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Sunday, 05 May 2013 19:41

The Brown House (1984-5)

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In 1985, about three years after I settled in New Zealand, my friend Alan Brown asked me to design a house for his family. Alan had Maori ancestors somewhere in the past. I had met him about a year earlier when he was the builder on another design project in Auckland. Alan was an artist, builder and craftsman who now makes exquisits objets d'artes out of New Zealand greenstone for the international market.  Then he was a struggling artist, doing building contract work to keep body and soul together between art commissions. In his spare time he would carve greenstone in the shapes that came to him in dreams, dreams much dominated by images of the tainui carving/deity Uenuku. For some reason, Alan felt safe to confide in me about his Uenuku dreams and to tell me how he had become as a consequence, obsessed with carving. He lived with his family in thes mall King Country town of Raetihi, where his mother and father also lived on a small farm overlooking the extensive views down to the Whanganui River Valley. He wanted to build a house for his family on a shelf, below the level of the farm's main paddock - tucked down and almost invisible from above, but extensive and sustainable below, sheltering from the winds that come down off nearby Mt. Ruapehu. A major consideration was the ability to feed his family throughout the New Zealand winter, so the large conservatory serves the dual purpose of being a growing space as well as a solar collector to space-heat the house.




The design process was arduous. I had several meetings with Alan in Auckland before travelling down with him and staying in Raetehi, under the shadow of the volcanic Mt. Ruapehu. We worked together for two days, continuously talking about his plans, his dreams. At the end of an exhausting second day,Alan decided to go to bed at about midnight. I elected to go on working at the drawing board into the small hours. About 3.00am, I finally "saw" the design solution and drew it up in a feverish haste, finally finishing and waking him at 6.00am to show him my prized idea. He was completely enthralled by it, and made it clear that I had "cracked it". To celebrate, we wandered down to the site with the sun not yet over the morning horizon. As we came to the edge oif the paddock, the sun appeared beneath the clouds and cast ots beams directly down into the basin over which we were looking. There, in the centre of this large, circular basin (perhaps half a mile in diameter) stood a very small, perfectly formed and symmetrical volcanic cone about fifty feet high and perhaps80 meters in diameter - a plug, I suspected, from some earlier eruption. As we looked, the shafts ofsunlight settled on the cone like some theatrical spotlight and we decided there and then to wander down and to rest on its summit in the morning sun.


I was very tired, but also elated at my success after so much struggle. I settled back with my eles shut, watching the shifting shadows on my lids as the fragile sunlight danced between the clouds. I started to speak, unself-consciously about the project, about design, about designing in a New Zealand context, and finally about my feelings of ambivalence about settling there. "I love New Zealand", I told him, "but there are important things that I miss." "Like what?" Alan asked. I lay there thinking for a minute, almost dozing off in the gentle warmth of the morning sun.


"Ancient things", I said. "America and Europe have neen continually inhabited for tens of thousands of years,and the traces of this habitation are to be found everywhere. It is possible to feel a real connection with the people of the past. They are, in a sense still alive and inhabiting the ancient places and stones that remain from their own time. Their inscriptions and marks speak down through the centuries to us today. Here in New Zealand, that isn't the case, and I miss that contact with the ancient ones. I miss the sense of history." Alan sat there for a few minutes in silence. Then suddenly sprang to his feet and ran down the hill. I wondered what was happening and opened my eyes to see what he was up to. There he sat, at the foot of the small cone, turning over a large boulder and brushing the caked mud and dirt from its underside. I stood up - a little grumpy at having my rest and reverie disturbed by this strange activity, and wandered down the hill for a closer inspection.

 "Look at this," he said, pointing to the stone. There, on the side that had been hidden freom view, were a series of three or four grooves each about an inch deep. "A sharpening stone", he said, with an edge of triumph in his voice. "It's been used to sharpen the edges of weapons and tools." I stared in disbelief, wondrous at the synchronicity of events. What had caused this stone to appear at the very moment I had been lamenting the lack of historical cultural traces? What had caused Alan to notice it, to see it as special or different from the other boulders lying around? What was it about it that had aroused his curiosity - prompted him to examine it closely, to turn it over? I will never know.


Alan finding the stone

The House

The house is long and thin, running along the contours and dropping down to different levels. and nestling back into the hillside. It incorporates an integrated passive solar greenhouse to provide food and heat through the winter.  Construction was by means of a prefabricated modular panel system with zero waste and easy fabrication and connection. to minimise labour costs and time. It was intended to fabricate the parts in the existing barn furtjer down the paddock. The house was never built. Alan and his wife separated before plans could be completed.

I lost touch with Alan for several years after that. The one day, I went to see the return of the te Maori Exhibition to Auckland after its world tour. It had opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1984 and then moved to the De Youung Museum in San Francisco and the Field Museum in Chicago as well as several other notable venues. It was the first great gathering of traditional and ancient Maori art ever collected together and represented the arts of many different tribes. The exhibition was opened and closed and accompanied by Maori guardians in its travels and now here it was back at the art Museum in Auckland. I went soen to line up outside the building with the throng of other expectant cisitors, anxious to witness this great collection that was soon to be dismantled. I stood in the queue and turned to find, standing just behind me, none other than Alan Brown. It was another moment of revelation as we entered the exhibition together and soon were standing, side by side, looking with reverance and awe at Uenuku - the Maori God of the rainbow - a carving that had reputedly been brought to Aotea-New Zealand centuries earlier on the Tainui canoe, and had been buried in a swamp during the Land Wars to prevent it falling into the hands of the Government troops - a century later to be rediscovered by a farmer - or so I have heard it told. Uenuku, the carving that had haunted Alan's dreams and in some measure had brought us together.


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