Rock House, Auckland

Some people really are up for a challenge. In the case of this site, a massive boulder in the centre of a steep, small patch of land (amidst a former lavafield) presented the kind of challenge that our clients viewed as an opportunity for interesting design (a viewpoint shared by Stevens Lawson Architects).

Decades ago, the preferred approach might have been to break or blast such an encumbrance to clear the site for a conventional path to building. Stevens Lawson, on the other hand, took the more poetic route of designing the house around (and on top of) the boulder – which one comes face-to-face with immediately upon entering the house.

The ecology of local lavafields and outcrops was the most obvious catalyst for how we approached the landscape surrounding this site, as it is a significant component of Auckland’s natural history. With one of our clients hailing from Australia, there was also a natural desire to sensitively integrate certain Australian species into the design; especially ones that are at home on solid rock (of which our neighbours have no shortage).

The most spectacular of these is the Sydney rock lily (Dendrobium speciosum; also known as the King Orchid), which assumes positions akin to its natural growing station (cliffs and outcrops) in this garden (along with a smaller-flowered hybrid, Dendrobium x delicatum, which is pictured within this profile).

Another influence stemmed from our interest in the Scandinavian tradition of building on bedrock, and their use of rock as a landscape material. I have admired the work of the Swedish architect, Sigurd Lewerentz, for a long time, and the manner in which he designed nuanced entry spaces such as at St Mark’s Church in Stockholm (albeit in brick, concrete and stone) informed our design for the entry sequence in this project.

The need for an entry space with a dual character is iillustrated by the image above, right, in which we designed stonework on a gradient that shifts from larger units on the southern arm (on the righthand side) towards smaller units on the northern arm of the stonework (on the lefthand side). This answered the need for auxiliary parking whilst maintaining a pathway that is well suited to the human scale (on the lefthand side) for pedestrian entry.

Speaking of challenges, during the design process, Gary Lawson proposed a means of ascending to the entry deck (in tune with the natural character of the site) that required considerable effort and initiative to realise. As can be seen in the image above, left, we selected large boulders from a quarry, organised transport to Auckland’s largest boulder saw (which was decommissioned shortly after these boulders were cut), and arranged transport to site once each boulder had been cut on two sides (top and bottom).

Although far from simple, that was the easy part, as the real trick was installing stones in excess of half a tonne each uphill at the outer limit of a HIAB’s reach – whilst ensuring that the building’s metal cladding was not placed at risk. Observing some basics of physics (regarding friction and leverage) made the process of placing the steps comparatively linear, and the effect conferred by these cut boulders now creates a dynamic juncture between architecture and landscape.

Upon our first site visit, David McDermott and I were impressed by the ruderal character of the meadow-like vegetation, amongst which native grasses and ferns endured (including Microlaena stipoides, Pellaea rotundifoliaPyrrosia eleagnifolia and Doodia australis), as can be seen in an image at the bottom of this profile (showing the monolith on which the house was built). This raw default grassland created a seamless interface with the outer landscape, which was further amplified by the drop-off on steep outcrops on three sides.

Within the planting design, it was important to maintain the relationship that this flowing, untended grassland established with the wider landscape, as well as respecting the ‘memory’ of the vegetation. Accordingly, Microlaena stipoides has been retained as short meadow, and planting is deliberately less precise in the zones adjoining the steepest outcrops on the site’s margins (as a transition to the inevitable wildness beyond the boundary line).

Within several lavafields in Auckland (notably in Mt Eden and Rangitoto), aesthetic order is provided by two species of Astelia (A. solandri & A. banksii), whose tussock-like forms (in shades of silver and pale green) impart a similar sense of naturalistic structure into this composition.

Anonymity is a quality that we desired in the planting design, with two shrubs native to historic lavafields in Penrose (Corokia cotoneaster & Coprosma crassifolia) contributing significantly towards bringing a recessive character to the garden. These are placed in contrast with the deeper greens of native shrubs from other volcanic habitats in northern New Zealand, such as Pseudopanax gilliesii (from Whangaroa) and Pseudowintera insperata (a critically endangered horopito from Whangarei Heads).

The quiet, cohesive structure of the planting design is shot through with flashes of colour from flowering bulbs like Triteleia laxa and Phaedranassa cinerea, with several Grevillea varieties with comparatively fine foliage offering another element of seasonal change. Throughout its development, it ihas been gratifying to see that this garden has been allowed to assume (and to a certain extent, resume) the character of a natural landscape in the midst of its urban environment – one that is firmly rooted in the bedrock on which it rests.