The Thompson House
Designer and architecture student Narelle McAllum investigates the enigma of the Thompson House by Rewi Thompson in east Auckland.
There is something inherently melancholic about a derelict building. Left standing, the structure becomes a testament to past occupation, and obscured by absence our imagination works to inhabit the space, our minds taking ownership as we hypothesise on what the building was, and visualise what it could be. While there is a romance in this, sadness permeates the very fabric of abandoned buildings – a sorrow only remedied by human occupation.
You don’t see many abandoned buildings in Kohimarama. Homes in this part of Auckland have a subtext: restricted area, significant wealth required. This makes the Thompson House all the more fascinating. Designed by the late Rewi Thompson and completed in 1988, the building piques interest at the very first glance. I discovered the building, which was almost entirely obscured by trees, in 2014, piecing together its form through a series of short glimpses as though looking through a flick book. The materiality of the building was fascinating, the simple plywood exterior so unusual in the Eastern Bays, and so impermanent. Could it be concrete formwork masquerading as timber? Shrouded by nature, the place was unknowable, and the nature of its habitation was also indecipherable.
Several years later, in 2018, the Thompson House was listed for sale, and a revelation occurred. The trees that had so engulfed the house were finally tamed, revealing an utterly distinctive ziggurat-like form. It was exciting to discover something so different in an area of relatively conformist architecture.
The house sits close to the street front: assertive, an undeniable presence. The foundations are cut into the sloping terrain, with concrete block retaining walls left raw and visible. The glass frontage of the ground level connects to a heavy steel roller door, an ambiguous combination that makes the building’s function hard to read. Is it commercial or residential? Steel framework highlighted in earthy red paint forms a division, above which the distinctive plywood-clad walls climb two levels without any hint of delineation.
Aside from the glass wall which reveals a floating staircase and little else, there are no windows on the street-front façade. This leaves a visitor with the distinct impression that the house has turned its back on its neighbours, quite disinterested in the local gossip it must have fuelled back in 1988 when it challenged the very notion of what a suburban dwelling should look like.
A windowless façade is often confronting, that is not to say offensive, but again our imaginations will seek to fill in the gaps. Could we have imagined the interior of Tadao Ando’s Azuma House (Osaka, 1976), another provocative house designed by an architect for himself? Living in that house, a concrete rectangle with an open inner courtyard, entails a daily commute through the elements on the journey from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom and back.
This is design as a challenge to experience nature. What was Rewi Thompson’s intention for his house? Thompson was one of the few indigenous New Zealand architects practising through the 1980s and 1990s. Guided by a different understanding of the world, Thompson brought an entirely new approach to the practice of architecture in New Zealand. The Thompson House, a fearless and individualist design, became one of its architect’s most renowned works. Drawing on his cultural heritage, Thompson developed a progressive architectural ideology; he was attuned to regenerative design before the concept was even articulated. To quote from an obituary for Thompson by Professor Deidre Brown: “Good architecture could, in Rewi’s words, improve the land through responding to its rhythms, forms, scale, stories and needs.” 
Thompson strongly believed architecture was about the land and its people, and he advocated for a reciprocal rather than exploitative relationship with both. We are, after all, custodians of the land, not parasites. In a profile of his work in the Block series of architectural itineraries, Thompson stated “Sustainability is not just about buildings; it’s all about people issues as well... If you look at the old papakāinga developments, that was a whole system of family support – from identity, closeness to resources, strategy, safety, and so on. There has to be an appreciation of what that means longer term – in terms of education, health, cultural focus, recreation, and so on. It’s complex.” 
With the longer term in mind, there is a wealth of knowledge to be drawn from our pre-colonial architectural heritage. As we tackle climate change issues and increasing urban densification, the principles of papakāinga establish a compelling framework for future urban development. Collective living has social and environmental benefits. The sharing of community spaces and the simplification of individual living areas help to reduce our consumption of natural resources. Intergenerational and extended family housing settlements also provide a support network for our most vulnerable, the very young and the elderly.
Co-housing shares a similar ethos: pool resources, work together and create symbiotic communities. Yet because co-housing initiatives are reliant on finding people of like mind with funds at the ready, they are inevitably difficult to bring to fruition. We need to look to established precedents such as Earthsong in Rānui, west Auckland, and ultimately urban marae to lead the way.
Despite its bold design, the Thompson House is a modest building with a modest intention. The architect built the home for his immediate family; the house has one bathroom, one large living area, two sleeping areas and a garage. Nothing in the floor plan is superfluous to human need. True to much of Thompson’s work, the exterior uses cheap materials in their raw state; renewal and replacement are anticipated parts of the ageing process. The stepped outline of the house references the poutama tukutuku pattern, a metaphor for higher spiritual and intellectual planes – an ascension.
Inside the building is a landscape painting. While the street side reveals little, the rear of the building opens up to become an exhibition of the outside world. A large central window frames the hillside beyond; wild trees and greenery tumble down to meet the glass, in stark contrast to the structure of the plain white interior walls. This window, so integral to the space, doesn’t open, making the outside an image rather than a destination.
In her obituary of Rewi Thompson, Deidre Brown talks of Thompson’s belief that architecture can heal the spirit. Consistent with this, in his role as consultant to the Corrections Department Thompson advocated that prisoners have a view of the outside in order to reconnect with the land and the ancestral places that bring a sense of belonging. Through its orientation, the Thompson House stresses the significance of the land. Turned away from the street and showing little interest in colonial concerns like keeping up with the neighbours, the building instead gives precedence to the natural environment. Thompson’s indigenous heritage shines through; he created a building concerned with how people live within and without, orchestrating views to heal the spirit.
Left derelict, my imagination sought to inhabit the Thompson House, creating hypotheses that didn’t exist, with untruths that had no basis. I corrected myself by seeking knowledge, and in learning about the architect and his methodology my knowledge of the world increased.
When the house was listed for sale 29,000 people viewed it online, 298 groups came to the viewings, 140 of them in the first week; many of the visitors were architects and students. The young couple who bought the Thompson House are in the process of restoring it, replacing the ply panels with new ply, keeping to the ethos of cost-effective simplicity. Anything beyond this would distract from the building’s form, and this would be a loss. Thirty years after its construction the Thompson House, brave and uncompromising, remains an unparalleled and unique precedent in urban housing.
1. Deidre Brown, “Obituary: Rewi Thompson”, Architecture New Zealand, January/February 2017, 26–28.
2. NZIA Auckland Branch (Andrew Barrie, editor), “Block Itinerary 20”, Block, February 2009.