Building it up just to tear it down [Newsroom Essay]

New Zealand Gordon Wilson flats modernism affordable housing
The ‘Star Flats’ in Auckland’s Freemans Bay are widely held up as a model of mixed-tenure housing. Photo: Mark Jennings

[Originally Published on Newsroom, 2nd June 2020].

For a generation rebuilding after war and the Great Depression, modernist architects offered a utopian vision for a new and exciting way of living. So why are we now demolishing their buildings? And will what we build to replace them actually be any better?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s self-professed favourite buildings are the so-called Star Flats at Freemans Park in Auckland’s Freemans Bay. Designed by émigré architect Fred Newman, they were built in the ‘60s and partially privatised in the late ‘90s. Now they’re widely held up as a model of mixed-tenure housing, with many still owned by Housing New Zealand, and others coveted on the open market by everyone from architects and art dealers to the Prime Minister. As Ardern explained:

“I think I annoyed my colleagues for years because whenever we talked about the housing crisis and the need to build townhouses and apartments at scale, I would always talk about Freemans Bay Park—four-storey apartments that were really fit for purpose. They were built to last and beautifully designed. And they had communities living in them. I also love their history.”

Buildings like these are worth remembering at this point in time, because there is a strange irony to the fact that just as we embark on our most significant period of house-building in at least a generation, we are also busy demolishing the apartments built to solve an earlier generation’s housing needs. In Wellington, in Auckland and elsewhere, modernist housing buildings are being pulled down—sometimes to make way for newer housing, and other times seemingly just because many people think they’re ugly. This raises two separate but related questions: why are we demolishing heritage affordable housing instead of refurbishing; and how do we ensure, with $5 billion announced in the recent Budget alone, that the new housing we build is actually any better?

Wellington’s ill-fated Gordon Wilson Flats. Photo: Supplied/Stuff

Take Wellington’s Gordon Wilson Flats and Auckland’s Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats. Both were designed by government architect Gordon Wilson in the early 1950s and completed later in the decade. Both were built as affordable housing to be rented to low-income individuals and families. Both are in central-city locations, close to everything. They feature a similar design, with mostly duplex apartments and views of their respective cities. Today this all reads as a wish-list for desirable affordable housing. So why is it that the other thing they have in common is that they are both to be demolished?

Of course, the buildings’ monolithic concrete and glass design has long been considered an eyesore by many, and has contributed to the public image of the buildings as “slums”. Each building has a history of difficult and complex social dynamics, and this too has often been blamed on the design of the apartments. And yet at the same time the buildings are recognised as being of outstanding heritage value, written about in many books (including internationally) and with dedicated architectural followings. Wellington City Council says, for instance, that “The Gordon Wilson Flats have architectural value as a good representative example of 1950s Modernist high density social housing, that though common internationally, is relatively rare in New Zealand.” The buildings represent the utopianism of post-war modernism, where a building’s aesthetic was to follow its function.

And in this case, the buildings’ function was to house as many people as possible, as affordably as possible, in as dignified a way as possible. The same goal as today, then. This creates all kinds of difficulties when talking about the buildings’ aesthetic, because the aesthetic is equality itself in built form. The buildings look the way they do because of the political demand for affordable housing—a monolithic design like this was the most efficient way to put as many units as possible on a given site.

An original plan for Auckland’s Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats, built in the 1950s as affordable housing to be rented to low-income individuals and families. Image: Archives New Zealand Reference: BBAD 1054/43b 

So let’s be clear about the aesthetics: when it comes to affordable housing, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. There is always a tradeoff. Low-rise is functionally and aesthetically better than high-rise, most of us would agree, but that way you house fewer people—and the location has to be further from the city centre. The larger each individual unit, the fewer units you can build. The more you spend on a higher-quality facade, the less money you have left for the interior of the units, which is what matters most to occupants. And then there’s the even more difficult reality that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder’s eye changes over the course of its life. Villas themselves, for instance—that now-aspirational housing type—were once considered flimsy tract housing.

And that’s the problem with demolishing these buildings: it shows up our own hubris. In one go, we destroy hundreds of affordable homes, at massive environmental cost (most architects will tell you that building wastage is an environmental tragedy we are soon to wake up to), only to rebuild. At the same time, we decide for all future generations that this was not built heritage worth keeping—that my generation won’t someday want to live in an inner-city modernist apartment, the way another generation wants their villa. Demolishing says that we now know better. But do we really?

Look around, and it’s hard to say any of the KiwiBuild houses currently going up are ones that future generations will be proud of, let alone that they might heritage-list. Where’s the innovation, where’s the excitement? Dare I say it, where’s the utopianism? For it’s those three qualities that make Gordon Wilson’s flats worth continuing to debate today.

Indeed, the most interesting affordable housing developments today have little to do with government-sponsored house building. Instead they’re being built and funded through Iwi and private philanthropy. Schemes like the Wellington Tenths Trust’s Adelaide Road Townhouses in Wellington’s Newtown and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s Kāinga Tuatahi Housing in Auckland’s Ōrākei (just down the road from the First Labour Government’s enduring 1940s social housing) are thoughtful architectural responses to affordable housing needs. Both are medium-density; both carefully reference surrounding housing typologies while creating something fundamentally new; and Architecture+ and Stevens Lawson Architects, who designed the respective schemes, are known for creating enduring work.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s Kāinga Tuatahi Housing in Auckland’s Ōrākei. Photo: Stevens Lawson Architects website

What’s unique about both these examples, and a number of others, is that they respond to our own present housing needs, in our own times, and in their own style. They are sensitive to their surroundings, to be sure—both have gables, though one is cottage-like and the other wide and marae-like—but are likely to endure because they offer a strong vision of how to achieve affordable housing while maintaining aesthetic values. And unlike so many other affordable housing schemes they even manage to maintain a little utopianism.

This is our challenge, and the current Prime Minister’s especially, as we embark on nation-defining house building. Will I love these buildings in 15 years’ time, when I’m the PM’s age? Will I want to live in their communities, as so many want to live in the Star Flats at Freemans Park? Or will my children demolish them in 50 years’ time, the way under our watch we tear down a previous generation’s utopian affordable housing?

Writing of the decision to demolish the Upper Grey’s Avenue Flats, former editor of HOME Magazine Jeremy Hansen said eloquently, “I wish we were a culture that embraced more nuance; that we were able to avoid the stupidity of constantly forcing ourselves into these needlessly binary situations.” And he continued, saying that above all “I hope weve learned from history, and that these contemporary clean-slate aspirations don’t result in the same mistakes our predecessors made. The last thing we want is to create yet another mess for future generations to clean up.”

Despite the sorry fate of the Gordon Wilson flats, hopefully we can take from them their utopian spirit: their belief that high-quality, long-lasting affordable housing is achievable in our lifetime. We should approach the house-building we are about to embark upon with excitement and aspiration, and above all with the commitment to build something far better than the heritage buildings we’re tearing down. Perhaps we might even stop, take a breath—and decide that our modernist apartments are worth keeping, after all.

Architectural Fun: The Parliamentary Playspace by Studio Pacific

Image credit The Building Intelligence Group

This was originally meant to be a short piece in HOME Magazine’s urbanism & public space section, but won’t be published now that Bauer Media has closed HOME. I thought I may as well still publish it here.

A playground at Parliament was always going to be a difficult proposition, from a design standpoint. The idea conjures brightly-coloured plastic and rubber chip mats smelling as they deteriorate in the summer heat. These account for fun childhood memories, to be sure, but are not exactly congruent with the grey stone of our Parliament buildings, or Sir Basil Spence’s design for the Beehive.

Labour MP and Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard said a playground it was to be, as part of a push to make Parliament accessible and child-friendly. Studio Pacific Architecture was given the job. And they’ve responded with their own kind of fun: an architectural playground, say. The architects refer to a Brian Eno quotation—“Children learn through play, but adults play through art”—as a source of inspiration.

Materials are sensitively chosen, with cork matting and wood that blends in with the surrounding Pohutukawa trees. The centrepiece of the play space, a slide, renders first as sculpture and secondly as something to engage with. Alongside, wooden architectural constructions encourage climbing, crawling, sitting and touching. 

Some of the wooden forms protruding from the ground seem to make children appear as giants walking through a Manhattan skyline of towers; or they remind one of the “Architecton” forms of Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. There are ideas at play here, as well as literal play—something for everyone in a project that could so easily have been a well-intended eyesore, but an eyesore nonetheless.

The play space represents a kind of political utopia, right on our politicians’ lunch break paths. Children and adults, the future and the present, ideas and fun, thought and laughter: a healthy set of reminders for those inside the building that stands behind.

Antipodeanism: The Architecture of Lightness in Australia and New Zealand

Clifford-Forsyth House, Remuera, Auckland NZ. Patrick Clifford / Architectus.

How to define Antipodeanism in architecture? Michael Sorkin, who died tragically of the coronavirus two weeks ago, has probably come closest. Writing in the late ’90s of Patrick Clifford’s house in Remuera, he said that the house displayed “… a certain antipodean lightness that comes of the logical economies of the new. There is a balance to this house that shows both a certainty and a courtesy towards its setting in both culture and nature.”

That same could be said of most architecture that feels essentially Antipodean. I think of Glenn Murcutt’s many houses and precisely the same could be written with equal accuracy: of the Marie Short House, of his Magney House, and of his own house renovation in Sydney’s Mosman. Here in Aotearoa, it’s not just Patrick Clifford: I think of other architects’ well-known houses like Mitchell Stout’s Heke Street House, Stuart Gardyne’s Tiratora, Pete Bossley’s Island Complex, many of John Scott’s works—and I could write precisely the same of each of them as Sorkin wrote of the Clifford-Forsyth house.

I think Sorkin’s formulation is ultimately a little too easy. In the end it’s an American’s take on far-flung new colonial architecture, for only in the colonies is there an enduring tension between culture and nature (in cultural centres the salient distinction is between tradition and the new, not nature and culture). And “the logical economies of the new”? Well, it’s a kind of architectural determinism—a little like saying that the harsh clarity of our light defined our architecture (as was said about painting by our art-historical nationalists). If we all face the logical economies of the new, then must not all our architecture display that Antipodean lightness? It most certainly doesn’t, as a quick glance at the rest of Remuera shows.

To be fair, Sorkin does acknowledge that he risks sounding like he’s writing a “colonial travelogue” about a “house I have not seen in a country I have not visited.” It’s testament to his thoughtfulness that he could offer such an incisive comment at such a distance. But I think more must be said.

Maybe it’s easier to start with sources and then to consider the variations. When I think of Antipodeanism my mind leaps to Aalto and Scarpa and the Japanese tea pavilion. Natural materials, then, wood first and foremost, but without any qualms about technology. Calmness and elegance over impressiveness. A deeply embedded modesty. A noble simplicity, but never coming anywhere close to grandeur. “Serenity” as a style and an effect. Perhaps humanism, plain and simple, sums the idea up.

Japanese-Scandinavian design affinities have been well explored, but the triumvirate of Japanese-Nordic-Antipodean design hasn’t yet been to any great degree. Environmental similarities perhaps produce similarity in architecture. Even more productive, I think, is the way that each of these regions have had to define themselves in relation to both international tradition and deeply embedded local vernaculars. None have had the privilege of cultural centrality to avoid thinking about these dichotomies. And so Japan and Scandinavia presage the Antipodean response, providing guides and models to form and materiality. Out of it, our architects have created something that stands apart, yet with these sources clearly visible if one looks hard enough.

For HOME Magazine’s 80th anniversary, Julia Gatley and Andrew Barrie were tasked with trying to pick the “best” home from each decade. They weaselled partially out of the impossible task by picking two homes from each decade—one from what they termed the “sugar cube” tradition of the International Style, and one from the “brown bread” tradition of regional modernism. Plischke’s Sutch House is then a “sugar cube,” and Athfield’s own house in Khandallah is of the “brown bread” tradition.

It’s a thoughtful approach; only, when I think of Antipodeanism in architecture, the houses that come to mind are impossible to place in one camp or the other. Many of Glenn Murcutt’s rural retreats, for instance, have all the interior slickness of a “sugar cube” urban apartment, yet with their monopitches and oversized downpipes they’re emphatically of the “brown bread” vernacular. Likewise with a house such as Stuart Gardyne’s own home, Tiratora: lined on the interior with plywood and keeping romantic remnants of a former tract house that stood on the site, yet also formed of glass cubes with seamless connections thrusting out towards the view. Or Bill Alington’s own house in Karori: included on the list as a “sugar cube” house, you nonetheless feel, when standing inside it, that it could just as easily be in the “brown bread” camp. To place these houses strictly in Gatley & Barrie’s typology is to dismiss what is most unique about them.

Antipodeanism, then, as productive avoidance of either the international or the regional? It’s as though houses in this style are far too knowingly aware of the traps of reproducing a staid internationalism, but also still aspire to a modernism that can be understood in international terms. They’re too learned to go in for any kind of vernacularism. This is why I’m not including New Zealand’s Group Architects in this Antipodeanism frame: their houses are concerned with New Zealand itself, and strove directly for a vernacular modernism. They have none of the lightness or even the internationalism of Antipodeanism as I have come to think of it.

To try another tack: where does Antipodeanism sit on the city house-country house scale? I can say only neither, and both. The houses I think of are baches in the city and city houses on the farm. They escape this typology, having both everything of the rustic bach and everything of the modernist box about them. Then: Antipodeanism as a style equally at home in the city, on the farm and at the beach? This seems to have something to it. In countries where European and American modes of dressing distinctly for city and country have never been salient, it’s logical also for our houses to escape entirely those same distinctions.

I’m aware that speaking of trans-Tasman currents in architecture is not exactly common. This is often for good reason, for without a larger rival, who could New Zealand ever measure itself up to? We have always defined ourselves by our differences, and I feel about as Australian as an Australian feels French, which is to say not in the slightest. And yet—and yet on a global stage we’ve always been more similar than we’ve wanted to believe, and there is something in our architecture that we share in common.

A Swede too feels different from a Norwegian, who feels different from a Finn. And yet despite this those nations have reconciled themselves to “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” monikers that emphasis the real commonality without (I think) overly obscuring national differences. Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion in Venice highlights how the larger grouping has worked to everyone’s advantage. And so why shouldn’t we, Australia and New Zealand, acknowledge our similarities; describe them and explore them; maybe, dare I say it, market them?

Antipodeanism brings together the under-appreciated similarities between Murcutt, Bossley, Leplastrier, Gardyne, Alington, Stutchbury, Clifford and so many others. To my mind, it captures a real style that has moved far beyond the “search for identity” that both Aotearoa and Australia undertook in the mid-century—and also moves beyond so many other architectural distinctions, whether it be city house/country house or modernist/postmodernist. The more I’ve thought about it, Antipodeanism is a term that captures something unique—it’s a term that is, to use consulting speak, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive; it defines something that cannot be described any other way. Which is exactly why it’s worth talking about and exploring further.

For a long time it was fashionable to compare a nation’s cultural life with the journey through a human life—from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. (Of course, no one ever mentioned the decrepit old age and death of the fully-formed “adults” they were comparing to). If we were to continue the analogy—just for old time’s sake—we might also recognise the truism that you grow up when you’re not really watching. Personal growth and development is somewhat tortured when too self-conscious; it’s worked best when you look back one day and realise the real changes happened when you were busy living life (or busy having fun with postmodernism, as the case may be). Perhaps the same has happened with our architecture, art and much else besides: when we stopped trying to force the development of a style, that’s when it finally came about.

Still, in the end, have I come any closer to a definition of Antipodeanism? I want to say it’s a certain lightness, maybe a certainty and a courtesy towards—yes, towards both culture and nature. OK, Michael Sorkin probably still came closest. And why should we be surprised? It usually takes a foreigner to point out the blindingly obvious.


Credit to individual photographers for the images below.

Antipodean Architecture Australia New Zealand
Clifford-Forsyth House
Murcutt architecture style Australia
Marie Short House, Glenn Murcutt
Stuart Gardyne NZ Architecture Antipodeanism
Labone Cabin, Stuart Gardyne
Bossley NZ Architecture Antipodean style
Island Complex, Pete Bossley
Peter Stutchbury Antipodean Architecture
West Head House, Peter Stutchbury
Mitchell Stout Heke Street NZ Architecture
Heke Street House, David Mitchell and Julie Stout
Fireplace NZ Architecture Antipodeanism
Heke Street House, Mitchell Stout
Murcutt House Australia NZ
Fredericks White House, Glenn Murcutt
Wellington Architecture Style Stuart Gardyne ArchitecturePlus
Tiratora, Stuart Gardyne
Leplastrier House Antipodeanism Architecture Style
Angophora House, Richard Leplastrier
Bill Toomath NZ Architecture Modernism
Bill Toomath House
Gardyne NZ Architecture
Labone Cabin, Stuart Gardyne
Clifford Forsyth House NZ Architecture Modernism
Clifford-Forsyth House
Leplastrier Australian Architecture Antipodean Style Mid Century
Tom Uren House, Richard Leplastrier
NZ Rural Architecture Modernism Antipodeanism
Otoparae House, Mitchell Stout Architects
Bossley Antipodeanism Architecture
Waterfall Bay House, Pete Bossley
NZ Bathroom Architecture Style Antipodeanism
Waterfall Bay House, Pete Bossley
Treetop Peter Stutchbury Antipodeanism
Treetop House, Peter Stutchbury
Antipodeanism Japanese Architecture
Angophora House, Richard Leplastrier
Murcutt Antipodean Architecture Australia New Zealand
Fredericks-White House, Glenn Murcutt
Herbst Antipodean Architecture NZ
Great Barrier Bach, Herbst Architects
Rural NZ Antipodean Architecture Modernism
Island Complex, Pete Bossley

Old Thorndon: A Selection of Photographs

On the day when I first visited, stepping out of that dark southerly wind into her home [Katherine Mansfield’s], the house where she was born, there immediately was the Victorian presence of old New Zealand to greet me. How close it pressed in.

Kirsty Gunn, in Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project.
Old Thorndon photograph Sydney Street East
Looking down Sydney Street East in Thorndon, taken around 1900.

Old Thorndon and Lambton Quay photo
Where Thorndon Quay and Mulgrave Street intersect. Thistle Inn in foreground, Old St Paul’s to the right. Taken 1866.

Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand
Looking across Thorndon towards Courtenay Place, circa 1923.

Tinakori Road and Anderson Park
Tinakori Road / Glenmore Street from Anderson park, 1932.

Thorndon from Wadestown in 1800s
Thorndon as seen from Wadestown in 1871.

Patanga Crescent and Tinakori Road in Thorndon
Patanga Crescent and Tinakori Road in Thorndon, circa 1902