The Big House at Brick Bay

Getting to the Didsbury’s ‘Big House’ is a journey on a number of levels. Winding through folds in the magnificent Brick Bay landscape you’ll spot what looks like a kauri dam, jaw-dropping standing stones, intriguing large-scale art on headlands. There’s a brief, tantalising glimpse of the house itself, with its massive brick tower. You park, then you’re in a narrow, winding foot corridor with tall, stacked-timber walls, before the big reveal. Suddenly the house is looming over you, all massive beams and angled buttresses. The scale of the building has an epic feel to it, like a medieval castle keep. One of the awards won by Architect Noel Lane called it romantic but really, it’s all testosterone. Christine Didsbury says, “We felt we needed to ‘go large’ or risk the house being overpowered by the landscape.”

Many materials went into the build: steel, copper, zinc, glass, timber shingles, stone, bricks, riverstones and concrete – but it’s the timber that stands out. Massive recycled beams and columns with the patina of age give the house its overwhelming scale and groundedness. The wood came from all over New Zealand – and Richard Didsbury knows the story behind every piece.

“We worked with Andrew Davies, who owned the Kauri Warehouse in Otahuhu,” says Richard. “He was the go-to guy then – still is – for finding recycled native wood, and he’d go to amazing lengths to get it. A lot of the big rimu beams came from the Horotiu Freezing Works when it was demolished in 1989. The totara columns in the kitchen were from the central North Island, where there were almost legendary piles of huge native trees clear-felled in the sixties. Totara, matai and rimu… they were found by Andrew and his boys in the pine plantations down there… We stuck to Noel’s plans, but often the materials we used were informed by what Andrew had found for us.”

We tracked down Andrew Davies and asked him if he remembered the Big House build. “They were one of my best clients,” he confirmed. Richard had helped him out enormously in return for his efforts: when Richard built Sylvia Park years later in 2006, there were around 50 warehouses on the site which the army had built in the forties. They had to be demolished – and timber-loving Richard made sure all the native timbers in there were recycled by Andrew and not just trashed.

The massive front door is made of cubes of oregon fir, which was once used as ballast inside the hulls of steamships coming to NZ from Canada in the early 1900s. Once inside, a hall invites you down to the enormous main living space; giant bespoke French doors open on either side. There are gardens one way and glorious views of the Hauraki Gulf on the other. Dominating the room, the colossal brick chimney which has become the visual branding of Brick Bay rises up through the ceiling. From the outside, the chimney is reminiscent of many things: a lighthouse, a smelter (referencing the old copper works on Kawau) an ancient grain silo – “Someone even once thought it might be a crematorium!” laughs Christine. Turkish rugs and leather poufs inside the actual chimney breast make for a cosy nook in winter.

In the open plan kitchen there’s very little storage space – glasses, mugs and plates are all out on the bench. This is completely intentional – Christine says it worked brilliantly when they had loads of people staying here in days gone by. “Nobody had to ask where anything went – you could see it all,” she says. The table continues the practicalities of crowd-wrangling – it can easily seat 16. The group of spectacularly-coloured lightshades above the table were purchased this year from a Colombian recycling-meets-art project (petlamp.org) – they’re made of plastic bottles split from the neck down into strips; the strips are interwoven with raffia, wool or cane.

Inside the front door, two staircases lead up; one to the office and master bedroom, one to guest bedrooms and the ‘third’ storey which comprises an exciting mid-air walkway across to the inside of the brick tower. There’s a lot of fun to be had here – it’s an artisanal wonderland of nooks and hideaways. One guest bedroom, hung with colourful Japanese kites on one side and an ingeniously displayed hat collection on the other, has a mezzanine level reached by an oversized ladder. Another is known as the ‘Sports Room’ for it’s collation of vintage sporting accessories. Yet another fascinating room has a museum-level assemblage of vintage explorer’s curios.

Two stories of wall height inside the entranceway have deliberately been left without coverings so the studs and noggins are visible – and usable. These were finished to a higher standard than normal and have become repositories of further collections: the main stairway is lined with little figures from all over the world, and Christine’s medleys of masks glower and grin from a downstairs corridor.

Christine says, “Let me show you the tennis pavilion.” We walk along another winding path; the court appears first, then a building that takes the breath away. The counterpoint to the Big House – the Venus to its Mars perhaps – the pavilion was also built by Noel Lane. A sleek modern box of glass, steel and travertine, it’s fully self-contained and high-spec. But here it’s all about the roof: made by boatbuilders, it’s a convex shell of thin and elegant timbers, like a feather floating on a pond.

A visit to the Didsbury’s Big House is an adventure – there’s always something extraordinary to discover around the next corner. It’s half a lifetime’s work-in-progress… and now that it’s owners have a little more time to themselves, there’s little doubt that their collection of global art and culture will also expand.