Chris Tate is fond of people naming his buildings for him. Like The Cloud or The Gherkin, his houses are often noticeable enough in their landscapes to be singled out and bestowed a nickname. The clients of this urban house in Auckland’s Upper Queen Street are not sure if a nickname has collectively come into being yet, but there are enough screeches as rubberneckers halt suddenly to check out this striking modern box that it would be reasonable to expect a nom de maison soon.
Tate’s journey to architecture is unusual. So unusual, I might suggest, it would be nearly impossible now with new licensed practitioners’ laws coming into place. Tate is not a registered architect; he hasn’t even been to architecture school. Tate used to be a social worker: a social worker who loved art, and buildings and spaces, and he would often be sketching houses. His first taste of house design was when he built his own home years ago. Soon after, he project-managed his sister’s house build – designed by Richard Priest – and this gave him a good grasp of the process before he completed a draughting course. Still finishing his studies, he designed another house for himself: a long, black and white glass box perched in the Waitakere bush. The project was published to acclaim here and around the world, and off the back of that project, he propelled himself into architectural design and launched his own firm.
Having come to architecture through a side door, Tate has developed ideas and processes that are different to those of the typical design firm (which could be part his success). Having the confidence and drive to get to where he is now without the standard scaffolding around him, it has also meant he has rigourous – indeed stubborn – ideas (which is a good thing). He designs from the outside in, designing the form as an object that settles into the landscape. Landscape is key for Tate, and the way the house is set into it, is one of the essential points of the design. This house, for instance, is cut into the hill behind, but not so much as to become buried within it.
The big idea of this house is the screen. It is the defining element of the form and also a strong feature of the interior. It offers security – the deck is entirely locked away. It also offers privacy as the screen creates a necessary barrier between home life and the bustling city just outside. The screen also offers art. The play of light along the Vitex strands changes throughout the day, offering varying transparency and opaqueness.
Inside, the space is very small. An urban house for two people, its three levels consist of a garage and storage area on the ground, flexible living, kitchen and study or bedroom spaces on the first floor, with a mezzanine loft office or bedroom on the top. While the floor area is small, the height created by the two-storeyed space gives the room a generosity and expansiveness. The kitchen, which runs the full length of the northern wall, gives a low linearity which contrasts with the vertical space. The architecture is a shell for dwelling, offering flexibility for different ways to live.
The city to the front, a native oasis to the back, this is an urban pad with a forest-retreat sensibility. The screen both keeps the city out, and through its rigid fins, lets it in in small doses. Would Screen House be too prosaic a nickname for this urban insertion? We could always just go with our title: Tate Modern.