Great dialogue creates great architecture.
WORDS MELANIE DUVAL-SMITH PHOTOS SUPPLIED
It’s not until you have a tiny site on a pronounced slope that the necessity of a clever, open minded architect with a strong ability to conceptualise becomes apparent. Southbank Townhouse in Cambridge is a successful collaboration between old friends, and the result a testament to that relationship.
The name Antanas Procuta Architects (APA) stands as an extremely accomplished practice, with a string of eminent projects already under their belt. For all this, Antanas (principal architect and founder) is particularly pleasant, modest and beautifully spoken with none of the airs and graces which sometimes accompany a person of his professional standing. He and his practice – now rebranded as Procuta Associates Urban and Architecture (PAUA) – are committed to intelligent design and environmental integrity in the work they undertake with their clients.
The challenges of this site were plentiful; very small, on an awkward rise of a hill with two tight street frontages, more costly than a flat site. It’s rare to speak with clients at the end of a build, especially a challenging one, and find no complaint. In this instance, there wasn’t a single one.
Admittedly these particular clients were special. A local couple who came together later in life and wanted to celebrate their future with a new home. One of the partners has known Antanas since he was a boy, and knew his father, also an architect. He spoke of a strong bond, and a keen interest in the architect’s work in the local community for years. The trust and respect from both parties was clear, they both agreed that this helped to achieve an impressive result, one which netted PAUA another New Zealand Institute of Architects’ residential award.
The client brief was a modern eco home, level access living, maximising views and light, and possible solar energy. Antanas said the client came to him very open minded, wanting something gritty, a bit industrial. The owner mentioned that a combination of rising costs and “the market not being quite ready” precluded some of their more ambitious ideas but the couple were particularly happy with their architect’s ability to shape their early ideas into a usable form.
When asked if PAUA had a trademark design, he was emphatic. “The practice prides itself on not having a singular design style. Every new project has a particular site and client, dictating different requirements. We spend a lot of time thinking about the site, and tailor to individual client needs.” His true motivations were evident in the way he spoke about his relationship with his clients. “Good architecture is about good dialogue; we had many productive conversations.” The owners endorsed the sentiment, saying that “If Antanas happens to win an award; I think he’s won over 15 now, it’s simply a bonus, not the driving force.” The firm has in fact won 22 awards, plus six commissions through design competitions, none of which Antanas himself brought to my attention. More confirmation of Antanas’ sincerity came with his unbidden commendation of the design and construction team as a whole. He showed genuine appreciation of their attitude and hard work, and real awareness that these people were equally responsible for upholding quality throughout the build. “These guys are crafting architecture, not just putting together kitsets.”
It would be hard to talk about PAUA without mentioning their strong sustainability ethos, and their focus on longevity. Both Home Star and Green Star certified, they are also regularly involved in pro bono community projects. A driving force for Antanas is “Leaving a legacy, not just for owners but for the broader community.” Both client and architect spoke enthusiastically about the beauty of the mature trees that are situated around the house and neighbouring property, environmental awareness reflected by the efforts to use them as part of the design. Antanas wanted the house to feel established, and it was extremely important to him that the building appear as though “It was meant to be here, and always will be here… creating a heritage and a legacy which becomes part of the fabric.” Antanas was clearly cognisant of elements that weren’t necessarily about the design, but the context of the land and how the house sits on a corner site. “I shaped the building to respond to that corner, and as the sun sets there is a wonderful shadow play on the rendered brickwork that is quite beautiful, mesmerising.”
The result is a landmark building, Antanas describes as a “gateway house as you leave Cambridge, an obvious building… elevated above the street, all you can see around you is green, looking out across trees and hills.” Outstanding features for the clients? The use of the slope in positioning the house to get the best views including the beautiful kauri trees, floods of natural light, high stud, maintenance-free bagged brick exterior, overall attention to detail, quality through and through from design down to insulation. “Fixed contract within budget, small changes only and no surprises. We couldn’t be happier.”
It was apparent by the end of our interview that Antanas’ priority is always the client/architect relationship. “A lot of people focus on the end product only. I work with clients for around two years, and the buildings that we create together are a mark of that relationship. It’s a hugely enriching process and experience.”