Brenner Associates – Stephen Jelicich, Des Mullen, Ron Grant, Milan Mrkusich + Vladimir Cacala *
A history of Cacala’s work is in preparation and will be online shortly.
Brenner Associates was originally set up by three architects (Jelicich, Mullen, Grant) and artist and graphic designer Milan Mrkusich to provide a complete package for the modern homes they designed. Initially from an office in Queen St and then moved to Dominion Rd were a shop was opened to retail their own and other designers work, local and overseas (May Smith, Zena Abbott, etc). They designed a number of very modern houses for adventuress clients as well as their own homes – Mrkusich’s Arney Crescent home (1951) being covered in many magazines of the time including Australian editions. Brenner’s were joined in 1954 by Vladimir Cacala (1926- 2007)
Born (1926) into a furniture manufacturing family in Prague, Vladimir Oldrich Cacala was well situated to absorb the new ideologies abounding in what was then Czechoslovakia, recently arisen from the union of Slovakia, Moravia and Bohemia. He had the opportunity through his family to visit many of the modern architectural sites which surrounded the city before much of the country was overtaken by the armed forces during the second world war. Cacala cites the Bauhaus tutors that fled Germany in the early and mid 1930’s as hugely influential in his education but with the Soviet influence weighting heavily after the war, many felt obliged to leave what had been their homeland.
Cacala’s family was split up as the State took control of companies, and private practice was outlawed. By 1950 Cacala was on his way to the Southern Hemisphere, following his father, initially to Melbourne. Finding work in Auckland with Brenner Associates in 1952 (as well as being reunited with his father) was to be a benefical arrangement for both Cacala and the Brenner partners. Formed by architects Des Mullen, Stephen A Jelicich and artist Milan Mrkusich in 1949 the company, with the addition of Ron Grant in 1950 had begun in interior fit-outs and progressed onto designing the acclaimed butterfly roofed ‘Paul house’ in Temple St, Meadowbank. They also launched what was Auckland’s first ‘modern’ design store in Dominion Rd (1950) supplying imported furniture (Ernest Race) ceramics (Lucie Rie, Bernard Leech) as well as Scandinavian woodwork and glass – and promoting the work of local designers such as May Smith, Len Castle and Zena Abbott. The firms work is as yet mostly unidentified (Lost Properties) though the ‘Foley house’ in Titirangi was written up in Modern Homes and Garden (Summer 1958) and Milan Mrkusich’s own home in Remuera (1952) is a magnificant ode to the modern, with its sunken lounge and huge glass windows viewed against the backdrop of stately Arts & Crafts and Victorian houses in Arney Rd. Des Mullen left Brenner’s in 1953 to start work on designing modular houses for the Putaruru Timber Co and Cacala became a full partner of the firm in 1954, although he was also working independently. The ‘Gelb house’ in Mt Albert Rd was designed for fellow emigres Ernst and Ilse (1955-56) and is still largely intact, opposite Alberton. An early demonstration of Cacala’s work from the 50’s and 60’s it is sheathed in painted vertical cedar with large windows and timber deck facing the northern light.
At approximately the same time as the ‘Foley house’ was apearing in print, Cacala independently gained the commission that would cement his reputation. Ernest Blumenthal, another Czechoslavakian emigre and his wife Rachel Raye Blumenthal (nee Ginsberg) asked Cacala to design a contemporary house on a private section off St Heliers Rd in East Auckland. An elegant two story elevated box design in the international style, the house appeared in international magazines ‘Domus’ and ‘Arts and Architecture’ and The Mirror (August 1961) locally. Still little altered, the building is a masterful combination of form and practicallity, the cantilevered living area and double height glass and stone entrance way (with its white pointing and planting) creating a stunning centre from which the rest of the house radiates. The Northern exterior walls are painted in blocks of primary colour earning the building the title “the Mondrian house”..!
Within the year Cacala had left Brenners and set up his own practice with Walter Leu – as ‘Cacala, Leu Associates’. Though known for houses of elegant and ‘high’ modern design such as the Kay or Koningham houses, the practce also designed somewhat more restrained works for those not as financially endowed (261a Manukau Rd: Miles Ave, Pakuranga…) or not requiring cantilevered elegance. In fact much of Cacala’s work was related to multi-unit developments or ‘apartment blocks’, many of these being realised through his ongoing relationships with the wealthier clients his practce encountered. Constructed of brick or concrete block with large glass areas and innovative floorplates, many of these are still in use some 40+ years on. His design of a 60 unit building (1970) for the Lichtenstein family development in Gladstone Road Parnell, is now (with ‘modern’ recladding) the Barrycourt Motel. Several other smaller blocks from Cacala’s drawing board are only metres away in St Stephens Ave (No. 49) and (13- 15) Freemount St. A multitude of his designs are still recognisable throughout the city – Kepa St, Orakei; View Rd, Mt Eden; Esplanade Rd, Mt Eden; Hamilton Rd, Herne Bay…. the list goes on.!
Though other architects such as Dick Hobin, Ken Albert and Mark Brown & Fairhead had produced elevated box buildings in the fifties, Cacala’s bold designs and crafted use of materials seem to epitomise ‘ the international style’ in New Zealand – as Harry Seidler did in Australia at the time. Other buildings such as Noel Bierre’s ‘Day house’ (1961) and Don Wilson’s own house in Wanganui are also indebted to, and reference Neutra, Mies and Gropius but Cacala’s fluency and balancing of elements produced something akin to a signature style which can still be seen throughout Auckland.
to be cont… shortly