Claude Megson’s complex architectural style has been perfectly preserved in this Meadowbank home. Find out how his unique vision is being rediscovered
This Meadowbank home has preserved a complex architectural style
Claude Megson had a fairly fearsome reputation among students at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture. He ran the second-year design studio and his voice could often be heard booming across the building’s open floors.
Megson (1936-1994) lectured passionately on the importance of the individual’s sensory experience in house design, which he illustrated with his own work. Being both lecturer and practising architect made him unique within the school at that time.
He spoke with huge conviction about his philosophy and the forms of his buildings appeared to spring forth naturally from intense observation of setting and senses.
However, as a student, you also wanted to understand how he made the leap from the spiralling diagrams he drew on the chalkboard to buildings of such formal sophistication. It was obvious that behind every line and volume was an extremely complex, completely resolved three-dimensional puzzle. Unfortunately, like a lot of artists, Megson was guarded about revealing key parts of his working process.
In 1996 I wrote my graduate thesis on Megson’s early houses, concentrating on their formal qualities. Ultimately, I came to see his work was grounded in his phenomenal drafting ability (first developed as a junior at architects Gummer and Ford), as well as his deep study of modern art and the psychology of space, which he discussed in his master’s thesis in 1970.
Megson taught right up until the last few months before his death from cancer, aged 57. To the end he pursued his architectural vision with dogged consistency. His work did not jump from one style to the next. This should have attracted admirers, but, if anything, it hurt his reputation.
His place in New Zealand’s architectural pantheon faded in the mid-1980s. Post-modernism was at its peak and Megson’s work, more than any of his peers, remained abstract.
When architects started to react in turn against post-modernism, they skipped the 1960s and 1970s and went back to the 1950s. Megson’s workload dried up and now two generations have overlooked his architecture.
I returned to New Zealand from London earlier this year to revisit some of Megson’s key surviving works for a book I am producing on him – despite real improvements in New Zealand architectural publishing over the past 20 years, little has been written on him.
The book is a collaboration with photographer Jackie Meiring and Seb McLauchlan, a young New Zealand book designer currently working in England. A selection of Jackie’s photos of the Barr House, built in 1972 in the Auckland suburb of Meadowbank, is reproduced here for the first time.
The Barr House is one of Megson’s best surviving houses, built for John and Pat Barr on a plot they’d purchased from St John’s College in 1971. John Barr went to the University of Auckland for advice on an architect who, in John’s words, would design something other than a box, and was given Megson’s name. Megson interviewed the Barrs many times and was then given a free hand to develop the design.
By 1996, when I first visited the Barr House, a number of leaks meant its future felt in some doubt. But the Barrs replaced the original flat roofing and continued to live there for another two decades, only moving out in May of this year; a testament to the house’s liveability and the pleasure it gave them for more than 40 years.
Shortly before they moved to be near family in Wellington, the Barrs made a YouTube video about what they enjoyed about the house – the ambience and the way timber gives the interior soft acoustics; the half-levels that provide privacy and spaces to withdraw to, yet still allow a connection to the rest of the house and garden. The Barrs hosted large parties over the years, several of which they fondly recall Megson attending.
The building presents a fortified face to the street, with few windows visible. Beautifully made brick walls dig into the site. The house opens up to the rear garden and a swimming pool, which Megson designed at a later stage. The external timber cladding was originally dark-stained but was eventually painted light grey – with Megson’s probable somewhat reluctant consent – due to the cost of ongoing maintenance.
Megson admitted to few influences but he openly acknowledged Frank Lloyd Wright. The Barr House is Megson at his most Wrightian, minus the projecting roofs. Like Wright’s Usonian houses, the Barr House has horizontal cedar cladding inside and out.
All window openings and door heights are strictly governed by the width of these boards. There is a honey-coloured interior, monumental fireplace, brick-paved entry courtyard and contrasting high and low spaces. Long vistas stretch through the house, linking the spaces.
The kitchen, like many Megson buildings, is very well-organised and forms the hub of the plan. The current living room curtains were designed by Pat Barr: before these, the curtains were bought from Gavin Rees, who owned an interior design shop in Auckland, importing European contemporary design.
Colours specified by Megson throughout the Barr House are bold: dark purple pivoting bedroom doors and green sliding wardrobe doors. A magenta door to the main bathroom opens on to a deep blue hexagonal tiled bath tub, with vertical sides and angled ends. Yellow, orange, purple, magenta and white diagonal stripes make up the entrance lobby screen, which can be rotated to create numerous combinations of colour and line.
The Barr House is quite an unusual work in Megson’s oeuvre and its complicated plan can prove disorientating for first-time visitors. With the exception of the Michael Hill House (Whangarei, 1975) which suffered a major fire and was later rebuilt to a Simon Carnachan design, the Barr House is the only one of Megson’s designs that employs non-orthogonal geometry throughout.
Unlike the Hill House though, it is not composed of repeating hexagons but organised by a web of invisible lines made up of differing angles — 30 degrees, 45 degrees and 60 degrees — as well as some orthogonal lines, to which walls are attached or just skip away from.
The geometry creates angled kitchen counters, skylights and door jambs. Stairs run at a steep pitch and are also skewed in plan. You walk down them gingerly.
None of these features appear immediately accommodating of the human body. Yet they have remained much-loved features, unaltered after four decades and together they make a memorably labyrinthine house of tremendous invention and colour.
All one can hope is that the new owners find an architect who is appreciative of the house, and talented enough to work creatively with it rather than against it.
Words by: Giles Reid . Photography by: Jackie Meiring.