House of the week: Landmark Wellington home gallery

From the edge of the footpath at Wellington's Rona Bay to the base of the cliff is just 7m of flat land, a challenge ...
JANE USSHER/NZHOUSE&GARDEN

From the edge of the footpath at Wellington's Rona Bay to the base of the cliff is just 7m of flat land, a challenge legendary architect Sir Ian Athfield resolved with this remarkable structure.

The late, great architect Sir Ian Athfield could never be accused of designing little boxes on the hillside. He was a master of originality and this home, at the gateway to Eastbourne, showcases his inventive flair on a tight site backed by a cliff. 

Side-by-side towers made of brick are reminiscent of a pair of binoculars while the peaked forms that flank each side incorporate the multilevel planning the architect became known for in the 70s. 

Owners Brian Wood and Nigel Carter were immediately captivated by the home's design. "It was love at first sight," Nigel recalls. "We weren't even looking to buy, but Brian had come to Eastbourne for a seaside stroll and noticed the open home sign. Within days we had an offer on it."

It has been 18 months since the couple moved in and they're still entranced by the recycled terracotta bricks that curve around the entranceway and the central pole from which spiral stairs radiate, worn shiny and smooth by residents and visitors alike.  

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Nigel, left, and Brian love strolling along Rona Bay beach.
JANE USSHER

Nigel, left, and Brian love strolling along Rona Bay beach.

It's a house that, for Brian, reinforces his appreciation of New Zealand's potters and crafters of clay. In these very walls are bricks from factories long since closed, names that are part of Wellington's history: Enoch Tonks, Wi Tako and Murphy Bros. 

Fortunately, the home's back story is not hard to unearth; its original owner, valuer Spencer Logan, was a university student when he impulsively decided to buy land and build with little more than holiday job savings in the kitty. 

In the early 1970s he paid $3350 for the 700sqm section. There was one catch. "It only had 7m of flat land from the edge of the footpath to the base of a sheer cliff," he recalls. No worries.

The etched mirror was a junk shop find from Whanganui.
JANE USSHER

The etched mirror was a junk shop find from Whanganui.

Spencer knew an architect equal to the task. "I gave him complete freedom and a simple brief: to fit a house on the land."

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Spencer, who was only 23 at the time, had to sell his Mini to raise $3500 to pay for the plans, but he was rapt with the result. Then he got stuck into finding materials. "While all my friends were in London having a good time, I was home buying bricks from wherever I could find them."  

In total, he cleaned 16,000 bricks, bought for four cents each, gleaned from demolished shops, two chimneys and Hutt Valley High School.

Nigel finds the circular entry to the library nook a perfect place to perch; on top of an antique bureau bookcase is ...
JANE USSHER/NZHOUSE&GARDEN

Nigel finds the circular entry to the library nook a perfect place to perch; on top of an antique bureau bookcase is pottery by Jim Cooper, Ross Mitchell-Anyon and Flora Christeller.

Then he took six months' leave from his job at the Government Valuation Department to be an assistant bricklayer, by night working in the local tavern to keep funds flowing in.

"I loved Ath's plan, I was so excited to have such a stylish design and I was exhilarated by the whole thing." 

Three years later Spencer and his wife Diane moved into their home. Despite its tricky site, it packs in two towers, four storeys, three bedrooms, a dining room, living room, conversation nook, two bathrooms, workshop storage and carport, and decks with magical views across the harbour.

The Japanese sofa by Ritzwell in the living room is a honeymoon present the couple bought for each other; beside it is a ...
JANE USSHER/NZHOUSE&GARDEN

The Japanese sofa by Ritzwell in the living room is a honeymoon present the couple bought for each other; beside it is a Meiji period Japanese marriage chest topped by a collection of early-period salt-glazed pottery by Mirek Smíšek.

Brian and Nigel are the fourth owners of the "castle" and have put their own stamp on the property, bringing in furniture that fits the shape and proportions of the design and adding some comforts. "We installed new wool carpet in three rooms of the house the day we moved in," says Nigel. 

The couple also love art: they describe their collection as contemporary but with an appreciation of the craft movement.

Nigel says they like "ceramics, weaving, basically anything handmade". That appreciation for the handmade extends to clothing and Nigel has claimed one of the home's many cosy nooks as a sewing room where he makes clothing for the couple. 

he kitchen is separated from the dining area by a wall, used for storage and to display a group of works by Richard Killeen.
JANE USSHER/NZHOUSE&GARDEN

he kitchen is separated from the dining area by a wall, used for storage and to display a group of works by Richard Killeen.

Wi Tako bricks, made in 1919, make a fitting backdrop to Brian's collection of New Zealand ceramics, a diverse and ongoing assembly of pieces from early commercial potteries to studio works. The domestic ware is in everyday use and Brian, a potter, creates too, sharing a kiln at nearby Point Howard with nonagenarian potter Nan Barker. 

The house suits their lifestyle perfectly – from the Japanese-style genkan just inside the front door to the utility room for their garden tools.

"The house has a lovely connection to the outside, through doors, various-shaped windows, views that are framed individually and differently. And the spaces are flexible so Nigel's sewing room can just as easily be a bedroom," says Brian. The couple are also happy to share their extra rooms with a steady flow of local and international Airbnb guests. 

The circular walk-in pantry.
JANE USSHER

The circular walk-in pantry.

Art curator Hamish Keith once referred to Athfield as "a great, sane and eccentric voice for our built culture". Brian believes the numerous visitors who photograph the house from the footpath across the road, and the many travellers who spend time there, agree with that sentiment.

WHEN YOU LIVE IN A ONE-OF-A-KIND HOME…

We were delighted to find: The thermal mass of the bricks makes it a very warm, easy-to-heat home. 

Brian Wood, left, and Nigel Carter at home; the artwork is Hyacinth, an oil-on-oak panel by Mark Hutchins.
JANE USSHER

Brian Wood, left, and Nigel Carter at home; the artwork is Hyacinth, an oil-on-oak panel by Mark Hutchins.

One of the tricky things is: Cleaning the windows – we use a magnetic window cleaner for cleaning the upper level windows.

The curved walls are not a problem: But because of all the windows, we had to downsize our art collection due to a lack of wall space. 

Q&A:

This toilet is one of only a few rooms in which the brick walls have been painted.
JANE USSHER/NZHOUSE&GARDEN

This toilet is one of only a few rooms in which the brick walls have been painted.

The best money we ever spent was: On new wool carpet for three rooms of the house on the day we moved in. Plus our honeymoon in Japan – we loved every minute of it. (Nigel)

In the next ten years I'd like to: Master the complexities of planting epiphytes on the cliff behind us and maybe build a balcony off the top bedroom which was in Ath's original plan. (Nigel)

Tips for collectors: With big-ticket items, buy the most important things first, like a chest of drawers or table and chairs – items that are functional and look good. If you buy well they will probably outlive you. Georgian furniture seems reasonable right now and the clean lines work well with contemporary interiors. (Brian)

A racehorse painting by Cameron Johnson hangs in the master bedroom; on the mid-century set of drawers below is an ...
JANE USSHER/NZHOUSE&GARDEN

A racehorse painting by Cameron Johnson hangs in the master bedroom; on the mid-century set of drawers below is an anagama-fired pot by Estelle Martin and drawings and watercolours by friends and family.

Best budget tip: Save first, spend the rest! From my grandad, Hercules. (Brian)

Best surprise since moving in: Discovering blue penguins nesting in the rocks across the road. (Nigel)

The guest room at the top of the house on level seven features a Georgian chair.
JANE USSHER

The guest room at the top of the house on level seven features a Georgian chair.

The main bathroom looks towards the cliff, which is lit by night and bathed in dappled light by day.
JANE USSHER

The main bathroom looks towards the cliff, which is lit by night and bathed in dappled light by day.

The street address was previously 59 before being renumbered to 759 by the council.
JANE USSHER

The street address was previously 59 before being renumbered to 759 by the council.

Succulents adorn a window sill.
JANE USSHER

Succulents adorn a window sill.

The view to the dome at the top of the staircase.
JANE USSHER

The view to the dome at the top of the staircase.

Another Mirek Smíšek salt-glazed branch pot at the base of the spiral staircase.
JANE USSHER

Another Mirek Smíšek salt-glazed branch pot at the base of the spiral staircase.

The view from the dining room table looking past the Rona Bay wharf across the harbour to Seatoun.
JANE USSHER

The view from the dining room table looking past the Rona Bay wharf across the harbour to Seatoun.

 - NZ House & Garden

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