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New Zealand Institute of Architects









The House That Isn't Ours

by Mikayla Exton

As we pull up into the drive, we search for the familiar pūkeko, painted onto a rock with the number 14 above. He peers out from the depths of the overgrown flax and watches another family arrive to share his home. Gravel crunches under the car laden with swim gear, enough BBQ meat for our week and books for at least three weeks; the house comes into view. Blockwork, once a Tip Top vanilla yellow, has now been painted black. Even after 10 years, the only thing we know about the owner is her first name: Rosemary. She must think the new lick of paint will help modernise the house. We’re not sure how successful this will be, or why it’s needed in this spot 30 minutes from the nearest small town. But we will begrudgingly accept it for now and hope it’s the only change she’s made.

Grabbing only the most heat-sensitive of the shopping bags (beer, prawns and soft cheese) from the warm car, we head inside. With a bit of persuasion the front door opens and we’re greeted by the warm musty smell houses get when closed up for more than a few days in summer. The front door opens straight into the master bedroom, where scuff marks in the yellowed polyurethane floor hint at the different uses of the years: entrance, hallway, kayak storage, bunkhouse, and now decorated in the classic beach-Kiwiana chic that distinguishes a master from the other bedrooms. A carefully framed array of hand-tied flies by Rosemary’s grandfather holds pride of place over the bed. Across the room a poster lists the surrounding towns in too many fonts and too few tohutō. The room has also been the scene of a past crime: as it turns out, the narrow awning window is big enough for a teenager to wriggle through if the lock-box code is forgotten. Luckily, the window isn’t needed this time and we all cross the threshold to the house in the intended fashion.

Then suddenly we’re compressed into the hallway; a narrow space whose midway kink at an undefined angle blocks the view from both ends. But thin fingers of light from the lounge beyond stretch along the wall, searching and finding old cracks and new dents in the varnished timber panelling. A multitude of dark-timber cupboard doors line one wall, and black-and-white photos of the lake adorn the other. The cupboard doors that aren’t locked hit the opposing wall before they’re able to fully open. The locked ones, with round wooden handles worn shiny by use, remind us that some secrets aren’t ours to know.

Bags are dumped; bunks are claimed. No one wants the one closest to the light switch, not quite close enough to reach without getting out of bed. The top bunk (once a favourite in simpler days) is avoided by those whose phone cables won’t reach the coveted single power socket. But from the top bunk you can run your thumb along the rough band-sawn pine ceiling, unconsciously travelling along the familiar grains and knots in the wood. Like cloud watching, faces in the knots emerge and old friends are found: the droopy-eared dog and the cross-eyed mouse peer back out from the dark ceiling.

Someone calls out a reminder to knock on the toilet door before entering; the lock still hasn’t been fixed. This isn’t a surprise: the lock has never worked and we’ve often wondered whether it was made that way in the first place. One day it will be fixed but, out of habit, none of us will use it. The blind in the bathroom is pulled down and the shades rotated to the perfect angle to block the direct line of sight between the bathroom and the lounge.

Cloaked in dim light filtered through thin, patterned curtains is the heart of the house. Pulling them back, the room is washed with shafts of sunlight. Dust floats ever downwards. At some point since last year, the mid-century recliner and the vinyl upholstered armchair have switched positions. Anyone who has spent a cloudless afternoon here knows that the vinyl armchair is a disaster waiting to happen in that location, and it is quickly moved back to where it belongs in the shade of the bookcase. A taxidermy duck sporting a broken pair of sunglasses sits between John Grisham and A Brief History of Time. We arrive to find the sunglasses removed and neatly folded next to the duck, but we put them back where they belong. The blush-red velvet sofa matches the carpet; both are threadbare but in a way that speaks of love and use rather than disrepair. Hand-stitched trout dance along a throw, and also weave their way through decorative plates, serving utensils and a clock on the wall. The mostly opaque lampshade will later cast deep shadows into the corners of the room, broken up by the thin exposed rafters which run like a spine down the length of the house.

The weariness of travel evaporates as each of us sits in our favourite spot; they’ve been waiting for us. The volume of the room is filled by a comfortable silence which settles downwards. Restless fingers slow down and subconsciously caress the worn wooden arms of chairs. Feet sink into concave footrests. A slight breeze swirls through the opened ranchslider. Below, our shoes line up along the door edge; on holiday themselves, until we need them again when we leave in a week. The architect of time has created a home in this house that isn’t ours.


This essay was highly commended in the Open category of the 2022 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

Photos: Holiday photos by Annie Spratt from Unsplash.