The Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing is awarded to the authors of the best essays in the open and secondary school categories. The winner of the secondary school category for 2015 is Matthew Connolly with his essay, White Gem.
In the midst of emotion, sickness, recovery and child rehabilitation is a tiny white gem. It sits at the bottom of the extensive gardens of the Wilson Home in Auckland’s North Shore. This gem is a perfectly formed white summer house, located on the cliffs above the sweeping Takapuna beach. The purpose of the small building is to provide a retreat for families of sick children during their time of trauma as they navigate through rehabilitation and journey back to full health after often long and intensive illnesses.
In 1937 the Wilson family gifted their family home and thirteen acres of land to benefit the disabled children of Auckland, particularly polio sufferers, although these days the Wilson Home mostly caters for long-term injuries and illnesses. The property included the old homestead, amazing coastal gardens and a little white summer house. This summer house I recently experienced.
The Wilson Home’s simple vision is to rehabilitate children. Although the Wilson Home Trust works for the greater good of the children in their bid for recovery, it recognises that the times can be turbulent for the families of the children as well. There are very few places for families to get a short break from the constant demands of the rehabilitation process. This is why the summer house is such a special part of the Wilson Home. The sole purpose of the building is for the families to get away and relax with a cup of tea in peace – families that have often endured lengthy stays in large, impersonal city hospital environments.
The summer house is located well away from the main buildings, within the heart of surrounding nature, with its pohutukawa trees, native birds and the roaring sea below. The building nestles snugly into a series of terraced gardens. As the approach path seamlessly rolls off the crest of the hill, the small structure arises out of the landscape. The summer house is a small, white rectangular form with windows wrapping around each of sides of the building, which is capped by a beautifully balanced pitched roof. The repeating three-panelled casement windows create visually balanced exterior elevations. The building’s purpose is a retreat, and the perfect proportions relax and visually calm any visitor. The simple white colour palette is immediately pleasing and relaxing as you walk down the shell path and enter through glazed double doors into this special little space.
The simple one room layout immediately evokes a feeling of lightness, brightness and simplicity – a feeling of summer. The room is furnished with cane chairs and a wraparound lounge suite that faces away from the rehabilitation centre above. The space instead looks out towards the sea and Tiritiri Matangi Island to the north.
When I visited this simple interior on a grey winter’s morning, I experienced the way in which good architecture can influence your feelings and emotions as I was taken into a summer dream, well away from the action and emotion in the buildings above.
There is a simple kitchen for tea and coffee to enhance comfort and relaxation. All the elements of the building connect together to form an uplifting and positive experience in what is often a worrying and turbulent time for a family.
The summer house was built at the same time as the main homestead, in the 1930s. The summer house is simpler and does not include the neo-Classical details and decorations of the original homestead. It appears instead as a simple weatherboard structure with a corrugated iron roof. This architecture leads into the art deco era in the Thirties and Forties which included repeating vertical details and simple square lines – the start of the journey to modernism in New Zealand.
My experience of The Wilson Home Trust’s Summer House has been most captivating. It has had a most profound effect on me personally. I’m very moved by the way such a small piece of New Zealand’s historical architecture can take hold and send you on a journey, leaving stress and trauma behind. The building is an example of architecture fulfilling its function perfectly while at the same time being a pleasant beautiful and balanced form. I believe that the impact of small, smart, clever design is much greater than large-scale development. As a budding designer and architect this is my goal: to design not just a building, but an experience, a way of living, a building to help the community.
This white gem is truly touching. It brings calm and peace to those in greatest need. You can sense all the good this little summer house has achieved over its long history.
* * *
White Gem by Matthew Connolly
Secondary School winner. Matthew Connolly is a Year 12 student at Sacred Heart College, Auckland. He studies design and painting, and is an aspiring architect.