(Hobin’s Heroes: Dick Hobin, John Scott/Structural Developments and the architectural narrative.)
In the post-war years of the late 1940’s, a small group of students from the School of Architecture and University of Auckland, disillusioned with building practices and teaching methods of the time formed their own construction and architectural practice, theorising they could design and erect buildings cheaper through the efficient use of new technologies.
Over the last five decades, knowledge pertaining to this alternative architectural/building practice, has been somewhat figmentory and almost invisible amongst the pages of New Zealand’s modern architectural narrative. Given birth in 1950, mere months after ‘The Group’ architects had become a publicly recognised entity with the First House, Dick Hobin, Frank Stockman, Harry James and Renate Prinz proffered a similar rationale but tempered to the wider discourse. A technological focus and interest in the structural possibilities of cast and prefabricated concrete was highly evident in the name they were to choose. ‘Structural Developments’ evolution was to be a brief but bright arc, lasting a little over 18 months from birth to dissolution. In that time they would build small number of houses and factories, considered to be advanced and even influential amongst their contemporaries. Soon to join this important but almost forgotten practice, a young John Scott, forthright architect of the Fortuna Chapel commented when asked about the motivations of the practice, “We thought we’d show the builders.!”
The decade had seen Vernon Brown’s ‘coconut slice’ creosote ‘chicken coop’ mono-pitch houses progressively dot the bays of the North Shore, soon to be followed by the Group houses in Belmont – the various incarnations then proliferating and spreading across the 1950’s Auckland urban landscape. This linear and somewhat general overview often then cites Bruce Rotherham’s house in Stanley Bay as an exception in the history of local architecture; but with time and the advent of wider research, such as Clark and Walker’s “Looking for the Local” has come a long overdue acknowledgement of the diversity made apparent by these other, distinctly singular and valuable contributions, held resident on the narrative’s margins.
Dick and other members of ‘Structural Developments’ (like Bruce Rotherham and some members of ‘the Group’) were to become the mystery men (and women) of the Architectural Narrative. And, like both Rotherham and Scott from the previous years class, Dick was another ‘drop-out’ of the time, gaining only a Dip Arch after an intellectual disagreement with his studio professor – purportedly over the colour of the shading on a drawing..!! As graduates and students, Structural Developments and the Group shared resources and social lives in the growing post colonial city, on the perimeter of the world. This was a time of ‘the Six-O-clock Swill’, when women and often Maori were not welcome in bars, and electro-shock treatment was to become a common remedy for ‘illnesses of the mind’. The literary and artistic elements, including Renate, an early resident of Frank Sargesson’s hut before Janet Frame, and partnering with Hobin, sought out the ‘different’(read; alternative) and like minded as insulation and catalyst in a culture still hesitantly formulating its identity. Fabled parties begun at Rex Fairburn’s or Bob Lowry’s “Pelorus Press” could swell and erupt across Auckland’s social landscape with revellers, the likes of Eric Lee-Johnson, Ron Mason, May Smith and Vernon Brown to name but a few, debating and collaborating on idea’s into the early hours and further.
Part way through 1949 while in his third year of study, Dick had come in contact with Odo Strewe possibly through the Groups Bill Wilson, a friend of Odo’s wife Jocelyn from Wellington. Dicks design for the Strewe House at 73 Great North Road was often assumed to be a Group design in that its structural elements of post and beam and angled timber bracing were also part of ‘the Group’s highly publicised First House built later the same summer. The house was in fact closer visually to a Brenner Associates house being built in Meadowbank at a similar time. Both share butterfly roofs and large glass areas, and probably derive their initial inspiration from Breuer’s ‘Geller house’ of 1944. The Brenner’s ‘Paul house’ in Temple St is a rigorously structured, slightly elevated site which differs markedly from Hobin’s almost open plan design, including Strewe’s soon to be influential concepts of indoor gardening; the images of the time showing banana palms growing between the lounge and sleeping area!!
Scott, by this time had also drifted away from the rigor of the class format, drawing up plans for projects gained through academic and social contacts as well as working for Ralph Pickmere, and according to family history, had been involved with designing up to three other houses. In their last years at Architecture School, students were required to carry out a practical section which may explain his 1948 ‘Logan’ house, Kereru, and the 1949 ‘Benson’, Tukituki Rd, “Mud House” in Haumoana (noted in Craig Martin’s website dedicated to John Scott’s work).
Dick Hobin’s brother Harry points out Dick and other students designed and built an extension on to the then family home at 160 Boundary Rd in Blockhouse Bay as part of their practical. It seems that these early ventures were testing grounds for the student’s ideas and skills, and possibly turning points in their careers, enabling them to visualise the constraints of the academic process and its effects on intellects for those with ideas of their own.
Following the ferment of the previous four years ‘training’ Scott and Hobin’s almost elemental, seemingly rudimentary designs sing, if not shout ‘new’, modern and ‘cutting edge’; had the term been invented then.! The early buildings are not overly sophisticated or indulgent, but rigorous and primary constructs of the ‘modernist ideals’ in timber and concrete, fundamental and contemporary, modern houses of the time– the result of young, searching intellects not so much rebelling as seeking. The ‘Hancock house’ (1951-52) noted in Russell Walden’s “Voices of Silence – The Fortuna Chapel” appears to be one of only three remaining buildings that can be said to be a ‘Structural Developments’ work. John Scott’s design, though sympathetically added to by architect /owner John Barker is still powerfully evident in the remaining house. Intimate, almost delicate and human in scale, the split level interior is on three levels, rising from laundry and bedroom on the ground up to an almost open plan kitchen, lounge and dining area with large glass doors and windows opening under a sheltering roof. The central pale brick chimney radiates warmth throughout the finely wood beamed and panelled family rooms, the bath and bedrooms only a few steps up another small wooden stair. John Barker wrote to Walden in 1985 “It was an architects dream house….It was such a nice warm family house full of surprises after the sterility of plaster and wallpaper we were used to.” Walden contends that Scott had ‘taken over from where Brown and Wilson left off ’ and his earliest houses being ‘both visually and spatially strong,’ the ‘use of creosoted weatherboards and mono-pitched roofs came together with such conviction they clearly outpaced Brown and Wilsons ‘cowsheds’’. In its original form of a stark black and white angular board and batten wedge without eaves, the roofline hinting at the future – it resonates with that exceptionality.
By the latter months of 1952 Structural Developments ceased to exist following financial inexperience overtaking the creative and practical aspects. John Scott had married Bill Wilson’s sister Joan and joined the Group briefly before heading to live in Haumoana from Christmas of that year. Dick and Renate continued working together as Hobin. Prince Architects, carrying forward the practice’s ‘rationale’ and building methods which were considered influential and ahead of the time. George Haydn, friend and builder of many of Vernon Brown’s houses and founder of Hadyn & Rollett noted that Dick designed this countries first ‘lift slab wall’ using polystyrene to lighten the concrete which was then sprayed or poured on site. This experimental work was given form in two surviving houses Dick and Renate designed in 1952; the Bryant house in Forrest Hill and the Taylor house in Mays Street, Devonport. Barely a stones throw from Bruce Rotherham’s only recently finished house in Stanley Point, the Mays St building reaffirms Hobin and Prince’s (sic) commitment to a robust non-egalitarian architecture, buildings based on clear structural forms devoid of excess.
Though described by a writer in the Auckland Star of the time as ‘mushroom like,’ the Devonport house appears as a stark, rectilinear concrete and wooden nexus between the functionalist design methodology associated with Breuer and Gropius’s New England homes of the early 40’s and the refined elevated box aesthetic soon to be discernable in the works of other local and émigré architects, including Rigby.Mullan, Vlad Cacala and Kenneth Albert.
It is clearly a study in practicality and reductive analysis, inspired partially by the clients’ requirements for an elevated and light filled dwelling positioned to utilise its views of the harbour – after her previous house, the large colonial villa facing the street frontage of the section. It is also an exemplar of inspiration, understanding, practicality and concentrated awareness coalesced in built form; an invisible leap forward almost unnoticed in the clamour and pursuit of the vernacular. This elevated rectangle filled with light atop concrete piers, distinctly modern amongst the areas mostly genteel villas and grand seafront houses, has remained hidden not only by its leafy surrounds and long r.o.w but due in part to its uniqueness.
The cantilevered upper story with its large areas of glass and exterior decking is reminiscent of a floating, airy spacious ‘bridge’ from which one surveys the lush exterior and entry – Suspended out over the stairway and access, a feeling of gliding lightly above the earth is easily obtained. Its rectangular lounge/living area was once resolutely modernist; the plywood panel lining and three inch thick rimu flooring are bathed in light from long horizontal strip windows running the length of the ceiling line on both sides of the house meeting full height central windows and doors, giving egress to wide slatted verandas that connect the ‘head’, containing the bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom. Doors from the bedrooms either side of the amenities open on to the wide decks.
Supporting the floating living area is a cast in-situ concrete rectangular base which eliminates the need for structural walls or columns, providing a large workshop/rumpus room, guest bedroom and washing facilities. Again, full height glass doors and windows facing the northern aspect direct light into the space which still retains the texture of the rough wooden boxing, painted a glowing white.
Hobin and Prince left these shores shortly after the Mays Street and Forrest Hill house’s completion to work in Britain; Renate in July 1952, taking up residence in Maurice and Barbara Duggan’s Steele Street flat in Hampstead, before Dick arrived in 1953 to start work in the practice of F J Samuely. Acquiring a teaching position at the Architecture Association after passing his MI Struct E Institute exam in six months rather than the standard four years, he continued to work with Renate in private practice from an office in Lamble Street; later becoming Head of the Structure and Construction Department at the AA and then Studio Master for the Masters Degree course at the Barlett Schools of Architecture, London College. His interest in the combination of structural engineering and technology led to involvement with the design of refugee housing and prefabricated sewerage systems after devastating earthquakes centred in Turkey and Balkans in late 1960’s. In 1971 he was accepted to become one of three prestigious chairs of architecture at Auckland University with Allan Wild and Richard Toy – but for reasons unknown, he never took up the position, which was then taken by Harold Marshall (Marshall Day Acoustics).
It is hard to imagine the confluence of Hobin and Scott, two highly talented architects not being successful from this distant perspective, but without the backing and necessary aligning connections they were, with Stockman, James and Prinz destined to be bypassed by wealth and recognition for their initial forays into New Zealand’s architectural world. Sadder still, both Hobin and Scott were to die (within a year of each other) in their 60’s of heart related problems – probably yet to reach the height of their creative abilities.
Other Structural Developments works including those of Frank Stockman and Henry James have yet to be brought to light, and as such the history of Structural Developments may never be completley revealed. The surviving buildings are still both uncomprisingly modern and functional; though clearly acknowledge the era of their creation through the materials used and the robust articulation of form and intent. Hopefully the recognition of their unique position and contribution to our built history will stimulate further research – and a deeper appreciation of these unheralded and often marginalised mavericks, obscured by the narratives incandescent and somewhat arbitrary path.
Gregory Smith. July/Dec 2009