RON SANG'S LIFE AMID ART
The night before this interview, Ron Sang the architect and book publisher cooked dinner.
Chicken, mushrooms and snowpeas, pushed around the pan in the kitchen next to the paintings by Hotere, Binney and Smither. This is a house, not a white-walled gallery.
Picture: DAVID WHITE
"The aesthetic is different," says Gregory O'Brien, Wellington-based poet, painter and editor, who has worked on Sang's high-end art books. "It is art to be revered, but you revere it by living alongside it. You don't rarify it." O'Brien notes the paintings hung on curved walls. Sculptures that advance towards you.
"It's almost like the idea of art being, not quite invasive, but pervasive. Art is something that goes through the house like a tide, like a great wave." Even, says O'Brien, in the loo. He calls this house "the universe of Ron".
"A city lit up at night. Red glazed pots, a flamboyant Mrkusich, there's an incredibly bright Hotere, a Hanly. It's like fireworks ..."
Sang lives in a kaleidoscope of potted and painted colour. Lions at the gigantic front door, sculpted faces and ceramic seagulls in the garden. He has the country's largest private collection of Len Castle pottery and his art purchases comprise the country's greatest contemporary painters. This is his eighth house and biggest house: more walls, more alcoves, more space for his pottery, paintings and books.
The "great miracle" of Sang, says O'Brien, is his total commitment to New Zealand art. "He relates to objects and shapes, there are so many things and things behind things. I do think he has a way of thinking that is quite foreign to us, but he has somehow brought that together with a great love of things that are made here ... he seems to be engaging, on a very deep level, with New Zealand."
But Sang is 76. He wants to travel; he doesn't want to look after a house with a swimming pool and a three-car garage. Sang wants fewer walls. On March 1, this Epsom, Auckland home will be opened to prospective art buyers, and on March 5, some 188 lots will go under the Art + Object auctioneer's hammer.
Ron Sang was born in Fiji, to immigrant parents from Southern China. His mother ran a shop ("ice creams and toasted sandwiches") near Nausori Airport.
"We lived upstairs in the attic. Literally in the attic. In the roof space. You can only stand up in the middle and then it comes down to zero.
"You can see the underside of the roof is corrugated iron. No insulation. So it's a house that is not really a house. It's only the roof space."
His father had Parkinson's Disease, and died when Sang, his second youngest child, was eight. "He couldn't help in the shop. He just sat there in the chair, shaking, rocking, all the time. He couldn't even hold a cup of tea.
"So. Poor dad. I never knew him. In those days, you don't go and hug your dad. You don't. It's not done."
Sang's mother sent six of her nine children to university. In the third form, Sang had written an essay declaring he wanted to be an architect. "It made it easy. I didn't have to fluff around. I just aimed for that."
Auckland University's school of architecture was a series of broken-down army huts. Artist Pat Hanly taught the drawing class. Sang did the minimum five years study, and then hit the workplace, with a firm specialising in hospital design.
"All I did was sit down and draw all the windows of a building. The window schedule, or the door schedule. Boring, boring stuff. But that's all you can do when you first graduate. They don't trust you with anything else." He changed firms, and six years later asked the owner, a man he still called "Mr Walker", what his prospects were.
"Without even thinking, he said 'none'. Just like that." Sang struck out on his own for two years, before joining forces with architects Mark Brown and Fairhead. "And that's how it started."
In the past 52 years, Sang has designed 300 houses. His most famous was now, was for a long time, the least known - photographs of the Brian Brake house in Titirangi were only made public after its Brake's death.
Sang remembers when his friend, the sculptor Guy Ngan, introduced him to Brake, the celebrated photographer.
"He had a drawing of a Japanese farm house. He liked everything Japanese. But his land was amongst the bush, full of nikau palms and kauri trees and there was this big, lumbering farmhouse with an orange tile roof, and I thought 'this can't be right'." Sang asked for the weekend and on Monday, presented plans for a house of glass and wood. The design was revised a reported 18 times, as Sang went backwards and forth with the Hong Kong-based Brake.
"In 1974, there was no fax; you can't transmit anything except by airmail. You can't ring without first making an appointment - it was all done slowly." Today, the house has a Category 1 heritage listing, is recognised amongst the country's top 20 modern buildings and, in 2001, was awarded the New Zealand Institute of Architect's inaugural Enduring Architectural Award.
They initially fought the Historic Place listing. "But eventually we sat down and said: 'you know what, it isn't about us. This is about Ron and Brian. It'd be pretty selfish to deny them that recognition'." Sang: "Without question, it's one of the best houses I've done. That opened many doors for me."
In fact, you can't write a story about Sang without mentioning doors. His entranceways are famously monumental - metres wide and twice as high as a regular door.
"I practice Feng Sui," he says. "But it is not like a religion or something, it is good design. One of the reasons you have big doors, is when you open them, they let the energy in." But, he admits, his first giant door was a happy accident. A behemoth constructed from cedar weather boards. The plan was to install it, and then cut it in half - only the lower portion would function as a door. "But the man who built it had made such a beautiful job of this thing, he said, 'why don't you leave it?' It stayed like that for 18 years ... so that's where the big door came from!"
Is an architect an artist? "In a different kind of way. I couldn't do a painting or a drawing. I could draw you plans of a house!" Sang bought a poster of a street scene in Venice with his first pay cheque. A Don Binney landscape, purchased in 1975, was his first serious investment - it cost more than seven week's wages.
"Money was the dictator," he says. "Once a year, we would buy a painting and gradually, gradually after 40 years, you end with quite a lot of stuff.
"We didn't have any investments, it all went on paintings. A lot of people buy a flat and rent it out and sell it, but I decided I didn't particularly want to be a landlord. We just continued to buy paintings, hoping that one day, they would increase in value. And now a lot of them have increased substantially.
"More than that, you get to enjoy it. I wouldn't enjoy seeing a share certificate on the wall."
Over the years, he befriended artists. It was Ngan, again, who introduced him to potter Len Castle. Sang's first purchase was a $9 pot.
"I was buying Len Castle pots and I had at least 100 of them. He became a very dear friend. I asked him casually one day, 'all these beautiful pots - do you have any of your own?' And he said, 'yeah, but only two or three. I have to sell them to make a living'." Sang set out to produce the definitive book, a permanent reminder of his friend's achievements.
The pair made just $6000 profit on the project, but won a Montana Book Award and set a new benchmark for local art publications. Sang went on to make books about Michael Smither, John Drawbridge, Ralph Hotere, Guy Ngan, Vincent Ward, Pat Hanly, and, last year, Greer Twiss, Mervyn Williams and Robert Ellis. It's unlikely, he says, he'll do another.
"I have to sell 800 copies to break even - but people aren't going to bookstores."
In Sang's world, a good book has more pictures than words. His living space is the same. Twice married, with three children, the entire end wall of the lounge is a shrine of family and friend photographs. There is art absolutely everywhere, much of it created by people who have now passed on.
"I'm not old," says Sang. "But I'm at that age where men in New Zealand die. I'm aware of that."
He sits, speaking, in his favourite room of the house. "There's a lot of warmth here," he explains. "It's crammed full of stuff. It's a bit full of stuff. But there are several architects in Auckland whose houses are totally sterile. Everything's white, there are no painting on the walls, minimal furniture.
"To me, that's not a house, it's a showroom."