Gusty sea-mist moments periodically relieving a blue-sky summer day. Golden coastal light filtering through a perfumed forest thick with cypress, banksia, and tea tree. Within earshot: a cobblestone right hander, uncrowded!, with a lone rider—an old friend at that—smiling wide and stretched out inside yet another perfect gaping foamy peeler. (Someone smartly glued down the repeat button on this image.)
Angourie, New South Wales, Australia, in all its glory. | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
Right here, near the point, on a little plot of land of one’s own, a vision of a home base coming to fruition, built exclusively with friend labor and unencumbered by code or other for-the-masses restrictions. Improvisation, of an original tune being recorded for posterity.
Ahh, to be coming into one’s own like this on the north coast of New South Wales in the late 60s/early 70s, what that air of freedom must’ve felt like! For years, among not just surfers, that lifestyle’s been romanticized, mythologized even, and, well, here I am now pouring on some more. But to John Witzig, who lived that experience and even helped give shape to some of its more memorable characteristics, it’s of course something very real.
While also capturing the images that to a great extent define the revolutionary change chapter in a once-happily-slack lifestyle pursuit that’s evolved into a billion-dollar industry (see his new book with Rizzoli, A Golden Age;) and editing Surf International; and, in 1970, co-starting Tracks (the surfing mag that radically took its editorial cues not from sport journalism but from The Whole Earth Catalog and Rolling Stone), Witzig was pursuing a career in architecture.
While I’ve touched on this subject and his new book here before, and I included a bit on Witzig’s story and a few pics of his house in Handmade Houses, it’s time I respond to the requests from friends and fans of A Golden Age to fill in gaps and show more of Witzig’s own house.
I recall the first time I met the late architectural photographer Julius Shulman, in 2003, and spent time inside his Raphael Soriano-designed nest in the Hollywood Hills, a 1947 house that was the epitome of architectural adventurousness for its time. [It should be finally known that Shulman, too, had been drawn to and photographed surfing.] I immediately realized then and there that, while a great photographer’s unique viewpoint will always be present in his pictures in ways worth understanding, how the photographer sees for himself— his particular requirements of his own personal sphere—demands as much study and understanding if you’re going to get a real handle on the work.
Witzig, who, like Shulman, is responsible for more than a few genre-defining and legend-making photographs, shares the distinction of having housed himself in a way that represents the very cutting edge of progression for its time and place. It was all about breaking the mold of conventionality…or at least loosening things up as never before. But in the counterculture-architecture statement that Witzig ultimately created, there’s no getting past certain allusions—the Northern California coastal-barn vernacular forms of the Sea Ranch, Prickly Mountain-style improv woodwork, the Australian vernacular and its emphasis on the veranda, and even the kind of indoor-outdoor plan fusion seen in the early Taliesin West tent shelters. Here was a design that was dead set on openly embracing its particular eco system, built of materials that might otherwise have ended up littering it. These and other moves show that Witzig, all sun-kissed and surf-blissed and out there in the land of “country soul,” hadn’t completely unplugged, that he had his history down and an eye on larger concerns. And now, I say, what he built has to be read as a vital part of that discussion—those larger concerns.
Here’s what he had to say about the place.
“This tent was ‘home’ for many months. It had a floor that came from a house I demolished, electricity, and even a refrigerator. The pattern of leaves on the canvas walls convinced me to replicate those in the house. Driftwood was a useful source of materials for benches. It arrived complete with character.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
“Nigel Coates at my house at Angourie in February 1974. When you’re building a house, some people are useful, and most just get in the way. No one helped me more than Nigel building this first house. He was too good a craftsman really. My impatience, and his inclination for doing it well were sometimes at odds.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
“Construction gang c. 1973. This was the day that we raised the frame of the front part of my house. This event clearly needed the help of everyone that I knew at Angourie. Owner-building thrives on these celebrations.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
“I added a lean-to on the back of the middle section of the house to give a bit of storm protection to the back door, and also the kitchen windows. The little veranda relieved the rather stark geometry as well… no bad thing.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
“Ah… the interior lining done. As I remember, the boards were painted and I simply turned them around. They were wide, and quite beautiful. The kitchen cupboards were courtesy of the skill of my friend Nigel. They were designed to fit things like the old ceramic sink that I’d found somewhere, not the other way around.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
“The western end of the middle section had fly-screen walls, and fibreglass sheeting for the roof. It was almost like living outside… lovely in the summer, and a bit cool in the middle of winter.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
“I plotted all of the trees on the site, and basically filled the gaps between them. Only one tree over three feet was sacrificed.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.
“Self-portrait at the Angourie house c. 1974. I really don’t know when I took this picture. The front bit of the house (it was in three parts) is finished (really!). There’s even a picture hanging above the fireplace. It could be as late as 1977, but I doubt it.” | Photo copyright 2014 John Witzig.