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Why more homes should follow the courtyard model

Article by Home Magazine

Ross Jenner, an architect and academic, designed his own courtyard home with both views and introspection in mind. He discusses why courtyard form is the way to go

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Why more homes should follow the courtyard model

The home of Ross and Chris Jenner bares little resemblance to a New Zealand house with its white plaster forms and layered interior spaces. Ross and Chris found the steep bank of a site in Remuera in the early 80s. “When I first looked at it I wondered how the hell you could even put one house on it, let alone two,” says Ross, an academic at the University of Auckland’s architecture school.

Jenner’s mother was in a wheelchair, which led to him designing a house for his parents on one level at the top of the site. Jenner then had to keep the footprint of his own house as tight as possible, which meant digging down into the site to make room for three storeys of house and a small, sheltered courtyard with a pond at one end.

Auckland, Jenner insists, sits at a similar latitude to Athens and Casablanca, where compounds built around walled courtyards are commonplace responses to the intensity of light and proximity of neighbours.

While Auckland doesn’t have their temperatures, it does have a surprising amount of wind and, with its never-ending suburbs, there are neighbours wherever you look. “We’ve got pretty good steep light and it penetrates well,” says Jenner. “But because of the British tradition and Kiwi shack mythology, everyone wants to have a box, rather than turn it all in on itself.”

You’ve described the house as a slight reaction to Claude Megson. What would he make of the place?
It was less of a reaction to Claude than a realisation I was finally over the influence of his domestic design classes at university. Claude’s design approach was largely based on organically intersecting additive units. After that, I discovered Loos and Kahn’s approach – not of addition but subtraction – excavating and hollowing spaces out of a single mass. Claude was very happy with the design when he came around and instantly wanted to design the landscaping!

What does the courtyard form have to offer Auckland?
Auckland is still trying to fathom medium-density housing. There are reasonably good examples of terrace housing based on UK and Australian precedents but good examples of ‘carpet’ and courtyard housing haven’t really been explored. The usual model is to put detached single family houses on ever-diminishing plots with nothing to look at but one’s immediate neighbours looking back. Putting the void in the middle allows for privacy, much more interesting patios, and much less wind.

The design called for significant earthworks – why don’t more New Zealanders do this?
There seems to be a phobia about excavation, which requires tanking and all sorts of moves that are regarded as risky, especially by developers. Concrete slabs and piles allow for a colonial myth of ‘touching the ground lightly’, to use Glenn Murcutt’s phrase, but not necessarily serious engagement with the ground or land. The ideal of the pavilion is predominant.

You favour a house with shadows and walls rather than a lot of glass. Why?
I prefer houses that develop interiority and intrigue rather than bland banal openness all around. Walls create shadows which can be sources of mystery and, when white, they foster reflected light which tends to bring shade and shadow alive. Glass is the enemy of interiority and inner life. Architects and students in New Zealand have been reading In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki for more than 30 years but very few have managed to digest and implement his findings in design. The houses of Māori and Pacific cultures intuitively fostered darkness. Besides, it is impossible to have a library and furniture which are not bleached out by ultraviolet light. To paraphrase the German writer, Walter Benjamin, glass does not foster culture.

The two houses form a compound – first with your parents and now your brother. Are there any drawbacks to living in such close proximity?
We’ve yet to discover any drawbacks. When the children were young, my parents delighted in seeing them and the children would gravitate up the steps to them when the parents were preoccupied. Both houses are self-contained and I can go weeks without seeing my brother or his family.


Words by: Simon Farrell-Green. Photography by: David Straight. Video by: Melissa Tapper and Lakshmi Beresford.

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