Verandah speak

Springtime came to Wellington in all its glory last weekend and after a quick trip to the City Market, Miss M and I celebrated with a picnic at Battle Hill, near Pauatahanui.

I thought this may be is where architects meet with the Porirua District Council, but no way: it was far too idyllic. New little lambs were gambolling around eagerly enjoying their first (and probably only) year of life and the rural buildings at Battle Hill are all painted barn red and reekingly heritage.

We moved on to try the Lighthouse Pauatahanui (we are big fans of Lighthouse Petone but this was our first trip to its sister cinema). The experience couldn’t have been more extreme than the bucolic loveliness of Battle Creek. We had front row seats at TT3D: Closer to the Edge, a documentary about the annual TT motorcycle race held on the Isle of Man.

Aside from being a tax haven, (or perhaps because of it) the Isle of Man is also picturesque and seriously bucolic for most of the year, except for the week when this this annual event destroys the peace.

While I’m well known as a bit of a petrol head, my basic problem with motorcycles is that they have two too few wheels, and Closer to the Edge just reinforced my view.

The circuit’s stone walls and unforgiving kerbs designed really only to handle the speed of a donkey and cart have contributed to a death toll of more than 200 riders since the event began 100 or so years ago. Like the lambs at Battle Hill, racers have no idea when their time is going to be up.

To compensate for the madness we looked around the outside of the nearby Taylor Stace Cottage. This NZHPT Grade 1 listed house built in 1842, and possibly the oldest remaining house in the region, is being painstakingly and lovingly restored by its private owner. You can follow the progress here.

The pit sawn weatherboards and construction authenticity put me in mind of the joy of verandahs (of course it has one all the way along its front). Verandahs are places where you can sit and watch the world go by, slowly and quietly.

Architecturally, verandahs are different to porches. Porches are about movement and arrival. Verandahs are about being static.

Historically,the pioneers of this country adopted the English cottage model for their dwellings, but most importantly added verandahs. This innovation never existed back in the motherland as the foul weather made it pointless. However in New Zealand’s more benign environment, the verandah made life more enjoyable and gave a purpose to relaxing at the end of a hard day clearing bush. It could be raining, but you could still be sitting outside.

In the mid sixties a seminal lecture was given at Auckland University by Aldo van Eyck, a well known Dutch architect, who is both practitioner and theorist.  He described the verandah as ‘an in-between realm’ which linked inside and outside environments.  A crucial transition between one ‘realm’ and another.

He saw this as New Zealand’s great contribution to Architecture. This was clearly an overly generous gesture, as verandahs existed in both Australia and the USA.

As a metaphor, after awaking in the weekends, I enjoy a ‘verandah’ lying in outside the covers before getting out of bed to make the cup of tea necessary to begin the day.

I remember one of my most admired teachers at the Auckland School of Architecture, Professor Richard Toy. He was a poetic on the subject of architecture, and taught us that the reason that the junction between the tops of verandah posts and the beams that rested on them was frequently decorated with ornamental fretwork, was to blur the otherwise visually harsh glare at this junction between sky and shade. Particularly important in New Zealand’s very strong light conditions so as not to stress our antipodean eyes.

This same principle put coloured glass panes around the perimeter of windows to soften the contrast with the window edges.

Nowadays we undervalue the sophistication of the verandah as an important architectural element in our buildings, linking indoors with outdoors.

This is a pity.