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Lifestyle March 9, 2015

The House Built Around a Banana Plant

3 1957 April 33 William Denny Ave Scan10025

Hidden down an overgrown driveway in Westmere is a secret waiting to be told.

At first glimpse, leafy vines proliferously protrude over steps and concrete melds with Mother Nature. As they say though, never judge a book by its cover. Look beyond the surface and there stands a rough diamond waiting to be restored to its former glory. This is an architectural gem.

It was one man’s labour of love, built for love. According to his family it was “architectural experiment”. A time-capsule of assorted “trials and tribulations”. A special place that has never been forgotten.

It was the home of an innovator, a pioneer, an award winning architect and father of four, Mr Bart Gillespie.

Son of a watchmaker and beekeeper, Gillespie’s fascination with mechanics and structure was in his blood and his exceptional freehand drawing skills catalysed a career that significantly contributed to the New Zealand architectural landscape.

The design of his home built in the 1950’s “was 30 years ahead of its time,” says Mr Mark Burke-Damaschke from Opus Architecture, employer of 3,000 engineers, designers, planners, researchers and advisors across Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom.

It had a modernism quality to the façade and was initially an open-plan modest box that “grew as the family grew” recalls his daughter. Cutting edge at the time, says another sibling proudly, “the house was ‘a crucible of experimentation’ with new materials and building methods.”

It was built in stages to avoid having a mortgage as the designer loathed being in debt. Rooms were added as each child arrived and the building cost under a thousand pounds from a government loan scheme.

Based on the idea that form follows function, the house was a “modular triple cuboid design”. The central hub contains a service wing of a bathroom and kitchen while another unit contains bedrooms that connect to the front cuboid which is the atrium.

The atrium is the heart of the house and contains a towering banana tree nearly five metres high which regularly bore fruit alongside pineapples and hibiscus. One of Gillespie’s daughters vividly remembers exchanging her wedding vows under the romantic canopy of banana trees to her Canadian beau.

The lush tropical plantings subtly using nature to shelter and shade were framed by a high glass curtain wall with a 6.7 metre stud enclosed in steel, all cutting edge technology at the time. Never seen before in a residential home, it was the largest installation of its kind in New Zealand.

The impact of the brilliant botanical wall of live greenery was so profound and long-lasting on one of Gillespie’s sons, he has since devoted his life to a career growing tropical plants in the United Kingdom.

Bart Gillespie loved Frank Lloyd Wright especially the American architect’s “organic architecture” approach. A philosophy based on buildings being in harmony with humanity and the environment.It inspired this indoor awning installation which his son says “was a bit green for its time,” living on at the site as his father’s legacy to this very day.

Using expansive floor to ceiling plate glass on such a huge scale was a “trial run” paving the way for a similar commercial version to be installed in Shortland Street for former New Zealand Herald owners, Wilson and Horton.

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Successfully making the cross over applying industrial materials to a suburban, domestic setting was groundbreaking. Gillespie was years ahead of his New Zealand peers in the area of energy efficiency too. Solar heating and sustainable features such as natural lighting and shade were trialled to remarkable effect.

Gillespie’s wife remembers clever construction like a built-in seat to admire the top of the banana tree and a laminated pine ramp suspended through the planting. Revolutionary at the time, Gillespie’s “flying staircase” floated between the floor and the mezzanine level although visitors complained that it felt insecure so it was quickly modified with metal columns.

Materials were another experimentation that Gillespie toyed with. Concrete, copper, aluminium; he innovatively mix and matched. The garden wall uses reinforced concrete patterned by boxing and varnished knotted tongue and groove pine decorated walls which was “very practical, especially with children” says his wife.

Copper louvres ventilated wardrobes and windows whilst the flat surface of the terrace, that Gillespie once fancied as a helicopter landing pad but he gave up learning to fly after a “fright with a friend”, instead the terrace is overlaid with fabric tiles.

These were the days without mod cons. Perishables like meat were stored in a food safe which didn’t escape Gillespie’s touch. His version ingeniously suspended columns over a water bath to prevent the entry of ants “which was very important when you remember that Mum didn’t get a fridge until 1958,” says his son.

Designing furniture for the family was another passion of this talented architect. He crafted bleached pine chairs for his wife, built-in dressing tables for his daughters and even a fold-down train set spanning the whole playroom wall that also doubles as a fold up blackboard. The house was essentially Gillespie’s real-life drawing pad and an ideas incubator.

He went on to become internationally recognised as a specialist in grandstands by pioneering ‘space frame’ structures using steel tubing which was unique at the time. The members stand at Ellerslie Race Course is a testament to his genius.

Paris beckoned. There, Gillespie was recognised for his work by peers including Le Corbusier the father of modern architecture whom he met at the architectural awards. His career flourished and his home observed a curator became a building record of social history that was “in many ways an ongoing engagement and experiment.”

Today many have actively spoken out about the need to safeguard the historic property due to its considerable architectural merit and how it defines a period in this country’s cultural history – yet sadly it is coming close to being lost and destroyed.

Burke-Damaschke is a preservation proponent and adamant, “why aren’t we preserving important buildings like this? Why aren’t we bringing it back to its former glory?” Why, indeed.

Gillespie moved from the house in the 1980’s and died in 2011 but his remarkable legacy remains in numerous commercial, community and residential buildings, including the special house built around a banana tree in Westmere.

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