Kahn House

53 Trelissick Crescent, Ngaio, Wellington

  • Kahn House.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Alison Dangerfield. Date: 3/05/2006.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7633 Date Entered 9th December 2005

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Extent of List Entry

Registration includes the building, its fittings and fixtures (including the light fitting in the living room), and the land on which the building is placed, as shown on the certificate of title WN413/69.

City/District Council

Wellington City

Region

Wellington Region

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 8974 (CT WN413/69), Wellington Land District

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Kahn House in Ngaio, Wellington, is a key work in the oeuvre of one of New Zealand's most important architects, Ernst Anton Plischke (1903-1992), and an important example of Modern Movement architecture in New Zealand.

Plischke, an award winning architect who had worked in Vienna and New York, emigrated to New Zealand in 1939 to escape persecution by the Nazis. He remained in New Zealand between 1939 and 1969 and, during that period, he was a driving force behind the introduction of the Modern Movement in this country. His considerable contribution to architecture and design in New Zealand has been recognised by the N.Z.I.A with the award of an honorary Fellowship.

Kahn House was the first house Plischke designed in Wellington, and the second he designed in New Zealand. It was commissioned by Jewish clients Joachim and Gertrud Kahn, who had also escaped Nazi persecution by emigration to New Zealand.

Built by H. Bradshaw between 1941 and 1942, the house is an early example of continental modernist housing in New Zealand and was used as an example by Plischke to make "the case locally for Internationalism in architectural style'. Constructed from timber, the three-bedroom house emphasises geometric forms, explicitly engages with its exterior context, features an open plan dining and living space, and has an early example of a sliding glass door.

Kahn House has remained in the Kahn family since its construction. It still includes much of the original furniture, and fittings, and is in close to its original condition.

Kahn House makes a significant contribution to New Zealand's cultural and architectural history. The house is a cultural product of an exchange within what was an often highly-skilled and sophisticated immigrant group of political refugees from Europe, a result of the international political context of the Second World War, and the rise of the Nazis. The house is an early work by Plischke, who has been recognised as a significant architect both nationally and internationally, and it is an early example of a modernist house in New Zealand. The building demonstrates technological advances that were innovative within the New Zealand context and, as such, Kahn House has been identified as one of New Zealand's key Modern Movement buildings.

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Architectural:

Kahn House was designed by Ernst Plischke, an internationally significant modernist architect who resided in New Zealand from 1939 to 1963. It was the first house Plischke designed in Wellington and the second he designed in New Zealand, the first being the Frankel house (Christchurch, 1939).

Kahn House was used as an example by Plischke to make "the case locally for Internationalism in architectural style” and is an early example of continental modernist housing in New Zealand. As such it is characterised by a flat roof (reputedly the first in Wellington), rectilinear forms, an aesthetic of clean lines, an explicit engagement with its exterior context, and the interior features an open plan layout.

The house is planned to amplify the effect of the living/dining room as an open space connecting with the exterior. The progression to the living/dining room is deliberately enclosed. The window at the end of the hallway uses translucent glass to provide light while suppressing the outside, to enable a more dramatic realisation of the view on entering the living room.

The split-level living room both articulates separate spaces for living and dining yet provides one continuous space. The change in levels (to accommodate a client brief for a stage) provides different views down to the harbour. The privileging of this stage/dining area has meant steps up to the dining level were required in the kitchen to compensate for the different levels.

The house has a number of remarkable features. The split-level living room was "larger than was usual” for its time, and the house included floor to ceiling glazing. Kahn House used features an innovative construction system, and is reputed to have the first residential exterior glass sliding door in New Zealand.

The original interior colour scheme still survives, and the exterior blue paint is a near approximation of the original (the original colour being less "green" and more of a "cornflour blue" than the current colour).

There is built-in furniture and fixtures in the kitchen, toilet, bathroom and study. Most of the existing furniture (table, couch, armchairs, bookcase), while not designed by Plischke, is the original furniture that was used to furnish the house. Much of this was brought from Germany in 1936 and so it provides a very good instance of the original architectural and social context.

Technological:

Kahn House features an "innovative construction system ... [a] wooden skeleton and flat roof”. Plischke described this as "break[ing] away from stud frame construction and the [New Zealand] Housing Department Standards and [a] start on a timber skeleton building as I have done in Attersee”. The connection with Plischke's Attersee house provides connections with Japanese architecture and the lightness and relation to site. The construction was very different to the usual stud frame construction used in New Zealand at the time.

The sliding glass door on the northwest elevation was an innovative adaptation of an industrial prototype (garage roller door). Tyler describes this as the first glass sliding door in domestic architecture in New Zealand, and Claude Kahn notes that it was this aspect of the house that intrigued visiting architects.

Cultural:

Kahn House was designed by an émigré architect for Jewish émigré clients (Joachim and Gertrud Kahn). It reflects the cultural context in New Zealand during WWII when numerous Europeans (especially Jews) immigrated to New Zealand to escape Nazi persecution. While they would become an integral part of New Zealand society, these people were often listed or classified as "enemy aliens" during the war years (as was the case with Plischke and his Jewish wife Anna Lang), and they consequently formed close social and intellectual communities apart from mainstream New Zealand during this period. Engagement with European art and design (what Tyler calls "the urbane") characterised the aesthetic appreciation of this social group. This is reflected in the modernist design of Kahn House, and the client brief for a split-level or raised stage/platform in the living space, which was new to the New Zealand house, and this remains an unusual architectural form in New Zealand domestic space.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

Kahn House is an early example of International Modernist residential architecture in New Zealand. It represents an introduction of International Modernism to New Zealand's built form. It is a significant example of the domestic work of an internationally significant architect (Ernst Plischke), who spent a substantial proportion of his working life in New Zealand. It represents the intellectual and cultural exchange within refugee immigrant groups during WWII in New Zealand.

(b)The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The house was designed by Ernst Plischke, an architect who is acknowledged both nationally and internationally for his contribution to Modern Movement design. Kahn House was the first house Plischke designed in Wellington, and his second New Zealand house (the first is the Frankel house (1939) in Christchurch).

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

The public esteem for Kahn House is demonstrated by the esteem for Ernst Plischke and by the inclusion of the house in national and international publications and exhibitions. A sample list of these publications can be found in the bibliography.

Plischke was awarded the Great Austrian State Prize for Architecture (1935). He was also recognised as an honorary Fellow by the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1969. He has been the subject of a number of theses and articles. Most recently Plischke has been the subject of a significant monograph published in German and in English by August Sarnitz and Eva B. Ottillinger.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

Kahn House used an "innovative construction system ... [a] wooden skeleton and flat roof", Plischke described it as "break[ing] away from stud frame construction and the [New Zealand] Housing Department Standards and [a] start on a timber skeleton building as I have done in Attersee. The connection with Plischke's Attersee house provides connections with Japanese architecture and the lightness and relation to site. The construction was very different to the usual stud frame construction used in New Zealand at the time.

The sliding glass door on the northwest elevation was an innovative adaptation of industrial prototype (garage roller door). Tyler describes this as the first glass sliding door in domestic architecture in New Zealand, and Claude Kahn notes that it was this aspect of the house that intrigued visiting architects.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Plischke, Ernst Anton

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

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Historical Narrative

Designed between 1940 and 1942, Kahn House in Ngaio, Wellington, is a key work in the oeuvre of Ernest Anton Plischke (1903-1992).

Plischke was born in Vienna in 1903. He qualified as an architect in 1932 and worked in both Vienna and New York. Plischke's work won numerous awards and his Vienna Werkbundseidling (1928-1930) and Labour administration offices at Liesing (1930) featured in Alberto Satoris' 1935 publication Gli Elementi dell' Architettura funzionale. During the Nazi occupation of Vienna, Plischke emigrated to New Zealand. As a member of the socialist Austrian Werkbund and the husband of the Jewish Anna Lang, Plischke would have been in danger had he remained. While in New Zealand he was employed in the Department of Housing Construction (1939-1947) and in private practice. His design work includes houses, residential apartment blocks, churches, monuments, an office building, furniture and town planning. He left New Zealand in 1963 to take up the position of head of the Akademieder Bildenden Künste, Austria. The N.Z.I.A. recognised the contribution Plischke had made to New Zealand architecture in 1969 with the award of an honorary Fellowship. He was also awarded the Great Austrian State Prize for Architecture (1935).

Kahn House was the first house Plischke designed in Wellington and the second he designed in New Zealand. It was commissioned by Jewish émigré clients Joachim and Gertrud Kahn. As such, it reflects the cultural context in New Zealand at a time when numerous Europeans (especially Jews) immigrated to New Zealand to escape Nazi persecution. These immigrants and refugees were often listed or classified as 'enemy aliens' (as was the case with Plischke and his Jewish wife Anna Lang), and they often formed close social and intellectual communities apart from mainstream New Zealand. Engagement with European art and design (what Tyler calls "the urbane") characterised the aesthetic appreciation of this social group, though as recent immigrants, the Kahns “didn't have a lot of money”. This is reflected in the modernist (and modest) design of Kahn House. '

The design was completed around 1940 and was formed by the Kahn's requirements as clients, and Plischke's ideas about, and preference for, Modernism. Although Plischke would later refer to the house as “Gertrud's house” (and “Gertrud Kahn's [house]”), Claude Kahn suspects that his father, Joachim Kahn, was the key voice of his two parents in discussions about the commission for the house. Joachim Kahn, a senior lecturer in political science at Victoria University in Wellington, was involved in acting and, according to Claude Kahn, requested that the house include a raised floor 'stage'. This stage became a major feature of the house's unusual layout.

To accommodate the stage, the house was designed with one main L-shaped and split-level living/dining room. The lifting of the floor for the stage meant that the kitchen had to have steps up to the end used for dining. This, and the inconvenience of carrying meals from the kitchen up the steps to the dining room (the table sat up to 18 people), must have been a point of discussion at some stage, as Claude Kahn is able to remember that Plischke always said he was "no good on kitchens”.

Despite the unusual layout, the living/dining spaces were positioned to ensure all day sun, which meant that the living room remained warm (even during winter) without additional heating. Claude Kahn noted that at times it needed ventilation. This was provided by the side glass door on the south-west elevation (near hall entrance), which opened from the inside. Passive ventilation was also achieved through vent grills behind the piano curtain, which could be opened and closed via a nut and bolt system designed by Plischke.

The design of Kahn House had other features that were unusual for a New Zealand residence of the period. The living/dining space, which was “larger than was usual” , included large areas of floor to ceiling glazing. These windows survived the 1942 Wellington earthquake unscathed and only one or two windows have ever cracked to date (despite the high wind loading on the large areas of glass).

Another unusual feature was the exterior sliding door on the north-west elevation, which is thought to be the first glass sliding door in domestic architecture in New Zealand. Plischke wrote in 1969 that “In place of conventional french windows I have tried, as far as I am aware, for the first time in New Zealand, to detail a sliding door which can withstand the strong winds and rain of Wellington”. The door was of great interest to visiting architects because it was hung on the outside and Tyler notes that “Plischke brought all his Housing Department colleagues there [to Kahn House] to view the detailing of the sliding door”. The door was a particularly assertive gesture because it was placed in the path of the prevailing wind, and was an innovative adaptation of industrial prototype (garage roller door).

The design for the rest of the house was comparatively conventional, though the width of the hall was unusually generous. Plischke used translucent glass in the gridded window at the end of the hall near the entry to the L-shaped living space. This was a deliberate decision to both let light into the hallway, and to obscure the outside so that when people entered the living room the view had its full impact.

Kahn House was built to Plischke's design by H. Bradshaw, of Khandallah for approximately 2103 pounds. Constructed on a hilltop, the building had extensive views, which would later cause comment that the émigré Kahn family had selected the location for 'spying purposes'. Completed by 1942, the building featured an "innovative construction system ... [a] wooden skeleton and flat roof”. Plischke described this as "break[ing] away from stud frame construction and the [New Zealand] Housing Department Standards and [a] start on a timber skeleton building as I have done in Attersee”. The construction was very different to the usual New Zealand construction at the time, and reflects Plischke's priorities (especially regarding the relationship between the interior of the house and its landscape context) as a modernist architect.

The completed house was an early example of continental modernist housing in New Zealand. It was used as an example by Plischke to make "the case locally for Internationalism in architectural style”. The progressive nature of the house is reflected in the fact that, as a boy, the Kahn's only child, Claude Kahn, was aware that the house was more avant-garde than other houses in the area.

Kahn House has remained in the Kahn family since its construction. Joachim Kahn returned to Germany in 1952, and ownership of the property was transferred to Gertrud. Gertrud Kahn lived in the house until her death in April 2005, when the property was transferred to its current owner Claude Kahn.

The House still includes much of the original furniture and the kitchen, toilet, and bathroom all have their original fittings. The Kahns bought furniture to New Zealand from Germany and Plischke designed the house to accommodate special pieces (such as the piano alcove for the musical Gertrud Kahn, and the recess for the bookcase in the wall between the kitchen and the living room). Plischke also designed an alcove for the refrigerator, and the cupboard outside the backdoor, beneath the toilet window.

In the living/lower area of the L-shaped room the light fitting (chosen by Plischke) is original, as is the table on the stage, which was brought from Germany. The table had a servant bell, and could extend out to accommodate 18 people for dinner. The chairs are also original. These would be arranged diagonally at an angle from the edge of the stage when people visited, while Joachim Kahn's students would sometimes sit on the steps to the "stage”. The built-in bookcase in the study (south-east bedroom ) is original. However the bookcase in Claude's bedroom, which was the sunny bedroom in the western corner, is a recent (undated) alteration. The hall 'coat cupboard' (on the right side of the passage to the kitchen) is a curtain around a metal shelf and rack fitting was probably brought from Germany.

The house is in close to its original condition. Of particular note is the original colour scheme on the interior. However, the exterior blue is close but not exactly the same as the original. The original sky-blue colour had less green and was more of a cornflower blue than the current colour. The key change to Kahn House is to the lower storey. Beneath the main floor, at the level of the driveway is a laundry and a garage. The garage was added in March 1965, but there was always a washhouse down there. This is referred to in the original building specifications, and shown on the south-eastern and south-western elevations, but not in plan on the original drawings submitted to the city council. The driveway was put in in 1964. Prior to this access to the house was via the old path through the bush (still existing). As Tyler notes: "visitors arriving for parties in the war years would have climbed up steps from the street through native bush". The landscaping of the section was not professionally designed, with Joachim and Gertrud designing and planting the garden.

Physical Description

Style

Kahn House was designed for the Kahn Family (Joachim, Gertrude and Claude Kahn)

The emphasis of the geometric form of the house (a flat roof, rectilinear forms, an aesthetic of clean lines), explicit engagement with its exterior context (e.g. the sun, and the view), and the use of open planning (in relation to the dining room and lounge space) locate the building within the style of International Modernism. This coincided with Plischke's experience of new architecturally designed housing in Europe. The exterior of the house was not white (as is often assumed in modernist houses - in part due to black and white photography). It was originally painted sky blue, and was "well hidden from the street and is oriented to sun and view".

Layout and Key Spaces

The house is a three-bedroom house (study and two bedrooms), which was originally a single storey (basement garage added 1965), with an "L-shaped" living room and dining recess. The house is organised around this L-shaped living/dining room which forms a corner of the house wrapping from the east through north to the west, designed to capture the sun from its rising in the east to its setting in the west. The main floor has three bedrooms (two bedrooms and a study), a bathroom, toilet, kitchen, hallway, and L-shaped living/dining room. The hallway (from which the bedrooms and study open off from) was particularly wide for the time. The open planning of the living room/dining room stage reflects priorities in modernist architecture, though reference to open planning had begun to appear in a more restrained manner in New Zealand houses with the introduction of the Californian bungalow (1920s), and orientation toward the sun was a concern addressed in some state housing (dating from the late 1930s).

In Design and Living, Plischke made a comparison between conventional New Zealand planning and designing a modern house, and this contrast is apparent in Kahn House.

Notable Features

Notable features of the Kahn House include the construction (timber frame and flat roof), the open plan layout, the 'stage', the floor to ceiling glazing, the glass sliding door, the original interior colour scheme, and the light-fitting (chosen by Plischke) in the living room.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1941 -

Other
1965 -
Basement garage and driveway addition.

Construction Details

The house has a concrete foundation slab and timber walls. The joinery uses native timbers (rimu, matai and totara). The skeleton frame allows for large areas of glazing (esp. on the northwest and north-west elevations) with weatherboard cladding to the south. In 1965 a basement garage and a driveway was added to the house and site.

Completion Date

9th August 2005

Report Written By

C. McCarthy

Information Sources

Sharp, 2000

Dennis Sharp and Catherine Cooke, The Modern Movement in Architecture: Selections from the DOCOMOMO Registers, Rotterdam, 2000, p.188

Tyler, 1986

L. Tyler, 'The Architecture of E. A. Plischke in New Zealand: 1939-1962'; University of Canterbury Masters Thesis, 1986

Wilson, 1996 (2)

John Wilson (ed.), Zeal and Crusade: The Modern Movement in Wellington, Te Waihora Press, Christchurch, 1996

L. Tyler, 'The Urban and Urbane: Ernst Plischke's Kahn House', pp. 33-38

Other Information

A fully referenced version of the registration report is available from the Central Region of the NZHPT.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.