Homing in on good design

Michael O'Sullivan is a roll-your-own kind of guy in a ready-made world, a straight-talking, physically capable problem-solver.

From Fendalton and Sumner in Christchurch to Westmere and Waiheke in Auckland, there are a number of preferred habitats for the architect-designed house. Mangere Bridge is not one of them. Through no fault of its own, it should immediately be noted.

The South Auckland suburb has a couple of the situational advantages that often mean that architecture will not be a lesser-spotted building genus. It has a high bit  one of the volcanic cones of Tamaki Makaurau that settler hyperbole elevated to mountain status  and it has a coastline. Strong features, but as far as Auckland goes, on the wrong face.

Mangere Bridge borders the Manukau, Auckland's working-class harbour - no America's Cup yacht will ever sail into its reaches - and it's the gateway to the districts housing the city's factories and warehouses, and the people who labour in them. Architects need clients and clients need money; without quite a lot of it, even with the best will in the world, it's almost impossible to produce bespoke residential architecture.

Unless you're your own architect. On the north side of Mangere Mountain, Michael O'Sullivan has designed a small house that is already assuming legendary proportions. It's not just the dexterity of the house's design and the craft of its construction that resonates; it's the whole story of its coming to be.

Its genesis, one could say, has been a revelation: in 21st-century New Zealand suburbia a few people, at least, are sufficiently tough and resourceful to hold down jobs, care for very young kids, and spend several years building a house, all the while camping in what might be described as on-site whare. Isn't this the stuff of Kiwi folk memory?

Actually, it could be one of my memories, if only I could recover it. I'm told that my first year was spent in a caravan as my parents built a house on the Kapiti Coast. The only evidence I have of this project  architecture without an architect, needless to say, although my uncle the carpenter helped out  is a Box Brownie photograph of me sitting on the building site with one hand on a hammer and the other on an empty flagon.

Just a family snap, or was it my mother's sardonic take on the Irish immigrant experience?

Michael O'Sullivan is a roll-your-own kind of guy in a ready-made world, a straight-talking, physically capable problem-solver. He possesses a practical inventiveness that now seems atavistic. A pioneering quality, one could say, except that the O'Sullivan mise-en-scene in Mangere Bridge doesn't so much suggest the yeoman phase of New Zealand settlement as the more interesting, and more equal, culture-contact era that preceded it.

O'Sullivan is highly and happily aware that he has made his home in a predominantly Polynesian part of Auckland, and his family's open-door, full-table policy towards their neighbours is a comfortable amalgam of the hospitable traditions of two cultures, clan and hapu. The green marble bathroom might be the jewel in this house, but family is the real taonga in the O'Sullivan home.

Your house at Mangere Bridge is a little off the architectural beaten track. Why did you choose to build here?
"We grew up in South Auckland, and of all the sites around Manukau City, Mangere Bridge is one of the prettiest. The mountain is quite subtle in its layering, and we sit under it, in the northern sun. Also, I've always been fascinated with Onehunga Wharf  that was another attraction."

You built this house yourself. Is that your background coming through?

I always wanted to build one or, hopefully, two or three homes in my lifetime. As much as I like drawing, it's a lot more satisfying to build. Furniture in that regard is a good example of the immediate satisfaction of realisation of form, especially furniture you make for yourself. You don't have to answer to a client, you only answer to your own ergonomics. I suppose a house is really an extension of that thinking.

Extract from Home Work: Leading New Zealand Architects' Own Homes by John Walsh & Patrick Reynolds (Random House NZ (Godwit), hb $75)

The Dominion Post