Some people argue that a beautiful site gives a project an advantage from the outset, but it also lays down a challenge to which the architects must rise, as a building that misinterprets an extraordinary site can feel like a desecration. This challenge was particularly pertinent in the Herbsts’ case as the site was so completely covered in pohutukawa that four of the trees had to be cut down to allow the home to be constructed. The owners, who live in Auckland and use the home as a weekend getaway, had a right to build there and were clear about their desire to do so, but they were equally clear that any such building was to be as sensitive as possible. The first key decision, made in conjunction with city planners, was to preserve the perimeter of pohutukawa facing the road and beach, and remove some of the trees behind this fringe to create a buildable space.
The home that rose on the site is an attempt to honour the pohutukawa that were cut down to make way for it. To achieve this, Lance Herbst says, “the building needed to have the memory of the trees.” And so the couple designed a pair of two-storeyed blocks - one containing two bedrooms, the other the main bedroom above a single garage - to represent metaphorical tree-stumps.In the current edition of Home, Jeremy Hansen writes of the Home of the Year, a house near the beach at Piha built on a site that “was so completely covered in pohutukawa that four of the trees had to be cut down to allow the home to be constructed.
Well, yes, there is a reason for that: long before it became a site, the location of the house was a stand of pohutukawa trees. They grew there, these trees, heedless of the future needs of wealthy people who want a weekend getaway a few kilometres away from their home. But these people came, with a right to build. Thus it was that the edges of the stand became a perimeter or fringe and its centre became a buildable space. Thus it is that the choosing of words can make such a difference in the changing of meaning. And thus it came to pass that trees were felled and a house was built.
“The home that rose on the site is an attempt to honour the pohutukawa that were cut down to make way for it.” One might think this sentence circular. One might also think the best way to honour the trees would have been to build the house somewhere else, or not to build it at all. But the owners had a right to build. In order to honour the trees, the architects decided that building needed to have the memory of the trees. So they made a design and had it constructed from other trees. The whereabouts of the pohutukawa trees are not disclosed.
You can watch a film about it:
As Jeremy Hansen comments, “The use of architectural metaphor - a home being inspired by the trees around it, in this case - is fraught with peril. A promising thematic conceit can seem chunky, self-indulgent and lacking in nuance when realised in built form.”
Such conceit can also seem glib. As the judges of Alcohol Sponsorship Press Awards remark, “architects are wankers.”