“When I first met the clients, they were heading off for a 12-day hike,” says architect, Vaughn McQuarrie. “They gave me a simple and elegant brief : ‘a space to eat, a space to sleep, a space to wash, a space to play, a space to read and to share with friends.’ It needed to ‘contain and balance the elements’ and to ‘sing with the music of the wind and rain’. They didn’t want a conventional house. They were after something different.”
With this dream brief, Vaughn drew on his intimate knowledge of the area, a place of his own childhood memories. “I was always fascinated by the gold miner’s huts: the stacked stone walls; the sheets of iron for shelter. These beautiful little ruins dotted all around the area.” In a nearby valley, Sam Summers’ historic hut offered particular inspiration for this project. With its humble but strong form, it implies the basics of shelter and how to live in a mountain environment.
While Sam’s hut is on the forest floor, the site for this house overlooks Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown – on a platform created by a large cut in the side of the valley wall. “It wouldn’t have been my approach to create a house site,” says Vaughn. “So we began to imagine how we could somehow repair or reinstate part of the site by referencing the original contour. This led to how the house might have been formed around large rock fragments left during the platform excavation. A rock bivvy perhaps.”
The resulting shape is anchored to the slope, winter sun path, and survey data of surrounding peaks. The asterisk in plan, and the triangle in section, set the house boundaries and angles. When you view it from the side, it recreates the same steep slope as the valley wall and visually joins the hill back together; walls point towards landmarks making the vertical and horizontal planes collide at abstract angles.
Sensitive use of materials internally creates very different moods according to the use of the room. Vaughn has assigned three areas as the notional rock fragments – the garage and two sleeping spaces. Wrapped in thermally-separated pre-cast concrete, they are coloured the same dark grey as the underlying schist. Spaces in between – kitchen, dining and living – are clad more lightly in glass and cedar.
The opportunity to create a unique escape extended to window treatments. From the upper level kitchen and dining platform, visitors are not presented with the big view. “Some people find that confronting,” says Vaughn. “The clients didn’t want a glass box, so the house became a curated series of views depending on the nature of the room.” Instead, this space opens to the northern sun and has a dramatic view up the face of the mountain. Then, stepping down into the lounge, a panoramic lake view opens up via a wrap-around window positioned perfectly for seating height.
With concrete for its high thermal mass, these social spaces feel solid, hunkered down and reverberate with a slight echo. But on turning the corner into one of the sleeping areas, the whole ambience changes. Untreated band-sawn plywood walls and ceilings create softer acoustics and light. A low slot window is setup to be viewed from one bed, and a perfectly square window frames the landscape from another. These private areas are intimate and cocooned and offer true spatial variety and contrast within the small footprint.
This modern rock bivvy with its abstract geometries alludes to the glacial action of the alps, their rocky outcrops and the simple shelter of old miner’s huts. It tells a story of human occupation in nature and seeks to be part of the land – to contain and balance the elements.