This modernist home designed by little-known architect Reginald N Uren looks deceptively simple but it’s a surprisingly complex structure that has been lovingly nurtured.
Good modernist architecture has a habit of turning up where you least expect it. So it is with Wellington art dealer Hamish McKay’s delightful 1965 house. Close to Raumati Beach, just outside the Kiwi capital, the house is in a quiet coastal area with miles of empty sands and baches (beach houses). A simple treasure, it is also a real home, neither updated nor treated as a precious object.
“I have always admired modernist architecture, ever since my art teacher at school loaned me a book on the Bauhaus when I was 14,” says McKay, who runs a contemporary-art gallery in the city. “I saw the house in a real-estate pamphlet at the end of 2004. Everyone was on holiday and no one was around. I thought I’d take a drive out to Raumati Beach for a look.”
At the time McKay had no thoughts of leaving Wellington. “I never entertained the idea of living that far out of town or on a coastline but when I saw the house, right from walking down the drive for the first time, any notion of practicality went out the window. I walked inside, my heart almost leaping out of my chest, and I made my mind up on the spot. This was going to be my house.”
The story got more interesting: the owner Ron Uren, who was at home that day, was a man in his eighties and had built the house himself. The architect was his late brother Reginald N Uren. “Ron was living on his own and selling due to poor health. I could see that he was having trouble with the upkeep as the garden seemed to be creeping inside and there was a large rubber tree in the middle of the house that wanted to get out.
“I spoke with him briefly before meeting the real-estate agent who took me aside and murmured out of the corner of her mouth, ‘It’s a bit quirky isn’t it?’ Not wanting to appear too enthusiastic, I agreed. I had another nervous look around before heading to the nearby beach for a swim, floating in the water, calming myself down and gathering my thoughts: ‘How could I make this happen?’
“I waited for the coast to clear and went back in to see Ron. We had a long chat, he took me around the property and told me all about building it, his brother who designed it and the ideas behind it.”
Buyer and seller were in synch. “Uren mentioned that other interested parties had told him that they wanted to knock out walls, put in new bathrooms and renovate the place completely. I told him I would maintain the house and keep it as it is.
“That was definitely the clincher and I think striking this rapport with the owner enabled me to buy the house – eventually. His children were organising the sale and the house was to go up for tender. I had to pull out all the stops to convince them to stop the tender process.”
Once it was his, McKay set about doing as little as possible. “The house and I were meant to be,” he says. “It was designed in 1965 – the same year as me – and built between 1965 and 1967.” Built from redwood cedar, glass and stone, the single-storey home is designed like a pavilion. “Once you walk inside you are immediately exposed to the outside as one side of the house is mostly floor-to-ceiling glass,” says McKay. The effect is one of sitting in the garden. “Some visitors have been disconcerted by this. One person recently asked me, ‘Are we inside or outside?’”
The furniture is largely built-in (and barely changed) and the kitchen is original, although McKay has added some of his own pieces. There are fine vintage chairs placed around the dining table. McKay originally had one in his gallery, then found another one in a junk shop and gradually collected a small group of them. “I haven’t seen any of them for years and still don’t know who designed them. I quite like that there’s a mysterious designer out there who made these chairs that I live with.”
The small Croquet side table is by Martino Gamper, a London-based Italian furniture designer. “I have other furniture in the garage and like to change things around and keep them fresh,” says McKay. The house also brims with books and artwork by New Zealand and Australian artists such as Ronnie van Hout and Diena Georgetti. “These artworks are all old friends and stalwarts. I have a number of other works that I hang on a revolving basis. There is not a lot of wall space.”
“The house has a personality – there are many visual tricks with mirrors and reflections that constantly amuse me. It’s compact like a bento box but spacious at the same time. The sleeping quarters are way down the back of the house and it’s very quiet. The atmosphere inside is as varied as the weather: one day it’s grey and raining and I’ll be sitting by the fire; the next day the house will be filled with sunshine.” The flat roof is popular with possums. “It sounds like they are having a good time up there, perhaps partying or playing volleyball. They can make quite a racket.”
The garden largely takes care of itself. “It was carefully thought out when the house was built and I see new things in it and different aspects of it all the time.A cherry tree at the back of the house pops out pink popcorn blossoms in the spring. It’s like a giant pink crinoline-framed petticoat; underneath it’s like being in a big pink tent. It’s a good place to drink saké.”
McKay’s commute to the city is quick and a small nearby airport can have him in Auckland in time for breakfast meetings. At weekends friends come from the city for McKay’s hospitality. “It’s paradise in the summer. I can open the doors and windows and let the warm air flow through. The beach is close so swimming is a natural way to start or end the day. There are so many different areas – inside and out – for people to relax; lots of private spots for reading and snoozing.” McKay, who now shares his home with his partner Anna, says living here is a breeze. “I feel good when I come home. It’s serene.”
Interest in New Zealand’s modernist architecture has grown recently and prices have risen for the best examples. Anyone looking to snap up a house by the same architect may be disappointed. “I knew nothing about Reginald Uren and am yet to find another house designed by him,” says McKay. “It seems this could be the only one.”