Reaching for the skies

When you look at the homes and structures created by the winner of the country's top building award, it's hard not to gaze at each roof.

While many buildings today have a flat, nondescript roof, architect Chris Kelly makes a feature out of them, causing our eye to be drawn to the top of each.

"There always seems to be the idea of the sheltered roof," says Kelly, founder of Wellington's Architecture Workshop. That's the case with his $13 million Waitomo Caves visitor centre, which won the top medal in the New Zealand Institute of Architects awards last weekend.

The building leading to Waikato's glowworm caves was described by the judges as both graceful and adventurous, and an architectural first.

The centre sits below a woven timber canopy that from the outside looks like a large cave or, as local Maori perceived it, a hinakai, or eel trap. The pine gridshell held above by a membrane of "tethered pillows" – an engineering feat – mirrors the curve of the Waitomo stream. The first centre since the old one burned down in 2005, Kelly and his team at Architecture Workshop in Wellington wanted to design a simple, light sky shell that hangs over the paths to the glowworm grotto, contrasting with the dark caves beneath the ground.

"One of the highlights was when the local hapu said it reminded them of an eel net," says Kelly. "Eels are in the streams and in the Waitomo River. Eels are also one of their food sources. We would like to say we came up with that idea but we didn't."

The NZIA judges commented: "The Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre confidently demonstrates that, in New Zealand, a building in a landscape can be an attraction in its own right. An inspired design has been translated into an inspirational building."

Another landmark building, Kelly's award-winning Peregrine Winery building near Queenstown, also draws the eye to the gently curving, silvery canopy that floats over its concrete base.

Three Architecture Workshop homes - a beach house in Peka Peka, a concrete house in the Wairarapa, and Kelly's own home in Oriental Parade - similarly have eye- catching roofs.

"In Europe, you have heavy walls to protect people from the climate. Here, in the New World, we have lighter spanning structures that are more about keeping the rain off and the climate seems more benign. That style seems to be something that suits the way we live out here," he says.

Kelly comes from an engineering background and thinks about how every design will work practically, calling in engineers from the outset.

A maths whiz at school, he followed in the footsteps of two uncles and studied engineering at university. However, he found it too dull for his creative mind, and retrained as an architect.

He gained his current approach from working overseas for six years for one of the world's top architecture firms, led by the Italian, Renzo Piano, who is renowned for his engineering prowess. While working for Piano, Kelly project managed one of his biggest projects of all time – the design of Japan's Kansai Airport. It was fitting that he was nicknamed "Mr Roof" as the airport's airfoil roof became his domain.

Kelly has picked up many prestigious awards in his architectural career, both here and overseas.

Probably most impressive was when in 2004 Queenstown's Peregrine Winery was named one of the four best buildings in the world designed by an emerging architect.

With a 140-metre, wing-like canopy, it fans out toward the mountains in its stunning Gibbston Valley setting.

Another of his designs is the impressive redevelopment of Oriental Bay, for which he and his firm designed a promenade reaching out to Wellington Harbour, also using timber, glass and concrete to build a new kiosk and changing rooms.

While civic designs are a way of sharing designs with a bigger audience, Kelly still finds residential designs satisfying and his firm always has at least a couple of houses on the drawing board.

A Peka Peka house that won an NZIA award in 2005 also typifies Kelly's work, as he likes a house or building to display strong contrasts. With two levels but no internal staircase, it's tucked among the sand dunes.

"In this house, we wanted to preserve the two atmospheres – the sheltered bowl and the exposed views of Kapiti."

His own home, peering out from the hills of Oriental Bay, is another example of contrast. Built in two stages, his family first occupied a row of cave- like, linked large rooms staggered down the hillside. Next, Kelly designed a fully glazed living space that feels like an outdoor room.

"It gives you a variety of experiences. It's like a hybrid between traditional villas with big rooms and smaller apartments.

"A few people couldn't believe we had no windows out the front of the cave part, but the house feels like a sanctuary, and there we feel off duty."

In the glazed living room, Kelly and his family are on show, and the sun and views can't be avoided. Laughs Kelly: "When we built it, people said to us, 'You must be really annoyed that those people are building right next to you.' "

The Dominion Post