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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 4 (January-February 1951)

Additions to a House

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Additions to a House

Strangers are always unprepared for our courtyard and the rooms that enclose it. This surprises us because we are now so used to living there that the whole thing seems effortless, even artless. But looking back it seems to me that we asked a good deal of our architect.

We asked him to build us a flat, on a section already encumbered with a three-bedroom house, a four-man army hut, a small detached room and a garage. For a few months I had been juggling with these buildings and outhouses myself, trying to turn them into a place for us to live.

“What do you know about plumbing?” someone said. “You need an architect.”

I certainly did, and when I found him I discovered that I knew nothing whatever about plumbing, and, architecturally speaking, very little about anything else. But I did know that we wanted to live in a self-contained flat with a living room that could double sometimes as a photographic studio; a bedroom for at least two children; a darkroom for the photographer; and a small room where I could write and he could work undisturbed.

We have all this and a great deal more. It is very seldom that we think of it as a flat at all, and the casual flow-through from room to room creates the illusion of far greater size and space than we have on paper. The bedroom was stolen from the old house; the old washhouse became the new bathroom; the small detached room was jockeyed along to fit at right angles to the living room. Only the living page break page 94 room and part of the kitchen are new from the foundations up. Most people find it very difficult to discover just where the graft took place, though from the flat slightly pitched room of the new living room you can see very easily the dovetailing of the new and the old.

Some of our very fixed ideas were thrown overboard. I wanted the living room to look down the valley towards the Orongorongas. In the old house all the living rooms face the view and all the utility rooms face the sunshine. But the very first sketches showed our living room turned to the sun and my kitchen sink set firmly facing the mountains. We moved into the flat in April and at once shook off that foolish insistence on a view. Sunlight poured in all winter, and whenever the sun shone we managed without a heater. What is more, the courtyard that we both secretly regarded as a concession to art and architecture, suddenly became the most pleasant place in our lives. We hadn't expected it to create so much privacy, and we hadn't expected the extraordinary sense of space where the windows are large enough to bring the outdoors right inside. The garden flourishes in the sheltered courtyard and softens the rather severe lines of the living room.

The City Council shattered a cheerful hangover from years of pouring over American architectural magazines. I wanted the kitchen to flow into the living room and, blithely waving my untidiness aside, demanded a half-wall between them. The by-law that prohibits cooking in living rooms did us a good turn. The fat that accumulates on the plate glass in the partition would have made a sorry mess of the curtains. Besides, to be comfortable in a southerly you need central heating flowing through open partitions.

A word or two about my kitchen. After trying for three years to stack my pots and pans and keep my shelves in the manner so dear to American interior decorators, I set up housekeeping in the flat with a gay return to the clatter of my upbringing. To keep down costs I had kept down my demands for labour-saving niches and hidey-holes. Some day though I'd like a shallow cupboard six feet high and eight inches deep, with rows and rows of shelves for foodstuffs, with an all-embracing door to shut them out of sight, and another to take all my pots and pans in similar fashion. These dreams belong in the same compartment as the refrigerator, the electric ironer and the dish-washing attachment on my Thor.

On paper then my kitchen didn't altogether impress me, conditioned as I was to stainless steel and the general efficiency of a laboratory. But to work in it is a pleasure. Instead of being tucked away diligently in a gloomy back room, I can keep one ear on the pressure cooker and the other on the conversation in the living room. And in spite of the clear view through from the living room the confusion on the sink bench is not at all obtrusive.

Every kitchen is the nerve centre of family life, but ours is more than that. Guests drift through it, children dash across it madly, the photographer emerges into it with dripping prints — its the centre of the household. And if you are alone in it, as housewives must often be, there is the view just where you need it most, stretching away beyond the kitchen sink.

Photography John Ashton

Photography John Ashton

page 95

This flat of ours was built over our heads. We expanded into it gradually as one corner after another was finished. The builders obviously wished us elsewhere, but they continued on with quiet unconcern, and when they left after six months we felt the whole upheaval was over at last.

But it wasn't and it isn't yet. It is fun still to have some decorating to do, still to have some fabrics to choose and some colours to match. The furniture was designed to fit the living room, and the colours were planned round the pottery and the fabrics we already had. If you have exposed rafters painted grey against a clear yellow ceiling, rough-textured grey curtains the full length of the room, and a bold blue and white pattern on your divans, it takes a while before you know just what else you would like to live with. We had been living there a long time before I began to see just where I must take over from where the architect and the builder left off.

Some things are missing in the flat. There's no bath because we prefer a shower; there's no laundry because we have an omnipotent washing machine; instead of lending character to the living room the books and records are fitted into the workroom to give the photographer as much clear wall-space as possible.

Anyone else taking over our flat would almost certainly use both the workroom and the bedroom for sleeping and keeping their living in stricter compartments. But with us every room except the darkroom leads a double life. The workroom is often used for a guest, and it opens into the living room whenever we have a party. We sleep in the living room and we eat there, and every now and then it is given over to spotlights, coils of flex and photography. The kitchen doubles as a laundry, the bathroom as a dressing room and the storage wall of the bedroom where we pack away all our clothes insulates the two flats against noise.

This is the way we wanted it. This happy combination of work and leisure would hardly be possible in a conventional house cluttered with chesterfield suites, occasional tables and dressing tables with cheval-mirrors. All the paraphernalia of our domestic and working lives can be packed away simply and easily into cupboards and closets. This reduces the clutter and confusion and keeps my homework down to a satisfactory minimum.

A tremendous amount has been crammed into a small area, but we never feel cramped. The light, the colour, the simplicity create the illusion of spaciousness.