John had clearly defined ideas about the form of the house he wanted to live in.
The inspiration to build came after attending a party at a friend’s place down the road. John set off the following day knocking on doors, in search of vacant land. “One of the first homes I approached was owned by a local bookie who told me that he had a block of land beside his place, but he had never been down there because it was more than likely swamp land.” Armed with his degree in geology, John quickly realised that the land was anything but swamp, and would be the perfect site for his new home. A purchase was duly made from his new neighbour.
“I chose local architects Fairhead and Brown to develop my initial designs and concept models,” says, Orr-Walker. “Although Mid-century modernist homes are most often associated with the movement in California, the inspiration for my design came from my travels throughout Asia, and in particular the serene aesthetics of Japanese design. Elements such as shoji screens, tatami rooms, pipe walls and sunken baths are prominent features throughout the house.”
After spending a year on the design process, construction started in 1965. Due to the steep site, access was difficult. “Initially, the only way down was via knotted ropes tied around a large Kauri tree,” he recalls. “There were a number of significant Kauri and Rimu on the section, and it was my mandate that the house be built around them. This led to a somewhat irregular shaped design.” The build went to plan, and construction was completed by the Christmas of that year. The resulting house consists of a series of glazed and flat roofed pavilions that run along the site’s contours, with each room separated by a step up (or down) and opening onto individual decks, or courtyards.
What is perhaps the greatest feature of the design is one that it not instantly recognisable – its adaptability.
“The house is built on a north-to-south axis, with exposed solid concrete block walls positioned exactly the same distance apart between each successive section,” explains Orr-Walker. “This conformity to measurement allows for the built-in furniture units, which are an important design facet, to be unbolted and moved between rooms to open or close spaces.” A variety of materials were used throughout the home, he says. “The furniture units and floors are particle-board, left in their natural state. The timber walls and floating ceilings are all Redwood, which lends a warmth and character to the home, and the matching ceiling beams coordinate with the division of the windows, which are floor-to-ceiling in every room to allow both the surrounding bush and sunlight in.” One of the defining visual features of the house is the stacked terracotta tube walls constructed from drainage pipes that are simply glued together.
Mr. Orr-Walker has an enviable collection of mid-century furniture, which suits the generous sunny spaces and 1960s features. While these furnishings are all original and purchased locally, the artwork carries an Oriental theme. “At the time, I was working as a senior medical officer in Korea, which gave me the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Bali, Korea, Japan and China, searching for interesting pieces to bring back home,” he says. “For example, the distinctive Capiz light fittings, purchased from the Philippines, are a prominent feature in many of the rooms and are made from the translucent shells of the Windowpane oyster.” John Orr-Walker never built another home, but his interest in architecture and design did not stop with the completion of his Titirangi property. Located within the ground-level of the home is Orr Walker’s study where a number of architectural models, representing a range of eclectic tastes and ideas for future building projects are kept.
“On my return to New Zealand I became interested in the work of Austrian Architect Fritz Eisenhofer, who was constructing a futuristic earth sheltered dome at Peka Peka, on the Kapiti Coast,” he says. With newfound inspiration and plenty of room at the back of his section, he set to work designing and finalising his own geodesic dome structure. Unfortunately the project was never realised, as the walls of the dome were very thin and required specialist (and expensive) building expertise to laminate the sections.
It is fitting in a way, that the current dwelling does not have to compete for attention on the site. There have been no structural changes since the original permits were issued, a testament to Orr-Walker’s enduring design. Thirteen years on, the same Japanese design aesthetic led to the completion of Titirangi’s most iconic modernist property – The Brake House, designed by Ron Sang. Fairhead and Brown went on to design a number of highly regarded and influential houses, and were also fore runners in local modernist architecture.
The Orr-Walker house was remarkable when it was built back in 1965 and was awarded an NZIA Bronze Medal in the same year. It’s still a remarkable house fifty years on – a timeless classic that has truly stood the test of time.