10 Questions with David Straight


Can you remember the moment you knew you wanted to create a book about John Scott?

I had been thinking of a book on John Scott for a few months prior to the demolition of the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre. During work on my previous book, Vernacular, my co-author Philip Smith and I had visited a few Scott buildings on our journeys around the country. I grew curious about Scott and had often wondered why there wasn’t a book. I wanted to know more. But after Aniwaniwa’s demolition it became more important. It seemed urgent. My main impulse was to put his work on paper, to record it, to simply acknowledge John Scott’s place in our architectural history.


How long has the project taken you?

About two and a half years all told. Aniwaniwa was demolished on 5 September 2016, and the book will launch in March 2019. Shortly after I photographed Aniwaniwa I started making enquiries, talking to people and seeking advice, then I started researching and shooting properly in 2017 and 2018.


By all accounts it’s been quite a detective hunt. Can you explain?

It has! Scott’s work has never really been catalogued in any meaningful way. Craig Martin has a very helpful website that lists the buildings Scott built by year, but this doesn’t help too much when actually trying to track down addresses. The Scott family has a list of his buildings and John’s son Jacob knows a lot of them, but I didn’t want to just rely on them to tell me everything — I felt it was important for me to go out and do the research and deepen my knowledge along the way.

Initially I relied on people who had visited some of his buildings, like the architect Nick Bevin, to give me contacts. Some of Scott’s buildings are well known and easy to find, but many remain out of the spotlight. If I found a house I would put a letter in the letterbox asking if I could meet the owners and tell them what I was doing. From there some owners would send out Facebook posts asking if people knew of other Scott houses. Others would make phone calls on my behalf looking for leads. The longer I was at it the easier it became. Thankfully most people I encountered were very helpful. I have a list of around 70 or so buildings and addresses now. I photographed around 40 and these are all included in the book.


What do you hope people will appreciate about Scott’s buildings after reading the book?

The thing I love most about his buildings is the humility in them. Even the boldest of his buildings have a sense of intimacy and warmth. Size doesn’t come at the expense of a human scale. Scott was a craftsman; he was dedicated to details and a sort of physical, human relationship in a building. He thought about context and need. Sometimes his buildings don’t reveal themselves immediately, they need repeated visits. I remember the first time I went to Futuna Chapel. I really didn’t get it. But after going back several times it becomes more profound. The same goes for Aniwaniwa. The more I have learned about that building the angrier and sadder I have become, because we demolished a building with true cultural importance, something so utterly unique to New Zealand.


He died in 1992. Why do you think it has taken until now for someone to do it?

I’ve often wondered this. Scott’s life was quite complicated in some ways. I think there are many ways you can come at the subject of John Scott, this book is just one of them. A fully comprehensive biographical study would be an enormous endeavor. Even doing this book, which only looks at a small part of his built work, and is mostly visual, was a huge undertaking. Because there is not a lot of existing writing about Scott, because a lot of his archive remains scarce, and because the scholarship around his work rests on only a few buildings, I think there is still a lot to learn. I often thought while doing the book that you could write an interesting social history of Hawke’s Bay just with the families who commissioned Scott to build something for them. You can start pulling threads and more and more things reveal themselves.


You have been in so many of them now. What would you say is the essence of a John Scott house?

I think of Scott’s work, his houses especially, as a series of moments within one sculptural whole, a series of connected spaces, of opposites; of light and dark, open and intimate. It’s partly the intangible things, too, that to make up his work, a melding of light and space set against sometimes relatively humble materials. I often wondered during the book if Scott was a slightly introverted person, or if I respond to his houses because I am introverted. I am always drawn to the window seats in his houses, those beautifully placed, cosy nooks where you can retreat and ponder. It’s that human scale in his houses that makes sense to me; they do everything I want a house to do. Even at Ngamatea, which is this huge, exposed landscape, the house acts a warm embrace, an intimate shelter from the weather. It is a large house but never overwhelming. Scott talked about the feeling you have when you come away from a building, and the feeling of something happening within you as being close to architecture. That feeling is the essence of his architecture.


And a John Scott church?

Scott’s churches follow a similar approach but on a much larger scale. The way the ceilings sometimes pull down to extreme points, sometimes below head height, creates the same feeling as those intimate spaces in the houses. Scott knew how to command light and volume in his churches, creating that feeling of reverential space one needs to allow the mind to search for intangible things. His churches were often more complex and expressive spaces. I still struggle with the roofline of Futuna Chapel, it’s shape and arrangement still confuses me.


 What’s one new thing you learned about Scott while working on the book?

I feel like I’ve learned most about Scott as an individual and how his history and personality come to make up his work. Scott was a contradictory person in some regards; on the one hand you hear the stories of his jovial nature, his laid-back attitudes towards deadlines and the niceties of life, and on the other you hear stories of Scott’s fastidiousness and perfectionism, to the point where he would turn up unannounced and alter them as they were being built, endlessly working them until they did their job correctly. To this end I think his buildings are a very honest expression of who he was, weaving that mix of Māori and European ancestry, worldly modernist and humble East Coaster. There is something very captivating about those contradictions.


And one new thing you learned about actually making a book?

That it takes a village! I’ve relied so much on the expertise of people around me, of publishers, designers and writers. It’s been overwhelming at times and wouldn’t have been possible with everyone’s attention and help. The book has been so much about learning; about architecture, about Scott, about my process. I think I would probably do some things differently next time but that’s probably a natural place to be after many years of doing something and it’s nice to feel like I have learned something. But I hold to original intention for doing this book, to document, to record, and to acknowledge Scott’s work. This is one book, not the definitive book. You can only fit in so many things.


Are architecture books always on your beside table? What are you reading at the moment?

I have a terrible (but wonderful) habit of buying too many architecture and photography books. (Just this morning I bought two more.) I say it’s for research but really I’m just obsessed. The architecture book that I’ve loved most this year is called The Barbican Estate by Stefi Orazi, about the Barbican in London, one of my all-time favorite buildings. But most architecture books are hard to read in bed. I have just finished reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, I am about to start Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and I mean to finish Ian Black’s Enemies and Neighbours.