Sad news, but not entirely unexpected. Friedrich (Fritz) Eisenhofer has passed away, at the splendid ripe old age of 96. NZIA has sent out a small note of his funeral, but to be honest he deserves a bloody great big obituary – and probably a book as well – and I’m probably not the person to do this. Many of you will have known him better than me – I only met him once or twice.

NZIA says:

“A memorial service to celebrate the exceptional life of Friedrich (Fritz) Eisenhofer will be held on Wednesday August 16 at 11am, Cedarwood, Parata Street, Waikanae. The modernist architect was 96 years old when passed away at the idiosyncratic, sustainable home in the sand dunes of Peka Peka that he created with his wife Helen.”

“Fritz, a Fellow of Te Kāhui Whaihanga, trained at the Kunstakademie in Vienna, and came to New Zealand Aotearoa via Australia in the 1950s. He worked in the Housing Division of the Ministry of Works before establishing his own architecture practice in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.”

There is of course so much more to say than that. Eisenhofer was one of those rare architects that Wellington people refer to by name – single name of course – and one of the last of the true Modernists. They literally don’t make them like that any more. Incidentally, as far as I can tell, the name Eisenhofer means something cold and hard and made of Iron, made of Hope. Wikipedia notes that he was born in Austria in 1926 in a small town called Spittal an der Drau (a name which curiously translates as Outside at the Hospital). Like most good Austrians he studied at the Kunstakademie in Vienna, and then he decided to emigrate to New Zealand after the Second World War, arriving in 1953 when he was just 27.

Fritz started off working in NZ with the Austrian tradesmen who were building the first 500 state houses at Titahi Bay, which is one of the great precursors to the pre-fab housing boom that is ongoing now. After that he began working at the Department of Housing, and later in the 1950s he teamed up with another Austrian, Erwin Winkler, in an office sandwiched between the CubaCade (now the Left Bank) and the Matterhorn Swiss icecream cafe. Well, of course !!

Although the more official accounts may not mention this, Fritz was a bit of a looker – stunning good looks and his sexy Austrian accent saw him marry his gorgeous wife Helen, who was the winner of Miss Wellington or some such swimsuit competition. They were a good looking party couple, staying together till the end. I suspect he probably looked good in a pair of Speedos as well – they were both sun-loving naturists. I think I saw him when he was about 91 and he was still a beautiful man, bronzed, bald, but in good health, still with a good Arnie Schwarzenegger accent, even after all these years. Incredibly he stayed home until he passed away.

Friedrich in his 90s, subject of a short film

Eisenhofer was a staunch Modernist, and his houses show that. Well, at least some of them do. He designed the famous Coffee Bar for Suzy – which really started off the whole crazy coffee culture for NZ and especially for Wellington.

Susy – at Susy’s

Please write in and tell me if you have more info to hand – it was all long before my time here. Eisenhofer houses are special, even today.

The Eisenhower House, in Khandallah, where Fritz, Helen and their family lived for many years in Wellington

I’ve got to find Julia Gatley’s book on Wellington architects – and probably Geoff Mew’s book as well.

It is likely that he will be forever known best by the house he designed for himself and his wife – a dome house set into the sand dunes up at Pekapeka. As architects are want to do, he designed himself something a little special, that he probably could not persuade a client to do. Although, so saying, he designed the house next door as well, which while not a complete dome, was also a sculptural wonder.

I’m searching for my photos of his house and the neighbour’s house – they were special. Think Batman’s secret lair, but a version for when he had retired on a sunny coastline. White, not black, but just as cool.

Amazingly the shell itself was a very thin skin of concrete – according to the film, only 35-50mm thick. Well insulated, and facing towards the sun, it is probably one of the reasons he lived so long – no chilly winter breezes in here.

There was an indoor pool, and an outdoor pool, and native plants in both – and forgive me that I did not go for a dip when I was there – but I think that you could swim from inside to outside. The plan was a series of bubbles, as the whole thing was a collection of domes, and glazing was – of course – a series of hexagonal panes.

Rest in Peace, Fritz. There is not going to be another like you.


The NZIA have published more information online, and some of this is reproduced below:

Aotearoa New Zealand was home to Austrian-born Fritz Eisenhofer for 70 years and during that time he was instrumental in introducing modernist design principles to residential architecture. In blurring thresholds, opening up spaces, incorporating nature and increasing natural light and connectivity, his modernist ethos was the antithesis of the typical New Zealand domestic setting of the time. In 2010, Fritz was named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to architecture. “Fritz Eisenhofer was remarkable for the length of his career, the number and range of his works and, more importantly, for his ability to change, reinvent and continuously progress his design practice,” says Dr Tanja Poppelreuter, Associate Professor Architectural Humanities at the University of Salford, England, and author of ‘Changing places: New Zealand Houses by Winkler & Eisenhofer 1958 to 1969’, which was published in The Journal of Architecture in 2013.

Fritz was born in 1926 and trained as an engineer before studying architecture at the Kunstakademie in Vienna. In 1953, in the latter half of his twenties, he travelled to Aotearoa with a group of 194 Austrian tradesmen. In the midst of a labour and housing shortage here, the group was contracted to build 500 state homes in Titahi Bay, Porirua, from pre-cut larch imported from their home country. Following the project’s completion, some of the group decided to stay – Fritz was one of them. He gained residency and took a job with the Department of Housing in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, where he noted the forward-thinking designs of government architects. 
In 1958, Fritz and fellow Austrian architect Erwin Winkler established a practice, with their studio at 108 Cuba Street, Te Whanganui-a-Tara. The first private home they designed was in Takapu Road, Tawa, and many others followed that expressed individuality and an international modernist style. Winkler & Eisenhofer was active until 1969 and notable examples of their work can be found in Karori, Lower Hutt and Khandallah, including the multi-level house on Rama Crescent with a swimming pool and courtyard that Fritz designed for his family. The designs were reminiscent of the glamorous modern aesthetic seen in the Case Study houses built in California between 1944 and 1966, says Tanja. “Their commissions were so numerous and so uncompromisingly modern that Winkler & Eisenhofer belonged with the main contributors and developers of mid-century modern architecture in New Zealand.” There were other commissions, including designs for Chez Lilly restaurant, the showroom for Viking Records and, in 1964, the sleek and stylish interior for Suzy’s Coffee Lounge in Willis Street. After 23 years in business, the cafe became a landmark and is the subject of the Rita Angus painting ‘At Suzy’s Coffee Lounge’ (1967, Te Papa).

After the practice dissolved, Eisenhofer designed Whenua Tapu Crematorium, Porirua, and his internationally regarded dome home in the sand dunes at Peka Peka beach. “In a 2010 interview he told me how this house arose from a long-standing interest of building with the landscape and utilising the earth around it,” says Tanja. “He attended conferences and was active within earth-building communities before designing this house that amalgamates with its surroundings and spans over several levels without stairs. The ambience of individual spaces is that of separate, individual ones but they in fact merge and flow seamlessly into each other to form one interior space.” The Peka Peka house was his most experimental, and probably most personal, project and he lived there with his wife Helen until he died at 96 years old. Building the home’s four concrete domes, which were dug deep into the earth, was a labour-intensive project that began in the late 1980s and took four years to complete. In a 2010 interview on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill he said of his career and the home: “You always try to extend the boundaries”, “You progress”, “You experiment”, acknowledging that getting consent for the idiosyncratic, eco-centric design was easy at the time, but would now be “almost impossible”.

John Walsh and Patrick Reynolds included the dwelling in their book Home Work: NZ Architects Own Houses (Random House), and it has been covered in local and international publications. In a feature by The Guardian, an interior photo shows Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs beside the indoor pool – a setting that could been a scene from a Hollywood Hills home. By contrast, from the outside the partially submerged home is both an oddity and a wonder embedded into the rugged coastal landscape.