I wasn’t terribly impressed with The Crossing, the house featured in the Grand Designs New Zealand program and which is built on the hills overlooking Pakiri. It wasn’t that there was anything inherently wrong with the house, it was just that I thought it was more like World War II bunker from the outside and that it showed no recognition or appreciation of its location.
So when they announced that the next house was going to be in Titirangi, my heart sank.
Titirangi is a town in the Waitakere Ranges, an area of pristine native forest outside Auckland. It forms the approaches and backdrop to the iconic West Coast beaches of Whatipu, Anawata, Kare Kare Piha, Muriwai and Te Henga. The experience of these beaches is shaped by the journey through the forest which has remained relatively untouched since white settlement and where the Grand Designs House is built.
I first remember travelling through this area at the age of nine on a trip to Piha with my parents. Reflecting on my relationship with this area, I realised that many people do not have a connection to a place, a specific place of great beauty as they grow up, simply because there is nowhere exceptionally beautiful near them.
The Waitakere Ranges separate metropolitan and suburban Auckland from the West Coast to form a 160 sq km regional park. There are walking tracks all through the park and all the major beaches can be reached by road. The terrain is extremely rugged and the volcanic rock is relatively impervious to erosion and the coastline is extremely steep.
Thick bush encloses the roads that wind down to the beaches. They gradual open out and you get glimpses of the coastline as you to make the steep descent to sea level. I remember the sense of excitement, anticipation, even fear, driving down the road to Muriwai Beach as a young Surf Lifesaver. But it’s always a surprise when you arrive. It always seemed much bigger, much more dangerous and you always had a sense of your own fragility standing on that beach, on all the beaches.
Despite some incursion of civilisation, there is a sense of pristine wilderness in this area, of space and of brooding solitude. There is also a sense of terror, the terror at your own smallness in the face of such a vast expanse of nothingness and emptiness.
Once you arrive, there is a raw brutal beauty to these beaches on all but the mildest days.
So it was something of a surprise that the house that was featured on Grand Designs New Zealand was American Gothic. Not even New Zealand Gothic. As you can see from the pictures, it bears no relation to the landscape into which it has been, I would respectfully suggest, unceremoniously plonked.
Steve and Chrissy Sygrove and their house
Did I mention the sense of terror? I did. This house is pink and pastel green and orange. Not colours of terror.
American Gothic was made famous by American painter Grant Wood who used the style known as Carpenter Gothic for the background of his famous painting painting.
It was also greatly celebrated by the outstanding American painter Edward Hopper who was greatly preoccupied by the relationship between form and landscape. In many of his paintings, he examines the way the Gothic architecture in the American landscape. Because he paints, he is able to create ideal and abstract shapes rather than the real shapes we see on a television screen but he considers the relationship between form and landscape rather more seriously than the architect who designed the Grand Designs house in Titirangi.
The House by the Railroad
Kelly Jenness House
Captain Upton’s House
Lighthouse at Two Lights
See also Edward Hopper: Shapes and Landscapes