26 April 2018

Light Box

Hidden up a sleepy Grey Lynn street, amongst the predictable weatherboard façades, is an unassuming architectural gem, just waiting to be discovered.


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From the outside, number 14 Allen Road is a curiosity – definitely eye catching in comparison to the assorted villas and bungalows that line the rest of this quiet, no-through road.

Not that many would have seen it. Allen Road is not a street you’d normally drive up – why would you, unless you lived here?

At the top end of the street there’s the Grey Lynn Community Hall (which has a great farmer’s market every Sunday), with a walk-through to the West Lynn shops, and its assortment of Cafés, bars and restaurants. At the other end, there’s the green expanse of Grey Lynn Park.

It’s a private house, in a quiet street, in a great location.

Conceived by renowned New Zealand architect David Mitchell, from Mitchell & Stout Architects, it is an understated, yet carefully considered home that was originally designed so that two adults could live in it; each with a floor and a shared communal space in between; a set up that would work equally well for a family who require a degree of separation between the generations.

“I love architecturally designed houses,” says the current owner, Vivienne Stone. “I spent my childhood playing in Nanette Cameron’s house in Pakuranga, and we lived in a Plischke house in Wellington for several years, so it was a real pleasure to find this house and be lucky enough to buy it.”

Vivienne, her husband Sean McCready George, their 15-year old son, and Edison the five-year old dog have been living in the house for the past two years, having previously shared their time between two quite different properties – a beach house out at Piha, and an NYC-style loft apartment within the uber-cool Axis Building in Parnell.

Interestingly, this home has elements of both, she says. “It has a lovely, relaxed, bachy feel to it – like bringing the West Coast into the inner city. A lot of people say they feel like they’re in Titirangi when they visit.”

Vivienne recalls the time when architect Richard Priest called by, commenting he could see David Mitchell’s love of boats in the interiors – especially in the built-in cabinetry in and around the stairwell and the decking.

“For me, a house needs to be able to hold books and art. It also has to have an open fireplace and a bath, my other two pre-reqs,” she laughs.

As we walk around the house, Vivienne stops at regular intervals to point out the art and the sculptures that adorn most of the walls and alcoves; personal pieces, some bought, some given, each with it’s own story and memory. It’s a fascinating, visual storyboard of her life and her career as a producer, during which she has worked across many mediums, in both the arts and the commercial sectors.

Spread over three floors, each offering views out over neighbouring gardens and a tree-filled gulley, the house steps its way up a steep site. The lower floor comprises a light-filled double bedroom, with a small deck that has a lovely north-facing aspect. There is also a smaller, single bedroom and a bathroom containing the pre-requisite bathtub.

It’s in this bathroom where you begin to get an inkling of the amount of thought the architect has put into the design of the home. There are two windows – one square, low down, next to the bath; the other a letterbox shape, high up above the sink. At first glance, it looks like they’ve been placed there randomly – an architect’s whim – but it’s not until you are in the space that you realise that the high window is perfectly placed to bring light onto your face (for the mirror), yet offers complete privacy; and the lower (frosted) window is at the ideal level when sitting in the bath. It’s these clever, but simple details that make this home so interesting and delightful.

“He’s really thought about light, privacy and views,” agrees Vivienne as we climb the stairs to the next level. “I love where he placed all the windows. You really get to appreciate the seasons through this window, in particular,” she says, pointing to a clerestory window, in the living area, high up over the front door, “and the full moon shines in through this window, which is really cool,” indicating another over the dining area.

The open-plan ground floor is the signature space of the house and contains the kitchen, dining and living areas, plus a large covered deck. More, perfectly placed windows modulate the light, views and privacy, making for a bright and comfortable space to be in, with lovely views out from the lounge and deck over the gulley below.

“It looks like we’ve got a big section, but it’s the neighbour’s garden,” she smiles. “We get the best of both worlds – we get to look at it and feel like we’ve got space around us, but there’s minimal gardening to be done.”

There’s a lot of wood in this room – in the floor and in the exposed roof structure – but it is tempered by bold splashes of colour on the walls.

“All the colours are original,” she says. “Funny… before we bought it, I said we’re not moving in until I paint the house, because I can’t stand that red wall. But both Sean and a friend talked me out of it, saying, just live with it for a while – and she was right and I now love it. They’re real New Zealand colours.” She says they remind her of colours you’d find in a Marae.

Behind the living space is a small powder room and a doorway through to the double garage that has been turned into a second, makeshift living area – useful for a teenager, Vivienne wryly comments. What’s interesting about this space is that the architect specified a translucent polycarbonate garage door that allows plenty of light in, making it more inviting… and useful.

Another narrow stairway leads up to the third level of the house, to the master suite, which comprises a large, light-filled bedroom with a large and totally private, north-facing deck, and a small, but adequate ensuite bathroom. We step out onto the deck.

“You can sleep with the doors wide open up here,” she says looking out over the long red-tin roof to the trees and rooftops beyond. “The birdsong is amazing, especially the dawn chorus in the winter – it’s a total joy.”

One of Vivienne’s many ‘hats’ is her role as the Director of the McCahon House in Titirangi, which she describes as one of Auckland’s undiscovered jewels, and a must visit for locals and tourists, alike. In the 1950s, artist Colin McCahon and his family lived in this small house in the Titirangi bush. He painted some of his most important works there, and the house now operates as a museum and artist residency.

“At the McCahon house, as well as discovering the cultural stories about the place and the work the artist made there, it’s also an essay in lower middle-class living in New Zealand in the 1950s, of the constrained circumstances of life back then. This house has also got that great Kiwi feeling of making best with what you’ve got,” says Vivienne. “It seems to me that there was a very tight budget, here, and that a lot of Kiwi ingenuity went into its design. The owner clearly appreciated good design, and that’s where the money was spent – not on fancy wallpaper or expensive finishes.”

Vivienne goes onto say that she thinks the previous owner clearly enjoyed cooking, because the kitchen is a joy to work in, but less attention – or budget, to be more specific – was given to the bathrooms.

“If we were staying, we’d do up the bathrooms. The kitchen, however, is terrific,” she says. “The house is really fantastic, but there’s definitely room to make it even more fantastic by replacing the bathrooms, getting some new lighting, and continuing the work I’ve started with the landscaping.”

Although there is very little land to work with, the outside is where Vivienne says she has put most of her efforts in improving the property, having developed the raised vegetable beds, installed an irrigation system, added a compost bin, planted edibles, and created pathways and steps to the lower levels.

“One of things I love about this house is the size of the land,” she says. “At the last house we had out in Piha, the garden was completely unmanageable. Here, this is what I call inner-city gardening. It’s work in progress, but it gives me a lot of pleasure. Hopefully the new owners will carry on the project – and they can always go to my website podgardening.co.nz, which promotes easy edible gardening.”

Looking around this delightful home is like taking a snapshot of Vivienne’s life – the architecture, the garden, the art and the books. And it’s quite amazing what she has achieved in the relatively short time she and her family have lived here. “The house has really worked for us. It has enabled us to live well,” she reflects.

I ask Vivienne what’s next? “A pool and a space for the dog to walk outside – that’s as far as I’ve got so far,” she laughs.

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