Rigby Mullan

(Alan Rigby, Tony Mullan)

Alan Rigby – born in Invercargill and educated at Mt Albert Grammer before taking up architecture.

Antony Mullan – from Gisborne  before coming to Auckland School of Architecture where he met Rigby and went in to partnership after qualifying in 1949.

Formed in 1947 in a Swanson St coffee bar (DLJ “At Home”) the practice of Rigby:Mullan would – along with fellow travelers Mark-Brown & Fairhead, become a by-word for ‘modern architecture’ of the Neutra, New American Case Study kind, although in reality some of the domestic designs  veered towards the ‘ranch’ houses of California.

The first few years of the practice were largely about shopfitting and commercial design work for companies of the time, such as Milne & Choyce. It’s interesting to note, as ‘new kids on the block’ Brenner Associates (inc. Milan Mrkusich, Steve Jelicich & Des Mullen) also broke into the display business (1949) perhaps invigorating Rigby:Mullan towards making serious inroads towards domestic and residential market. Certainly, by 1952 Rigby;Mullan had become a name to know, operating in tandem with good mates Peter Mark-Brown and Alan Fairhead, (who were also involved in overseeing the latter construction phase of the Rayner House). Publicised in several off-shore magazines, as well as the New Zealand stalwarts, ‘the Rayner house’ was (and still is) a stunning amalgam of Breuer’s ‘bi-nuclear’ Geller house for a Southern climate. Described by ‘Australian House and Garden’ as “white contemporary and perfect” the double level, north facing butterfly-roofed home with large glass areas, luxurious fittings and detailing spoke of a life-style that many New Zealanders were keen to obtain.

The years 1953/ 54 would herald massive change in the residential and commercial building arena. Although still ‘overseen’ by the wartime position of ‘the building controller’, construction of housing was under review after a Governmental policy leap by the newly installed Holland National Party. For those that could afford it, it was an ideal time and opportunity to profit through building. Another of Rigby:Mullan’s main clients was Sir Robert Kerridge, cinema chain owner and astute property investor – luckily with a philanthropic side. (He had already put up a large sum to start development of the Selwyn Village complex in Pt Chevelair, by an early version of architectural practice KRTA).

In the mid 1950’s Kerridge was expanding his Kerridge Odeon cinema chain throughout New Zealand, from Northland to Invercargill – and thus, Alan, Tony and the practice were working almost non-stop. Tony’s recently built house in St Paul Street, close to the city soon became the practices new offices, which then had to be changed to accommodate the growing staff. Many fine and talented architects and draftsmen would become part of the practices history, with each talking about it as a generous and collaborative operation, open to new ideas. Jack Manning, at the time a student working in the holidays cites Mullan as an especially keen advocate of experimentation – and this is borne out in two further iconic houses he designed in 1959/60.

Recently back from a intensive trip to the USA, where he had  meetings with one of the era’s most successful American architectural practices Owings Skidmore & Merrill about the upcoming 23 storey Kerridge ‘skyscraper’ in Queen St, Tony was probably in need of some diversion.! Also on the upcoming list was the Piako Matamata Council offices, a reasonably large project to be sited in Te Aroha not far from the Coromandel Peninsular. It is hard to tell which came first, but three interesting and conceptually similar buildings were on the practice’s drawing boards in the middle months of 1959.

Although each is different in outcome, they share a genesis probably gleaned partly from the recent American experience and  Case Study houses, and a meeting with Harry Seidler at the 1957 Architecture Conference in Auckland.. Steel frame construction was the thing of the time, and Franz Iseke had already built his own house in Sprott Rd (next to a recent Rigby:Mullan house) with a steel framed roof in 1958..!

The Greer house in the rural Auckland  suburb of Swanson has long been known as an early ‘pavilion’ house which used steel framing to achieve the large open glass ‘walls’. What isn’t known is Mullan had also designed another steel-framed house at the same time in the Coromandel township of Thames.

…to be continued

Further research is ongoing and will be added shortly.