type='image/x-icon'/> Ernst Plischke Buildings in New Zealand: 2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

J Ritchie House on the market - February 2017

The J Ritchie house in Karori is currently on the market. This classic modernist 1957 design by Plishke & Firth attracted my attention because it does not appear in Plischke's catalogue raisonnee, nor is there any mention of Ritchie as a client in any of Plischke's books or articles -- or at least none that I have found so far! Of course, as the Griffin house in Nelson proved, the absence of a project from Plischke's list does not mean it was not his work. Perhaps in the end, whether the work was mainly Plischke or mainly Firth is unlikely to be resolved and in any event is not all that important. Both men are significant architects of that era -- which seems to be achieving renewed levels of popularity, as the occupants of modernist houses find them so liveable. I have often been surprised how many modernist houses from the 1950s and 60s are still owned by family of the original client.

The house is a simple L-form structure oriented to the north, with a central fireplace. As designed, the central chimney mass acted as a fulcrum, around which the layout pivoted, allowing both a free flow of movement and simultaneously a clear separation of living, entertaining and utility functions. The chimney was removed during renovations in the 1970s, making for a more open-plan layout, but it remains a compact gem. The V-shaped roofline, with its central gutter, is unusual for its time, and I am not aware of either Plischke or Firth using this device elsewhere - but I am happy to be proved wrong. The two-storey structure is dictated by the sloping site. An annotation to one of the drawings (kindly made available to me by owner Brent Thomas) suggests a partial additional floor was contemplated as well. The sketched addition is very reminiscent of annotations that Plischke made on drawings for the Pickard house in Hamilton, reflecting the way he would use drawings to make a point during conversations with the client. It is not possible to say for sure that the sketch is by Plischke, but it certainly reminiscent of both his practice and his style.

Another pointer to Plischke's involvement - but again not an absolute guarantee of it - is the use of black and white checkerboard tiles in the entrance foyer (now covered over by carpet, but still intact). This was a favourite trick of his, as used for Paul's bookshop in Hamilton and subsequently copied by Hamilton architect Philip King (who worked with Plischke on that project) for the Paton house around the same time. The effect is to make the space appear larger than it actually is.

The photographs on the sale website show a light and airy interior with a marked lack of ornamentation and clutter. I was interested to note from the drawings that much of the planned built-in storage, including wardrobes, was marked as being for a future stage, so perhaps some of that was never actually constructed.

Brent pointed out that a very interesting aspect is how they weatherproofed the roof. It is not obvious from the drawings, but there is basically a bitumen tarsealed road under the roof. It has roof beams under sarking-like timber (possibly 6x1) then tar covered by gravel, then roofing paper and finally a roofing sheet. It was exactly like walking on an old road. Brent says that might explain why he got a lot of gravel on his head when he replaced one of the ceilings.

Also of note, Brent says, is the fact that the downstairs lobby was originally the entrance for people walking up the hill from Makara Road. The access up the drive was added in the 1970s he thinks.