Make Your Parents Happy by Building Them a House
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David and Christine Yates’s house on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula is a family home in the truest sense of the word. It was designed by their architect daughter, Amanda, for their retirement, with the knowledge that future generations of the extended family—including Amanda, her partner, Adam Rose, and their one-year-old son, Awa—will see it as their place now and for decades down the line.
Inspired by her academic research into precolonial Maori structures that were partly dug into the land, Amanda, who is also a lecturer at Wellington’s Massey University, set out to create a building "somewhere between architecture and landscape." This may not sound like your average retirement pad, but David and Christine were willing guinea pigs in their daughter’s architectural experiment. In fact, after the trio purchased the land and set the budget for the house (about US $330,000), David and Christine let Amanda call the shots entirely.
"I think we were ideal clients—we just let her have free rein with the design because she knew how we lived," says Christine, as she looks over the turquoise waters of Maramaratotara Bay below the house. For her part, Amanda is grateful for the freedom her parents gave her. "The house has been a brilliant laboratory for me to test ideas," she says. "I wouldn’t have had that opportunity with a regular client."
Amanda—an only child—knew well that her mild-mannered parents had an adventurous streak that meant they would embrace her unorthodox design: a compact two-bedroom house that blends a cavelike quality at one end with a surprising openness at the other. "Because there were only three of us [when I was] growing up we’re a pretty tight crew—good friends as well as family," she says.
The home she grew up in was radical for its time. Located in the city of Hastings, a few hours’ drive south of the Coromandel Peninsula, it was designed in 1904 by William Rush and featured innovative open-plan spaces, verandas and rooms where people could sleep outdoors in summer. Christine decorated it with flair. "She put some seriously cool stuff in it," Amanda remembers. "We had horrifically expensive French wallpaper with orange-and-brown poppies on it in one room, turquoise walls in another, and a yellow ceiling in the kitchen."
To design her parents’ new home—which has one bedroom and living space on the lower level and a self-contained studio upstairs—Amanda drew on a formative architectural experience from her childhood: Her father, a doctor, commissioned revered architect John Scott (who also happened to be one of his patients) to design a new building for his small medical practice in the late 1970s. "I’d never seen a building going up and it was really intriguing," Amanda says. "I remember it so clearly—it had wonderful spaces for kids, with mysterious nooks, wide window seats where you could read, and great big panel doors that allowed you to slip through their sides when opened. I’d never seen a building like it before."
Accordingly, Scott’s buildings inspired many features of David and Christine’s 1,340-square-foot home, most notably its pivoting doors and modest material palette of concrete and strandboard. The home is anchored to the hill with a dramatically sloping concrete wall that mimics the gradient of the rock face. It’s an conscious echo of Ngamatea, one of Scott’s most famous houses. David says their home’s "humbleness in size and its position on its site" also reminds him of Scott’s work.
The two architects share similar concerns as well: Scott’s buildings were deeply interested in how best to synthesize the influences of his Maori and European heritage. Amanda, who traces a Maori ancestry on her father’s side, Scottish and English on her mother’s, shares that interest as well. The internal concrete wall of David and Christine’s home is a direct reference to early Maori dwellings while other parts of the house more clearly take European modernism as their point of departure, with glass doors that slide away so the kitchen and dining area becomes a covered deck.
Though Amanda may well have run the risk of some cross-cultural architectural pastiche, what she’s achieved is beautiful, balanced, and flexible. On a sunny day with the glass sliders pushed back (which is most of the year according to David and Christine) you can sit at the table at the end of the kitchen island and hear birdsong and the sounds of the waves in the bay. In spring, blossoms from the manuka trees drift prettily onto the floor. On a cool night when a storm rages, the couple can sit near the fire—cleverly incorporated at the other end of the kitchen island—and feel protected from the elements by the home’s solid embrace of the hill.
Another of Amanda’s canny tricks was to care-fully control views from the house to create a feeling of blissful isolation. In reality the location is deceptively convenient: It’s just a five-minute walk and a two-minute ferry ride to the small town of Whitianga, while three magnificent beaches are an easy stroll away. "It’s a walking neighborhood, which is fantastic because it’s so social," Amanda says. There are also hiking trails tinged with history that still bear the contours of precolonial Maori settlements. Nearby hilltops look out to the bay where the English explorer Captain James Cook spent a few days at anchor on his first voyage to New Zealand in 1769.
Before they moved to the Coromandel Peninsula full-time, David and Christine had vacationed in the area for almost 40 years. Nowadays they happily stay put while the holidaymakers come and go, among them David’s sister Aroha, her partner, and their three children, who have a vacation home nearby, and Amanda’s oldest friend, Gail, who purchased land down the road and has asked Amanda to design a house for it. Sometime soon, Amanda and Adam will travel up from their home in Wellington to bury Awa’s placenta on the property (it’s currently in their freezer), a Maori tradition that reinforces the idea of this being a family home for the ages.
There’s a Maori word for this sort of permanence: turangawaewae (pronounced "too-rung-a-why-why"), commonly translated as "a place to stand." It describes the belief that if a community stays connected to the land it comes from, it will always know its place in the world. The term is normally ascribed to ancestral lands in communal ownership, but Amanda hopes her parents’ house will become a contemporary version of this, a place where now, and in the future, all the extended family can continue to gather.
Last January, more than 20 family members met for a summer meal to celebrate the new year. While the adults were bemused by the sloping internal concrete wall, the kids intuitively understood its designer’s intention to blur the interior with the rock outside. "They ran up and down it and had a great time," Amanda says. Future generations are at home here already.