1 May 2023

Grand designs in Brown vs Brown

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 1 May 2023

Featuring beautiful archive footage and contemporary shots of modernist buildings, NZ's first full length architecture film is featuring in the Resene Architecture and Design Film Festival.

Brown vs Brown takes us on a whirlwind tour of iconic mid-century era homes and commercial buildings, seen through the lens of filmmaker Simon Mark Brown, son of the late mid-century modernist architect Peter Mark Brown.

The doco explores the change in architectural aspirations after World War II reflecting how families wanted to live and interact in their home, while exploring the tensions between two competing modernist architect groups.

Mark Brown had been toying with the idea of making a film about his father for a couple of decades, he tells Nine to Noon.

“I started this documentary about 21 years ago and I realised quite quickly there's nothing written about him, a few photos and no video.

“And I ended up with a sort of bunch of houses that he had done and buildings and no story arc, so I just dropped it for quite a while.”

Last year, while visiting a house built by The Group (Vernon Brown’s school of architects) he realised the film should be about regionalists and internationalists in New Zealand during the mid-century.

“There was one architecture school in the ‘50s in Auckland, run by a guy called Vernon Brown, an English architect, and he was a regionalist, who was looking for our new vernacular for New Zealand modernism; woody and modest and sort of inward looking, he thought New Zealand had its own identity with the wool shed and the whare.

“Other students there, like my father, and a bunch of others, were internationalists looking outward to the world where they wanted any inspiration, wherever the best inspiration was, Japan and Europe and mainly California, the sort of home of mid-century modern.”

History has not been kind to New Zealand's internationalists, he says, with Vernon Brown and his regionalist 'Group', who were comprised of his favourite students, more remembered today.

“And so, I'm trying to undo that as well just to bring a bit of light onto these fabulous architects who have passed by and been largely forgotten.”

Auckland is where the best examples of mid-century modern can be found, he says.

“In the guts of the mid-century, 50-60s Auckland was the centre; Titirangi, of course, the bushy enclave at West Auckland, because if you wanted a modernist house with big plate glass windows, you needed a view.

“And also, the land was cheap. So, a lot of these people had great ideas for the houses they wanted, but not a lot of money.”

The modernists of that era were escaping the “tyranny of English cottage”, he says.

“Up until 1945, we just had little state houses, you walked in the front door, hallway, rooms, holes punched in the wall for windows.

“So, it was a complete rethink of all that it was mainly the plan, you walked into an open space, mother wasn't stuck in the kitchen out the back, kitchen was open to the dining room. You had big windows opening to the garden, this whole indoor-outdoor flow.”

Both regionalists and internationalists were advocates for freeing up the plan, he says.

“But the regionalists favoured this shed-like form; gentle sloping roofs and timber construction and the Internationals like the pavilion so they wanted glass and steel and sort of boxes suspended in the in the bush.”

Materials were difficult to come by post war and that presented problems for internationalists like his father.

“The regionalists were quite smart in that they used local timber which was to their advantage because after the war, you couldn't get concrete steel and glass.

“You had to apply for your quota of concrete and wait two months for your cubic metre, everything was incredibly controlled.”

An Austrian émigré working in California, Richard Neutra was his father’s architectural hero, he says.

“He's just a genius. I think everyone credits Frank Lloyd Wright as the master of modernism. But I think Richard Neutra probably is more important, and he did this house in Palm Springs, called the Kaufman House, it's worth looking up. I think it's the most beautiful house in the world, 1946 or something, still looks more modern than anything in New Zealand.

“So, he was a big influence on my father, and it's about soaring ceilings and light flooding in and getting the view.”

The Kaufman House, Palm Springs, California.

Photo: Creative Commons 4

Ploughing this architectural furrow in New Zealand at the time was not easy, he says, and it took a long time for his father’s practice to take off, but by the late '60s he was thriving with 50 staff working on numerous mercantile and commercial projects as well as residential commissions in New Zealand and abroad.

Mark Brown never knew his father well, who died when he was young, and the film has helped him learn more about him.

“He was very well liked, that comes across quite clearly. He was fastidious with his appearance, which I certainly don't have, I don't think either my brothers really do. It was the starched collars, and I love the image, they had this little crappy room up in Princes Street somewhere. And there is two guys sitting at a desk, with one window and a phone, waiting for business to arrive. But looking extremely smart.

“He was very sensitive. He was he was an artist, I don't think he’d like the confrontation of architecture, which there is quite a lot of course, when you're building and clients are changing their mind and builders are making mistakes.

“And so, I don't know if he was entirely suited to the running of a company, but I think he was mainly the designer and [partner] Allan Fairhead stepped up and took care of the business.”

Brown vs Brown is one of two films made by Mark Brown that are currently showing at New Zealand film festivals. Seasick - about saving the Hauraki Gulf - is showing at Doc Edge.