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1 November 2018

All Around The Watchtower

A unique piece of Auckland’s architectural heritage, considered by many as a blueprint of how we should tackle the issues of housing density while being sensitive to the existing homes in our premium suburbs.


Way before the concept of a unitary plan was a twinkle in the eye of Auckland’s town planners...

... and certainly before topics like ‘sustainability’ and ‘housing density’ became popular themes of conversation around the dinner table, architect Claude Megson was re-thinking the way we needed to live in this ever-growing city of ours.

The Cocker Townhouses on Wood Street, designed and built for brother and sister Bill and Finola Cocker back in the early 1970s, embody Megson’s vision of the way forward.

Grouped as a cluster of four unique townhouses, each on its own title, their traditional white-painted weatherboard façades are a friendly handshake to the surrounding villas, yet their intricate geometric forms give them a sharp contemporary edge, setting them apart from their hundred-year-old neighbours.

As a local, I’ve walked past this intriguing group of homes on dozens of occasions, each time looking up at the precarious little turret that emerges from the roof of one of the rear houses, thinking… I bet the view from up there is amazing. I can now tell you it is.

You have to work for your reward, however. The final climb to the lookout is up a vertical fixed ladder and through a trapdoor in the floor above. And that’s where I meet Peter White, who along with his wife Carol, owns this wonderful house.

“I come up a lot,” he says, looking out on what can only be described as a magnificent view of Auckland. “We’re always having requests from photographers and film makers who want to come up here and capture this view." "It’s quite unique and a wonderful space.” Peter uses this ‘watchtower’ as his office. I would, too, if I lived here. It’s a tranquil and utterly beguiling space.

Whilst we’re up there, Peter points to the house directly behind us. “We lived there for over thirty years,” he begins to explain. “It was designed and built by architect Russell Withers for himself in the early 70s. The implicit dialogue between these two ‘post modern’ houses has been very interesting for us. In their own ways, they were both challenging the basic assumptions of what was needed for Auckland at the time. In this particular case, Auckland gets more [houses] on less ground — a serious need. In the other, the primary preoccupation tends to be with echoing the heritage from earlier times, mostly in order to honour those concepts, but also to blend. Both were experimenting; thinking similarly, perhaps, but highly conscious of how many options were open to them.”

For an octogenarian, Peter makes short shrift of the vertical descent down through the trapdoor to bedroom level below. Years of practice, I suspect. My descent is a little more laboured.

There are two decent sized bedrooms on this floor, plus a full bathroom. All three rooms have vaulted ceilings that take on the form of the exterior roof lines. These additional volumes give each room its own character, and at the same time a generosity of space. Both bedrooms also have delightful little Juliet balconies that open to the rear garden, with the master enjoying a second balcony that gives a picture-perfect view of Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower.

As we wind our way down the stairs, Peter tells me that the staircase was rebuilt by Auckland architect Ken Crosson, who also added a small, but thoughtful skylight at the half-way point to bring natural daylight into this formerly steeper and darker part of the house. Another of Crosson’s sympathetic additions was the huge mirror that occupies the entire back wall of the lounge, which visually doubles the size of the room. It certainly fooled me when I first walked into the room. “It’s very clever, but the down side of it is that when you discover the room is smaller than size you thought it was, it might be a bit of a disappointment,” laughs Peter.

Crossan, who was a student of Megson, lived in this very townhouse back in the 80s, and rates their design as one of his best projects. Here’s an excerpt from an article he penned on the complex from Home and Entertaining magazine in 2007:

“Claude Megson was one of my lecturers at architecture school and I was always fascinated by his work."These townhouses are one of his finest projects."They are a grouping of four town houses in an existing Victorian suburb. The design is fundamentally different to its neighbours, but is totally respectful of them. Megson was a master of context. He extended the existing street patter into the site. He re-interpreted forms, elements and details in a modern context.

"These days everybody is talking about sustainability and density. The unit I lived in had a site area of 215 square metres. These houses show how successfully Megson was grappling with these concepts back in the early 70s — good living isn’t about the size of plots, but about the quality of design.” Ken Crosson. Praise indeed from one of New Zealand’s top architects.

It is certainly a carefully considered house, with actual rooms, rather than a homogenised, open-plan, one-size-fits-all interpretation of how we should live our lives these days. In a word it has character – a beautifully crafted home with lots of visual interest. Every room has its own character, each has a view or a balcony or access to the garden, and there are lots of nooks and crannies to explore.

“We have loved living here,” says Peter, “and there is certainly plenty of scope for making further adjustments. There is also the capacity to add to it, which two of the others have done.”

This is a house looking for an inquisitive couple or young family with an interest in design; someone with a kindred spirit to the architect, who is willing to take the his original design into the next decade – to inject some new ideas and give the home a new energy.

All four homes are on separate titles – so no cross-leases or body corporate rules. “That’s why it’s possible to make improvements,” says Peter. “It’s like a stand-alone house with access all around it. We’re not even bound to be all the same colour, but we’d be crazy not to be,” he laughs. “And the neighbours are wonderful. That might be the thing we’re going to miss the most when we move out of here.”

With Auckland’s new unitary plan, it is inevitable that popular inner-city suburbs like Freeman’s Bay will become more densely populated, with the original villas being selectively replaced by multiple townhouses on the same site – and not necessarily by homes that will be particularly aesthetic or functional, simply smaller. The clear advantage of buying into an established community, such as the Cocker Townhouses, is that each house within the group has been carefully considered and executed by a master architect, who’s prophetic vision for how Aucklanders should live more sustainable was well ahead of its time.

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