New Zealand’s Quirkiest Architect

Radically inventive Wellington architect Roger Walker remembers being at a party a few years ago and overhearing two people who thought he was out of earshot talking about him. One of them asked the other if he would ever use Walker to design something for him. The reply was a firm, “No, I wouldn’t. You can’t tell Roger what to do.”

Walker, an architect who has always gone his own way, laughs as he recounts the story.

Walker’s Whakatane Airport terminal from the early 70s. Photograph: Supplied by NZIA

His flamboyant use of turrets, towers, cylinders, cubes and pyramid shapes in his designs are instantly recognisable. With its whimsical, curving lamp-posts, pitched roofs and colourfully painted portholes, his iconic 1973 complex Park Mews cuts a striking presence in Wellington’s Hataitai district. It is a familiar sight that greets travellers as they drive through Mount Victoria tunnel from the airport, jutting sharply upright among Wellington’s white villas and bungalows.

This visionary approach to communitarian housing, which clusters together a range of homes from bedsits to three-bedroom houses, maximising use of land while maintaining a high standard of quality medium-density housing, was awarded the Wellington Enduring Architecture Award in 2018. It’s also one example of Walker’s work that has seen him tagged as subversive.

“By subversive, they just mean unusual,” he laughs.

Growing up in a sensible brick and tile home in the uniformly designed Hamilton suburb Fairfield inspired Walker.

Walker’s Buckley House in Owhiro Bay, 2001. Photograph: Supplied by NZIA
Harris House in Hamilton, 1980. Photograph: Supplied by NZIA

“A pile of bricks and a pile of timber would arrive on the street and be assembled as something to look exactly like the house next door. I couldn’t understand why. I might have reacted too far.”

After graduating from architecture school in Auckland in the 1960s, Walker worked for Warren and Mahoney in Christchurch and Calder, Fowler and Styles in Wellington before establishing his own firm in the early 1970s. He continues to operate Walker Architecture and Design.

Walker’s Britten House in Karaka Bays, Wellington. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/The Guardian

Walker has only ever designed one house for himself – his 1990s pastel pink and sea green family home in Thorndon, which has recently been put on the market. After his wife died and his children moved away, he continued to live there with his cat.

“I really loved that home and didn’t want to sell it. I’ve had three lots of tenants there over 15 years. But I’m sick of being a landlord.”

The spacious, lolly-hued home is constructed of two pavilions that are connected by a glass atrium.

“I don’t know why people are so scared of colour. I think people associate colour with certain moods. Red is danger, blue is down, green with envy, purple with rage. There’s so much language attached to colour. But I associate colour with joy.”

Walker says there should be a dominant colour in a home, which he likens to an orchestral theme.

“There should be accents of colour. What you’re trying to do is compose with colour.”

Ropata Village in Lower Hutt, 1988. Photograph: Supplied by NZIA

Abstract use of shape is a strong characteristic of Walker’s style. Walker says his approach to shape was inspired by a building he saw in Christchurch when he was a student.

“There was a square, circle and triangle next to each other. That went really deep with me. I’ve always since tried to introduce those three elements into my work.”

Designed for celebrity television chef, restaurateur and Anglican priest Des Britten and his wife, Lorraine, Walker’s 1973 Britten House in Karaka Bays sits majestic on a harshly steep hillside location. Clustering together multiple small spaces, each with their own roof across different levels, its bold use of teal, tangerine, sunshine yellow and pink adds a splash of vibrancy to the suburb of neutrally toned houses.

A Walker-designed house in Wellington

Walker says he would like architecture to be a bigger influence in contemporary housing and has plans to build a new home. Where, he’s not sure.

“I’m 81 years old and I’ve worked really hard all my life. I’m going to have a holiday first.”

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